Jeffrey A. Schaler, Ph.D.





Note: The Fifth Column is a regular, independent column
written by Jeffrey A. Schaler, Ph.D.

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                           DYING DAILY

                    Jeffrey A. Schaler, Ph.D.

Review of DEATH:  Philosophical Soundings
by Herbert Fingarette.  176 pp.  Chicago:
Open Court Publishers, 1996.

     Thinking about dying is a little like thinking about having
a head.  I know I'm going to die.  I know I have a head.  I can
see neither directly.

     I see my body here and now, my chest and shoulders.  I
catch a glimpse of my nose and mustache.  I take Renee's word
for it:  Rolling her eyes, she assures me that I have a head.
She sees it;  I don't.  I saw the reflection of my head in the
mirror this morning.  But I sense my head from the inside, the
way I sense my death.

     In a similar way, I notice I'm growing older.  My body
moves from this moment toward death the way the Tar River moves
from left to right here in Greenville:  slowly and mysteriously.
The sun warms me.  I hear a gospel band in the park.  They're
taunting the devil and death with songs of Jesus and a life to
come, apparently without fear.  They welcome death as life.  I
remember a line from the Book of Mirdad:  "Die to live or live
to die."

     My friends die and disappear.  I could say, like the
philosopher Herbert Fingarette, "the rude truth is that _I_
remain alive."  But death will happen to me too.

     The idea of death is not just an image in a mirror, like
the image of the head I can never see directly.  It is a mirror
itself, in which I see my life reflected.

          True, death itself is nothing;  but the thought of it
          is like a mirror.  A mirror, too, is empty, without
          content, yet it reflects us back to ourself (sic) in a
          reverse image.  To try to contemplate the meaning of
          my death is in fact to reveal to myself the meaning of
          my life.

     I tend to agree with this and other observations in
Fingarette's disturbing, yet finally comforting, meditation
entitled _DEATH:  Philosophical Soundings_ (1).

     Death is the only certain event in our futures, but few of
us are comfortable thinking or talking about it.  Perhaps the
reason is that it reminds us how alone we really are--or fear we
may become.  I don't mean "lonely."  Loneliness is longing for,
whereas aloneness suggests an absence of all relationship.  We
fear death as a kind of exile, and exile, as Fingarette says, is
"the primary form of condign punishment."

     Perhaps, too, the thought of death reminds us that all our
striving--at the expense of "being," or attending to the moment--
will achieve very little in the end.  We pretend that this
isn't the case, that we'll live forever;  and we pretend we
aren't pretending.  It is said that Mark Twain, when asked while
dying how he felt about it, replied (presumably in jest) that an
exception would be made in his case.  Perhaps Twain knew the
secret of living to die.

     I've worked hard for years examining the denial of death in
myself and others, influenced particularly by the writings of
Ernest Becker.  I have eschewed Unitarianism, Judaism,
Christianity, and finally various forms of Indian mysticism.
Twenty years ago I pilgrimaged to India and, for three weeks,
got up at three every morning to meditate.  I argued about
everything with a guru there;  when people said I "shouldn't ask
those types of questions" I politely told them to go to hell.  I
refused to live my life for the sake of a future life that I
have no reason to believe in.  In the words of Fingarette:

          Unfortunately I can't believe in karmic rebirth as
          objective truth.  I can't believe that I actually
          had previous lives in physical time or that I'll have
          subsequent physical lives in physical time.  Life, for
          me, must be a single visit in which I arrive out of
          nowhere, and return to the same.  And that's it.

     I thanked the guru for having me there and was about to say
that I still feared death, when he abruptly dismissed me.  I had
an epiphany.  I "saw" the sun shining "inside."  I remembered a
Zen saying:  "What is here is elsewhere.  What is not here is
nowhere."  I felt release and gratitude.  He had done the best
thing possible for me.  I understood that meaning in life is
negatively correlated to fear of death:  the more meaning, the
less fear.  Thinking about death helped me to think about life.

     But what about attachments?  My loyal dog died in my hands
this past spring.  It was a miserable death.  She vomited blood
on me and cried as I held her in my arms in the middle of the
night.  I didn't "put her to sleep."  I killed her.  ("The
metaphor of death as sleep is a comforting one," writes
Fingarette.)  I watched the vet stick a needle into her heart--a
heart that refused for a while to stop beating.  I was
frightened and still am frightened when I recall that day.  My
fright in this case is not the result of lacking of meaning.  My
relationship with that dog was meaningful.

      I think the loss of attachments is what I fear most about
death.  Isn't that reason enough for fear?  Life is a veil of
tears, a sickness unto death, _because_ it is meaningful.

     Paraphrasing Tolstoy, Fingarette writes that there should
be no fear of death because there is no death.  Thus he
contradicts both the gospel band's promise of life everlasting
and mine of life neverlasting.  Later, citing Wittgenstein,
Fingarette tells me that death as an experience is a
contradiction in terms;  to fear it is another self-deception.
I feel myself slipping into self-doubt as I consider what he is

          From the objective point of view I am mortal--it is
          certain I will die.  From the subjective point of view
          I am immortal.  It is certain I will never die.  Or to
          put it slightly differently:  Never in my life will I
          experience death. . . . I will never know an end to my
          life, this life of mine right here on earth. . . .
          This truth is for me the ultimate truth. . . . People
          hope never to know the end of consciousness.  But why
          merely hope?  It's a certainty.  They never will!

     This explanation is comforting to me.  I understand
Fingarette's distinction;  I too have insisted, in my own
writings and elsewhere, on the distinction between the symbolic
and the real.  I conclude that Fingarette and I are not so far
apart.  I'm not afraid of death--it's life I'm afraid of.  I'm
afraid of losing all those attachments.  The prospect of
objective death reminds me of my attachments, of life.  There's
no point in imagining what it will be like when I'm dead--I
cannot be alive to experience it.

     Imagining death reminds me of what is meaningful to me in
life:  what constitutes my life.  This is the benefit of
contemplating death from the objective perspective.  "Seeing
life in the mirror of death is a revelatory experience,"
Fingarette declares.  We remind ourselves how to live by
thinking about death.  In that sense, I can _die daily_ without
despairing.  To do so helps me to appreciate what is important--
the subjective experience of being alive--without fearing the
objective death that never will be part of my experience.  As
Fingarette observes, "It is my consciousness, my subjectivity,
rather than my body, that is to me my very existence, my
existential identity, _me_ as I must infinitely know myself.  I
am not alone in this."  My subjective experience is one of
relationship, not the absolute aloneness or lack of relationship
implied by objective death.  Because I never will experience
death, it cannot change the relational quality of my subjective

     Fingarette is not endorsing the currently popular "multiple
realities" philosophy (the nothing masquerading as insight that
is embraced by too many philosophers and psychologists today),
which equates perception with reality.  In his writings I do not
see multiple realities, or the existential nausea of Sartre, or
the emptiness of Beckett.  Neither do I see the psychoanalytic
psychosis of the Lacanians or the psychopathy of Ayn Rand
disciples.  Fingarette's existential meaning-making is
metaphorical nourishment.  I think of my own death and feel that
I've eaten to fullness.  My life is full of meaning.  Fingarette
adjusts the lens here too:

          I cannot imagine death itself. . . . Since being dead
          is total non-existence. . . . imagination is the only
          way one can get the "feel" and grasp the inner
          significance of some past or possible experience.
          Thought alone is abstract, verbal, not experiential.
          The only alternative to imagination is actual
          experience.  Actual experience is, of course, limited
          to the here and now.

     A psychotherapy client gets up to leave at the end of our
session.  She notices Fingarette's book lying on the couch next
to my briefcase and asks me about it.  I explain what I've just
written.  She seems interested, but walking out the door remarks
in a friendly and sobering fashion, "You know, that's nothing

     Of course she's right.  Have I been missing something?  She
tells me this and I'm supposed to be helping her face the fact
that death is close by?  The shmoozing called therapy is a two-
way mirror.  More self-deception?  People have been reflecting
on death for as long as they've been dying.  Of course it's
nothing new.

     While reflecting on the first part of Fingarette's book I
grappled with all of these questions and more.  At times I felt
that writing this review was an enormous effort--My denial of
DEATH.  Who is this man with such power to involve the reader?

      Herbert Fingarette was born on January 20, 1921, in
Brooklyn, New York.  He completed his undergraduate and graduate
degrees in philosophy at the University of California in Los
Angeles and taught in the philosophy department at the
University of California Santa Barbara from 1948 to 1990.
Fingarette is a quiet, private person, unfazed by public
controversy.  In 1988 when the University of California Press
published his _Heavy Drinking:  The Myth of Alcoholism as a
Disease_, an excellent and courageous book, he became the target
of vicious criticism from entrepreneurs in the alcohol-treatment
industry.  His writings on addiction and criminal responsibility
influenced the Supreme Court in _Traynor v. Turnage_.  He has
written eight books and thirty-six articles to date.  The 1991
Festschrift "Rules, Rituals, and Responsibility:  Essays
Dedicated to Herbert Fingarette" (1991, Open Court) is testimony
to the love he inspires in students and colleagues.
Fingarette is a serious and friendly man;  he plays the violin
and loves classical music. I have never met him in person, but
in the course of our ten-year correspondence he has been frank and

     _DEATH:  Philosophical Soundings_ is a curious and
decidedly personal meditation.  It reflects the natural
evolution of Fingarette's intellectual life--a life devoted to
understanding concrete moral problems, specifically in the
context of self-deception and responsibility, the central
substantive themes of his work.  After presenting the essential
logic discussed above, the book offers a series of elaborations,
devoting a chapter to each of the following subjects:  death as
separation, immortality and selflessness, the world as one's
life, life as story, life as a visit to earth, life as ceremony,
life as a future without end, life as a present without bounds.
The final chapter is entitled "Before I Had Heard--Now I See."
There's a lot about life in this book on death.  The book ends
with a stand-alone collection of reflections on death by some of
the world's greatest minds--Tolstoy, Pascal, Miguel de Unamuno,
Bertrand Russell, Chuang Tzu, Ionesco, Camus, Shopenhauer, Freud,
Marcus Aurelius, Montaigne, and Hume--and excerpts from the
Bhagavad Gita.  The material from Chuang Tzu is the best, in my
opinion, and Fingarette's translation of it is notable in its
own right.  However, most of this second section is too empty
for me, too waiting-for-Godot-like.  It lacks the positive
feeling I appreciated in Fingarette's own writing.

     Perhaps most illuminating for me is Fingarette's
understanding of ritual, which he addresses in Confucian terms,
using the Chinese word _li_, meaning "rites," "ritual," or
"ceremony."  "Ceremony is crucial in giving meaning to human
relationships," he writes.  Here in the West we insist on
defining ourselves in terms of rights and freedoms.  We tend to
forget the importance of relationships and community, and of the
formal and ceremonial structures that give public expression to
them.  I believe this contributes greatly to the loss of meaning
in our lives.  In the East, at least traditionally, ritual plays
a larger role and people tend to define themselves by their
place in a formal structure:  I am my father's son, my
daughter's father.  This may account for the greater sense of
societal coherence and the weaker sense of individual identity
and rights in Eastern cultures.  Perhaps through ritual we in
the West can learn to unite the appreciation of rights and
relationships--as long as we comprehend the meaning of the
rituals we celebrate.  Life is a balance of autonomy and

     Therein lies the value of Fingarette's book for me.  The
death of meaning certainly is living death.  The birth of
meaning--the appreciation of relationship--occurs when we look
into the mirror of death.  Ceremony allows us to celebrate the
shared life that we see in the mirror.

     You may comprehend an entirely different message in
Fingarette's book.  His view of death and life is, after all,
simply subjective, and he offers it in that spirit, as an
invitation to dialogue.

     In Toronto this past summer, I was drinking beer with a
well-known sociologist who had once challenged Fingarette's
views on alcoholism.  When I mentioned this book in the course
of our conversation, he asked if Fingarette was dead.  I said
no.  Later, after returning home, I mentioned the conversation
to a friend.  He remarked that it's not unusual to hear such a
question asked about someone of Fingarette's age.  "And it's
fortunate," he added, "that you could answer in the negative."
I agreed.

1.  _DEATH:  Philosophical soundings can be purchased through ($13.56 paperback, $37.95 hardcover) or
by telephone at 1-800-815-2280.

     Jeffrey A. Schaler, Ph.D. lives in Erdenheim, Pa.  He is an
adjunct professor of justice, law, and society at American
University's School of Public Affairs and maintains a private
practice in psychotherapy in Silver Spring, Md.