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The good death of my friend Gill


MY late colleague and friend Professor Gillian Howie left us in 2013. Gill was frustrating in that she carried around with her, and offered to all who would wear it, a (political) coat of impeccably Leftist pattern. She ticked all the boxes: intersectionality (she was ahead of her time there, if that is a good thing), feminist critical theory, deconstructionism – you know the type.

If she had known that one day she would be mentioned with affection on the pages of this site she would have had the grace to smile. She would be horrified, but she would smile.

Gill was intellectually brilliant, and spiritually beautiful (she would hate that description). When told that her cancer was terminal, she turned the diagnosis into a project, not as a means of comfort but as a genuine exercise in intellectual inquiry (which is itself a form of comfort I suppose). She wove into what remained of her life this epiphany: that philosophy is not reducible to the lecture, tutorial or essay. And that to be significant, philosophy must be lived. Even if – especially if – that means philosophising while dying.

Her final few months, by her actions, affirmed her belief that for any intellectual pursuit to matter it has to offer more than a tangential relationship to the lives of real people.

 What is the point of arguing about ‘possible world semantics’ or the ‘ontological proof’ if you park it in the seminar room? Or confine it to a paper nobody can be bothered to read, apart from the person who wrote it in the first place, and a few vulture philosophers keen to swoop and rip your central argument to pieces?

Gill was 47 when she died, leaving two young sons. She had a ‘good death’ because she made her death a significant part of her life. And I think she would find both morally and intellectually obnoxious this idea that a ‘good death’ requires the neutralisation of pain and a dumbing down of the physical senses.

This is the contemporary orthodoxy: that a ‘good death’ is a commendable version of euthanasia in which the victim is chemically shielded from his demise and is thereby unable to accept or feel it. Our current State health protocols involve the worst form of robbery: the Government and its parasitic agencies are thieving from the terminally ill the gift of acceptance. ‘We no longer are comfortable with the idea that people can accept the end of life. Let us prevent them from confronting it.’

The Covid ‘pandemic’ unleashed the ghouls embedded in the NHS nomenklatura and allowed them to chuck around ‘Do Not Resuscitate’ notices over hospital wards like black confetti. Even the BBC has noticed this.

Covid provided cover. Government slides announced deaths as if death is the worst thing that can happen to you. The fatality figures were inevitably announced alongside that most chilling linguistic fakery: ‘We mourn every one of them.’

No, you did not, Mr Hancock, because it is impossible to mourn those whom you have never met and whose reality to you is purely statistical. Your words were an attempt to piggyback the grief of those whose bereavement was genuinely felt.

Matt Hancock was gatecrashing the wake without any right to be there, the hobo there just for the sandwiches.

The Sage Sanhedrin systematically trivialised and misunderstood what death is: not simply the termination of bodily existence but a cancellation of the possibilities which attend it. Possibilities which are not the business of apparatchik automata such as Chris Whitty.

Some of those possibilities involve the valorisation of risk. The imposition of a risk-free culture, and the confiscation of our right to risk-assess for ourselves, is an act of spiritual vandalism. The elimination of risk is both impossible and undesirable. I am best placed to decide how to navigate (to the extent that I can) the contingencies of life. And I do so best when I remember that in a hierarchy of harm, death is not at the apex.

The greatest philosopher of the 20th Century was Wittgenstein, and he was great because he got most things wrong but in a brilliant way, but he also got some things right in a brilliant way. Thus:

‘Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death. If we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present. Our life has no end in the way in which our visual field has no limits.’ ― Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus

We do live to experience death. We are all aware of the fragility of our own existence. Or we ought to be, moment to moment, aware that the moment just past is a gift and the one in which we live is contingent on the will of God.

When we die the Christian tradition holds that we are reunited in timeless form with our children and loved ones. And if we are wrong then, at worst, we are stepping aside for them.

It is easier for me than for most. My worldview is a religious one. My friend Gill inhabited a different intellectual context. But she was, in her way, as brave as some of the saints.  

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Sean Walsh
Sean Walsh
Sean Walsh is a writer.

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