July 18, 2020

On Dying: “At the Customs Station”

What follows is one of the best contemporary speculations on the awesome passage from life to death – by Ernst Jünger, from his “Das Abenteuerliche Herz II” (The Adventurous Heart: Figures and Capriccios).

“Death is like a foreign continent, about which none who tread its ground will report back. Its secrets engage us so intensely that its shadows darken the path that leads to it – that is, we do not distinguish sharply enough between death and dying. The distinction is important, in that much of what we ascribe to death has already been completed in dying, as our glance and imagination still probe now and again into the intermediary zone. As distant as death might still lie, we can already taste the climate surrounding it.

 

There are also cases that teeter on a razor’s edge, where the subject already senses death lying like a reef behind the near breakers. Then life returns into him, as flames reawaken in an almost cold hearth. Such cases resemble a false alarm; and like the captain who only comes to the bridge when a storm threatens, so here an otherwise hidden authority appears and makes its preparations. Man possesses capacities that he carries around with him like sealed documents; he does not make use of them until they are needed. One of these is his ability to comprehend his situation – this is in fact the case here: a moment’s bewilderment, then realization precedes the approach of death.

As we cool his brow, the dying person is already infinitely distant from us, whiling in landscapes that are first revealed once his spirit has traversed the flaming curtains of his agony. Time and space, the two germ-leafs from within which life blooms, fold back in on themselves; and in this dwindling away of the external environment, the inner eye gains new perspective.

Life now appears to our subject with new significance, more distant and distinct than otherwise. He is able to survey it like a region on a map; and its development, which stretched over many years, is visible in its essence like lines on the hand. He comprehends his transformation from the perspective of necessity, for the first time without light and shadow. Now it is less the images than their essential content that surfaces, as if, after the opera and the lowering of the curtain, the main theme was played again in the empty space by an invisible orchestra, lonesome, tragic, proud, and with deadly significance. Freed from the compulsion of self-preservation, our man understands a new way of loving his life; and his thoughts gain sovereignty as they extricate themselves from the fears that clouded and weighed down his every thought and judgment.

The question of immortality, so deeply disturbing to the spirit during life, is already resolved at this stage. The solution is extraordinary in that the dying man reaches a point like on a mountain ridge, from which he is able to look into the territories of both life and death – and he gains full assurance by perceiving himself as much in the one as in the other. He experiences a pause in his journey, like at a lonely customs station high in the mountains, where the local coins of his memories are exchanged for gold. His consciousness reaches forward like a light, and by its radiance he recognizes that he is not being cheated, but rather that he is exchanging fear for certainty.

Within this space, which belongs to time and yet already does not, we may also imagine the regions described by religious sects as purgatories. This is the path on which human dignity is restored. No life has been entirely shielded from baseness; none has escaped without loss. But now, in the narrow mountain pass, neither evasion nor hesitation is possible, whatever obstacles loom up. Death determines each step now, as a distant cataract controls the river’s flow. On this lonely march that nothing can hinder, a man resembles a soldier winning back his position.

As a child is provided with organs to facilitate and allow birth, so man also possesses organs for death, the formation and strengthening of which belong to theological practices. Where this knowledge is extinguished, a form of idiocy spreads with respect to death; this reveals itself in an escalation of blind fear, but also in an equally blind and mechanical disdain for death.

 

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