Living up to Death

April 30, 2009

The content of this book falls short, sadly, of its promising title. The gathered unfinished fragments of man meditating on his own death might have been moving and suffused with insight and consolation. Unfortunately, much of it is simply incomprehensible.

Whether this is the fault of the shattered nature of the text or something intrinsic in the manner of philosophising, it is hard to say. The text hops around from subject to subject, and from one disparate allusion to another, in a way that makes it impossible to follow satisfactorily. Such fog, muddle and mixing things up can give the impression of erudition and profundity; but in fact the substance, in so far as one can make it out, is mostly either relatively mundane or impossible to pin down.

If anything essential and interesting may be extracted, it is the claim that we cannot imagine ourselves dead, or even dying, and the "make-believe" that we can is, in reality, our imagining others witnessing our being dead or dying.

There is also the hardly original suggestion that in conceiving of myself as living beyond death, I am in truth contemplating my living in the minds of others. Surely these are ideas one finds readily expressed on innumerable gravestones. "We live by what we leave behind," to quote the composer and poet William Alwyn. Heartfelt, perhaps even true, but hardly a deep philosophical insight.

Here's a typical example of the unintelligibility of the book from page 39, commenting on Heidegger: "But Heidegger's not saying anything is our own, so long as the phantom of death that kills is not reconnected to its status as an appearance in regard to absolute Evil, the other of its other, Fraternity."

The reader will look in vain for help in understanding Paul Ricoeur's text from the introduction written by translator David Pellauer. This is, if anything, even more difficult to make sense of than Ricoeur's writing - and without the excuse that the writer was terminally ill and unable to hone it into a decent state fit for publication.

The most touching part of the book is the short postface by Ricoeur's friend Catherine Goldstein and, at last, a certain clarity and directness of expression enter. We hear of an old man confronting serious illness and impending death, combining as it often does courage and fear - the former so that the latter may not overwhelm and consume all of the life that remains.

Even then, it could be a memoir of anyone briefly recounting the final weeks of an old friend. There is just a little added to what has gone before: that we must carry on loving life almost to the very end, and that indeed we cannot really do otherwise.

Although, even while we feel almost crushed by the thought of our death, our life force defeats it and makes our death or dying something from which we avert our gaze and cannot truly look at directly: "The mind blanks at the glare," as Philip Larkin put it, while at the same time we make-believe that we may hold it in our thoughts by looking in the mirror of others, analogous to how Perseus gazed upon the Gorgon.

I wish I could be kinder about this book. Anything written by an ill old man trying to write about death while facing it soon deserves respect. But one must question the wisdom of publishing these unsystematic notes, and whether they would have seen the light of day were Ricoeur's name not attached to them.

Living up to Death

By Paul Ricoeur. University of Chicago Press. 132pp, £15.50. ISBN 9780226713496. Published 29 April 2009.

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