On Death


In an attempt to turn myself into an urbane, well-rounded intellectual before I go to New York, I’ve been reading a lot of books this summer. Today, I finished How to be Alone, a collection of essays by literary giant Jonathan Franzen. As someone who very much hates being alone, I wouldn’t have read it of my own will, but a close friend recommended it to me and I warily accepted. The reading was going well, until about halfway through an essay called “Sifting the Ashes,” I found this sentence:

“Death is the severing of the connection between self and world, and, since the self can’t imagine not existing, perhaps what’s really scary about the prospect of dying is not the extinguishment of my consciousness but the extinguishment of the world.”

Apart from the hideous length of it, Franzen’s sentence is divided to me. The first half, the premise that he uses to build the argument in the second, claims that once we die, we have lost the world. As a Hindu, though, our faith is firm in the knowledge of death, and that what comes after death is still a part of the world. Our material world under maya includes the realm of death, so it makes no sense how we could ever part with it. Plus, dying does not put us beyond the Earth planet. We will return, through all of the species, until we attain God. However, to give Franzen some points, we are removed from a part of the mayic world, waiting for our chance to come back.
The rest of the sentence is the trickier bit. Franzen is trying to make it clear that both, not seeing the world and death itself, are scary things, but where our fears are deepest is in losing a world in which we are so invested. From the teachings of Maharajji, I can understand this in a lot of different ways. I can disagree with him, because we should be more afraid of not finding God in this lifetime than not being able relish the pleasures of maya. I can also agree with him, though, because our attachment to even the simplest enjoyments of the Earth planet are strong enough to fear losing them. In this age of kaliyug, human beings are so strong in their desires, so developed in their cravings, that they are capable of only seeing death as wrongful separation from a life they claim for themselves. Our fear of nonexistence is trumped again and again by the fear of losing everything to death. This terror of losing it all is expressed countless times in books, movies, and other popular media, rather than philosophical treatise on what nonexistence must be like.

Of course, I’m quoting Franzen out of context. “Sifting the Ashes” is an essay on Big Tobacco, not the intricacies of public perceptions of death. But the sentence itself is weirdly in context, because Franzen is discussing why people buy, sell, and smoke cigarettes, even with the knowledge of how deadly they are. He says that despite our awareness of death, we fear losing the world more than losing ourselves. Maharajji says that despite our awareness of God, we try for the world more than we try for Him. In this bizarre segmentation of high art and religion, we find that both are making the same claims, working to stress the same things, trying to change the way we see the world.

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