Discover more from Raids on the Unspeakable
> And like any traveler, he felt that there were many things he had to do before he left; yet he could not think what they were.
Euthanasia tends be treated as a political issue; it is not. It is existential, spiritual even. The point of politics here is that even death has become a question of policy. This is merely an aspect of a broader point in which this is subsumed, that death has become a decision. Here we must consider not the worst-case scenarios, all those that are effectively murdered for economic reasons; it is the essence of euthanasia which must be discussed, in which we find in microcosm all that we have become.
Death lies latent ever within us, as much in the healthiest child as the frailest old man; it is equally close to everyone. Death is the other side of life; indeed, the larger part. All this is true, and yet in actuality almost meaningless—what is death? It is the limit of language. Memories matter little to the dead, all fades away with them. The joys and sorrows of an entire life held and crumpled in single moment: your life will flash before your eyes. This final sweep in which all trace of us is erased from our remains. This the way all have gone, will go.
We find in death our final impotence. All civilisation is insufficient to this end. Always we have dreamt of immortality, from Heracles to Silicon Valley—the dream remains just that. Many wish the same now in altered forms, technical where once the mythic reigned. Yet there are also those that fear not, that wish death and go willingly; others toy only in moments of great turbidity or peace. The end may even interest us. Life I’ve known; now tell me, what of death? There is even a slight impatience.
These are not those of whom I speak, not the would-be voyagers. The opposite, rather: those that would refuse this way. They that seek seize even this moment from their maker. Euthanasia matters, then, because it tells us even death has become a topic for planning. The entirety of our age is found in this deed: paperwork, a signature, policy and due process. Here the whole has been devolved into a conscious choice.
Men today still dream of death, wish for themselves some glorious end. We daydream an opportunity to sacrifice ourselves. My sense has always been life’s sole aim is to die right, that’s all that we can do. The entirety of my efforts, my every enterprise, all to a single end. I can believe in neither heaven nor hell, at least not as commonly conceived; yet the edge of death seems to contain all the possibilities of heaven and hell. We feel ourselves slip over that last fall in the infinite river which was our life. Darkness lies below, we fade with the world until only a constellation remains. Even these stars soon fade away, one by one we are forgotten: “All is perishing but His face.”
The immensity of this cannot be understood, of course, here all words are empty; it must be known. Yet euthanasia seeks avert this, to remove the existential weight of death. The attempt here is simply that we seek, albeit by imperfect means, what we so long wished and have in fact achieved: that even death may die.
We avert His hand even here, unable to build a lightning-rod sufficient; instead we swallow fire—a final insolence, spit in His eye. The world given us we refuse, so we leave the theatre before the final scene. All existence a show for us alone, and we say no. We seek bring even death within our power at the last instance: would rather kill the world than face our weaknesses and ultimate impotence, would rather kill the world than face ourselves.
I have heard of one suffering at the end, that they felt this too much to bear; yet when asked what it was, they spoke of sorrows in their family—of spiritual, not physical pain. These things we have not done, have not said, the knots we have avoided all our lives; it is this which death highlights. We see this, for instance, when Ivan Ilyich puzzles over the peculiarly intense sufferings that consume him in his final days:
“Maybe I did not live as I ought to have done,” it suddenly occurred to him. “But how could that be, when I did everything properly?” he replied, and immediately dismissed from his mind this, the sole solution of all the riddles of life and death, as something quite impossible.1
Here we find at the last an impetus for movement, one which may even come over a form otherwise calcified after years of long neglect. We are thus torn between two species of pain, whether to ignore this final call or bloody our fingers untying these knots. Suffering is not a thing to be avoided, to do so may only bring on more or rob us of what was to be a true reward. Those that die with things undone, those that die rather than do what must be done. Death clarifies the importance of these points; it is this that we would avoid; it is this that we must bear if we are ever to have lived.
Yet death brought within the choice of man, suicide at the last; thus we avoid its true face. By euthanasia this quality of death is annihilated, transmuted into something human; forgotten are its existential and spiritual aspects; it is found a matter of mere technique. We seek here avert the sufferings of death, thus confirm our hedonism in the last. We skip the single most important moment of our lives, at which its meaning is finally clear. None see life but for death’s light, yet blind flee fear of pain.
Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich.