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Is it rational to fear death?


To: David F.
From: Geoffrey Klempner
Subject: Is it rational to fear death?
Date: 7 June 2006 11:08

Dear David,

Thank you for your email of 30 May, with your fifth essay for Possible World Machine, in response to the question, 'Is it Rational to Fear Death'.

My response to your essay is going to be somewhat oblique. As you may have gathered, this question is an obsession of mine.

One can make good poetry out of thoughts and sentiments which are not that deep, in fact, rather hackneyed. There is a depth and resonance in the language and the images which need not be reflected in the 'message' such as it is.

This is the spirit in why I enjoyed, 'Lament for the Makers' and 'Corinna's Going A-Maying'.

We dramatize or sentimentalize death in our attempt to grapple with its mysteries, but any such attempt completely misses the point. I'm not impressed by 'gather ye rosebuds while ye may' or 'death comes to us all' or any of the other variants on that theme, however nicely expressed.

Death isn't just something 'unfortunate' that happens to you. As if life would be great, if only we didn't have to die at the end. To live, as Heidegger argued, just is to be a 'being towards death'.

Life could not be anything else. Even if I took some magic potion there is no logical guarantee that my life will not snuff out at some point in the future. Nothing can take away the brute possibility of death. There's a brilliant but ghoulish comedy film, 'Death Becomes Her' with Goldie Hawn and Meryl Streep about two friends who acquire the power immortality - the twist is that their bodies are still vulnerable to damage, as Goldie Hawn discoverers when her jealous husband blasts her in the stomach with a shot gun. Towards the end of the film they are touching up one another's skin tone with enamel paint. The last scene, where Goldie Hawn trips up on some steps, is truly horrific.

I have been tempted to hypothesize that I suffer from a condition, which I have provisionally called 'chronophobia'. Looking this up in Google I wasn't convinced that what I'm talking about is the same as what others mean by that term. Anyway, chronophobia is like other phobias in that it manifests itself at times or in situations where a non-sufferer would see nothing at all to fear. Like the 'fear of baked beans' which an unfortunate man interviewed by a TV psychologist confessed to having.

I am lying in bed. The alarm has gone off for the second time. The thought comes to me that in twenty minutes time I will be eating my breakfast. That very thought causes extreme disorientation and panic. The person thinking that thought will be gone, and in his place will be *someone* (I won't even say 'someone like me') eating breakfast. I die at every moment, and at every moment (when I am aware which thankfully is not all the time) I fear *that* death.

You make an interesting point about 'the end of the world as I know it'. I wonder, though, how you would feel if you knew that Nietzsche and the Stoics were right, there is an eternal recurrence, so 'the world as I know it' will always come back, to infinity. Is the worry that there is no trace to record the passing of my world, the universe is irredeemably forgetful, the pebble disturbs the water in the pond for a few moments, then the ripples are gone? Then Nietzsche helps. Or, maybe not. What is 'the world as I know it' without *me*? What do I care that someone exactly *like* me will enjoy 'my' world?

You can't put 'the world as I know it' in a time capsule. It's quality of 'thisness' is essential to its being 'mine'.

The question, 'Is it rational to fear death?' is in fact wrongly posed. I think you guessed that.

We are not looking at 'reasons' for or against the fear of death. We are dumbly, confusedly trying to get a handle on death, and finding, mostly, that when we think we are talking about death we are in fact talking about something completely different. Something merely mundane.

I still think, as I thought when I wrote Naive Metaphysics, that death is the ultimate problem of metaphysics.

All the best,