A brush with death

By Tuomas Nevanlinna

I had agreed to meet Death at the Assembly Rooms in the centre of Helsinki. Seldom has an interview made me feel so nervous beforehand. Luckily, this gave me a good reason to cancel an appointment with my dentist. (Although of course I know that in the end I shall have to go there myself.)

It is customary to regard Death as a man who is not affected by the whims of fashion. Thus it is surprising to hear that Death is particularly concerned about his public image. 'In public, I am considered stern and unbending. Unchanging and therefore uncontrollable,' Death thunders. 'This is not at all accurate. Fortunately, at gigs people understand me better.'

Death's distress feels genuine. But nevertheless he is, in his own words, a changed man. 'Once upon a time I used to chat on to people about all sorts of things, hell and so on, and I thought that this would make them behave like human beings. More recently I have modelled myself on the psychoanalysts: I simply sit still. People are forced to invent answers themselves, but they would not succeed if precisely I were not sitting precisely where I sit.'

Death confesses he has modernised along with the rest. 'Although this may seem partly rather ridiculous...,' Death grimaces helplessly and points to the costume he is wearing, which is from the surplus warehouse of a certain medium-sized production company.

'But there is another side, too, to modernisation. Today, I am a bigger privatiser even than the neo-liberals. Today, no-one cannot find themselves [grimaces at the phrase] without me.'

Through the self-irony there glimmers a profound self-knowledge and steely professionalism.

'When they are young, people identify with their self. If they realise that it is not eternal -- not everyone does -- they broaden their identifications and project the continuation of their lives through them.' Death pauses for a moment. 'But the fact that at the core of the world there is something mute and non-conceptualisable which does not correspond to any identification or ideals -- that thought is more difficult to encounter.'

It has always been my own hope that there might be a religion that was not based on wishful thinking; something which merely incarnated the alliance, accompanied by Homeric laughter, that predominates among friends and which is only strengthened by the fact that no response to wishes wells up from the metaphysical structure of the world.

Death nods at first, but then makes a sudden movement toward me.

I realise I am alone.

***

Fortunately, he calms down and continues in a voice which is as level as the brain-curve of a patient who has been pronounced clinically dead: 'Although I always do the same thing, people receive completely opposite things from me. For some, I am even the greatest inspiration to positive thinking! Some people believe that I encourage them to switch to a younger partner and go on a round-the-world trip.... And others are convinced that I urge them to hold on to what they have; to believe that everything that is important is closer than they realise, as long as they can give birth to it.'

I cannot refrain from asking: well, what do you think? Death does not answer. Even though this is one of Death's oldest and cheapest tricks, I see, live, that it has its effect.

I shape the question again: is there some conclusion that everyone reaches once they have met Death? 'You mean, of course, for the last time but one?' Death looks at me with amusement. 'Well, generally they begin to regret what they did, no longer what they did.'

***

Death does not, however, compromise over the essentials. First, he has a job which even the social democrats cannot cut -- even increasing the influence of parliament seems like a realistic project in comparison.

Imagine, for example, a strike concerning the basic conditions of life. The news would last a million years. 'Markku, has there been any progress in the negotiations to change the basic conditions of the cosmos?' 'Thank you, Kari. No. Everything is still open. At the moment, we have no information. To our understanding, the negotiations should be in that room over there, but we are not quite sure. Hopefully, however, the negotiations will end well. At all events, we will tell you immediately when the situation changes.'

What would the workers -- mortals -- demand in such negotiations? The sacking of Death? Think carefully. The basic conditions of existence were not rushed through, you know.

***

I ask Death about his plans for the future. 'I shall continue with my work,' Death announces, and when I look at him -- a real near-death experience -- I believe he is in earnest. 'In my line of work, you cannot rely on flattering the public,' he ponders. 'The understanding of the public plays a decisive role. But if even one person gets something out of an encounter with me that puts him better in touch with his deepest desires, I have done my job. That is what I think, at least at this moment.'

Death's profession is not an easy one. Few people love Death for himself. And most of those who take the initiative and make contact with death are sending an indirect message to someone else. 'My only true friend is the Philosopher,' Death lets drop slowly. 'But I have not met him for a long time.' I watch Death's hand curl slowly into a fist and his gaze seek out something in the far distance.

***

'The most important thing to me is the family,' Death remarks finally. This is, indeed, easy to believe when one glances at Death's charming twin sons, who are playfully called Life and Illusion. From the courtyard comes the sound of the lively barking of Death's dog. Has the mouldy retriever taken another bite out of the postman's leg?

It's always worth conversing with Death. He's a really bright, taciturn and impressive fellow. Although still not universally liked.

+++

From Hyvškuntoisena taivaaseen ('Getting to heaven in good shape', Tammi, 1999), translated by Hildi Hawkins. Tuomas Nevanlinna is a Finnish philosopher, author, and social commentator. His columns, often witty and laconic observations on contemporary intellectual paradoxes, have appeared in major Finnish newspapers and periodicals. This column has been published in cooperation with Books from Finland.

 

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