On Dying – “At the Customs House”

28 Jan

What follows is perhaps the best contemporary speculation on the awesome passage from Life to Death – by Ernst Jünger, from his “Das Abenteuerliche Herz” (The Adventurous Heart”). My own unofficial translation. Enjoy…!

“Death resembles a foreign continent about which no-one who travels there can send back reports. Its secrets engage us so intensely that its shadows darken the very path that leads to it – which is to say, we don’t differentiate sharply enough between death and dying. The difference is important in that much of what we ascribe to death completes itself we die, as our glances and imagination penetrate again and again into the intermediary zone. As distant as death might still be from us, we can already taste the climate surrounding it.

Then there are the cases which teeter on a razor’s edge, where a man already senses death lying like a reef behind the near breakers. But then life returns into him, as flames reawaken in an almost cold hearth. Such cases resemble false alarms; and, as on a ship in which the captain only comes to the bridge when storms threaten, so here an otherwise hidden authority appears and makes its preparations. Man possesses capacities which he carries about with him like a sealed portfolio; he does not use them until he needs them. Among these is his ability to comprehend his situation – and, in fact, this is the case: after a moment’s bewilderment, realization anticipates the approach of his death.

As we cool his brow, the dying man is already infinitely far from us – he lingers in landscapes which reveal themselves after his spirit has crossed the burning curtains of his agony. Time and space, the two germ leaves between which life blossoms, fold in on themselves again, and, in this dwindling away of the surrounding environment, his inner eye gains a new outlook.

Life now appears to him with new significance, more distant and distinct than otherwise. He is able to survey it like a region on a map, and its development, which stretched over many years, can be seen in its core, like lines on the hand. He comprehends this change within a framework of the necessary, for the first time without light and shadow. Images surface less than their essential content – it is as if, after the opera and the lowering of the curtain, the main theme was played once more in the empty space by an invisible orchestra, lonesome, tragic, proud and with deadly significance. He understands a new way to love his life, without any compulsion of self-preservation; and his thoughts gain sovereignty as they extricate themselves from the fears that cloud and weigh down every notion, every judgment.

The question of immortality, which so deeply disturbed the spirit in life, is already solved at this point. The solution is extraordinary in that the dying man reaches a point like on a mountain ridge, from which he can look over into the landscapes of both life and death – and he gains full assurance by perceiving himself as much in the one as the other. He experiences a pause in his journey, like at a lonely customs house in the high mountains, where the local currency of his reminiscences is changed into gold. His consciousness reaches forward like a light, by whose radiance he recognizes that he was not being deceived but rather that he mistook fear for safety.

Within this space – which still belongs to time and yet already does not – one could imagine those regions described by religious sects as Purgatory. This is the path on which human dignity undergoes restoration. No life has entirely protected itself from baseness, no-one has escaped without loss. But now, in the narrow mountain pass, evasion is no longer possible, nor hesitation, whatever obstacles might loom up. Death determines each step now, as a distant cataract determines the flow of the current. On this lonely march which nothing can hinder, man resembles a soldier who wins back his position on the field.

As a child is furnished with organs to facilitate and allow birth, so man also possesses organs for death, the formation and strengthening of which belong to theological procedures. Where this knowledge is extinguished, a form of idiocy spreads with respect to death; this reveals itself in an escalation of blind fear, but also in an equally blind and mechanical disdain of death.”


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