Fear Of Death Is Fear Of Immortality

We philosophize because we anticipate death, fearfully. We seek out religious consolation because we anticipate death, fearfully. We seek in philosophical rumination and religious observance and faith some deliverance from our mortality, some way to ‘stay alive,’ to not be annihilated. One kind of introspection these forms of thought encourage is to look a little closer at what terrifies us so about death. There, very often, we find our fears are quite concrete: in my case, as I noted here, they “reflected deeply held phobias and anxieties…the fear of being buried alive…the fear of being lost or left alone. I had merely transferred my fears from the here and now to the hereafter–so vivid were they that I imagined them persisting endlessly, even after death.”

The crucial note in there is, I think, that those imagined horrors persisted “endlessly”; for instance, I would be buried alive forever, not dying and finding release, because after all, I would be already dead. In that case, I would crave the nullity we associate with death. It is at moments like these that I realized just how comforting science is in reassuring me that once my material self is gone, I will be gone, utterly and totally. My grandmother once confessed to me that what terrified her the most about her death was the fear that some fragment of her consciousness would survive, perhaps some memory, reminding her of the world she had once lived in, with all that she had loved and lost. That fragment would be isolated, disjoint, expelled from all it had known, and yet not fully sundered. She could see no end to that torment. As she said this, she closed her eyes and spoke softly, “When I pray, I ask for complete deliverance, to be released completely, to leave this world behind utterly.” Of all the conversations I had with her over the years, this one chilled me the most; she was the most religious person I knew, and she had allowed me a glimpse of her deepest existential fears, ones she sought to assuage through her daily rituals of prayer and meditation.

Death is terrifying precisely because it is a kind of immortality; it’s just the wrong kind. We sense, we know, that time–in the way that we understand it–seems to stretch endlessly forward backward and forward; we cannot imagine a beginning or end to it. We sense we came from the eternal void, delivered to this brief moment ‘in the sun.’ We dread the return to that same endlessness. We don’t want immortality if it is the wrong kind. (Like eternal agony in hellfire.) We don’t want to be alive by ourselves, all alone, terrified and scared, ‘in a dark place.’ The void is always preferable to that. We seek the right kind of immortality, a kind of prolongation of those fleeting moments of love and pleasure and happiness that this life has sent our way. That extension is what we cannot have, not in this world, one in which we cannot step in the same river twice, in which all things come to be and pass away.

Dreams of the “Undiscovered Country”

Hamlet suggested that “What dreams may come after / When we have shuffled off this mortal coil / Must give us pause” and that “The dread of something after death / The undiscovered country, from whose bourn / No traveler returns, puzzles the will.”

The eternally indecisive Danish prince was right, of course: many, if not all, of us have wondered what lies in store for us after death. The more certain among the materialistically minded reassure themselves that oblivion awaits, a blankness and a void like that of the deepest sleep, like the kind that was our lot before we were ejected into this world naked and helpless and conscious. Others–convinced of the claims of some of the world’s great religions–speculate that eternal torment or pleasures of some form lies in store. And perhaps yet others, stranded at some indeterminate point between these viewpoints of spiritualism and materialism, fret that our knowledge of the relationship of consciousness to the material body is limited and that states of being that we have no epistemic access to, and thus no conception of currently, might be our postmortem fate.

Such uncertainty, of course, is an invitation to the very anxiety referred to by Hamlet: Perhaps our consciousness–in some shape or form–might survive the destruction of our corporeal self; if so, what form would it exist in? What states would persist? Would we–perish the thought–remain locked into some endlessly painful or terrifying state of being? One did not have to believe in divinely dispensed heavens or hells to believe that the riddles of existence might have facets to them painful or pleasurable to the remnants of a once thriving consciousness. (You could call this kind of thinking a holdover of a theistic or eschatological way of thinking.)

At times in the past, I sometimes found myself in precisely such a state of mind and found that my greatest fears amounted to two kinds of states. The first was one in which I felt as if smothered by an impenetrable darkness that lay suffocatingly over me, and which could not be pushed away; my movements were restricted by an all-enveloping black veil. I would be conscious of this darkness but unable to move, unable to illuminate it; it was a sensory deprivation tank of sorts but one in which I could sense and see the darkness pressing in on me. In the second kind of state, I imagined myself–without any sense of corporeal being–to be suspended in a realm that can best be analogized with the space we can imagine lying between those imposing maps of gigantic galactic clusters: endlessly expansive and relentlessly empty.

I found both these allusive suggestions of a postmortem persistence of some fragment of consciousness chilling. (In the second case, almost literally so.)

These lost their grip on my imagination when I realized that in both cases, they reflected deeply held phobias and anxieties of a sort. The first was the fear of being buried alive (those childhood tales of immurement had left a mark) and the second was the fear of being lost or left alone (yup, the childhood impress again.)

I had merely transferred my fears from the here and now to the hereafter–so vivid were they that I imagined them persisting endlessly, even after death.


Baltimore Dispatches: The Cask of Amontillado and the Terrors of Immurement

This Columbus Day weekend, I am ensconced in Baltimore, which has meant that, among other things, my thoughts turned to Edgar Allan Poe, the city’s most distinguished literary son, one of a select group of writers whose work I was first exposed to via comic books, and someone who, to put it mildly, gave me the shakes for a very long time. The story that did the most to ensure this clammy place in my heart was the Cask of Amontillado.

One hot Delhi afternoon, as I rode back in a crowded school bus from a fairly typical sixth or seventh grade day, I noticed, next to me, a boy reading a comic book with a lurid cover that spoke of stories of the terrifying, the macabre, the gloomy. I was bold enough to ask to read it when my companion was done, and was soon plunged into its grim world. The first story I read was the tale of Montresor’s deadly revenge. I was horrified by the ending, as Montresor immured Fortunato within the catacombs that lay beyond the wine cellar under his palazzo. I read other stories in the collection, but none of them, including the Murders in the Rue Morgue, had the same effect on me.

The story of Montresor and Fortunato tapped into a childhood claustrophobia, a paralyzing fear of being locked in, of being crushed alive by an invisible weight that drove the air out from my lungs. A recurrent childhood nightmare of mine had been that of somehow suffocating under a blanket. It was one reason I found the winter months especially scary:  sleeping then meant the use of the classic North Indian razai, the heavy, stuffed-with-cotton-wool quilt that made the Delhi winter nights tolerable. Time and again, I would wake at night, shaking, gasping for air, convinced I had been buried by my razai. The razais seemed cavernous, with acres of space beneath them that shrank to enclose me in a woolly grave. I was never able to put my head under one and regarded my brother, who nonchalantly went to sleep with his head shoved under his quilt, with some amazement.

This fear was compounded by the presence of the immurement theme in Indian legend and history. More than one Bollywood movie featured characters walled up alive while plaintive dirges played in the background. One particularly famous instance occurs in the 1960 epic Mughal-e-Azam, which shows the Mughal Crown Prince Salim’s illicit lover Anarkali, immured on the order of Salim’s father, the Emperor Akbar. And immurement didn’t just happen in the movies. The tenth Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, suffered the loss of his two sons to this terrible fate: the nine year old Sahibzada Fateh Singh and the seven year old Sahibzada Zorawar Singh were so condemned on 12 December 1705, by the Governor of Sirhind, Wazir Khan. (The two boys had been captured following battles between Sikh and Mughal forces in the Punjab, and ‘asked’ to convert to Islam, a ‘request’ they had refused). It wasn’t just in the realm of fantasy that immurement lurked.

But there was something else about the Cask of Amontillado that made it more than a story about about a man left to die, walled in and alone. It featured treachery and deception, it spoke of unhinged anger, moved to reach out and exact the most terrible retribution of all. And if I had a fear of being crushed, suffocated, and buried, I felt even more terrified by the thought that such a fate would be facilitated and eventuated by an ostensible friend’s deception. Fortunato’s shrieks haunted me for years; for the love of God indeed.