Human mortality has always fascinated the greatest creative minds—from Homer declaiming on the slayings of Patroclus and Hector, to Sigmund Freud speculating on death drives. Roger Scruton even locates the significance of artistic endeavor in the fact that we understand our existence to be finite. For Scruton, the prospect of immortality makes life dull and futile. All pleasures, if extended and repeated infinitely, become bland and tedious. It is only because life is finite that our experiences take on significance, as precious moments seized from the jaws of death.
Scruton is surely right that the reality of death casts a backward shadow on our present moment, but his analysis falls short. Most human beings want life to continue and will do a great deal to avoid its cessation. True, Roger Daltrey sang in 1965 that he hoped to die before he got old. But I saw The Who in concert in 2006 and again in 2016, and both times he still looked happy to be alive. Cicero was right: No man is so old that he does not think he can live another year. We accept our own mortality in theory, but we approach each day as if we expect to live for an indefinite time. Far from allowing death to heighten the significance of our experience, for the most part we work hard to keep it out of our minds.
And for many, death renders life not meaningful but meaningless. For Joseph K. as he faces execution for an unspecified crime, or for the protagonists of Beckett and Pinter plays, life is a confusing journey toward oblivion. This theme is not a modern monopoly. Ancient literature, too, sounds notes of futility. Euripides’s tragedies evoke the nihilism that death brings, and Medea’s infanticide and the death of Pentheus at the hands of a Bacchanalian mob render their lives meaningless.