Sometimes, such as yesterday and today we read the obituaries of those who have been a big part of our lives, at least those of my generation. On the front page of the Times, pushing to the side and back the usual spots given to Ukraine, Gaza, ISIS in Iraq, as well as the latest interviews with President Obama and candidate Clinton, were just yesterday and today the announcements of the deaths of Robin Williams, and Lauren Bacall. I knew both from their films, but felt only the loss of the actor Robin Williams, and said to myself, no, no, it can’t be. What he meant to me in his films was important and I didn’t want his death to end it.
It was just a few years ago, the very same year, I think, 2009, the year of the Second Great Recession, that I read, also in the Times, obituaries of John Updike and Ted Kennedy, classmates of mine at Harvard, the three of us having in common Harvard, and being born in the same year, 1932. But because we had little else in common, because we shared so little of our lives, I felt nothing at the announcements of their deaths.
People, those of the very earliest civilizations, of say ancient Egypt, as well as those of probably every known civilization since then right up until today have taught us nothing about death. For death is still and remains the ultimate unknown, along with its opposite consciousness or life. Of death we remain as ignorant today as were our hunter-gatherer ancestors.
But we do know something about dying, and the best of us, I think of Nelson Mandela, of Christopher Hitchens, (to compare the two only in regard to how they faced their own dying), how in dying they taught us how best to die, and thereby how not to die, because there are those who die badly.
To learn about dying, if not about death, actually to learn anything at all, there has to be a connection, a connection between people, in the present case between those who die, the teachers if you will, and those who remain, the learners. When there is no connection we feel nothing, and learn nothing, as from the thousands of deaths we read about almost daily in the Middle East.
From all the texts about dying, from all the people who have written about dying, let me give the final word to William Shakespeare. Shakespeare shows us that it is not our own death, and in fact those who write about dying know this, but the death of those we love that is always hardest to bear. Of course I didn’t love Robin Williams, or Nelson Mandela, or Christopher Hitchens, as King Lear loved his daughter, Cordelia, but I can understand his lament. At the end of his own life Lear’s thoughts are all about Cordelia:
“No, no, no life!
Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more,
Never, never, never, never, never!
Pray you, undo this button: thank you, sir.
Do you see this? Look on her, look, her lips,
Look there, look there!”
(King Lear: Act V, scene iii)”