New WritingThe Death Detectives

This is the Life I Got Left

To coincide with The Death Detectives, a recent event at The Photographers’ Gallery, we have invited each speaker to contribute their thoughts to our blog. Here, Matt Gieve introduces the acronym YOLO, its historial precedents and the urgency that death places on life.

In the cult 1979 film The Warriors, Swan – the leader of the gang – and Mercy, his soon-to-be-girl, walk along a New York subway track having just escaped the police. After a series of jibes about her promiscuity Mercy confronts him:

“ Look, what do you got against me? You’ve been picking on me all night.”

“ I don’t like the way you live’ he says, “ I don’t think you can remember who you get on Friday and Saturday nights. I don’t think you can remember what they look like.”

“ Sometimes I can and sometimes I can’t.” She replies “ Who gives a damn? I see what’s happening next door and down the block. Belly hanging down, five kids, cockroaches in the cupboard. I’ll tell you what I want. I want something now. This is the life I got left. You know what I mean? You get it Warrior, huh? Get it?”

There are many limits on life but the most binding of these is time. Death gives life urgency. A sentiment encapsulated succinctly by the latter-day philosopher of excess, Drake in his 2011 single The Motto, where the motto is ‘YOLO: You Only Live Once’. Such is the urgency he uses and acronym to save time.

While YOLO has since become a hackneyed internet meme, an ironic hashtag: ‘just drank a full-fat Coke, YOLO’, it also captures a particular cultural attitude toward death. If we can assume Drake’s major preoccupation is not with the biological fact of mortality so much as the imperative this gives to the living, then it can be read a rap version of the aphorism “ you might be run over by a bus tomorrow.”

Death says: “ Don’t leave it till later, do it now. This is the life I got left. You know what I mean?”

I was reassured, for the purposes of this seeming a sufficiently high-brow piece, to find that YOLO is originally attributed to Goethe, appearing in his 1774 play Clavigo, as, Man lebt nur einmal in der Welt.” – One lives but once in the world (or to give it the Drake treatment, OLBOITW). It then made its way through various iterations, such as Mae West’s longhand version, “ You only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough” (YOLOBIYDIROIE), to Drake, to whom it finally fell to bring some much needed simplicity (YOLO). It appears that this imperative to haste is something that people have felt in different historical times, that despite great differences in the way we live, some features of life may be shared: a reassuring communion over the ages?

Phillipe Aries, the great French social historian of death, argues not. Death, like life, is different now. And in fact it is one thing we’ve been getting worse at. Contrary to the prevailing direction of change over the last millennium, death has been getting wilder over time: transforming from the comparative comfort of the tame death in the early Middle Ages, through various configurations to the forbidden or denied death of today (or of the 1970s).

Aries points to a range of factors to explain this shift: To our waning familiarity with death, both forestalled by medicine and ever more private when it does occur; and to sweeping secularisation eroding a once impeccable confidence in life beyond death. Bound up with this, the consequences of scientific revolution, and in particular the insights of Darwin repositioning human kind within nature itself. The human is now so much more animal, a biological organism with no soul to outlive its flesh. If it were not true before, nowadays we REALLY do only live once.

While this might address the question of Only Living Once, it does not fully speak to the question of who it is that is doing so. The final and crucial factor in our shifting experience of death is the emergence of the individual: the self in its modern form. This change has dual effects. First, the process of greater individualisation starts to undermine a once assumed position in a greater shared continuity, though either family or clan, increasingly isolating the individual within the bounds of their own lifetime. Second, the emphasis on the individual-as-agent leads to what psychoanalyst Adam Phillips describes as the impossible Liberal ideal of self-authorship, the idea that our lives and our actions are or should be entirely of our own choosing. Adding pressure upon the individual to make the most of this most limited resource. The greatest sin now is to have not experienced, to have gone without. A duty that each person bears to themselves. Charging YOLO with ever greater urgency. The effect of this as Aries suggests, is the very modern possibility of one’s life being felt to be a failure:

“ Today the adult experiences sooner or later, and increasingly it is sooner, the feeling that he has failed, that his adult life has failed to achieve any of the promises of his adolescence”.

And this for Aries is why death has become so unspeakably frightening, as he puts it: “ When people started fearing death in earnest, they stopped talking about it.”

The obvious irony of this circumstance is that, notwithstanding misfortune, we live longer now than ever before. We have, in Mercy’s words, “ more life left”. Yet we find ourselves in the peculiar position whereby death is at once further off and at the same time more imminent.

The risk is that urgency of too great an order may sabotage the full life it appears to recommend. YOLO and the attitudes that underlie it are in some ways self-defeating; by further stoking feelings of haste they provoke either a paralysis of choice or a frantic attempt to fulfil multiple possibilities to the detriment of all.

This paradox is foreshadowed in de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America:

“ It is strange to see with what feverish ardour the Americans pursue their own welfare, and to watch the vague dread that constantly torments them lest they should not have chosen the shortest path which may lead to it.”

Like these Americans, of whom I believe we are inheritors, it increasingly falls to us as individuals to trouble the question of what makes a good death, and in answering this, what makes a good life? In the face of fewer certainties and greater choice, where failure is felt to be a real risk, a better question may be what makes a good enough life?

– Matthew Gieve

Matthew Gieve is a researcher and consultant at the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations. He graduated in politics and philosophy and holds a Masters in psychoanalytic theory from University College London. He works in applied social research across a wide range of fields, centering on issues of social exclusion with a particular focus on children and families and on mental health.

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