Pragmatic Immortality and the Insignificance of My Own Death

In: The Presence of the Dead in Our Lives

The human being who lives and dies, seen not as a biological entity but as a centre of experience and feeling, is a transcendental subject in the Husserlian sense, essentially temporal in its structure (though essentially timeless in its situation), essentially situated over against a world. ‘Transcendental’ means that the subject is not an object in its own world but is presupposed by the experienced unity of that world. The transcendental subject in time remembers past states and anticipates future ones, but can know neither its beginning nor its end. The one event of which the subject cannot have empirical knowledge is its own death. It can accept the prediction that its embodiment will cease, but this is to cast itself in the role of another, as seen from outside. It cannot anticipate its own cessation from within - at every moment into which it can imaginatively enter there will always be another moment to come. This situation satisfies the Aristotelian definition of infinity.1 Infinity of lived subjectivity is equivalent to immortality. Put aphoristically and paradoxically, ‘until the moment of death, everyone is immortal.’ The point is not so much to make another argument for rising above a preoccupation with death, after the fashion of Spinoza or Wittgenstein, as to draw attention to the possibility of living an effective or pragmatic immortality, not being touched by death at all, suspending all attention to it, like a permanent phenomenological bracketing. But even if we accept and anticipate death it still matters less than most people think (and fear). My own sudden and painless death cannot possibly matter to me. And even pain can be borne. (My death can of course matter to others.) If life is animation, metabolism, endurance through time, death is nothing more or less than the suspension of these things, not temporarily as happens in sleep, for example, but definitively - and yet, to repeat, the subject cannot know that it is definitive. It does not live its own end.

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