There’s often a strange sort of synergy in my research, such as today, when I’m reading Philip Roth’s The Dying Animal at the same time as Rosi Braidotti’s chapter of The Posthuman on her philosophy’s engagement with the human experience or encounter with death. After all, Roth’s novella is a first-person depiction of a lothario facing his own mortality, which he understands as the last chance he’ll ever have to make regular love to a beautiful woman before his body simply breaks down from age. He is so pathetic in his desperation, yet he understands himself so well, that it makes such a slimy man dignified, or at least understandable. That’s the power of literature: Roth, Vladimir Nabokov, and Robert Bolaño are masters at conveying the disgusting with dignity.
But this post isn’t really about Philip Roth. It’s about a curious way of thinking about death that avoids this crisis. It’s a very old way to understand your mortality, but it’s very difficult to master. Unlike most protagonists of Roth’s novels, it requires letting go of the ego.
I know that’s an old idea, so old that it’s become cliché, especially in the middle of a generally liberal urban landscape where simple Buddhist and Daoist ideas fly around the culture like leaves on a windy Fall day. But it is very difficult for most people. Braidotti follows (without saying the man’s name, as is something of a modern convention) the notion of Henri Bergson that life’s diversity and ecological fluctuation and transformation constitutes a powerful force in itself. Bergson himself spoke literally of a vital force, which, like most of his terminology, is essentially insightful, but a little too naive to accept. But the basic principles of ecological science rely on complexity theory, the mathematics of turbulence, thresholds, and phase transitions, a conception of the world as a collection of populations, a world in constant flux.
In the face of a world whose primary property is its constant roiling change, the world of life, of ecosystems, the traditional notion of the purity of the subject becomes laughable. This is a basic point in my own Ecophilosophy manuscript: if we’re going to develop a self-conception in which an environmentalist consciousness is common sense, it’s going to require seeing the subject as a product of the world, not its purpose. A reasonable scientific attitude shows that well enough. You learn enough about cosmology, ecology, biology and its central principles of evolution, and you’ll understand yourself as one member of a species that arose from contingent processes in a fragile world. The role of philosophy is working out the implications of this framework for a theory of subjectivity, our ethics, and our social moral principles. It would be a subject that was equally fragile.
Not only would we conceive of ourselves as fragile, we’d be okay with that. We often conceive of ourselves as an absolute presence in our lives. Roth’s narrator, David Kepesh, accepting the inevitability and proximity of his death, writhes in desperation as every experience reminds him of the end of his life. Braidotti, in contrast, conceives of the dying person as someone who waits peacefully, and with some enthusiasm, to be dispersed throughout the flux of becoming that is life. Losing the membrane that separates you from your surroundings is the end of everything for the Modernist, the Humanist. For the Posthumanist — we could also call her a Poststructuralist, Bergson, Deleuze, Spinoza, or maybe even a secular Buddhist — it’s a radical departure, the beginning of a new journey.
To achieve this state of mind, we would have to accept in every fibre of our thoughts that the universe is larger than we could ever be ourselves, that what matters includes far beyond our daily concerns. I don’t know how many people could actually manage that.