8 million ways to die

February 04, 2003|By Crispin Sartwell

A FEW hours after the shuttle Columbia went down, I was at the grocery store, on one of those errands that still need doing but that feel slightly displaced on the day of the disaster.

I overheard a guy in a baseball cap say to his wife: "Twenty thousand miles an hour, screaming, with my hair on fire. That's how I want to go." The remark was brutally flippant and not fit for public consumption, an example of the vicious humor that can arise at such moments.

But when I looked at the eyes under the cap, I saw that they were shining. He was saying something intended perhaps to tick off his wife and anyone else within earshot, something wrong to say. But he meant it.

There's a famous line in a martial arts movie that has made its way via sampling into hip-hop immortality: "Eight million ways to die. Choose one."

There are, indeed, 8 million ways to die, but most of us don't get any choice in the matter, and most of us die in mundane and inglorious ways. They keep taking us back to the hospital once more until that last time when it doesn't work out. The heart seizes up unexpectedly, and that's it. You lose concentration for a moment out on Interstate 83.

Emma Goldman, the Russian/American anarchist and feminist, lived one of the most dramatic and dangerous human lives imaginable. She was accused of plotting assassinations of kings and presidents, and she was herself threatened with assassination many times, even by U.S. senators.

She planned to tunnel into the state prison in Pittsburgh to try to free her lover, Alexander Berkman, imprisoned there for shooting the industrialist Henry Clay Frick. She was deported to the Soviet Union and later lived in Britain and France. She twice visited Spain to observe the Spanish Civil War.

Nevertheless, she died playing bridge, in a quiet section of Toronto.

But there are famous deaths, beautiful deaths, powerful deaths, deaths, as it were, that live. Hector, conquering his terror and turning to face the fury of Achilles. Joan of Arc, refusing to recant as the flames take her. Jesus, God allowing himself to become human and to be, like us, polluted, degraded and killed. Socrates, telling his family and followers that he has been preparing for this day for his whole life, calmly drinking off the hemlock and laying down to talk philosophy.

Even monsters like the people who flew jets into the twin towers were searching for a glorious kind of death, thirsting for it: the death of the martyr, the death that shows purity of purpose, the death that makes a claim upon God, the death that makes of your name a legend or a hissing, or perhaps both.

Some people die purposefully, out of faith, resignation, rage, fear, self-loathing. There is nobility in the acceptance of death; the sage welcomes death in peace, and departs. And there is nobility, too, in fighting to the very last breath. Do not go gentle into that good night.

And then there is the death of the explorers, who know every time they set out that they might not return.

But those few deaths are only celebrated examples of what must be hundreds of thousands, as our species emerged from Africa in the first place and ended up in New Zealand, Lapland, Cape Horn, Japan, Easter Island, the Amazon, the Yangtze, Nova Scotia, Iceland, the moon.

It is not perfectly clear what all these people gave their lives for, and some of the results of their explorations were completely disastrous. But they died, we might say, trying to transcend our place and our condition, and they died in some sense willingly.

Shortly before the Columbia disintegrated with its seven astronauts, 46 people died in a train crash in western Zimbabwe. If we ever noticed those deaths, we've finished noticing them.

Eight million ways to die. Choose one.

Crispin Sartwell is a syndicated columnist who teaches philosophy at the Maryland Institute College of Art. He can be reached at www.crispinsartwell.com.

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