I’ve pondered the meaning of death many times. Let me rephrase this statement: I’m always reflecting on the meaning of death. What does death tell us about life? Should it mean something in specific with regards to life? If so, why should death be shrouded in mystery and taboo?
Approaching the question of death raises a set of issues. The immediate reaction in one’s head is that something is incredibly wrong. The very thinking of the question indicates, according to social discourse, that there is an underlying issue in the person: Why am I thinking about death when living is the most precious of things? Is thinking of death part of the anxiety-related symptoms of the mentally ill? Or, am I not willing enough to be happy?
Talk about death is frowned upon and seen as something relegated to the depressive, to those who cannot enjoy life, sick. So, would my thinking constantly about death mean that there is something deeply wrong with me? I would have to argue that, ‘No, thinking of death is a defining quality of human nature’, as thinking of death raises the question as to why living is so damn important. But this answer raises a further set of issues. Is there a particular logic to the question of death? Can we explain death away? Either we conjure the poetic and religious, or accept nihilism in the face. It’s a mystery, and speaking about it from the outside, as someone who hasn’t been dead, is pure speculation. This is the answer that resonates to me the most. Death as ultimate mystery. And vice-versa: If death is the ultimate mystery, then life is as well.
Death points toward sheer mystery, a point of no return, to which we are all walking toward, in acceptance or negation, and about which ‘nothing’ can really be said (Wittgenstein comes to mind, Camus, Dostoevsky, etc.; and more optimistic thinkers, Plato, Tolstoy, Spinoza, who treat the question as a matter of philosophy, conquerable in the abstract and through the power of reason). While death is taboo for social discourse, it isn’t for our inner lives. For society death is similar to pornography—death as the subject of abject discourse, which can’t be named. We pass over it in silence, tip-toeing, censoring our anxieties about the topic and setting them aside, in the back of our heads, lest we perish to a psychotic break during our confrontation with mystery, and become abject ourselves.
We share in this mystery. But the mystery, as I have suggested, confronts us in every waking moment, in the spectacle of what has so neatly been demarcated with the word, ‘life’. Life is something we think we know; but at the moment of perplexity, when examined by its counterpart, death, it becomes unknowable to us. So, life-death is taboo, and not taboo, a dynamic we think we know, yet don’t. It’s the ultimate paradox. But the interesting thing about this paradox, is that there can’t be death without life. Society and culture forces us to try and forget it, as quotidian life in the manner of the philosopher, so goes this numbing kind of discourse, is an unlivable life. However, there is Socrates, the philosopher king, who once dictated that, ‘All I know is that I don’t know’, which means that I’m part of the unknowable that I pretend to know, and that such condition of unknowability leads to the spirit of awe and wonder, as in his Cave Allegory, wherein he demonstrates that dispelling the chains and shadows that keep us blinded, lead us to greater and more complex truths: Nature, in its sheer mystery, is amazement in its possibilities.
These perennial issues are raised in The Leftovers, Damon Lindelof’s and Tom Perrotta’s 2014 HBO supernatural-mystery-drama television show. I want to discuss some themes in the show related to the significance of the dynamic of life and death. My aim is to show one possibility embedded in science fiction narratives, as vehicles of complexity and wonder, and of deeper understanding of the self.
We meet the chief of police of Mapleton New York, Kevin Garney, who is picking up the pieces of an unexplained event: About 2% of the world population vanished into thin air. Those who were left behind are torn apart by the mystery of the cataclysmic event. The impossibility of what transpired during The Departure turns the world upside down, as the nature of the world we thought under control, abruptly reminded us of its mystery. A cult that goes by the name of the Guilty Remnant (the G.R.) take to the streets. Members of the Remnant dress in pure white, chain-smoke, and don’t talk, they face this new world through the lens of nihilism. Nothing can really be discerned about their behavior and what they represent, they symbolize nothingness as the logical consequence to absurdity. The Guilty Remnant seek to communicate, through their silence and inaction (a small wink in the direction of H. Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener), that the world ended. They don’t want people to forget the significance of The Departure: That life is meaningless.
The nihilism of the G.R. plays a pivotal role in the Leftovers. They are the radical consequence of the post-apocalypse, anarchists preaching that life is void of meaning, all of its symbols and signifiers. They spread like a cancer on-screen and, as we learn more about them, we experience their rage and feel sympathy for what these people have lost along the way. Kevin’s ex-wife is G.R. Laurie Garvey was a successful psychiatrist, an exemplary mother and wife. But something in her broke. Something that perhaps was already broken, but found a way to manifest itself through the philosophy of the Guilty Remnant. Laurie feels guilty for being broken, for being unable to give to her family what they need of her. In her brokenness, she discovers that the appropriate answer to life’s mystery, is giving oneself fully to self-destruction.
Kevin’s own manifestation of the consequences of The Departure is his increasing incapability to grasp his mind. He sleepwalks. During his raptures, the chief shoots dogs with a bolt rifle, in the company of a man who could very well be a figment of his imagination. K. Garvey’s enigmatic companion tells him that, ‘Their dogs are no longer their dogs’. Perhaps John Doe has a greater grasp on what is happening. Kevin is incapable of denying that something is happening, as he, too, is incapable of letting go of Laurie’s madness. (Let alone come to grips with his own.) There is something broken in him, too. This brokenness leads him to undertake an odyssey to the Other Side, a place beyond death, a place embedded outside time. On the Other Side awaits an all-too human struggle for meaning, as Chief Garvey wrestles with his demons, realizing authentic love, conscience, and resoluteness, are the redeemable qualities of humanity. I won’t go into detail on the chief’s journey: You’ll have to take the ride for yourself.
But I will leave you with a line of possibility. The show’s thesis is that death makes sense when confronted with life, a philosophic diagnostic that has shades of what the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger, explored in his magnum opus, Being and Time: The simple yet perplexing thesis that being is time and that time is finite, that being authentic beings is the task of ‘coming to terms’ with our mortality. While Heidegger did not have the privilege of HBO, his suggestions are apropos. We have to take a step back and embrace the freedom of ‘being-there’, of being beings thrown into the world. It’s up to us to take the reins of existence in authenticity: Heed the calling of our conscience to turn away from inauthentic being. Kevin Garvey is Heidegger’s da-sein (roughly translated from German as ‘being-there’), an entity that subsists in spite of absurdity. The chief’s search for authentic being consists, as Simon Critchley neatly puts it, ‘In understanding the call, in wanting to have a conscience’, and also, in making the choice ‘To become resolute’ in spite of his broken condition.