The loneliness of the dying

“The loneliness of the dying” of Norbert Elías, the only child of a Jewish marriage who fails to escape the machines of Nazi Germany. Elías abandons an ascending career of sociologist to devote himself to professional boxing. Then he will try other solutions. He will train as a therapist, study medicine and philosophy and after ten years of silence in which thought becomes stealthy hunting exercise, he will write a huge work.

How do we face the implicit violence of having to die? With this question the trip or the derivative of “The loneliness of the dying” opens. In this essay, Elías offers us sixteen scenes where we can glimpse different cultural ways of experiencing death that go beyond the twentieth century. All parts of an initial premise: “what creates problems for man is not death but knowing about death” because for the author death it becomes a sociological problem to the extent that we become aware that its importance does not have so much to do with the physical process that the bodies go through but with a socially constructed fear:

Death is a problem of the living. The dead have no problems. Among the many creatures on Earth that die, it is only a problem for men to die. They share birth, youth, sexual maturity, illness, old age and death with the other animals. But only they among all living beings know that they will die. Only they can foresee their own end, be aware that it can occur at any time, and take special measures – as individuals and as groups – to protect themselves from the danger of annihilation.

It is not the revelation of a truth or a pristine certainty that these scenes offer the reader but rather different social challenges of facing the fact of one’s own finitude. For Elias there are at least four ways: first, the oldest attempt consisting of the different ways of imagining a later life in common of the dead; secondly, to hide or repress the thought of death; third, there would be the belief in personal immortality (death is something that happens to others) and finally look in the face of death, not as a mystery or as the opening of a door, but as a fact of existence itself. Around these modes, Elias’ reflections on death will be organized.

While it is true that the repression and cover-up of the finitude of human life are as old as the awareness of the end, it is also true that in modern and individualistic societies in which we live it is increasingly difficult to make subjects understand even what a point is the dependence of a human being on others, “that the meaning of everything that a man or a woman makes reside in what it means for others, not only for their partners but for the men and women to come “.

Elías points out the idea of ​​having to die in solitude is characteristic of a relatively late stage of the process of individualization and of the development of self-consciousness. This experiential mode of death alone coincides – at least in some aspects – with the creation of that space we call “the intimate.” In this direction, José Luis Aranguren points out “intimacy is a modern creation that implies, in turn, another space that involves it: that of private life.”

In line with the thought of Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin, Elias understands that the mirror of the private one always returns us an image pierced by the public: that scenario of solitude and absolute independence that the subject unfolds for himself, reproduce a fallacy because the meaning is, in reality, a social category whose subject is a plurality of human beings linked to each other. We are crossed by other people’s words. We are made of other people’s words. The language of others gives birth to the subject that grows something that belongs to him as his own, something that is his and that at the same time is the result of his relationships with others as in a kind of net, or of uninterrupted conversion. Thus, feelings, experiences and empirical emotions of the subject that would reveal his more private or secret “inner kingdom” are crossed and constructed by social discourse, as are ideas about death.

Also in his reflections on the loneliness of the dying Elias, he will stop, without commenting on what is an autobiographical fact, “in the brutal isolation that thousands of Jews suffer towards gas chambers.” When the life of the writer ends, the statement unfolds trying to foreshadow something intimately unknown and then this need appears to leave traces, to testify to something that is not yet fully known.

For Tamara Kamenszain there is a “testimonial gesture” from the “work of poetry” – since as Agamben affirms “the poets – the witnesses – found the language as what remains, what survives the possibility, or inability to speak. ” And this gesture is tense to the fullest when poets should talk about death. In this sense, Elías points out that in our society, the situation of the transit towards death “is a blank space in our social map”, a pending research topic since at present, with more progress and scientific progress, We die more alone than in other times.

In the appendix with which he concludes The loneliness of the dying, Elías points out that the fact of the people becomes different in old age is usually looks, although involuntarily, as a deviation from the social norm: “the others, the groups of “normal” age find it difficult, understandably to establish a relationship of empathy with the elderly in terms of their experience of old age. “This difficulty that is read in many cases as a loss, as a decrease, as a lack, has to do with the mode in today’s societies and the concept of subject and person.

Norbert Elias


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