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How to cope with thoughts of one’s own death


On death and the passage of time
Frederic Raphael Writer
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When I was young and didn't expect to die, or at least I, sort of, knew in principle one would but I had a feeling I'd get out of it somehow. I was always comforted by a thing that Wittgenstein said in the Tractatus which is, 'Death is not an experience of life. It is not lived through'. That sounds kind of, hey, one to run with, isn't it, that? It does... when you think Wittgenstein is some kind of saviour. Which he was in a way, actually, in certain respects in terms of the capacity to think otherwise. What's fun about Wittgenstein is that you have a very egotistical person in many respects – very concerned about people stealing his ideas. He had a friend called Fredrich Weissman or Friedrich Weissman who admired him so much that he... you know, they clashed oars by taking the same course, so to speak, and Wittgenstein then never spoke to him again. So you have a sort of very strange thing of the man with the open neck shirt, didn't like being a professor, etc, etc, but actually was a person of great egotism. But... but at the same time he had an extraordinary capacity for suggesting that you should understand how somebody else might mean this; he could perceive various strands of thought. He likened thought to a hawser in which the ideas are... the concepts are all the little bits which, when bound together, turn into the hawser but which can be detached. If you detach one little piece and say, what does that thread mean? – the answer is: nothing. So he had the great phrase of, 'Don't ask for the meaning; ask for the use'. Which seems to me very important. Not least incidentally with regard to anti-Semitism, about which he said little except that he did greatly admire a man called Otto Weininger, a crackpot Viennese who committed suicide when he was 23. And Weininger argued...  a Jew – argued that the Jews were female, weak and so on and Aryans were strong and male and blah-blah-blah-blah-blah. And Wittgenstein, surprisingly, thought that Weininger's book was very interesting. And somebody said, más o menos, it's crap though, isn't it? To which Wittgenstein, más o menos again, said, oh, but interesting crap. There is plenty of interesting crap about. And Wittgenstein, although in many ways regarded as a man who believed in logic, also understood very well the limits of logic. He talked about the limits of my world means the limits of my language, but he also knew that the unspoken, whereof one must not speak, is part of speech. Back to Harold Pinter and his pauses. Good luck.

Death, you know, is not something you can philosophise about and you can't do much about it, either. You can try and keep out of the way. And Beetle and I led an extraordinarily fortunate life – both of us – through all of the horrors through which we lived, but luckily in a different place, until... until the beginning of this century if you call that 2001 when Sarah, who had not been – God knows – strong but who was a painter of extraordinary quality... I mean, if genius still meant something then I would say she was a genius. I would sooner say extraordinary quality now since, if Tracey Emin is a genius, we can all afford to back off that term. And when Sarah died, in a sense we died with her. But it's also in a sense because Beetle whom you... well, you've met, but is not unfortunately here with me today – she's in the next room, I mean – Beetle said, we were together before Sarah died and we're going to be together afterwards. And we are. But I have to say that Sarah's death reminded both of us of the fact that... sooner or later... Not because we then became sorry for ourselves or anything else but because time then became much more Proustian than it had been before. By which I mean, it sort of ceased to mean much. And I think of things as happening before Sarah died and I know what happened after she died, but what happened after she died is much more difficult to put in order in terms of years, times, etc. Was it three years, was it five years? I don't know. Because, suddenly... there isn't any time. And that, of course, is our condition, if you like. On the other hand, famous Cambridge philosopher called Bradley, a Hegelian who was renowned for saying or being said to have said, 'Today I think I have effectively proved to you that space doesn't exist. In my lecture next week, I will do the same thing for time'. Time exists. It's later now than it was when we started talking and it'll be later still this evening and tomorrow. Of course time exists and we'd be stupid, even if John Carey thought otherwise, to maintain that it didn't.

Born in America in 1931, Frederic Raphael is a writer who moved to England as a boy. He was educated at Charterhouse School and was a Major Scholar in Classics at St John's College, Cambridge. His articles and book reviews appear in a number of newspapers and magazines, including the Los Angeles Times and The Sunday Times. He has published more than twenty novels, the best-known being the semi-autobiographical The Glittering Prizes (1976). In 1965 Raphael won an Oscar for the screenplay for the movie Darling, and two years later received an Oscar nomination for his screenplay for Two for the Road. In 1999, he published Eyes Wide Open, a memoir of his collaboration with the director Stanley Kubrick on the screenplay of Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick's final movie. Raphael lives in France and England and became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature in 1964.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Wittgenstein, Sarah Raphael

Duration: 5 minutes, 24 seconds

Date story recorded: March 2014

Date story went live: 10 September 2014