“Dying is agony because in dying a being does not come to an end while coming to an end.”
If one wants to find a reason after the fact when everything seems settled, then this line was why I started and kept reading Emmanuel Levinas’ Totality and Infinity during my mother’s final illness. My mother did not consider her life finished, even though she died and even though she said her good-byes. She went peacefully and as she wanted, without futile medical intervention to treat an incurable condition. But after a heart attack a few months before she died, she started observing the dietary restrictions imposed by her cardiologist. Why do that when she was dying of a slow-growing tumor? She accepted the end (goal) of letting the tumor take its course, but she did not want any other condition to bring her to an end (stop) before that.
In Alphonso Lingis’ English translation of Levinas, there seems to be a play on these two meanings of “end.” Is Levinas saying that the dying person suffers because life is stopping without having reached one’s goals? As best I can determine from consulting various dictionaries, that tension is active in the verb se terminer in the original French: Le mourir est angoisse, parce que l’être en mourant ne se termine pas tout en se terminant.
But this is Emmanuel Levinas, Talmudic scholar and phenomenologist, . Nothing is ever that simple. Death is not just about time running out . It is very much about what Levinas calls “interiority,” which refuses to let go and just become part of the past. As tempted as I am, I will refrain from speaking of Levinas’ “interiority” as a self-subsisting entity grasping at its goals. That would probably misrepresent both Levinas and the Buddhist concept of self-subsistence, svabhava. I do want to focus on what he says about the openness of the projects, the goals, the ends in “the mysterious time that yet remains” after death. After death, “what ‘still remains’ is totally different from the future that one welcomes, that one projects forth and in a certain measure draws from oneself.” Levinas sees this opening, this “impossibility of the possible,” as “suffocating.” We will talk about some of the ways in which opening can be terrifying, but I wonder if he feels this fear of opening as “suffocation” because he’s still thinking of a “being” with “interiority” who is attached to its self.