David Rieff, son of Susan Sontag, writes movingly of her mother's love of life and her refusal to accept extinction in Swimming in a Sea of Death: A Son's Memoir (Simon and Shuster, 2008). Her attitude and his is close to the one expressed by Philip Larkin in the following poem which displays Larkin's power as a poet in tandem with his weakness as a philosopher. Rieff, p. 13, quotes approvingly from the stanza which I have bolded.
In my humble opinion, the "specious stuff" in Larkin's phrase below is not the wisdom of Epicurus to which allusion is made, but the boozy self-indulgence Larkin serves up. What annoys me, I suppose, is the poetic passing-off of substantive claims with nary an attempt at justification. Am I again criticizing poetry for not being philosophy as I did once before with reference to Wallace Stevens? Perhaps. Or perhaps I am objecting to the nihilism of much of the 'art' of the 20th century.
Larkin's poetry illustrates how life must appear to those for whom God is dead. Read some more of it here. It is skillfully symptomatic of the age.
Getting back to Rieff and Sontag, I find curious their unquestioning conviction that physical death just has to be utter extinction. How can they be so cocksure about that? Socrates, Plato, Moses Mendelsohn and a hundred other luminaries were just deluded fools? And then there is this thought: if physical death extinguishes us utterly, then the game is not worth the candle, and Sontag's stubborn refusal to accept her mortality even after 71 years worth of this ephemeral life is just ridiculous, and the opposite of anything that could be called wisdom.
I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.
The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
– The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused — nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.
This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear — no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.
And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.
Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.