April 9, 2000

1. Roots

Since we’ve recently been joined by several new subscribers, I’d like to say a few words about how I was introduced to philosophy and literature, and about my general approach to philosophy and literature.

[This section can now be found here.]

2. Kübler-Ross

The book discussion group that I organize recently read On Death and Dying, by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. It’s a well-known book, a classic in its field. (Our discussion group looks for good books, regardless of their field, just as the Dallas Cowboys were once known for drafting the best athletes they could find, regardless of their position.) Kübler-Ross was a psychiatrist, a therapist, who worked with terminally-ill patients. Kübler-Ross argues that the process of dying usually occurs in five stages: denial, anger, depression, bargaining and acceptance. The final stage, acceptance, is characterized by an acceptance of one’s fate and one’s mortality.

What if someone reached this final stage, and then recovered, and lived on? This, I believe, is what happened to Nietzsche; he was gravely ill, he was expected to die, he reached the stage of acceptance of his fate and his mortality, and then he recovered. Nietzsche’s later works, beginning with his Gay Science, were written from beyond the grave, and often speak of amor fati, love of fate. Surely Nietzsche himself was aware of how much he owed to his illness, and how much he owed to the emotional instability that eventually caused him to go mad.

Kübler-Ross speaks of a young woman, with young children, who was diagnosed with a terminal illness. The young woman found this situation impossible to accept without the help of madness. As she approached death, she was able to accept her situation, and regain her sanity. While reading Kübler-Ross’s book, I was struck by how people can use insanity as a defense-mechanism. Insanity doesn’t always come upon us from outside, we create it ourselves as a response to our situation. But if insanity is voluntary, that doesn’t mean that insanity is faked; insanity has its roots in our unconscious being.

When Nietzsche went insane, his friend said that he seemed to be pleased at how things had turned out, as if he wanted to go insane. Ten years later, when he was on the brink of death, he regained his sanity when he was shown a picture of his old friend Wagner. Apparently he didn’t need to wear the mantle of insanity when his life was ending. Thus, Nietzsche’s insanity, like the insanity described by Kübler-Ross, shows that insanity is semi-voluntary, adopted in stressful times, laid aside when one’s life is ending.

Kübler-Ross says that our society is “bent on ignoring or avoiding death.” She advises us to face the reality of death before it faces us; “we should make it a habit to think about death and dying occasionally, I hope before we encounter it in our own life.” One who has accepted the reality of his own death can help others to face death: “It is the persistent nurturing role of the therapist who has dealt with his or her own death complex sufficiently that helps the patient overcome the anxiety and fear of his impending death.”

3. Tagore

One of the heroes of On Death and Dying is an Indian writer of poetry and fiction, Rabindranath Tagore. Tagore’s work was praised by Western writers like Gide and Yeats, and Tagore won the Nobel Prize in 1913. More recently, his work inspired several movies by an Indian director named Ray. His writings still enjoy wide popularity in India. Kübler-Ross begins each chapter of Death and Dying with a quote from Tagore. These quotes prompted me to choose Tagore’s book Gitanjali for the next meeting of our discussion group. Tagore translated his own work into English, and he writes excellent English. But I find the poems in Gitanjali somewhat obscure; Tagore and I are on different wavelengths.

In many of his poems, Tagore addresses God. Permit me to quote my favorite:

I ask for a moment’s indulgence to sit by thy side. The works that I have in hand I will finish afterwards.

Away from the sight of thy face my heart knows no rest nor respite, and my work becomes an endless toil in a shoreless sea of toil.

Today the summer has come at my window with its sighs and murmurs; and the bees are plying their minstrelsy at the court of the flowering grove.

Now it is time to sit quiet, face to face with thee, and to sing dedication of life in this silent and overflowing leisure.

© L. James Hammond 2003
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