Death has many faces. But it has only one truth. It represents an irrevocable loss of value. We are told in most philosophical and religious texts about its inevitability, its certainty, its place in an order where all things are transitory. The Gita enjoins us not to grieve for what is inevitable. But this is just a metaphysical fact, and, like many metaphysical facts, does not capture the truth. The truth is that even in the Mahabharata no one quite believes the Gita’s injunctions. Not a single character manages to absolve themselves of the pain of loss: The entire drama is propelled by loss and grief, not by the cold comfort of Krishna’s metaphysics. It may not be rational to fight the inevitable. But that is not an argument that death is not loss.
Philosophers have debated to death what kind of loss death represents. And for whom. The person dying or those left behind? A whole tradition, from Socrates to Montaigne, is devoted to preparing us for the good death. For Montaigne, “premeditation of death is a premeditation of freedom”: Somehow knowing how to die liberates us from subjection and constraint. But even the composed Montaigne, who thought contemplating death made life more vivid and meaningful, could not easily reconcile to the death of his brilliant 32-year-old friend, the young La Boetie, author of The Discourse of Voluntary Servitude, an analysis of the hypnosis tyrants can produce in their subjects. The fact that La Boetie was only 32 when he died made the grief harder, even in an age where dying young was not rare. Coping with the prospect of someone else’s death is, in most cases, harder than contemplating your own.
There is, of course, another distinction to be made. Just as the inevitability of death is not an answer to the question of loss, the question of loss is not the same as that of grief or attachment. The question of grief, how one copes with the fact of loss, is a different question altogether, and perhaps the most deeply subjective one. Different people react to the same loss differently. Which is why the answer to the question of grief cannot be a philosophical or theological one. It has be about knowing the person grieving. In this sense, most of our sermons at death are beside the point. They can, at most, affirm certain public truths; they cannot address the pain of loss.
The death of an incandescent artiste like Irrfan, at an age much too young for our era, is a tragic loss. The philosopher Thomas Nagel, in Mortal Questions, asked why the loss of the young seems more tragic than the loss of the old: Keats’s death at 24 seems more tragic than Tolstoy’s at 80. In part, this has to do with the sense of unrealised possibilities. Keats was deprived of years to live that come before Death becomes inevitable. But Nagel had warned, rightly, that this does not mean Tolstoy’s death was not also an insignificant loss. But the sense of a death being premature adds to both the loss involved and the possible grief associated with it.
But what is the loss we mourn, especially in the case of a brilliant genius like Irrfan, who attained the pinnacle of what art could achieve? He leaves a void in this world. In part, the sense of loss that accompanies every artiste is the sense of their irreplaceability. They are, in some deep sense, unique. But it is also a uniqueness that touches everyone. It is universal. What makes it universal is that its achievement and value is something all of us can acknowledge. It lifts us out of our egotisms and narcissisms to give a glimpse of what artistic excellence looks like. We regret his passing early since the magnitude of his achievement makes you wonder what other possibilities might have been.
But the loss represented by the loss of a great artiste is in some senses the key to understanding the loss any death represents: The loss of individuality — being a unique locus of value in the world. Even at a less publicly recognised scale, any death extinguishes so many possible futures for individuals. We may not be unique in the artistic gifts that we possess. Not all of us are Keats or Tolstoy or Irrfan. But in the circle that has been formed by our life histories, we end up shaping the world in a unique way. Death is an objective loss.
But, in part, what confers value on life is recognition. Artistes, in some sense, expose themselves to a kind of universal judgement. They are recognised, and their loss is instantly felt because they are so universally recognised. But what confers value on the small arts of life, the quotidian quirks that make us who we are, is the fact that someone recognises them, even if only in small and intimate circles. As Adam Smith knew, the greatest ignominy that can befall human beings is not death, it is not having their life acknowledged at all. That is what makes it devoid of value.
This is a moment at which death seems so much to be in the public air. Even though death is inevitable, modernity has the conceit that it can at least try and defeat it for some of the time. Death is not just a metaphysical event. Its course is somewhat determined by science and by sociology, by forms of collective organisation that determine who lives and who dies. We are debating the value of the lives of the old versus the lives of the young. But we are also debating, in some ways, two approaches to the value of life. One that looks at it in purely statistical terms: Where the value of each life can be offset by the value of another. Statistics becomes our new metaphysics. Or we can look at it in artistic terms: Where each life is a source of unique, incomparable possibility. Each death is, in its own way, a loss that cannot be made up. Every time we deprive the poor and all those we make invisible, of their sense of possibility, we inflict this loss on ourselves. Depriving people of possibility is akin to depriving them of life.
There is no absolution for grief. Sometimes death has an inevitability. Sometimes hard choices have to be made. Montaigne coped with the loss of La Boetie by incorporating his work, a scepticism of tyranny, into his own. This was as if to say, the very thing that makes us see death as a loss should lead us to affirm life in all its possibilities.
This article was published in the Indian Express Print by the title ” Matters of Death”. The writer is contributing editor, The Indian Express