Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Fragmentary Thoughts on Approaching Death

Living Up to DeathLiving Up to Death 
by Paul Ricœur

"Where to begin this late apprenticeship?  By what is essential, right away?  by the necessity and difficulty of mourning a wanting-to-exist after death?  by joy--no, instead, with cheerfulness joined to a hoped-for grace of existing until death?" (p 7)

Near the end of his life the philosopher Paul Ricoeur began to meditate on death with a focus on three questions: "1) "imagined figures" (what representation can I give myself?); 2) "mourning and cheerfulness" (what is their root?); and 3) "Am I still a Christian?" (along with In what way am I not a "Christian philosopher"?)." (p viii) The result of thinking about these questions is the slight book, Living Up to Death. The thoughts in this spare book that he left unfinished at the end of his life may be summed up by the phrase "Get on with life." That is we must address the choices in our life that one is mortal and that one cannot be loved by everyone. (p ix)

I read this book and discussed it in a course on the "Art and Practice of Dying". I will try to share some of the issues that I found both interesting and important in Ricoeur's book. One surely is his discussion of the "philosophies of finitude". That is our human mortality that we all share -- we all are obliged to die and having to die must consider our own mortality. But can we really do any more than look forward, unable to really see the end? Each day we look forward to the next day, week, month, perhaps year but the end is something that, at best, we can only hope to live up to. Then it happens. Ludwig Wittgenstein said it well in the Tractatus: "Death is not a lived experience,". Ricoeur observes that "so long as they remain lucid ill dying people do not see themselves as dying, as soon to be dead, but as still living," (pp 13-14) 
With the emphasis on still living he theorizes that this feeling is connected with something essential that everyone experiences - perhaps in a religious way - but perhaps only when actually facing death.

These thoughts do not sound very cheerful, yet they are discussed in a chapter entitled "Mourning and Cheerfulness". What is cheerful about death? Ricoeur references narratives about death camp experiences ( Jorge Semprun and Primo Levi) observing that the connections between humans and the comfort that comes from the process of mourning. This he calls the "relation of our desire to live" in relation to all others. The discourse presents ideas that, while not necessarily convincing, are thought-provoking. They enable and encourage meditation on issues that might otherwise be hidden away in some corner where we do not go. This does not mean that it is comfortable to think about these ideas, but it can be comforting. I would compare it to what Ricoeur has to say about writing about these issues: "the work of memory is the work of mourning. And both are a word of hope, torn from what is unspoken." (p 39) 
It is important to note that, even here with these thoughts, the manuscript left by Ricoeur was not complete and included notes in the margin that the editors of the book refer to.

The book concludes with fragments for a final chapter (chapters?) that were left unformed. Here Ricoeur was attempting to distinguish between his role as philosopher and his life as a Christian. He also comments on his own physical deterioration. His wife had died in 1998 and in 2003 he suffered degeneration of his eyesight and his heart. Yet even during this time he noted "People see me as looking better than I feel". (p 95) 
He continued to think about these issues in his last days and while doing so he sent the following note to a younger colleague:

"Dear Marie,
At the hour of decline the word resurrection arises. Beyond every miraculous episode . From the depths of life, a power suddenly appears, which says that being is being against death.
Believe this with me.
your friend, Paul R."

This reminds me of a quote from Albert Camus, "In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer."  I have always found this uplifting and there are similar moments in Paul Ricoeur's book.   While it  is incomplete and only partially fragments of what would have been a larger work it is still a valuable contribution to the literature about the philosophy of death and dying.

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Brian Joseph said...

Insightful commentary as always James.

This sounds compelling.

It is not surprising that you found parts of this positive. I often find uplifting aspects to philosophy of this sort.

That quote from Camus is a great one.

James said...


Thanks for your observations. Camus is sometimes compelling in his existential stoicism. Certainly The Plague would have been another work to consider when discussing the art and practice of dying. Paul Ricoeur's work is thoughtful even in its spare incompleteness.