It had been a good morning so far. My two classes went well. As usual on MWF, I met my husband, who had also just finished teaching, at the bottom of the stairs and we walked together to his office to catch up, talking about camps for the kids next week, finalizing summer cottage rental plans, griping about the usual university business, and, naturally, detouring into Star Trek Deep Space Nine and the origin of the word “ferengi” and whether the Ferengi were portrayed in an anti-Semitic way, and what other ethnicities might be said, stereotypically, to have big noses. As I crossed campus to my office in the philosophy building, it felt like spring. I noticed black capped chickadees at the feeders outside the Union, and I imagined I felt the sun’s warmth on my cheek, wan though it was. As I considered unzipping my down jacket, I decided I’ve lived in Maine too long if a 30 degree day with snow on the ground counts as “springlike.”
When I returned to my office, I listened to a vague, brief message from my Hospice volunteer coordinator. I dreaded calling him back, because I knew what it was: my hospice friend had died this morning. I was shocked: I had just spent the afternoon with him a few days ago. He was animated and sharp. He told me about long car trips with his wife back in the days when he was a high school teacher. She would read student essays out loud, and he would tell her what to mark them. She would argue with him, and it would make the time fly by. When you spend a lot of time with dying people, you begin to believe that you can tell when it’s going to happen. What a joke. I was not ready for him to go. I thought we had many more afternoons, listening to the Bach station from the coast, sipping tea, and talking about his life.
On Monday night, I co-led a humanities workshop with my colleague on death and dying. Truth be told, I did that for my chair, and was not looking forward to staying so late on campus, missing dinner with my family, and losing work time. But we found we had gathered a strange assortment of faculty, administrators, staff, and students, who all, for their own reasons, really wanted to be there. One faculty member was dealing with the loss of his father. Another faculty member, in communications, was working on a project in which he had to read narratives of parents about the moment they lost their child, and he had nowhere else to go with his strange feelings of grief.
Our own body is in the world as the heart is in the organism: it keeps the visible spectacle constantly alive; the body animates and nourishes the world inwardly, and forms with it a system. (Maurice Merleau-Ponty)
One of the things we were trying to get across, via Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger, and others, was a fact that is often hidden from us: our bodies maintain our life world. So a crisis with the body can become a crisis of our entire world. From the point of view of phenomenologists, we can never understand death until we understand what it means to be a lived body.
Our bodies are the center of our activity in the world. Think about it: we may say that “the paper is lying on the desk next to the clock”, but we don’t say, of ourselves, “the arm is lying on the desk next to the clock”, although it might well be. And it is because of the centrality of our bodies to our experience that they are so intimately related to our selves. Indeed, there is hardly a distinction to be made between body and self. Yet, at the same time, our bodies are in constant communion with the world that is not us. The body is unavoidably socially expressive, but it is at the same time what is being expressed. Following Wittgenstein, the contorted face, the redness, the loudness, is the rage, not just the expression of the rage. The body is thus essentially personal, and essential social, and essentially physical, and we must try to understand it in all these dimensions.
Of course, this spatiality — personal, social, and physical — is imbued with temporality. We are always in time, and perhaps one of the reasons aging makes us nervous is that our bodies seem to be the most permanent, intimate parts of ourselves. If my body (as I know it, as it is familiar to me) goes, what is left of me? As human being, our mortality is always a part of the horizon of our being. Heidegger has written, “as soon as man comes to life, he is at once old enough to die.” In that sense, no death is “untimely” because death is the condition of life. We talk about death all the time (“did you hear? Whitney Houston just died.”), but it is always in terms of what Heidegger called “the they”, never as our own, ineliminably personal death. This is captured perfectly by Marcel Duchamp’s grave:
I recently reread Forever by Judy Blume. Near the end of the novel, Katherine is teaching tennis at a summer camp, and becomes friendly and flirtatious with a fellow instructor, Theo, despite the fact that she has a boyfriend back home. When Kat’s grandfather dies, she seeks Theo out and tries to have sex with him. He tells her that she is having a normal reaction to death, trying to prove she’s alive, but he doesn’t want their relationship to begin that way. On the one hand, I think Theo’s resistance was honorable, the right choice. On the other, I wonder if he wasn’t making a false distinction between Kat’s self and Kat’s body.
Another recent read was a Spice Brief, an erotic short, by Anne Calhoun, called What She Needs. I was reminded as I read it of how well erotic writers — good ones, that is — bring our attention to the features of embodiment I’ve outlined above, to the fact that we don’t just live through our bodies, but live with and in communion with them.
In a very different, and more uncomfortable way, mystery writers also call us to attention to our bodies. Corpses are socially expressive. They have many of the same features of other bodies. In a very real sense, the person is still with us when we behold the corpse, even if the “self” is not. Good writers can communicate the social and expressive power of a corpse in a way that reminds us of our own finitude and embodied selves.
So, I’ve been thinking about death all week. From both theoretical and personal perspectives. Death calls to mind the many ways I am grateful to writers who explore, and thus encourage me to explore, the features of bodily existence that I too often take for granted.