The Gift of Death[i]
There is life to the extent that it offers a promise.
What is life? What to make of its promise?
In one particular conversation with a male friend, we were like freewheeling on a familiar road on our way home, these questions dealt out just about the exact interrupting force on mild spirits and, fortunately, on the break pad: suddenly, life intervened.
It intervened at just the exact time to save us from filling out the headlines for tomorrow. Or, it was just luck that had us preceded by precise mathematical distance that covered a more unfortunate road scene ahead: a truck and a car, like lovers making a scandalous sight, on top of each other, the much stronger and muscular pressing it hard on its prey squeezed between heaven and hell, as the heat of traumatic romance started to billow in the air, threatening to spread fire on the live wires drooping between electrical posts by the road, witnessing a horrid mating ritual.
What is death? What to make of its sure and surprised arrival, its infinity, its perfect silence?
Life is the power to-be “in being” such as to exist within a common dimension of time, to persist in a minimum space enough for bare life to breathe.
If it managed to pull together a string of breaths capable of lasting beyond the minimum habitable condition of organic life, then it has come of itself like a victorious survivor, and later, a conqueror of life, one familiarly charged of dominion over things, over everything that hovers between potentia and energia, over that which is, over Being in general where Being means every-being.
I knew how this is, at least, by my knowledge of the sinuous journey of the sperm eager to fornicate with an egg, out of million potencies swimming on the river of Eden, each battling it out against chance. One would emerge victorious. I emerged victorious. I was born out of my sheer willpower to outpace my unspoilt brothers and sisters in that primal pool of life. I had to leave them dead behind my triumphant trail to the womb of my mother. Soon, out of the womb, my name would carry the blood of the primal father, the father of my father’s father’s father’s, and name it. Adam.
Life will offer itself to the victorious a promise of existence—the bounty of Nature, the wonders of being, of play, of growing up, of flying a kite, of expanding the horizon of things, of growing old peacefully, etc., and yet, verily, a promise whose future is such that it always already belongs to death.
Indeed, one can say that death knows everything and nothing. It is the image of absolute perfection. It is the unconditioned condition of the possibility of all things, including also, their impossibility, their refusal to be cognized in thought, hence, the suspicion that something eludes the scope of human wisdom, of diligent research, of painstaking task of genealogy, of the scientific frame of discerning the origin of things. Death is the unmasterable master of everything and nothing; it is both being and non-being; it is the object of envy of the gods.
Death knows everything: its non-response to our question, to the question of life and of everything that is permitted in life, is so appalling and powerful. It knows all the secret of the universe and yet it dare not speak of it. Its loyalty to nothingness is beyond comparison. It knows everything to the extent that it knows the most impossible knowledge of all, namely, nothingness. Thus spoke death: “I know nothing.”
And so spoke Socrates too, my friend replied. We passed by the road scene; I made it sure I would use the steering device with all the caution I could muster. Life intervened at just the exact moment. I wondered whether it wasn’t our time yet, or was it death that knew everything.
Was it the mystery of life that intervened at the right time, and at the right place? Was it luck? Was it providence? If it were any of these, I wondered what to make of the fortune of those who stepped aside and claimed our places in death. Did they die in our place? Could dying be of such in which one can die in another’s place? Would the dead ever know they were already heroes for taking the stride on our behalf?
Verily, only the dead have seen the end of everything, the end being everything in itself! And yet my father wouldn’t speak of it. My dead father who must have escaped a number of road accidents in his entire life, who knows how many accidents hovered in his neck, before he succumbed to a cardiac arrest, wouldn’t whisper the secret that he is now, and forever shall be it.
The traditional Oriental would have provided the nearest answer to my question why my father wouldn’t budge. As dead, and death he is now and forever, between now and forever, he is dead, infinitely dying on our behalf, my father forms a link to the mystery of the universe, of life, of everything that palpitates now and forever. Someone dies on our behalf so that life will continue to bear the shame of being in-existence. It is a shame, firstly, that someone has to die so that we may live indefinitely; someone has to lose everything to nothing so that we may have something to squeeze between life and that unknown place. Regardless whether he or she is a criminal or a noble person by some popular accord, if he or she dies, he or she dies in our place. And because he or she dies in our stead, he or she is the perfect heroic being, inimitable, and yet, owing to his or her unbelievable perfection, is untouchable, almost sacred.[ii] Thus, death becomes unnamable in principle, yet a name that names everything; it denotes sense to everything. Death, thou art the mystery of all—life!
The unnamable power behind life: death. And between now and forever is life bearing a shame, bearing a sin, a moral offense, an ontological crime. Before one could make it to the world, he or she must have at least carried out a murderous deed. For an individual life to prosper, it must forcefully displace other contenders to a singular womb. The actual battles in-existence, in actual life peopled by victorious individuals of different makeup, of colors and tongues, are but a reprise of the primal battle in the fallopian—the original site of the biblical Armageddon. And yet, after much living about, how easy one could waste its time in life. Someone died in his or her place. It is just that for some people that place wouldn’t be anything else but an opportunity to dwell in it, fence it around, claim a property out of it, indict a stranger who trespasses, suspect just about anyone who would contest his or her right of ownership, rather than a gift of death—death being the sole owner of everything and nothing, the absolute and unconditional giver.
Death is that which gives, the giver of Being, the every-being between here and beyond. But for some, death is an opportunity to conquer, to suppress, to send people to prison, to keep them under privation, to keep them dependent on a lie—that they, the victorious, are the chosen people, and as chosen, have the power over life, hence, the power of death. These people have usurped the place of death: the usurpation being the secret of all conquering civilizations. Every now and then, a Christ would die on the cross upon the behest of the powers-that-be, who would pay for the moral offenses of these people, would suffer on their behalf, and would receive all the painful blows of life’s absurdity.
All known civilizations have conquered the place of death, suppressed its mystery from nudging our sense of humanity. It is the humanity, originally fascinated with mystery, which breathes into bare life so that it will wish to ex-ist beyond the minimum conditions of breathing, of the existent. That mystery is that which hovers between today and tomorrow. It is the mystery of the infinite. In humanly terms, that mystery is the locus of love, of the site of the truly divine, resistant to common knowledge, but porous to acts of the sublime. (Existing is standing outside the being of the existent. A tree becomes beautiful when someone discovers the splendor of its roots. Before that discovery, the tree is simply an existent. It didn’t exist. It didn’t offer a mystery to ponder).
What makes it resistant to common knowledge is that it invokes the infinity of wonder, of awe. It encourages birth, growth, and decay, and like the proverbial snake that bites its tail, back again to where it started, in mystery. Death is the motor of life, but death that belongs to no time, therefore, eternal. It belongs to no time: the time of being is the time of the usurpation of infinity, the reduction of the infinite to the finitude of existence, to the calculable, usable. Death will have its use in the time of being, the time of being being in itself the dissolution of anything that might suggest temporality. The death of death: the life we live, here and now. Death indeed is a power behind life. But only if the time of being can successfully imitate its infinity, if the power of the finite—that which alone can shape everything into something, into discreet elements of nothing such that nothing is not all about nothing given the amount of interest and energy invested on creating out of nothing, of creatio ex nihilo that changes everything—can take the place of the divine, of the immortal, of the eternal. Death becomes a recognizable face—the face of the conqueror, of the victor. The face of power. From this moment, death becomes a stranger to its own.
But owing to its silence, death will have nothing to say, nothing to complain. It is indeed weak in nature. The price of infinity is weakness, the inadequacy if not absence of will, of freedom. It wouldn’t move unless moved by an efficient causality. For death to be a reality it must enter the time of being. In the time of being, death becomes death, becomes finite, thus, it loses its infinity, its indeterminability the moment it starts to die. Death’s will be done on earth. Death can only die on earth, in the time of being.
Before the reductive power of the finite, of beings who have usurped the place of death, death is non-resistant. Before anything, it is non-resistant owing to the infinity of expenditure it can waste up for all it cares.
Since humanity entered the threshold of civilization nothing had become something, and eventually, everything that power can name. The rest of history is the unchanging landscape of creating out of nothing, of the spectacle of humans assuming the place vacated by the gods. The flight of the gods beckoned the birth of human civilization. Humans have started to become the creators of their destinies.
The power to create a destiny lies in usurping the place of death. This is full of paradoxes. Death is a no-place. No one has come back from death to tell us where it is, point to its location, reconstruct the map that will send us to its secret. To create a destiny of one’s own, he or she only needs to imagine a place to conquer in the future. That future is death, as any future is and shall be.
The sooner one conquers a future, that future becomes so alive in the present that it ceases to be formally the what is to come. In the time of modernity, all the futures have become matters of fact, especially, in the stock market—the modern reference of all futures. In it death is measured according to its many profitable uses. The stock broker trades a dead value, a future value, a product before it is actually made, a future before it actually starts to die. The telemarketer talks about how wonderful a product is, how bright one’s future can become if he or she chooses to be caught in the web of futures, of real estates, of places of death carved out by elaborate panels of wood from trees cut to precision, to minute ornamental details, of marbles quarried in the mountains that long ago were the abodes of the gods. The multinational pharmaceutical offers to create a wonder tablet to cure diseases while the engines of discovery are scouring our forests for patents illegally, adding up to the futures of corruption, of depredation, of another Ondoy, perhaps, as the search machines are scrubbing the woodlands, the timberlands, for any trace of the future, for any trace of death. The list of death is growing longer. The planet is shrinking to the size of the future that has never been more foreboding. It is shrinking to the size of the future after people, after life, and once again, to the size of death, but death that has now become the being of time itself in the time of being—the death of death, the perfection of human wonder that will deprive life of any tinge of mystery that only death, with its eternal sense-giving power, can offer.
A speeding tricycle smashed onto the left side of my car, and with the separate speed I was charging the gas on my pedal, couldn’t take in the combined velocities, enough to hurl the driver to the other side of the road. He sustained severe blows on his head, almost completely disfigured his lower jaw, his face a face of a dead man. Well, almost. Almost a year ago.
Was it luck for both of us that we are still alive? Have we learned one fundamental thing or two about the internal persecutions of dying and living on the trail of someone’s death? We are now living our own deaths as we live in place of our own receding past.
One thing I’m sure is that there is a trace of blood in my hands. I trembled as I recalled that incident, as I turned the wheel on a corner, the last corner I would turn before touchdown in front of my place.
Tomorrow, I would visit my father’s grave. I would recall to him— we always whisper words to our dead—how I cried when I saw him floating breathlessly on the sea. My father was an excellent swimmer, and a good-humored exhibitionist. He was teaching us—my brother and I—how to float. I would learn and appreciate later in life that he was actually introducing me into the unguarded world of emotions, of the sense of fear and trembling, of the horror of losing a father to the treacherous waves, of how to absorb pain in order to become strong when I grow up. When he died, I knew I had cried all too enough in childhood to bear the pain of losing him, of his deliverance from everything into the nothingness of the mystery of existence.
I don’t know to what extent my father’s death offered anything good to anyone outside of our family in terms of his dying in place of humanity. Anyone who dies dies in place of humanity, in place of its glory and folly, its happiness and sorrow, its victory and tribulations. For that, I knew my father died in my place, in my brother’s, sister’s and mother’s place, in my neighbor’s place, in place of a stranger I come across in the streets, in place even of a butterfly that flaps its wings on the branch of the tree outside my window, conveying another mystery, a superstition, a subject to ponder, a puzzle to solve if it can cause a tornado in Brazil.
In death, as it was before the beginning of everything, and as it is in being today and will be tomorrow, as life will become of after everything, every-being is incredibly connected. The stars, the infinitely expanding mass of galaxies above, and all the known planets out there waiting for a telescoping romantic, are no exceptions. God whispers. Death heaves the sigh of the universe for everything life has cared about since it gave out the gift of existence.
[i] I am borrowing the title of one of Jacques Derrida’s most celebrated work, The Gift of Death. This and a series of reflections on death follow the terrain of his discourse.
[ii] Perhaps, the reason why Hitler’s body was not revealed to the world. The face of a man asleep in death is anything but the face of unspoilt moral innocence before the untold incomprehensibility of the ultimate reason of existence to which no one can claim to possess a key.