Of the reasons there are to dread death – and no stoic or holy man has yet convinced me there are reasons not to – the most compelling is the shame of it. I don’t just mean the shame of illness and bodily deterioration, helplessness, loneliness, reliance on the care and kindness of others, the end of you as a self-determining agent, I mean the simple shame of being mortal, the disgrace of not being able to do a little better than that.
Life is full of humiliations to all but the most insensate, but life petering out like every other, life just giving in to the brute fact of non-life, is the keenest humiliation of all. Small wonder that some cultures have seen a nobility in suicide. Whatever else there is to consider, this way, at least, the time and manner of dying is of your choosing. It is you saying no to life, and not the other way around. You are your own executioner. It’s not quite a victory, but it’s half a one.
That said, the method of self-slaughter which some settle for appears to steal even that half victory from them. Before Robin Williams’ decision to end his life, we can only bow our heads in respect. It isn’t for us to judge. But it’s impossible not to wonder why he chose to do it the way he did. Of all the means available, especially to a rich man living in LA, why hanging?
I am no student of the psychology of suicide, but to choose hanging is surely, at some deep level, to ally yourself with criminals. Or, if not that, it is to inflict a final indignity on your person – in your own eyes and in the eyes of those who find you. To choose hanging feels to me like compounding shame with more shame. If all I am is a cadaver, then let it be as a cadaver that I leave life.
But death, as evidenced by the images released by Islamic State – I have not nerved myself to watch the videos – has further ignominies in store for us yet. I say “us” because faced with such horror we are one human family. Whatever we feel the rest of the time, no man is an island now. Today, the bell tolls for everyone.
So many ignominies here, indeed, that it simultaneously turns the stomach and breaks the heart to itemise them. The preceding torture of your body and your mind; the knowledge of the agony caused to those who love you, for you can be sure they will never know a quiet night again; the public nature of the execution; the vileness of the instrument employed; the anonymous, flat-vowelled barbarism of your executioner, as though he means the act to be at once grand and common-or-garden, a mockery of itself.
Before Steven Sotloff was executed, there was a picture of him disseminated on the accursed web, a sideshow to the decapitation of James Foley, which shows one of his captors grabbing him by the back of his shirt, as though he is dead meat already. Yes, let a war start and all life is cheap. And whichever side we are on, we label the other remorseless.
But there is a difference between being one of the casualties of war, no matter how terrible or unforgivable your death, and being a trophy dragged about and held aloft by someone for whom you are as offal. Death is the end of it in all cases, but the ultimate ignominy for any living human being is to be reduced, while the blood is still warm in the body, to a carcass. Forget, for a moment, the politics. There are times when politics are incidental, and the agents of cruelty seem to be answering more a metaphysical necessity than an ideological one.
“Aye, in the catalogue ye go for men,” says Macbeth to those he has hired to murder Banquo – his disgust for them impersonal, almost a disgust for “bounteous” nature itself. Some bounty that can yield such men!
But I am reminded still more of the shocking final chapter of Kafka’s The Trial. “On the evening before K.’s thirty-first birthday,” it begins, “two men came to his lodgings. In frock-coats, pallid and plump, with top-hats that were apparently uncollapsible.” To himself, K. admits that he expected different visitors. He is disappointed by fate. “Tenth-rate old actors they send for me,” he reflects. “They want to finish me off cheaply.”
We should not be misled by the farcicality. It is integral to the horror. A death at the hands of tenth-rate executioners becomes tenth-rate itself. But what other sort of execution is there?
“Why did they send you of all people!” he asks as they are escorting him through the streets. More a cry, Kafka notes, than a question. But a cry to whom? God? In this novel, there is no God to cry to. No Judge to meet, no High Court to penetrate. K. thinks of resisting but is instantly reminded of “flies struggling away from the fly-paper till their little legs were torn off”. Not the only time a character in Kafka is compared to an insect.
The sentences that lead almost laconically to K.’s senseless death are among the most cruel in literature. The tenth-rate actors force K. to the ground, with his head against a boulder, and pass a knife there and back across him in “an odious ceremonial of courtesy”. Then finally it happens – the knife goes into K.s heart where it’s twisted twice. “With failing eyes K. could still see the two of them, cheek leaning against cheek, watching the final act” – the final act of a farce that is crueller than any tragedy.
K., too, is in the audience, watching himself die. “Like a dog!” he says. “It was as if he meant the shame of it to outlive him.”
The shame of the American journalists dying like dogs will outlive us all. If there is or could be a more potent image of the insults our mortality is heir to, of the godlessness of this pitiable planet, may we not live to see it.Reuse content