Feeling a bit like death

 

 

 

For the Victorians, death was a release from earthly cares as well as one’s hoped-for ascension to heaven. The lavishly draped urns and keening stone angels of Victorian-era cemeteries in Highgate, Kensal Green and elsewhere in London were a way to express one’s social standing and the mystery of the end of life. These urban Valhallas present a now-vanished view of death. We are unable to draw comfort from their mortuary symbolism of yew, cypress and oak (symbols respectively of sorrow, despair and hospitality). Our dwindling belief in the afterlife – the consolation that we might ever join our loved ones – has taken the life out of the Victorian funeral. There has been a shift of prudery, one might say, from sex to death. Death has become our last, most pervasive taboo.

 

And yet the meaning of life is still everywhere connected to what it means to die: inevitably the undertaker awaits, regardless of religion. Martin Hägglund, a Swedish-born philosopher, does not believe in a transcendent hereafter. An atheist, he argues instead for the existence of a “secular faith” that recognizes the finitude and fragility of our lives. The decline of religious faith is not necessarily to be lamented. Only by embracing our temporal state can we live profitably in the here and now. If we tend towards a religious notion of eternity, on the other hand, nothing we do on earth today can matter except as preparation for salvation. That is the gist of Hägglund’s ambitious meditation on mortality and individual agency, This Life: Why Mortality Makes Us Free.

 

 

Hägglund draws on a range of writers and thinkers from St Augustine to Marcel Proust, Karl Marx and Martin Luther King. His “philosophical project” is heavy-going at times (Hägglund teaches comparative literature at Yale), yet never hectoring. While Hägglund repudiates religious fundamentalists, he is critical too of the New Atheists, who debunk religious faith with scientific knowledge. Scientists like Richard Dawkins who pretend to atheist omniscience are no less intolerant and blinkered than Bible belt creationists. All the same, Hägglund argues convincingly against a dependency on religion, and upbraids Barack Obama for publicly quoting from Jesus following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in 2012: “Let the little children come to me.” The killings were not quite a tragedy, then, because God had called the twenty dead children home. Obama, a committed Christian, must believe in the “superior value of eternal lie”, Hägglund says.

 

In the book’s (occasionally platitudinous) second half, Hägglund calls for a Marx-inspired “democratic socialism” as an alternative to religious belief. Problems such as the alienation of labour and the exploitation of the poor are not easily addressed from the vantage of eternity, so we may as well make the most of things on earth, because now is the time of our lives. Hägglund does not stop to think that one can be simultaneously committed to notions of eternity and the here and now. A book for our disenchanted times, This Life speaks forcefully to religious and secular audiences alike.

 

This review appeared in the Evening Standard on 8 August 2019