How to Live with Death
Psychoanalyst Adam Phillips on how Darwin and Freud reframed our mortality as an organizing principle of human life.
By Maria Popova
Our lifelong struggle to learn how to live is inseparable from two facts only: that of our mortality and that of our dread of it, dread with an edge of denial. Half a millennium ago — a swath of time strewn with the lives and deaths of everyone who came before us — Montaigne captured this paradox in his magnificent meditation on death and the art of living: “To lament that we shall not be alive a hundred years hence, is the same folly as to be sorry we were not alive a hundred years ago.” Centuries later, John Updike — a mind closer to our own time but now swept by mortality to the same nonexistence as Montaigne — echoed the sentiment when he wrote: “Each day, we wake slightly altered, and the person we were yesterday is dead, so why… be afraid of death, when death comes all the time?”
How to live with what lies behind that perennial “why” is what British psychoanalyst Adam Phillips examines in Darwin’s Worms: On Life Stories and Death Stories (public library) — a rather unusual and insightful reflection on mortality, suffering, and the redemptions of living through the dual lens of the lives of two cultural titans who have shaped the modern understanding of life from very different but, as Phillips demonstrates, powerfully complementary angles: Charles Darwin and Sigmund Freud.
Phillips, a keen observer of our inner contradictions, writes:
For Freud, as for Darwin, there is not just the right amount of suffering in any conventionally moral sense of right: for who could ever condone suffering? But there is a necessary amount. Our instincts, at once the source of our suffering and of our satisfaction, ensure the survival of the species and the death of the individual.
The amount of suffering in the world is not something added on; it is integral to the world, of a piece with our life in nature. This is one of the things that Freud and Darwin take for granted. But it is one thing not to believe in redemption — in saving graces, or supernatural solutions — and quite another not to believe in justice. So the question that haunts their writing is: how does one take justice seriously if one takes nature seriously?
Darwin, to be sure, had his own profound confrontation with suffering in his beloved daughter Annie’s death just as he was beginning to tell the story of life itself. After two generational revolutions of the cycle of life, Freud made our relationship to death a centerpiece of understanding our trials of living. With an eye to these parallel legacies, Phillips writes:
If death was at once final and unavoidable, it was also a kind of positive or negative ideal; it was either what we most desired, or what, for the time being, had to be avoided at all costs. For both Darwin and Freud, in other words, death was an organizing principle; as though people were the animals that were haunted by their own and other people’s absences… Modern lives, unconsoled by religious belief, could be consumed by the experience of loss.
So what else could a life be now but a grief-stricken project, a desperate attempt to make grief itself somehow redemptive, a source of secular wisdom? Now that all modern therapies are forms of bereavement counselling, it is important that we don’t lose our sense of the larger history of our grief. It was not life after death that Darwin and Freud speculated about, but life with death: its personal and trans-generational history.
Redemption — being saved from something or other — has been such an addictive idea because there must always be a question, somewhere in our minds, about what we might gain from descriptions and experiences of loss. And the fact of our own death, of course, is always going to be a paradoxical kind of loss (at once ours and not ours). But the enigma of loss — looked at from the individual’s and, as it were, from nature’s point of view — was what haunted Darwin and Freud. As though we can’t stop speaking the language of regret; as though our lives are tailed by disappointment and grief, and this in itself is a mystery. After all, nothing else in nature seems quite so grief-stricken, or impressed by its own dismay.
Well before twentieth-century physics illuminated the impartiality of the universe, Darwin and Freud planted the seed for rendering the notion of suffering — that supreme species of disappointment at the collision between human desires and reality — irrelevant against the vast backdrop of nature, inherently indifferent to our hopes and fears. Phillips writes:
Darwin and Freud showed us the ways in which it was misleading to think of nature as being on our side. Not because nature was base or sinful, but because nature didn’t take sides, only we did. Nature, in this new version, was neither for us nor against us, because nature (unlike God, or the gods) was not that kind of thing. Some of us may flourish, but there was nothing now that could promise, or underwrite, or predict, a successful life. Indeed, what it was that made a life good, what it was about our lives that we should value, had become bewildering. The traditional aims of survival and happiness, redescribed by Darwin and Freud, were now to be pursued in a natural setting. And nature seemed to have laws but not intentions, or a sense of responsibility; it seemed to go its own unruly, sometimes discernibly law-bound, way despite us (if nature was gendered as a mother, she was difficult to entrust ourselves to; and if we could love a mother like this, what kind of creatures were we?). And though we were evidently simply pails of nature — nature through and through — what nature seemed to be like could be quite at odds with what or who we thought we were like.
Half a century after Loren Eiseley’s exquisite meditation on what it means for nature to be “natural,” Phillips adds:
Nature, apparently organized but not designed, did not have what we could call a mind of its own, something akin to human intelligence. Nor does nature have a project for us; it cannot tell us what to do, only we can. It doesn’t bear us in mind because it doesn’t have a mind… And what we called our minds were natural products, of a piece with our bodies. So we couldn’t try to be more or less natural — closer to nature, or keeping our distance from it — because we were of nature.
If, once, we could think of ourselves as (sinful) animals aspiring to be more God-like, now we can wonder what, as animals without sin (though more than capable of doing harm), we might aspire to.
Complement Darwin’s Worms with Meghan O’Rourke on learning to live with death, Seneca on the key to resilience in the face of loss, and this unusual Danish picture-book about love and grief, then revisit Phillips on how to break free from self-criticism, why frustration is necessary for satisfaction in love, and how to live with being too much for ourselves.
Published July 10, 2017