Unable to Die

“Only those with no imagination, and no grounding in reality, would deny the possibility that they will live forever.”

The speaker is Jonathan Safran Foer, author of Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, a highly regarded novel about September 11, 2001, not long ago made into a film starring Tom Hanks. Foer speaks that line as part of the commencement address he gave at Middlebury College this spring. At least one can read the line in the essay adapted from that address and published in the editorial section of the New York Times this past Sunday (June 9, 2013). The “they” at issue—those who might “live forever”—are the real or imagined grandchildren of those Foer is addressing.

Immediately after making his remark about such possibly deathless grandchildren, Foer extends it to cover even some of us already alive today. “It’s possible,” he writes, “that many reading these words will never die.”

For all of our sakes, whether we are already here or yet to come, let us fervently pray that the possibility Foer envisions for us, the possibility of living forever, may never be realized. The price we would have to pay for losing our capacity for death is far too steep. It would cost us our very humanity, and all chance to live a genuinely human life.

Sovereign power manifested itself under monarchy, according to Foucault, as the power to take life–that is, the power to kill. When monarchy gave way to more modern forms of rule, power asserted its sovereignty no longer as the power to take life by killing, but instead as power played out over life itself: what Foucault dubbed “biopower.”

Building upon Foucault, Foer’s essay can help us see that, in its final, least revocable, most ineradicable form, sovereignty vanishes even as direct power manifest over life as such. The final form of manifest power, the one Foer helps us see, perhaps began to break out openly in events at the end of the 1980s and beginning of the 1990s, with the fall of the Berlin wall and the collapse it signaled of the what it was once fashionable in certain circles to call “really existing communism.” What may only then have begun to break fully out into the open, however, had actually been developing and gathering steam below the surface for a long time before that, back at least to the American and French Revolutions.

At any rate, in its final, finalizing form, sovereign power–the power of sovereignty–no longer directly manifests either as power exercised over life itself, or as the power to take life by killing. It declares itself, rather, as the power to take, not life, but death. In its most self-fulfilling form, the power of sovereignty manifests by depriving its human subjects of their very ability to die.

That is the manifestation of ultimate power Foer’s remark points to: the power that deprives those it subjects to itself of their very capacity for death. It is the power that dis-ables us of our own deaths, reducing us to the twilight condition of no longer being able to die—and only as a consequence of that depriving us as well of our ability to live, rather than honestly and directly taking our lives at will, as under monarchy, or awarding us the resources and conditions for living, as under Foucault’s “biopower.”

It is “only those with no imagination, and no grounding in reality,” to borrow Foer’s words, who “would deny the possibility” that the grandchildren of those who are attending graduation ceremonies today will no longer even be capable of dying. Indeed, it’s even possible, to paraphrase him, that many reading these very words as I post them will find themselves deprived of their own deaths. Indeed, that is more than possible. In fact, the common, global human condition today is already one in which the human being as such is robbed of her ability to die—and, thereby, stripped of her very humanity itself.

The fact that human beings have been robbed of their ability to die and thereby deprived of their very chance of truly being human, does not mean they can no longer be done in and die off, of course. They are being done in, and dying off, in ever growing droves. They are regularly being done in by the millions, and the numbers of those being voided continues to expand exponentially. The greater the human population grows, the greater grows the doing in and the dying off. Hitler and Stalin, not to mention such of their weak brothers as Pol Pot, Charles Taylor, or Slobodan Milošević, pale in comparison to the champion killers now at large world-wide—or at least globally (there being good grounds to question how much real “world,” if any, can survive the elimination of death in the ever rising tidal wave of exterminations). Wherever one turns, ever more and more people are simply being done away with.

Nowhere, however, are we allowed to come face to face with our own mortality. However, that means, in turn, that no possibility is granted for us, by confronting our own death, to be finally, gracefully brought to know–at the deepest level of ourselves and in the fullest sense of knowledge–that each and every one of us is finally, ineradicably alone, as each of us always is, can only be, and only can be, before death. Above all else, in the global “world” of today, no one can be permitted to be left–or let–alone. Come what may, that must never be permitted.

It is by no accident, then, the title the Times gave Foer’s brief essay in last Sunday’s op-ed pages was “How Not to Be Alone.” I’m pretty sure the editors at the Times, however, had no idea, when they selected that title, just how utterly appropriate it was. That’s because I’m just as sure that they were using ‘alone’ as a synonym for ‘lonely,’ rather than as its antonym, when they chose that title.

But Foer’s whole essay is a thoughtful exploration of how all the endless stream of endlessly updated electronic gadgets that have come to constitute the global environment today creates ever growing distance between us, assigning each of us to perpetual loneliness. In the very midst of all our Facebook “friends,” Linked-in “links,” and Twitter “followers,” all of whom belong to our ever expanding “network” via the “social media,” we find ourselves growing ever more lonely. The last mentioned—the “social media”–would, if we follow up on Foer’s suggestive analysis, be far less deceitfully called the a-social media, since they in fact chop at the very roots of any genuine society, any true social being together: “Contacts, contacts everywhere, but not a one contacted!”

Foer’s essay is a gentle but persistent call not to let all our social-media “connecting” totally dis-connect us from any further contact with one another. “Technology,” reads the editors’ blurb-insert to one side of his essay, “pushes us apart, so we must work harder to connect with others”–or with ourselves, we should add.

Against the appealing siren-song of technology, calling us into globally interconnected disconnection, Foer calls upon us, instead, to cultivate genuine connections by doing no more—but above all no less—than just simply, as our ongoing daily practice, listening to one another, attentive to one another’s needs. “Most of the time, most people are not crying in public,” he writes in the next to last paragraph of his piece, “but everyone is always in need of something that another person can give, be it undivided attention, a kind word or deep empathy.” What’s more, he adds immediately, “[t]here is no better use of a life than to be attentive to such needs.”

He then adds a remark that brings us clearly back to the focus on loneliness–and aloneness (or “solitude,” if Latin derivation is preferred)—by adding that “[t]here are as many ways” and opportunities to practice listening or attending to one another “as there are kinds of loneliness.” There are innumerably many of the latter, of course—at least as many as there are conceivable future internet connections.

Though Foer himself does not say so directly, if we listen attentively to what he does say himself (whether he knows it or not, by the way), we will hear that it is precisely because our technologies are so well designed perpetually to divert us from the fact that each and every one of us is finally, irreducibly alone, that the more “connected” we become with our contemporary technological environment, the more lonely we become. If we listen well to what he is saying, we will hear, however, that it is only alone that we can ever truly be together. Paradoxical as it may sound, all genuine community consists in being alone together, as we are, for example, whenever any two or more of us pray together in total silence—praying, perhaps, that we be taught again how to die.

It is only our own mortality itself that has the power to shock us into the silence of such prayer. In turn, it is only there, in that silence, that we can truly build community the only way it can be built—by, as Foer suggests, practicing that simplest and therefore most difficult of all human things: listening attentively to one another.

That is truly the gift of our death itself, as Foer himself clearly knows–and says, to those who listen, in the closing lines of his Times piece, when he writes: “Being attentive to the needs of others might not be the point of life, but it is the work of life. It can be messy, and painful, and almost impossibly difficult. But it is not something we give. It is what we get in exchange for having to die.”

As always, the real horror lies not in trauma itself, even the trauma of death itself, come in person at last—or of birth, for that matter. It lies, coiling itself ever more tightly around us, in the avoidance of trauma.

The horror is not that we will die, but that, increasingly, we can’t.

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Wow, wow, wow!!! And the commencement speech that prompted this reflection is also well worth the time to watch. Unable to die, indeed. Thank you Frank!


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