Monday, 17 September 2012

Ray Bradbury on Life and Death

I've been reading The Stories of Ray Bradbury lately, published in Everyman's Library, and I'm almost through. They make wonderful bedtime reading, and in several of them you can discover a whole philosophy of life. One of the stories that I liked most is called "The Leave-Taking". It is very short and not really much of a story at all. What happens is that an old woman dies. One day she decides that enough is enough and she lies down and stops living. Not that her life is bad in any way. She lives with her extended family, seems to be well-loved and cared-for, and loving and caring herself. She has had a good life, and is still having one. But that does not cause her to cling to her life as long as possible, as we might expect. On the contrary. It is the reason why she finds it easy to go. She has seen everything worth seeing, done everything worth doing, and it's simply time to go:

"Now it was as if a huge sum in arithmetic were finally drawing to an end. She had stuffed turkeys, chickens, squabs, gentlemen, and boys. She had washed ceilings, walls, invalids, and children. She had laid linoleum, repaired bicycles, wound clocks, stoked furnaces, swabbed iodine on ten thousand grievous wounds. Her hands had flown all around about and down, gentling this, holding that, throwing baseballs, swinging bright croquet mallets, seeding black earth, or fixing covers over dumplings, ragouts, and children wildly strewn by slumber. She had pulled down shades, pinched out candles, turned switches, and - grown old. Looking back on thirty billion of things started, carried, finished and done, it all summed up, totaled out; the last decimal was placed, the final zero swung slowly into line. Now, chalk in hand, she stood back from life a silent hour before reaching for the eraser."

When her decision to die becomes known to the family, her grandchildren try to change her mind - they need her, will miss her, don't want to be without her - she insists that there's nothing to be sad about. It's like watching too many movies in a row: "when the time comes that the same cowboys are shooting the same Indians on the same mountaintop, then it's best to fold back the seat and head for the door, with no regrets and no walking backward up the aisle. So, I'm leaving while I'm still happy and still entertained." And anyway, she says, she's not really leaving. It's only a small and insignificant part of her that will disappear. As we don't mourn a clipped fingernail, we shouldn't mourn the passing of a person, because a person is also only a part of a larger whole, which persists even when that particular person is gone, just like the body lives on when it loses some of its cells to be replaced by others. "Important thing is not the me that's lying here, but the me that's sitting on the edge of the bed looking back at me, and the me that's downstairs cooking supper, or out in the garage under the car, or in the library reading. All the new parts, they count. I'm not really dying today. No person ever died that had a family." It seems to me, though, that even without a family, without children, we can see our individual selves as being parts of a greater, more encompassing self, which lives on and in which we live on even when "we" are dead. The self is not fixed. It doesn't have clearly defined boundaries. It depends on where I see myself ending. I can see myself in you, can identify myself with the whole human community (or even the community of living beings). I can feel one with the universe, and then there's no reason to fear my own death because I will live on in others.

Bradbury's story ends with the death of the old woman, but her death is like a home-coming. It is described as if life had been a brief interruption from something else, something at least equally good: "A long time back, she thought, I dreamed a dream, and was enjoying it so much when someone wakened me, and that was the day when I was born." Now she is trying to pick up the thread of that dream, and then she finds it. "'It's all right,' whispered Great-grandma, as the dream floated her. 'Like everything else in this life, it's fitting.'" And with this glorious trust in the fittingness of all things, of life and death, the story ends. 

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