One Day, Death Will Die


Mocking, John Donne provokes Deathi. He wants to humiliate, crush, annihilate her. He absolutely reverses the roles. He’s the one who’s holding the scythe now. In a few precise sentences, he reaps death and war, poison and disease. Death is nothing more than a slave subject to fate and chance, power and despair; she is chained, and there are far better sleepers than her, opiates or dreamers.

At the moment when death, the « poor death », believes it has conquered, only a short sleep separates us from eternity. Metaphysical pirouette. Great leap of the angel to the nose of nothingness.

The last line of the Sonnet reads « And death shall be no more; death, thou shalt die.”

This line reminds us of Paul’s formula: « O Death, where is thy victory? »ii.

Paul’s formula itself evokes that of the prophet Hosea when he pronounced curses against Ephraim and the idolaters of Judah: « And I will deliver them from the power of Sheol? And I will deliver them from death? O death, where is your pestilence? Sheol, where is your destruction? »iii

There is, however, an important nuance between Paul and Hosea. Hosea called Death and the power of Sheol over guilty men. Paul announces the annihilation of Death itself.

In this Paul does not innovate. He refers to Isaiah, when Isaiah said: « Yahweh has put an end to death forever. »iv

Isaiah, Hosea, Paul, Donne, through the centuries, share the same idea. One day, Death will die one day. No doubt, death will die.

Who better than a prophet, an apostle, a poet, can take a firm stand on this ultimate issue?

i

Death be not proud, though some have called thee

Mighty and dreadfull ; for, thou art not soe,

For, those, whom thou think’st, thou dost overthrow,

Die not, poore death, nor yet canst thou kill mee.

From rest and sleepe, which but thy pictures bee,

Much pleasure, then from thee, much more must flow,

And soonest our best men with thee doe go,

Rest of their bones, and soules deliverie.

Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,

And dost with poyson, warre, and sickness dwell,

And poppie, or charmes can make us sleep as well,

And better then thy stroake ; why swell’st thou then ?

One short sleepe past, wee wake eternally,

And death shall be no more ; death, thou shalt die.

John Donne, Holy Sonnets, X

ii 1 Cor. 15.55

iii Hos. 13,14

iv Is. 25,8

The Absurd Reason


The prophet Daniel speaks as a seer: “And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever. » (Dan. 12,2-3)

This saying refers to the « wise » and to the “righteous”. It is not just a question of knowledge, but of justice, of a wisdom that is less human than divine. How to reach it? How to access these high places?

Many are those who doubt their own divinity, those who have never turned their eyes to the splendour of intelligence, of wisdom. There are even more who prefer the mist of the senses, the thickness of the bodies, to the thin acuity of the soul.

How would they achieve the wisdom and justice that Daniel is talking about?

Plato, who was not a prophet, but no less a seer, advises us to meditate unceasingly on death.

“Either in no way can we ever acquire knowledge, or it is for us only once we have passed away.”i

The way to be as close to divine knowledge as possible is to have as little trade as possible with the body. Going to the limit, we deduce that death only is the kingdom of true knowledge. This is the « immense hope » that Socrates joyfully shares with his afflicted friends, shortly before drinking the hemlock.

What is this hope based on? It is based on an idea as anti-modern as possible: « We are divine beings ». How can such a statement be made? “Because, momentarily deprived of our heavenly abode and homeland, that is, as long as we are on earth God’s substitutes, we are constantly tormented by the desire of this heavenly homeland and no earthly pleasure can console in the present exile the human intelligence desiring a better condition.”ii

This immense hope, without reason, is based – it is a paradox – on the sole activity of reason.

Marsilio Ficino gives this explanation:

“The hope of immortality results from a surge of reason, since the soul hopes not only without the help of the senses, but despite their opposition. That is why I find nothing more admirable than this hope, because, while we live incessantly among ephemeral beings, we do not cease to hope.”iii

These unreasonable ideas have been shared by thinkers as diverse as Zoroaster, Hermes Trismegistus, Orpheus, Aglaopheme, Pythagoras, Plato… They have created schools of thought, their disciples have proliferated: Xenocrat, Arcesilas, Carneade, Ammonius, Plotinus, Proclus…

On a philosophical level, Socrates’ argument seems to have a certain scope. Reason says that there are only two hypotheses: either knowledge is not possible at all, or it is only possible after death.

If we decide to ignore the Socratic, resolutely optimistic point of view, absolute horror would therefore resemble this: to see clearly with the eyes of pure reason the absurdity and inanity of a human condition, capable of reason, and capable of drawing from it the most crazy, most absurd hypotheses.

iPhaedo, 66 e

ii Marsilio Ficino, Platonic Theology Book XVI

iiiIbid.

The Veil of Death


Deep mysteries are made of successive veils. Their unveiling never offers a complete revelation. It is a long process – that is a veil in itself.

In his diary on 26-27 November 1906, Tolstoy describes his daughter Macha’s death, which just happened: « Macha died earlier today. Strange thing. I felt neither frightened nor afraid, nor aware that something exceptional was being done (…) I watched her all the time she was dying: with astonishing tranquility. For me – she was a being who unveils herself before my own unveiling. I was following this unveiling, and it was joyful for me. But this unveiling has ceased in the domain that is accessible to me (life), that is, this unveiling has ceased to be visible to me; but what was being unveiled is that. »

The unveiling of death begins in life. Its signs still belong to life, until this singular unveiling is no longer visible to those who do not die, to those who remain in the unveiling of life.

Their lives veil their death. And death continues to reveal what cannot be revealed to those who do not die.

This is what can sometimes be revealed at the death of a loved one, that there is an unveiling of death, which continues in death. Tolstoy attests to this. Capital information, but imponderable. There may be reason to doubt such a fragile testimony, based on tenuous clues. Yet I believe that Tolstoy is a precious, sensitive and credible witness.

The death of those we love is not of the visible order. But it waved, it showed a possible path. Nine months before Macha’s death in February 1906, Tolstoy had already noted: « What is the matter before me? The most important: a good death », and also: « You grow up to death ».

Growing in this way is certainly a metamorphosis, a movement. A movement towards what? On 31 December 1906, Tolstoy replied: « Movement is the awareness of our divine character. »

This movement towards death can be brief or long, sharp or languid, confused or sustained. Only the tempo varies, not the end.

As a man who seems to have experienced the essence of death, Tolstoy notes this strange formula, not without a whiff à la Newton: « The value of life is inversely proportional to the square of the distance from death. »

Fatal attraction of bodies by the dark star. A black hole in the vicinity of which thought is accelerating. Plato said that death is for the soul the deliverance of the body. It remains to meditate on the speed, acceleration and gravity of this deliverance.