Looking Death in the Face

Mummy of Ramses II


[R]amses II, also known as Ramses the Great, was born about 3,000 years ago and is widely regarded as the most powerful pharaoh of the Egyptian Empire. The Greeks called him Ozymandias. When he died in 1213 B.C.E., he left a series of temples and palaces that stretched from Syria to Lybia, and countless statues and monuments commemorating his impressive reign. By the 19th century, when European colonization reached Egypt, most of these statues were gone, and the ones that remained were in ruin. In 1816, the Italian archaeologist Giovanni Belzoni discovered a bust of Ramses and acquired it for the British Museum. This is when Ozymandias’s life, in one respect, truly began.

“Ozymandias,” perhaps the most famous sonnet Percy Byshe Shelley ever penned, was written in 1817, as the remains of the famous statue were slowly transported from the Middle East to England. Shelley imagines a traveler recounting a journey in a distant desert. Like Belzoni, Shelley’s character discovers a great bust, half-buried in the windswept sands. Next to the wreckage is a pedestal where the monument once stood. Inscribed in shallow letters on the slab of rock: “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” Of course, as Shelley’s poem tells us, nothing remained of these works or the king of kings. Just sand.

The poem’s message is perennial: All of this will be over soon, faster than you think. Fame has a shadow — inevitable decline. The year 2016 has delivered a string of deaths that serve as bracing reminders of this inevitability: Prince, Nancy Reagan, David Bowie, Elie Wiesel, Bill Cunningham, Muhammad Ali, Gordie Howe, Merle Haggard, Patty Duke, John Glenn. Of course, it has also been a year that has ushered in a new empire and, simultaneously, the specter of apocalypse. The year’s end is a time to take account of kingdoms built, but also the sheer rapidity of their destruction. It is a chance to come to terms with the existential fragility that is overlooked in most of our waking hours and that must be faced even by the greatest among us.

We tend to defer the question of living or dying well until it’s too late to answer. This might be the scariest thing about death: coming to die only to discover, in Thoreau’s words, that we haven’t lived.

Facing death, though, is rarely simple. We avoid it because we can. It’s easier to think of “dying” as an adjective than a verb, as in a dying patient or one’s dying words. This allows us to pretend that dying is something that is going to happen in some distant future, at some other point in time, to some other person. But not to us. At least not right now. Not today, not tomorrow, not next week, not even next decade. A lifetime from now.

Dying, of course, corresponds exactly with what we prefer to call living. This is what Samuel Beckett meant when he observed that we “give birth astride the grave.” It is an existential realization that may seem to be the province of the very sick or very old. The elderly get to watch the young and oblivious squander their days, time that they now recognize as incredibly precious.

When dying finally delivers us to our unexpected, inevitable end, we would like to think that we’ve endured this arduous trial for a reason. Dying for something has a heroic ring to it. But really it’s the easiest thing in the world and has little to do with fame and fortune. When you wake up and eat your toast, you are dying for something. When you drive to work, you’re dying for something. When you exchange meaningless pleasantries with your colleagues, you’re dying for something. As surely as time passes, we human beings are dying for something. The trick to dying for something is picking the right something, day after week after precious year. And this is incredibly hard and decidedly not inevitable.

If we understand it correctly, the difficulty is this — that from the time we’re conscious adults, maybe even before that, we get to choose how we’re going to die. It is not that we get to choose whether we contract cancer or get hit by a bus (although certain choices make these eventualities more or less likely) but that, if we are relatively fortunate (meaning, if we do not have our freedom revoked by circumstance or a malevolent force we can’t control), we have a remarkable degree of choice about what to do, think and become in the meantime, about how we go about living, which means we have a remarkable degree of choice over how we go about our dying. The choice, like the end itself, is ultimately ours and ours alone. This is what Heidegger meant when he wrote that death is our “own-most possibility”: Like our freedom, death is ours and ours alone.

Thinking about all of our heroes and friends and loved ones who have died, we may try to genuinely understand that death is coming, and to be afraid. “A free man thinks of death least of all things,” Spinoza famously wrote, “and his wisdom is a meditation not of death but of life.” But we don’t even begin to think about life, not really, until we confront the fact that we are doing everything we can not to think about death. And perhaps we’re not so much afraid of dying, in the end, as of not living and dying well.

Everyday life has no shortage of things with which to waste our time: the pursuit of money, intelligence, beauty, power, fame. We all feel their draw. But the uncomfortable, claustrophobic truth is that dying for something like money or power tends not to be a choice at all. David Foster Wallace argued that for most of us dying in the pursuit of wealth or prestige is simply our “default setting.” The problem isn’t that we’re picking the wrong things to die for, but that we aren’t actually picking. We chose to live by proxy. We allow ourselves to remain in a psychological trap that prevents us from seeing what might be genuinely meaningful in our own lives. In doing so, we risk, according to Wallace, “going through (our) comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to our heads and to (our) natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.” We might call this the Ozymandias Trap — Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair! — and be on guard against falling into it ourselves.

Most days we discover that we’re not quite up to the heroic task of extricating ourselves from the Ozymandias Trap. Others, we fear we’ve failed miserably. It is not realistic to love in the awareness that each day might be your last. But at least we can stop pretending that we will endure forever.

In Tolstoy’s famous story “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”, the dying hero reluctantly accepts his own mortality, albeit only once he can no longer avoid the truth:

It’s not a question of appendix or kidney, but of life and … death. Yes, life was there and now it is going, going and I cannot stop it. Yes. Why deceive myself? Isn’t it obvious to everyone but me that I’m dying … it may happen this moment. There was light and now there is darkness … When I am not, what will there be? There will be nothing …

Ivan Ilyich can’t pretend that he’s not dying. He recognizes what Ramses II apparently did not: With his death, there is no justification of his life, there is no proof of himself to leave behind, there are no monuments where he is going. He has lied to himself all of his life about the fact that he’s going to die.

In the end, Ivan is liberated from his self-deception. And we, too, can free ourselves from this delusion. As soon as today. Right now.

If we succeed, we may find that confronting the fact of our own impermanence can do something unexpected and remarkable — transform the very nature of how we live.

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