Some small thoughts on death, oblivion, etc.

Yay! It’s another cheery post from Aethelread, your ever-ready source of good times and non-stop party fun!!

It’s the autumn, so I’m feeling small, and old, and filled up to the brim with desolation. The sun is going away, and I am becoming again the wizened homunculus who limps through to the spring: a not-person who doesn’t think, or feel, or experience: a not-person who just exists, to no benefit and some small detriment to the rest of humanity.

I’m savagely depressed at the moment, if you couldn’t tell. And I’m failing at life – objectively, I mean. My failing would be apparent to a neutral observer; this is not just cognitive distortion. Those two – the depression, and the failing – are combining together to create a state of mind which is… as you would probably imagine it to be, if you are normally empathetic.

It’s with this happy-happy mind that I read an essay by the author Penelope Lively in today’s Observer, ‘So this is old age’. Lively is 80, and her essay is a lovely, calm, beautifully-written meditation on old age. I heartily recommend you click on the link, close this tab, and read her in preference to me. At the very least, you should read her before you read me.

There is so much I could comment on. Her unsentimental account of the physical side of ageing; the way she discusses widowhood with emotional clarity but without self-pity (there’s a thing I should learn how to avoid: self-pity). Perhaps best of all is the clear-eyed understanding of the advantages that old age brings:

With those old consuming vigours now muted, something else comes into its own – an almost luxurious appreciation of the world that you are still in. Spring was never so vibrant; autumn never so richly gold. People are of abiding interest – observed in the street, overheard on a bus. The small pleasures have bloomed into points of relish in the day – food, opening the newspaper (new minted, just for me), a shower, the comfort of bed. It is almost like some kind of end-game salute to the intensity of childhood experience, when the world was new. It is an old accustomed world now, but invested with fresh significance; I’ve seen all this before, done all this, but am somehow able to find new and sharpened pleasure.

(Oh, how I envy her that: the ability to take pleasure, the ability to ‘find new’. Well, no, envy is probably the wrong word – I pick le mot injuste nine times out of ten. I don’t want to see her deprived of those things, which envy implies. I only mean that I note with regret I do not also possess them.)

But in truth I have nothing to add to the content of Lively’s essay per se. It stands on its own, and everything that it needs to say, it says. I want to write instead about a thought process of my own, with which Lively’s comments have chimed. Something in the mood, I suppose – the looking back on life, the looking ahead to non-life. Like Lively, I perceive my life as a walk along a bare plank, and like her I perceive time as being behind me and nothing ahead – but unlike her I see many years of pointless shuffling to come before I enter into that nothingness.

Lately I have realised that I live for those moments when I do not live. Those moments when I dive into sleep, and know nothing. Those moments that are really hours but, because they seem to be over the instant they begin, have no duration at all.

I do not enjoy my life, and I take no pleasure in being alive. What I sometimes label pleasure is just the temporary suspension of unpleasant sensations. It is not an active pleasure, and it is better the more complete it is, the closer it approaches to out-and-out oblivion.

This is what I understand death to be – a perfect, oblivious sleep from which I will never wake. (Unlike Hamlet, I do not fear that I may dream in that sleep. My dreams, like my waking consciousness, are the product of my brain, so once my brain ceases to function what I could there be? And what would it dream with?) I find that I crave that – not death, but perfect oblivion. A consummation devoutly to be wished, indeed.

This is not a death wish. I don’t crave death for its own sake (something so emo would be pitiable in someone so middle-aged as I am). Neither is it suicidality. I have no active wish to die, and there is no prospect of me taking steps that will hasten my end.

In order to wish yourself dead, you have to think yourself alive. Clearly, I am alive – I respire, I excrete, etc. (though I won’t ever reproduce: I could not bring myself to be so cruel). I am alive, but the life I have feels to me more like pre-death than anything else. It is time spent in waiting for what presently persists to desist, that’s all.

There seems an awful lot of it still to come, but I don’t want to foreshorten it. I don’t want to kill myself. I don’t want to die. I don’t want to be dead.

What I want is to fall into grateful forgetfulness, and to be forgotten. I want it to be as though I never was. I want to be the surface of the pond, still after the ripples have ceased.

I’m savagely depressed, if you couldn’t tell. But I’ll get through it. I always do.

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