Maeterlinck, Maurice - On death
Type of spiritual experience
A description of the experience
WE MUST RID DEATH OF THAT
WHICH GOES BEFORE
The doctors and the priests,” said Napoleon, “have long been making death grievous.”
Let us, then, learn to look upon it as it is in itself, free from the horrors of matter and stripped of the terrors of the imagination.
Let us first get rid of all that goes before and does not belong to it. Thus, we impute to it the tortures of the last illness; and that is not right. Illnesses have nothing in common with that which ends them. They form part of life and not of death. We easily forget the most cruel sufferings that restore us to health; and the first sun of convalescence destroys the most unbearable memories of the chamber of pain. But let death come; and at once we overwhelm it with all the evil done before it.
Not a tear but is remembered and used as a reproach, not a cry of pain but becomes a cry of accusation. Death alone bears the weight of the errors of nature or the ignorance of science that have uselessly prolonged torments in whose name we curse death because it puts an end to them.
All the doctors consider it their first duty to protract as long as possible even the most excruciating convulsions of the most hopeless agony. Who has not, at a bedside, twenty times wished and not once dared to throw himself at their feet and implore them to show mercy? They are filled with so great a certainty and the duty which they obey leaves so little room for the least doubt that pity and reason, blinded by tears, curb their revolt and shrink back before a law which all recognize and revere as the highest law of human conscience.
One day, this prejudice will strike us as barbarian. Its roots go down to the unacknowledged fears left in the heart by religions that have long since died out in the mind of men. That is why the doctors act as though they were convinced that there is no known torture but is preferable to those awaiting us in the unknown. They seem persuaded that every minute gained amidst the most intolerable sufferings is snatched from the incomparably more dreadful sufferings which the mysteries of the hereafter reserve for men; and, of two evils to avoid that which they know to be imaginary, they choose the real one. Besides, in thus postponing the end of a torture, which, as good Seneca says, is the best part of that torture, they are only yielding to the unanimous error which daily strengthens the circle wherein it is confined: the prolongation of the agony increasing the horror of death; and the horror of death demanding the prolongation of the agony.
It is not death that attacks life; it is life that wrongfully resists death. Evils hasten up from every side at the approach of death, but not at its call; and, though they gather round it, they did not come with it. Do you accuse sleep of the fatigue that oppresses you if you do not yield to it? All those strugglings, those waitings, those tossings, those tragic cursings are on this same side of the slope to which we cling and not on the other side. They are, for that matter, accidental and temporary and emanate only from our ignorance. All our knowledge only helps us to die in greater pain than the animals that know nothing.
A day will come when science will turn against its error and no longer hesitate to shorten our misfortunes. A day will come when it will dare and act with certainty; when life, grown wiser, will depart silently at its hour, knowing that it has reached its term, even as it withdraws silently every evening, knowing that its task is done. Once the doctor and the sick man have learnt what they have to learn, there will be no physical nor metaphysical reason why the advent of death should not be as salutary as that of sleep.
Perhaps even, as there will be other things to consider, it will be possible to surround death with deeper delights and fairer dreams. Henceforth, in any case, once death is exonerated from all that goes before, it will be easier to face it without fear and to enlighten that which follows after.
Because death carries the spirit to some place unknown, shall we reproach it with our bestowal of the body which it leaves with us?