Death and meaning

Heidegger is the most well-known name to insist that meaning in life relates essentially to death, but Borges insists on it too, as does a subset of Contemporary philosophers. Nussbaum argues for an equivalent point in her interpretation of why Odysseus leaves the isle of Calypso – immortality destroys striving, and there can be no meaning without striving. In our own time it might be easier to get the point through an examination of eros – we can’t help seeing our sexuality as inseparable from our existence as persons, but (regardless of the silly things we say about it) the energy behind the desire for copulation is the desire to leave some part of ourselves in the world and so to escape death. An immortal life would thus be a sexless one, but the idea of living without our sexuality is all but unintelligible to us. The same is true of authorship or writing – it becomes clearer as you get older that a crucial part of the activity is to leave something of your mind after you’ve gone – so why write or even produce anything without the threat of death?

But to make death a condition for excellence doesn’t make death good. After all the arguments above have been given they all seem too clever by half – we still find it impossible not to flee from death and find it repugnant. Sure, any meaning might have death as a condition, but it obviously has a desire to live as an equally strong condition. Suicides live toward death more emphatically than any of us, but they are not the ones to look to for accounts of life’s meaning.

It’s in the way that life and death are so implicated in one another that I feel the strongest sense of the fall of man. I can imagine myself without lust and death, but the fall wounded us more deeply than this. Death became implicated in the very meaning of our lives. We could tolerate the idea that we have to endure suffering, but it is intolerable that we’re codependent on it; that our lives become meaningless and unintelligible without it.

I’ve wondered in the past about the Ascension of Christ. My thoughts were skeptical and cynical: ” Oh, how convenient  that you conquer death, rise again to live forever, but just happen to have to go away!” But the whole basis of this thought is intolerably shallow. A resurrected life couldn’t make any sense in the world we find ourselves in. It was a miracle that he managed to stay among us as long as he did. The resurrected Christ gave an (unrecorded) sermon about how Scripture pointed to his death, but he gave no sermons on the resurrected life. What could he say? Our sense of meaning is too implicated in death for his words to tell us anything. We could have kept him around only as a caged animal on display, and even then people wouldn’t know quite what to make of him. Many people wouldn’t recognize him (like his own friends didn’t) while others would be falling down in adoration.

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2 Comments

  1. marykoftheshire said,

    April 13, 2015 at 4:23 pm

    Reblogged this on Of the Shire.

  2. May 29, 2017 at 11:03 am

    “We could have kept him around only as a caged animal on display, and even then people wouldn’t know quite what to make of him. Many people wouldn’t recognize him (like his own friends didn’t) while others would be falling down in adoration.”

    This is the mode of Christ’s existence in the Eucharist, the only mode in which His resurrected physical presence persists on earth since the Ascension.


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