If what you believe about life and death is true, then one of us no longer exists.
That seems a painfully obvious and needlessly convoluted proposition in light of recent events, I know. On the face of things, it appears hardly worth positing at all. Obviously, it’s me who has died, so obviously it’s me who no longer exists. Why do I need to bring your existence into it? All that has changed is a person who existed at the time of writing has ceased-to-be by the time of reading. That is the way things work in reality and so that is the way things are.
That’s easy for you, the living, to say though, isn’t it? After all, you get to delegate the ramifications of non-existence to me without having to deal with them yourself. You can say I don’t exist, but you don’t have to contemplate what that actually means. Because, as far as you are concerned, I still exist as much as I ever did. This does not mean I am still alive, of course. Rest assured, I am quite dead. But for all my being dead, I still exist to you. Right now, I exist to you as a recently deceased person (a nebulous, funny thing) and over time I shall exist to you simply as a dead person (a well populated category, you must admit).
It is because I still exist to you in this way that you can talk about my non-existence so easily, so matter-of-factly, without ever having to wrestle with the actual concept itself.
Yes, for you, very little has changed. You possess me as much as you ever did. You may call to mind my concept or my name at your leisure. You may recall my actions, my words and my form. You can still differentiate that which is me from that which is not me – a pre-requisite for being a thing, I’m sure you agree. So, yes, I am still the case. I am still extant as far as you are concerned. My old friend, all that has changed for you vis-à-vis my existence is that my existence has now lost the capacity to surprise you, and that you’ll now have to factor ‘deceased’ into the complex idea I constitute in your mind. It’s a shock to the system, that’s all. Everything will be back to normal after you’ve run that new idea through your head a few hundred times.
For me, on the other hand, this whole ‘not existing’ thing is rather more problematic.
You see, my existence meant quite a lot more to me than it did to you. To you, I was only ever a bit-part player in a production in which you took centre-stage. I hope you don’t feel accused of being self-centred. My friend, if I am accusing you of being self-centred then I am accusing everyone of it. But you must admit your existence is the only existence you will ever truly know. Descartes only ever proved the existence of Descartes, after all. And as much as you may have tried to consider yourself an equal among men and women, you have never truly convinced yourself of it. And if you say you have, then I don’t believe you – even if you believe it yourself. Because, for as long as you have lived, all men and women have been subject to your perceptions. Mankind has existed, if not by your express design, then certainly for your satisfaction. We are all solipsists when there is nobody around to impress. Tell me truthfully it isn’t so.
So what could be easier for you than to have me live on in your memory alone? How dominant that makes you. How effortlessly you position yourself as the master of my existence. You take everything I ever was and reduce it to a shadow of yourself – while I am afforded an annexe at the back of your being with the rest of your excess experience. “Here, friend, here is your eternity! You may rustle around as an afterthought in my own being.” Well, how very magnanimous! But, of course, none of this is your fault. How could things ever be otherwise? It is not a matter of hierarchy or power. It is simply that one’s own existence is one’s world. And it’s natural that the concept of my non-existence sits easily with you. That’s because in existential matters you are unfeeling and without empathy. You accept the concept of non-existence-upon-death, because you are not and cannot be subject to it, neither directly nor indirectly.
But where does that leave me?
Well, I can confide that my existence most certainly did mean the world to me. And now that I no longer have that existence – which is the case if what you believe about life and death is true – I am at a loss. Can it really be so? I wonder if it’s really me that no longer exists, or whether it’s the world itself? And our point of views on that matter could hardly be more different. It all depends on which side of the divide one is standing: yours or mine.
You and I have always had very different points of view, it is true. But that wasn’t a problem when we had a world in common. Our unique, unverifiable and individual experiences were mitigated by an aggregate reality we could both agree on. Granted, you would see the world you saw and, granted, I would see the world I saw and, yes, occasionally we would each retire to seek the warmth of our own private being. But far more reassuring and homely was the actual world outside of ourselves – the world of shared objects and concepts. The sum of these shared and consensual experiences was our reality. And, for so much of life, we would forget ourselves, and bathe in this reality as if it was the locus of existence itself. Why did we do it? Well, the answer is quite simple: we did it because we were afraid to be alone. The idea that, when push comes to shove, we are without ally or comfort in this universe was too horrific for us to accept. Despite knowing that we came into the world alone, and that we will leave alone, we chose instead to hold on to what we shared – a consensus reality. We would admit no existence outside it, neither before nor after, because to admit isolation was too chilling for our delicate sense-of-selves to bear. We clung to each other like frightened children.
But now that death has parted us, the illusion is no more. We are so evidently divided that we cannot delude ourselves any longer. Or, if a delusion remains, it is because you can so easily reconcile our division with the world you still see all around you. The fabric of the reality you share with others remains unchanged and so, without much thought, you can sentence me to a cold, absent eternity.
However, the view is very different from my perspective. So different, it’s almost impossible for you to comprehend. But you must try – even if it must be hypothetical – or else reading this will prove a hopeless waste of your time.
You will remember that I was once prima facie a sentient and existing creature much like you are today. You only have my word for that, but it’s true – I was once just like you are now. And I can tell you with affection that however little my existence has meant to you, yours has meant just as little to me. Consider that! Everything you are now – every feeling and passion, every memory – could all be reduced to a thimbleful of fuck-all when compared to the vast oceans of my own existential experience. When you were with me, perhaps you would have meant more to me, as your being was more closely linked with my own. But nevertheless, how insignificant you were! You of all people!
This loveless egotism so apparent in me now may easily have escaped your notice while I lived. But I suspect that’s because you’ve been too fixated with your own existence to ever really worry about mine (if there’s nothing else to be said for dying, it is a spectacularly good way of getting someone’s attention). But now that I have your ear and now that I have lost my capacity to surprise you, please consider that I was once as vital as you are now. I was once perplexed, amused, curious. I felt. I saw. I tasted. And now … well, now I am apparently nothing at all. Isn’t that the strangest thing?
Can you put yourself in my shoes at all? No, of course you can’t and it’s unreasonable for me to even ask you to try – because there are no shoes to put yourself in! You haven’t the first empirical inkling of what it must be like not to exist. Because everything you have ever known and know has been based on existing. Do you see? How could you ever conceive of the absolute negation of your own existence? How could you even start?
If what you believe about life and death is true then for me, right now, there is no concept of anything. Nothing can be considered or understood. Nothing has ever happened. I was the only person who could ever philosophically verify my existence and now there is no referent at all. So the fact of the matter is that – right now, and from my point of view – I never existed in the first place. No Alpha. No Omega. There is no idea of space or time to accommodate me. From my perspective, these words you look at now were never written. No words have ever existed. This is not happening. The world we shared and which you live in still has never existed. Existence itself has never existed. This is how things are from my point of view today, if what you believe about life and death is true.
And don’t think you get off the hook so easily. Because, for me, now, you have never existed either. If you think we ever loved, laughed, quarrelled or conversed, then I currently disagree. If you tell me that you exist, then I currently refute it. If you tell me that there was ever such a thing as our friendship or our world, then my immediate circumstances insist it wasn’t so. The evidence of your senses is mistaken. If I was ever something, you are now nothing. That is the corollary of my current predicament.
So I return to the question: has the world ceased to exist or have I? And I answer again: it depends on which side of the divide one is standing – yours or mine.
This is not a point I can make easily. What words are there to describe what is not? What I need are anti-words. A language of the negative. I say ‘my point of view’ knowing full well that, from your point of view, I have no point of view. I say “I” knowing that there is no “I”. Language is a tool of affirmation and I am using it to describe the ultimate negation. I need to rely on an artistic and intuitive understanding of my words, because there is no way for me to express my position. Under the aspect of nothing, any idea of something is absurd. There is no spark of potential for it to play with. Language has no foothold here.
But let me just say this. If you acknowledge that I once existed as you exist now, and you maintain that I no longer exist as a result of my dying, then to an extent you simultaneously renounce your own existence – as I was a verifiable locus of existence in this universe. But from your perspective – I imagine – this cannot be the case to any extent since your being contradicts it. If you are reading and thinking about these words then it is obviously impossible for you to renounce your own existence. So it makes more sense to conclude that I no longer exist as a result of my dying and so, by unfortunate extension, that I never really existed as you exist now. That certainly squares the circle. But what are the consequences?
They are that you must concede that you live in a solipsistic universe. That you are alone. That your existence is the sun around which the known world revolves. But it’s not a terrible price to pay. You, my unsuspecting old chum, have just become a God. You might find that that more reassuring than the alternative. But of course it is! You are the survivor. The winner. The champ! But let us turn the tables for a moment so that this dead man may have his say. There is a tension here that cannot be resolved if what you believe about life and death is true. Now – it is clear that the words you are reading in this moment did not write themselves. There was a time gone by when I was sat at a wooden desk writing these words for you. And like a long-expired star that still shines in your night sky, I was once alive. And though physically burnt out now I may be, my light still shines in these words. We are connected, you and I, through time. These words, like light, are bringing us together. All of that is uncontroversial and easy to understand.
Next, I ask you to take a leap in time. I want you to imagine me writing these words. From your point of view, now that I am dead, this is obviously taking place in the past, when I was alive. Do you remember those times? That past? But for me, the writer, as these words appear on the page out of nothing, that past is now the present. Here, I am not dead. I am living. That this is true is clear because I am thinking and I am writing – these words that appear so solid, settled and secure on the page are now appearing in front of me as I type. I am writing with the expectation that I will die one day. It is the only way I know to express the idea I want to express. Have you adapted your tense suitably? Let me help you. As I write this sentence, it is 00:27am on the 6th April 2008. I have a sore knee from judo and my mouth tastes sour from the milk of too many cups of tea. I am currently the most alive man in St Andrews. Everyone else has an exam tomorrow.
Right now, you are a figment of my imagination. I don’t know which one of my friends you are, I don’t even know if we have met yet. You assume centrality to the text as you are the one consuming it. But the truth is you are nothing to me but an imaginary and impersonal interlocutor who is helping me give an artistic thought some form. That’s nothing personal – how could it be different in an unpersonalised text? It’s just how things are from my point of view way back here in the past. And here it is me who is a God, and it is you who is nothing. How do you like that?
But let us leave the past (my present) and return to your present (my future) in case I cause needless offence. You are the living. You have the high ground. So let us conclude from your point of view.
Now then, from your point of view, how do we reconcile the following paradox: If what you believe about life and death is true, then one of us no longer exists? If what you believe about life and death is true then, from your perspective, I ceased to exist as a sentient being when I died. That means, from my perspective as it is today, I never existed as a sentient being in the first place, which means, also from my perspective, that you have never existed either – as there is nothing to speak of which can verify you.
Rejecting that, you might instead argue that I was never a bona fide locus of existence in the first place, extend that to all other minds, and then hunker down in the cosy simplicity of solipsism. That works for you, I imagine. The difficulty is that I can’t have that because, as I write these words, I can assure you I exist as much as anything ever has done.
If we are to achieve any kind of reconciliation, there is only one course of action available: we must insist that the predicate gives way. That is, ‘if what you believe about life and death is true.’
My old, anonymous friend, if ever we were both alive, it is what you believe about life and death that must yield.
It is impossible to be dead.