In my waning days as a teacher of things European, I started regularly teaching a course on death. First, I taught it as an elective at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, then, second, I taught it as a first-year seminar at Hampshire College in Massachusetts. The course really had Heidegger’s meditations on death as a centerpiece – to me, some of the most profound stuff in twentieth century philosophy – and we used that to frame all sorts of stuff, whether readings of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky stories or an interpretation of Bergman’s The Seventh Seal.
So, in a certain sense, the course was all about expected texts on death. The twentieth century death canon, perhaps.
The exception was Bauman’s Mortality, Immortality, and Other Life Strategies. I used to joke that Bauman, along with Leszek Kołakowski, was proof that I was not the only Polack who can read hard books.
Bauman, which hilariously autocorrects as Batman (there’s an essay there), is better known for two major works on modernity – Modernity and Ambivalence and Modernity and the Holocaust. I always found the latter a bit derivative, but also incredibly important. Some things need to be systematically said two or three times. Nothing wrong with that. The work on ambivalence, though…I think that is some of the most important work to come out of Europe after the second world war. I really do.
Mortality, Immortality, and Other Life Strategies is different. It’s a more modest book. Sure, it takes on a huge issue – what could be bigger than the question of immortality? – but the fact is that whatever its ubiquity (death is as ubiquitous as it gets, we all die), death remains a boutique topic in philosophy. The arguments in the book are many, but all run through Bauman’s conception of modernity as bureaucratic reason, the managerial class of thinking brought, here, to bear on our mortality and finitude (those are different things). Bauman’s guiding insight is Heidegger’s: our mortality, the fact that we will die, is what makes life worth living, what makes life lived well, lived with excellence, and meaningful. To live a meaningful life is no small thing. In fact, anxiety about that meaningfulness or meaninglessness is probably a centerpiece of modern and postmodern life; yes, that is part of Bauman’s book. Anxiety, though, for a very specific reason: modernity has transformed our relationship to our own mortality.
It’s not that modernity made immortality imaginable. Not at all. Anyone who’s been close to the bureaucracy of death knows that bureaucratic reason has no immortality fantasies, and in fact is a large machine of profit and exploitation built around the fact of death, dying, and those who live after a death. For Bauman, what’s of ultimate significance is that modern medicine has changed what death means. Instead of our death and a cultivated relationship to it, we have the management of life. Not death as such. Death is, in some deep way, not death at all, but instead a failure to properly manage life.
Surely the doctors could have done more.
Mistakes must have been made.
If only we could have lived long enough for a cure or the next medical breakthrough.
I get all of those sentiments and think they’re fundamentally good ones. What I like is that Bauman does not have some nostalgia for pre-modern life. Of course he doesn’t. No one really does. Bauman is actually just making a small note that is of ultimate significance: we don’t die, we just experience the failure to manage life. The experience part is the key. And I’d be withholding if I said I didn’t think of this when my own father died last year, and then my mother-in-law died a few days later. He was struck by a car and was brain dead upon arrival at the hospital. She was brought in for pneumonia, but they later found out she was in the final stage of lung cancer and died a week later. Very different cases.
Or so you would think.
They were very different because one was a traffic accident and the other was cancer. Human and natural causes. Perhaps that is how we would break it down.
What does it mean, then, that I sat there for two explanations, two different deaths, and the lede was the same each time: we did everything that we could, we used all the tools we had, we just don’t have the capacity to do XYZ, which would have been necessary to save this life? Managerial life, not death. That is not a doctor thing. That is a modernity thing. Bauman taught me that.
I wonder about my father and mother in law. Both had their moments. The last time my father visited, he waxed poetic about how he’d lived a long, good life (not untrue) and how he was ready to die when his time came. We say those words, many of us, but how do they connect back to life? I don’t know that we have rituals for making those connections. I tried, but, damn, it was one short conversation. My mother in law understood her coming death and seemed very much to embrace it. Perhaps even had some comfort in that understanding, but I just don’t know. Again, we don’t have rituals for teasing out the meaning of all of that – in the moment it’s impossible, but perhaps if we’d had all these talks for years, they’re not morbid and make life meaningful, perhaps, yes, but we didn’t and one can only wonder.
All of that is to say, I sat in these modern places called intensive care units, faced with death, very sad about it all, but Bauman did come to mind. Not just because, as a bookish person at heart and very theoretical personality, I often think of such things, really out of habit as much as anything, but because Bauman helped me make sense of a bewildering moment. There is the despair of saying goodbye. No one can really help with that, if you ask me. But there is also the bewilderment at arriving in that room and, in that room, being faced with ultimate meanings and stakes, while also being surrounded by the clean, untangled lines of modernity on the respirator and the paperwork (and vultures, let’s be real) of bureaucracy. Thank you, Zygmunt Bauman, for making some sense of that last moment, that senseless moment.
Rest in peace.
Yours was a well-lived life and, in my professorial-writer moment, full of gifts to all of us who think for a living.