We must live until we die

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Fighting the pandemic not by abandoning life, but as a way of living with the greatest intensity

The Covid-19 pandemic has taught us a lesson about our mortality and our biological limits. Here is a moment of wisdom bombarded by the media: we must abandon the dream of dominating nature and accept our humble place in it.

Was there a greater lesson than being humiliated and virtually rendered impotent by a virus – a primitive self-reproducing mechanism that some biologists don't even consider a form of life? Not surprisingly, calls abound for a new ethic of humility and global solidarity.

But is this really the lesson to be learned? What if the problem with living in the shadow of a pandemic is the exact opposite: not death but life, a strange, dragging life in which we can neither live in peace nor die quickly?

So what should we do with our lives in this difficult situation?

The answer is perhaps indicated in the song 'Dalai Lama' by the band Rammstein. Its lyrics are loosely based on the poem “Der Erlkönig” (“The King of the Elves”) by Goethe, which tells the story of a father and his son who were riding when the wind began to hypnotize the child, who ends up dying. In the song, the child is on a plane with his father; just like in the poem, the travelers are threatened by a mysterious spirit that “invites” the child to accompany him (only he can hear it). However, in the poem, the worried father runs for help with the child in his hands, only to discover, in the end, that his son is already dead; in Rammstein's song, it is the father himself who causes the son's death.

And what does all this have to do with the Dalai Lama? The song's title isn't just making fun of the current Dalai Lama's fear of flying – it has a more intimate link to the core of Buddhist teaching. The Dalai Lama's fear of flying eerily echoes the words of the Lord in the sky in Rammstein's song: "Man does not belong in the air / So the Lord in the sky invoked / His children of the wind", to cause severe turbulence that will kill the child. . But how? Not just crashing the plane, but directly haunting the child's soul: “From the clouds comes a chorus / That crawls to your little ear / Come here, stay here / We are good for you / We are your brothers”. The demon's voice is not a brutal scream, but a soft, affectionate whisper.

We must live until we DIE

This ambiguity is crucial: the brutal external threat is redoubled by a chorus of seductive voices that only the child hears. She fights the temptation to surrender to the voices, but her father, hugging her too tightly, intending to protect her, doesn't notice her shortness of breath and "pushes the child's soul out." (Notice the song's ambiguous ending: the lyrics never say that the plane actually crashed, only that it experienced severe turbulence.) The father (who obviously represents the Dalai Lama) wants to protect the child from the external threat of reality, but in his overprotection, kills his son – there is a deep shared identity between the Dalai Lama and the “king of all winds”. The obvious implication is that the Buddhist protection against pain and suffering mortifies us, excludes us from life. So, to quote the well-known tongue-in-cheek paraphrase of the East German anthem, the Dalai Lama's message is, effectively, “Einverstanden mir Ruinen / Und Zukunft abegebrannt” (“In accord with the ruins / and in the future set on fire”).

However, “Dalai Lama” puts an additional twist on this pessimistic conventional wisdom – the chorus of the song is: “Weiter, weiter ins Verderben / Wir müssen leben bis wir sterben” (“Onward, forward, to destruction / We must live until we die”) – this is the purest form of what Freud calls the “death drive”: not looking for death itself, but the fact that we must LIVE until we die. This endless drag of life. This endless repetition compulsion.

The chorus sounds like empty, tautological wisdom – like “a minute before he died, Monsieur la Palice was still alive” – what in France is called a the palisade. But Rammstein reverses the obvious statement that "no matter how long your life is, in the end you will die": until you die, you have to live. What keeps Rammstein's version from being an empty tautology is its ethical dimension: before we die, we're not just (obviously) alive, we HAVE to live.

For us humans, life is a decision, an active obligation – we can lose the will to live.

The position of “we must live until we die” is what we must adopt at this moment, when the pandemic reminds us of our finitude and mortality, of how our lives depend on an obscure interrelationship between things (which appear to us as) contingent. The real problem, as we experience it almost daily, is not that we can die, but that life just drags on in uncertainty, leading to permanent depression, loss of will to move forward.

WE MUST live until we die

Fascination in the face of total catastrophe and the end of our civilization turns us into spectators who morbidly enjoy the disintegration of normality; this fascination is often fueled by a false sense of guilt (the pandemic as a punishment for our decadent way of life, etc.). Now, with the promise of the vaccine and the spread of new variants of the virus, we are experiencing an infinitely postponed collapse.

Notice how the time perspective changes: in the spring of 2020, the authorities often said that “in two weeks, everything should be better”; so in the fall of 2020 it was two months; now, it's about half a year (in the summer of 2021, or even later, things will get better); voices are already being heard that put the end of the pandemic in 2022, even in 2024... Every day brings new news – vaccines work against the new variants, or maybe not; the Russian Sputnik is bad, but after that it even seems to work well; there is a long delay in the supply of vaccines, but most of us will be vaccinated by the summer... These endless oscillations obviously generate a pleasure in themselves, making living the misery of our lives easier.

Just like in “Dalai Lama”, the turmoil of Covid-19 has shattered our everyday lives. What provoked the fury of today's gods? Were they offended by our biogenetic manipulations and the destruction of the environment? And who is the Dalai Lama in our reality? For Giorgio Agamben, and for many anti-lockdown and social distancing protesters, the Dalai Lama who pretends to protect us – but actually stifles our social freedoms – is the authorities who, while ostensibly trying to protect us, stifle our ability to live before having to die.

We must LIVE until we die

Agamben recently wrote a short poem entitled If love is abolished, which makes its position clear. Here are two stanzas from his poem:

If freedom is abolished
in the name of medicine
then medicine will be abolished.

If man is abolished
in the name of life
then life will be abolished.

 It is possible, however, to state the exact opposite: would not the position defended by Agamben – to continue living normally – also be a seductive voice of angels, which we must resist? Agamben's own words can be inverted, and directed against him: “If medicine is abolished in the name of freedom, then freedom will also be abolished. If life is abolished in the name of man, then man will also be abolished.”

Rammstein's presumption that “we must live until we die” outlines a way out of this crossroads: fighting the pandemic not by abandoning life, but as a way of living with the greatest intensity. Is there anyone more ALIVE today than the millions of healthcare workers who, with full awareness, put their lives on the line on a daily basis? Many of them died, but they were alive until death. They don't sacrifice themselves for us just in exchange for our hypocritical praise. Even fewer could be considered survival machines reduced to the essentials of life. In fact, they are, today, those who are most alive.

*Slavoj Žižek is a professor at the Institute of Sociology and Philosophy at the University of Ljubljana (Slovenia). Author, among other books, of The year we dreamed dangerously (Boitempo).

Translation: Daniel Pavan.

Originally published on the website RT.com

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