Entering the Void

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The fact is we are all given a death sentence. Once you're born you begin to die. But let's say you get some very bad news, as some people do, and you're told that you just have six months to live. You're life is now finite. Something like this was what happened to the neurologist Oliver Sacks when he was informed that he was dying. Sacks had always been enormously productive in his work as a doctor and writer, the latter feeding off the former, but as odd as it sounds the news he received only motivated him more in both his work and his life. In an Op-Ed piece ("My Own Life," NYT2/19/15), he quoted David Hume in describing his state of mind,

"I now reckon upon a speedy dissolution. I have suffered very little pain from my disorder; and what is more strange, have, notwithstanding the great decline of my person, never suffered a moment's abatement of my spirits. I possess the same ardour as ever in study and the same gaiety in company."

Some might take a different approach when given such a prognosis. They might slip into melancholy and self-pity or decide that since their days were numbered, they were simply going to gratify all their senses and do whatever they want. The might argue that they have spent their whole life working, being a parent or attending to their own parents in their years of convalescence and now it's there time, meaning a license for self-indulgence. Sounds a little like the prisoner on death row, allowed whatever he wants for his last supper, no? This is precisely the plot of Kurosawa's Ikiru which translates as "to live." The central character, a civil servant named Watanabe, learns that he is going to die. At first he indulges in a Walpurgisnacht with a Mephisto like cohort, but the pleasures of wine, women and song pale against the void he's facing (Enter the Void is by the way the title of Gaspar Noe's film about death which, like Ikiru, also has scene of Tokyo nightlife) and he finally finds solace in the notion of helping others and in particular by building a park for children. The last scene of the movie depicts him on one of the swings in the park he has built singing softly to himself and it's one of the most touching and indelible images in the history of cinema.

{This was originally posted to The Screaming Pope, Francis Levy's blog of rants and reactions to contemporary politics, art and culture}