In the comments a couple of days ago, Jim wrote:
But the post war generation don’t ‘do God’ so are terrified of death as the final end, and are trying to put that day off for as long as possible.
I think he’s quite right. I’ve said as much myself several times in the past. The modern cult of “healthism” is really all about indefinitely extending the duration of human life. What Deborah Arnott worries about, when she’s sat out in a pub garden, and smoke from some distant cigarette comes wafting past her, is that her life is being shortened by a few minutes. And she most likely has similar fears about the vehicle exhaust gases rising from the streets of London, six floors below her office. In fact, if she’s frightened of tobacco smoke, she’s probably also frightened of autumn leaves – you know, the ones that come spinning down from trees, and strike people’s heads at a high velocity, and cripple them for life.
Such a life is one that is completely dominated by the fear of death. It is a life that has been completely defined by the prospect of death. What an utterly miserable and worthless life!
But I’m not at all sure that ‘doing God’ dispels such fear. In many ways, the notion of an afterlife that kicks in automatically after death is even more terrifying, particularly if one is facing the prospect of eternity roasting in the fires of Hell. The ancient Egyptians were great believers in their own afterlives, and many of them seem to have spent much of their lives preparing elaborate tombs in which to spend them. But isn’t it also a rather miserable and worthless life that is spent preparing for one’s afterlife? Wouldn’t it have been better if they had just enjoyed life while they were living it?
And does anyone really want to live forever? Isn’t it the prospect of death that lends life a certain urgency? So much to be done, and so little time in which to do it. Remove that prospect, and you will have all the time in the world to do whatever you want. And then why do today what can be done tomorrow?
Birth and death are the bookends to life. They provide a frame around it, just like the frame around a painting, or the cover around a book. And are not these frames and covers essential parts of paintings and books? Is it the regular complaint of readers of books that there is nothing in them after the final chapter? Do they say things like, “I really enjoyed it, but there were only 14 chapters”? Or, on exiting a cinema, do they say, “Well, it was really exciting, but it only lasted 92 minutes”?
If long lives are the best lives, then are long books also the best books? Does anyone go into a bookshop and buy the longest book they can find? Does anyone return from a bookshop, and hold up some tome they’ve bought, and declare, “Look at this! 1,223 pages! And 560 words per page! All for £13.20! A real bargain!”?
Are authors judged by the number of books they have written in their lifetimes? “See that man over there? That’s Edward X, the famous author. Did you know that he has written 735 books? 735! And all long ones too.”
Or do you hear of artists being judged by the area of their paintings? Or architects by the height of their buildings?
And if books and paintings and buildings and movies are not judged by how long or high they are, why should any life be judged by its duration? I keep a picture of my uncle Fran on my mantelpiece. He was a Spitfire pilot in WW2, and he (is believed to have) died at the age of 23 when he bailed out of his Spitfire over the Mediterranean sea, never to be seen again. Should I grieve that he failed to subsequently become a junior bank clerk in the Hounslow branch of the National Westminster bank? It was never going to be quite as exciting doing anything else after flying Spitfires, was it? Was his a “premature” death? Is it ever a “premature” death when any soldier or sailor or pilot dies in battle?
And when Ayrton Senna died at Imola in 1994, didn’t he die when he was at the peak of his powers, and leading a Formula One motor-car race: in short, at the exact right time?
And would it have been better that Jesus had not died on the Cross at the age of 33, but gone on to live a long and unremarkable life, simply by dint of not indulging his seemingly-compulsive habit of delivering the sermons that got him in such trouble with Pontius Pilate? And was the problem with those sermons that they were too long? Or too short?
I’m only asking questions, of course. I’m not providing answers. But to me it seems that the short but sparkling lives of Jesus and Ayrton Senna and Francis Bassett are the ones to be celebrated and remembered, and not those of fearful miserabilists like Deborah Arnott, who are merely trying to live as long as they possibly can.