Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Death by Maurice Maeterlinck

Toward an enlightened demise
It takes a certain degree of audacity to write a book entitled Death, as if anyone could ever say everything there is to say about the subject. That said, Belgian author Maurice Maeterlinck, winner of the 1911 Nobel Prize in Literature, comes pretty darn close with this one. Death, originally published in 1911, is an extended essay, amounting to a little over a hundred pages in length. In that brief span, Maeterlinck does his titular topic justice by examining the subject from a variety of perspectives.

The main thrust of the book is that the fear of death that plagues mankind is an irrational superstition. If we cannot completely eradicate this fear we can at least partially subdue it by applying our faculty of reason. Since death offers the cessation of all pain, Maeterlinck advocates for euthanasia instead of the mandatory prolongation of suffering by any medical means necessary. He also briefly argues for cremation over burial. Maeterlinck then explains how the fear of death is really a fear of the unknown, and that if we indulge in some rational speculation as to what lies beyond the grave, we will find that we have little to fear. The majority of the book concerns the afterlife. Maeterlinck proposes various scenarios of what happens to the human soul after death—including the possible nonexistence of the soul altogether—and points out the strengths and weaknesses of each theory. In doing so, his scope broadens beyond the subject of death to encompass metaphysical questions such as the substance of human consciousness and the very nature of the universe itself.

The book is divided into 31 short sections, each only a page or few in length. Its message is reminiscent of the great Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, though less solemn and more optimistic in style. Both books encourage readers to conquer their fear of death through reason, but while the Meditations is a disordered hodgepodge of thoughts and aphorisms, Maeterlinck’s book is an organized argument, with each bite-sized chunk building upon the passage that came before. Maeterlinck shares the view of the Stoics that the doings of human life don’t really matter in the grand scheme of the universe. What we conceive of as good and bad is really just an illusion. There is only the machinery of nature at work, before which we are powerless. We cannot stop death, but we can stop the control we allow it to have over us while we live. Beyond Stoicism, Maeterlinck also includes inklings of Spinoza’s monism and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Over-soul. Maeterlinck’s writing is very clear and accessible, in fact far more so than either Spinoza or Emerson. The English translation by Alexander Texeira de Mattos is quite good. There are a few convoluted passages that frustrate and confuse, as is the case with much literature of this time period. Books were written in a less conversational style back then. Given its philosophical subject matter, however, it’s a very smooth read.

Maeterlinck is best known as a playwright and poet. Here he proves himself an accomplished author of the philosophical essay as well. Death is a thought-provoking and eye-opening book. Though he was speaking to audiences of a century ago, readers of today will still find much to learn from Maeterlinck’s enlightened discourse.

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