On Death and Democratic Imagination

            Doris Grumbach was already a well known American fiction writer, biographer and literary critic when she chose at 71 to write a memoir. That work, Coming into the End Zone (1991), was both warmly received and a plangent evocation of the aging process. She has since published other celebrated books pondering what it means to grow old, and continues in her 96th year to offer deeply evocative essays that confront mortality. The most recent such piece I have read appeared in The American Scholar in spring 2014, “A Whole Day Nearer Now but All Life’s Passion Not Quite Spent.”[1] In that article Grumbach reflected on the daily reality of living with the vicissitudes of old age including, in her case, as a lifelong bibliophile, coping with the loss of much of her sight. Nonetheless, as the title of her essay implied, Grumbach still finds much for which to live, despite her deep and unflinching awareness of what it means to experience your own body failing you ever more each day. As she considered the vagaries this reality can create, the author thought of poet Philip Larkin’s musings on death, and in particular his insight that

This is the first thing I have understood: Time is the echo of an axe Within a wood.[2]

            The often dark Larkin was perhaps never more frankly or harshly tragic than in this short poem in which he portrayed time as an unrelenting and callous force that would annihilate all possibility, just as the axe finally ensures the same for the tree into which it bites.

            While highlighting Larkin’s insight and arguing that one may not naively proceed as if death was not the end point for all human beings, Grumbach also contended that one may not look only to death and closure and meanwhile live a fulfilled life. Accordingly, she outlined her ongoing passions, including living increasingly amidst the furnishings of experience that her long life has provided. Grumbach illustrated her contention concerning the critical importance of awareness, and of engaging with experience as it unfolds in all of its complexity, as follows:

Moles were once believed to be blind. Their eyes were hidden under a layer of skin. ‘Traces of these covered organs can be found if that skin is cut,’ recent research reports. But when moles are close to death, they begin to open their eyes. I share the mole’s lack of sight and, like them, I have spent too much of my life without seeing much that is around me.[3]

            I want to focus here on Grumbach’s point concerning the broader implications of missing much in life for lack of attention, both directly and as a result of assumptions that close off much possible experience, of whatever character.

            The author’s statement might be interpreted in multiple ways, all of which I believe suggest the powerful significance of empathy linked to a desire and capacity to subject lived experience to reflection, and an ongoing willingness to revisit one’s sense-making assumptions. As it turns out, all of these attributes also are important to self-governance, and all are now in danger in a culture and a polity that seem increasingly to be losing their willingness to imagine, let alone value, all but individual and material possibility that can be measured in purely instrumental terms.

            I suggested last week that it is difficult to understand House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner’s recent attack on the long-term unemployed unless one recalls the epistemic assumptions and frame that underpin his view. That perspective is both profoundly individualistic and materialistic in what it professes to value. In this view, any individuals who are not succeeding in the economy are alone responsible for their situation and in consequence must simply be lazy. Likewise, the only lens that matters as one evaluates such concerns is whether those people are perceived as sufficiently worthy to gain employment. The lone metric of the value of their lives, and of their characters, inheres in their employment status and relative success in such terms. As I argued last week, this point of view assumes that the market and its goods are appropriate arbiters of what constitutes the good in society, and that in no event should individuals assume that solidarity with other citizens, either in the United States or beyond, is necessary or appropriate as one pursues one’s own quest for material well being. There is little room in this vision for empathy, let alone suggesting that others’ needs, knowledge, experience and understanding might be as vital or even more important than one’s own. In short, in principle, this view allows one to banish from one’s life any claims that others may make of one. The corollary of this proposition is a rationale for truncating one’s horizon to the individual and material. What matters is what one may do and achieve for oneself conceived as a solitary animal, and that trumps all else, including, especially, any acknowledgement of the standing, needs and situations of others in society.

            Grumbach’s essay warned of the perils of a headlong rush through life on whatever basis: one is likely to miss much of what is most significant as one presses ahead to attain whatever aims are animating one’s pursuit. Using Grumbach’s terms, Boehner’s singular vision was to justify a mole-like existence for Americans, empty of both genuine awareness and empathy for others, and implicitly devoid of the need for interaction itself, except as an instrument to fulfill one’s desires. Grumbach lamented how much she had missed for failing to notice it. We now have many public leaders of all stripes who assert that just such is a good thing for Americans individually and for the nation as a whole.

            These assumptions, should they ultimately prevail and become dominant ways that citizens accept for making sense of reality, will despoil our democracy and society in a manner very like that against which Grumbach poetically warned; a failure to pay attention would certainly rob lives of a major share of their possible meaning. Societies, no less than individuals, can learn not to value others, not to acknowledge the earth on which their survival depends and not to imagine that human beings cannot exist alone. These arguments will lead, if finally wholly triumphant, to a society of mole-like citizens, aware they once had sight and freedom, but now unable to see with acuity what their assumptions had wrought until their death, literally and figuratively, awaits.


[1] Grumbach, Doris. (2014). “A Whole Day Nearer Now: But All Life’s Passion not Quite Spent.” The American Scholar, (Spring), pp.74-80.

[2] Larkin, Philip. (2004). “This is the First Thing” in Collected Poems. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, p. 295.

[3] Grumbach, Doris. (2014). “A Whole Day Nearer Now: But All Life’s Passion not Quite Spent.” The American Scholar, (Spring), p.80.