Thursday, October 8, 2009

Raymond Federman | Reflections on Ways to Improve Death

Raymond Federman (photo by Douglas Messerli)

Raymond Federman
Reflections on Ways to Improve Death

Statisticians tell us [see The Inconvenience of Mortality, by Morton Passaway & Gerald Coffin, The Amigone Press, 1986, p. 489] of nearly five billion inhabitants of Earth [human that is—no records exist, we are told, concerning the animal population] some eighteen thousand die every minute.

Yes, eighteen thousand humans cease to be within the same minute, almost simultaneously, on a continuous basis. Such numbers baffle the mind like a wilderness of abstractions.
A quick mental calculation [though in this case pen and paper or else an electronic calculator may be needed just to keep track of the zeroes] reveals that approximately every six months a number almost equivalent to the entire population of the planet disappears.

Yes, vanishes, passes away, dies—whichever way one puts it, according to one's view of the fact of death.

It is obvious then, since humanity somehow manages to survive and even perpetuate itself, even though statisticians warn us repeatedly about the dangers of a steady increase of the planet's population [see The Critical Contingencies & Exigencies of Surpopulation, by Angel & Peter Moreheads, Pantheon Press, 1994, second edition, pp. 234-278] that an equal number of people, or a greater number must be born every minute in order to preserve the human element and maintain the equilibrium between birth and death, from the womb to the tomb, as the saying goes.

This suggests, rather explicitly, that there is more fucking going on, on this planet, than dying, especially since not all copulation results in fertilization and produces population.
But that is not the point here. No, the point of contention here is not with numbers, nor how the process of human reproduction is gratuitously and lamentably abused and degraded. Our concern here is with the lack of statistics regarding the categories of death and the causes of death. For even though death is an absolute, nonetheless one would think that by keeping track of its varied causes, one could perhaps improve the process of death.

Deplorably enough, if statisticians are bent on keeping track of numbers, they do not seem to give a damn about keeping track of manners. That is to say, they count the dead but they do not count nor describe the modes of dying. Concerned only with recording, more or less accurately and objectively, the numbers in matters of death, statisticians do not give a shit about how people die, and therefore never give exact information about the categories and causes of death. This really shows to what extent our civilization offers, at best, as Kafka once put it, a truncated and fallacious notion of death that requires of us that we either close our eyes on it or compromise.

In other words, what statisticians have never calculated [to our knowledge at any rate], or rather never categorized, are the causes for human beings to depart, pass away, become defunct, move on, change tense. There are so many noble ways of asserting the fact of death. Yet in their inaptitude to be surprised, statisticians never record the categories of those who leave us, those who join the departed, those who face the final judgment, those who expire, perish, come to an end, cease to exist, become extinct, are extinguished, stop being, are no longer subject to worldly things, and so on. Yes, there are so many ways one can report death, either directly or metaphorically, many ways to express the condition of death to suit one's moral, and even one's aesthetic attitude towards it.

If one were to begin keeping track of the many categories of deaths, that is to say give detailed description of how these occur, one might possibly be able to delay the process, and even render it less frightening, less painful, though of course one could never make it avoidable or reversible, for death is a total irrevocable state that cannot be altered. But more importantly, with precise descriptions of the categories of deaths, one could perhaps improve the process. True, this would require of us an unusual collective explosion of understanding and compassion, sentiments as rare among us these days as among maggots.

Obviously, the one category which cannot be altered or improved is that of natural death. Nothing can be done when the end comes and the human machine falls into a state of total disrepair and exhaustion. When life reaches its natural outcome, there is little one can do about that. Whether one likes it or not, whether or not it happens in one's bed during sleep, that type of death carries an unalterable principle -- it always happens at the right moment, a principle that cannot be refuted either morally or philosophically. This we can call the category of timely deaths.

Another category, though unacceptable to many, which cannot be tampered with, for better or for worse, is that of death by the grace of God. There is no possibility of improvement here since, by its very nature, this category is almost perfect, since the cause lies elsewhere.

However, other categories could certainly be improved. For instance, the category of deaths caused by other people. Much could be done here to reduce the numbers, and perhaps even eliminate this category completely. A simple matter of preventive attention and care. Of course, when dealing with this category, one must make a clear distinction between deaths caused by others deliberately, and deaths caused by others inadvertently. It could be said that the former cannot be avoided since it is coincidental, whereas the latter can probably be prevented because it is accidental. For as Regis Dumort explains [page 130] in his convincing and exhilarating Vue Mondiale des Coincidences et Accidents Macabres [Les Éditions des Pompes Funèbres, 1982]: An accident is just a thing that happens, whereas a coincidence is a thing that is going to happen and does." [My translation]. Therefore, the category of deaths caused accidentally by other people should perhaps be listed separately, so that those who die of such a death can rest in peace without resentment, satisfied that their death was not caused deliberately.

Similarly, the category of self-inflicted deaths is one which, though much discussed lately, and of great concern to liberal groups as well as theological groups, is far from being under control. It could certainly stand some improvement.

To be mentioned also is the category of accidental deaths, not caused by others but by the very person who dies as a result of his or her own carelessness. The list is endless. Naturally, all these categories can be divided into sub-categories, such as premature deaths, unexpected deaths, mysterious deaths, unnatural deaths, deaths by starvation, deaths by over-eating, deaths by electric shocks, deaths by drowning or overdosing, and many others even more eccentric or exotic. In all of these, there is room for improvement, and even total elimination, if only the necessary statistics were available.

There is one category, however, which presents real problems in terms of eventual improvement, and that is the category of our own death. Since we do not know in advance the form our death will take, except, of course, if we choose suicide, we can never propose to ourselves possibilities of improvement. Faced with the inevitability and certainty of our own death, we can only place it in a vague and undetermined category with no hope of possible improvement, for one cannot improve what one doesn't know.

It is curious that this civilization of ours which measures everything, counts everything, evaluates, weighs, packages, analyzes, a civilization that claims to know all, has failed to produce precise statistics for the categories of death. As such, our civilization has prevented all possibilities of improvement in this domain.

Perhaps, just as it is curious that the number of languages people employ on this planet cannot be calculated [no one knows precisely how many there are, all we know vaguely and claim to know is that there are more than four thousand languages, and many still unidentified], it is as curious that the categories of deaths cannot be accounted for. Does this signify that there is a mysterious link between language and death that will never be explained? For in fact, just as certain linguists refuse to accept certain languages and simply categorize them as dialects, some categories of deaths are rejected or considered insignificant because they fall within other categories. That is the case, for instance, with the esoteric category of deaths by torture, which is too often ignored because it is viewed simply as a minor sub-division of the larger category of deaths by violence. In our opinion, death by torture deserves to have its own category, if only because it has become so popular these days on our planet.

Since death is the pure event, the perfect event, as the great Structuralist Michel Foucault calls it in his essay "Theatrum Philosophicum" [see Critique, Vol. XXXVI, No. 282, 1970], any attempt to think that event may give it a semblance of metaphysical quality, but not necessarily metaphysical coherence which would place the idea of death squarely into a system of cause and effect, and that is not possible. Regardless of the category into which it falls, death may have a cause, known or unknown to the one who is dying, but it cannot have an effect, certainly not on the one who is dead. There is no effect of death. Sure, others may feel the effect of that death, but that's beside the point. When you're dead, you feel nothing. It is in this sense that death is a pure event.

As it has been demonstrated repeatedly throughout history, the event of death has its own complex logic. That is why statisticians have such difficulties categorizing death. Death defies human logic. It only abides by its own irrational logic, one might say. Death does not give a damn about life, human or whatever. In this sense, distorting a ligne from Alfred de Vigny to support our assumption: Seule la mort est parfaite, tout les reste est imperfection.

The fact of being dead is a state of being [well, one should rather say, a state of non-being, but that makes death sound too negative] in relation to which an assertion can neither be true nor false because to die is a pure event which verifies nothing, asserts nothing, proves nothing.
Here is a pertinent illustration of the non-assertive quality of death. For instance, when we say Federman is dead, regardless of which category his death falls in, we are merely designating a condition, or expressing a personal opinion or belief. But whatever the case, Federman's death can only be spoken by others, and as such means nothing to him once departed. The dead can never speak his own death, he can never say I am dead! Unless of course speaking metaphorically or theological jargon. Others say that of us after we are deceased, after we have become the pure event of death in an exemplary fashion, when we have changed tense, and are no longer present, nor past. When we have vanished into perfection.

We cannot resist to quote here, in support of our argument, that marvelous ligne from Le Cimètiere Marin of Paul Valèry which so succinctly describes the pure event of death: Le don de vivre a passé dans les fleurs!

It would be presumptuous of us to try and render faithfully into English the sense and sensuality of these words. One can only attempt a clumsy approximation: The gift of life has become flowers!

But to return to our topic. The fact that Federman cannot say I am dead. The fact of being unable to speak one's death is the supreme category which abolishes all the others. It is the ultimate category, the category of the unspeakability of death. Whether one dies in bed, dies in one's boots, dies with one's boots on, dies on the vine, dies in harness, dies prematurely or in one's sleep, dies in a gas chamber, dies while making love to one's lover, when all is done and said, that is the category of death that has reached total improvement because it can no longer be spoken.

Language vanishes into death, and death vanishes into silence. Or is it, death that vanishes into language, and language into silence?
Author of numerous works of fiction, drama, poetry, and criticism, including the fictions Take It or Leave It, The Two-fold Vibration, and Smiles of Washington Square, the latter two books still available from Green Integer. Federman taught for many years at the University of Buffalo before retiring to San Diego.

Federman was born in France, and would later become a friend of Samuel Beckett, a strong influence on his own writing. In 1942, as a child, Ray, hiding in a closet, heard his parents and sisters being taken by Gestapo officers from their Paris apartment. His family died, while he survived, recounting that experience in his novella The Voice in the Closet.

Yesterday morning, after a long battle with cancer, Federman died at the age of 81 in San Diego.

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