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更新时间:2016-12-27 19:14:27 来源:纽约时报中文网 作者:佚名

Looking Death in the Face

Ramses II, also known as Ramses the Great, was born about 3,000 years ago and is widely regarded as the most powerful pharaoh of the Egyptian Empire. The Greeks called him Ozymandias. When he died in 1213 B.C.E., he left a series of temples and palaces that stretched from Syria to Libya, and countless statues and monuments commemorating his impressive reign. By the 19th century, when European colonization reached Egypt, most of these statues were gone, and the ones that remained were in ruin. In 1816, the Italian archaeologist Giovanni Belzoni discovered a bust of Ramses and acquired it for the British Museum. This is when Ozymandias’s life, in one respect, truly began.

拉美西斯二世(Ramses II)也被称为拉美西斯大帝(Ramses the Great),他出生于大约3000年前,被普遍视为古埃及帝国最强大的法老。希腊人称他为奥兹曼迪亚斯(Ozymandias)。公元前1213年去世时,他在从叙利亚直到利比亚的广阔土地上留下众多寺庙与宫殿,以及无数雕像和纪念碑,纪念他那令人赞叹的统治。到了19世纪欧洲殖民势力抵达埃及时,大部分雕像已经消失了,仅存的那些雕像也遭到了毁坏。1816年,意大利考古学家乔瓦尼·贝尔佐尼(Giovanni Belzoni)发现了一个拉美西斯半身像,并为大英博物馆买下了它。从某个方面来说,奥兹曼迪亚斯的生命此时才算真正开始。

“Ozymandias,” perhaps the most famous sonnet Percy Byshe Shelley ever penned, was written in 1817, as the remains of the famous statue were slowly transported from the Middle East to England. Shelley imagines a traveler recounting a journey in a distant desert. Like Belzoni, Shelley’s character discovers a great bust, half-buried in the windswept sands. Next to the wreckage is a pedestal where the monument once stood. Inscribed in shallow letters on the slab of rock: “My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” Of course, as Shelley’s poem tells us, nothing remained of these works or the king of kings. Just sand.

《奥兹曼迪亚斯》创作于1817年,或许是珀西·比希·雪莱(Percy Byshe Shelley)最著名的一首十四行诗,那一年,这尊著名雕像的残余部分被缓慢地从中东运到英国。雪莱想象一个旅行者在遥远的沙漠之中描述自己的旅程。和贝尔佐尼一样,雪莱笔下的人物发现了一个巨大的半身像,半埋在狂风吹扫的砂砾之中。残骸旁边是这座纪念碑曾经的基座。石板上浅浅地刻着文字:“朕乃奥兹曼迪亚斯,王中之王也/功业盖世,料天神大能者无可及!”当然,正如雪莱的诗所告诉我们的,这位王中之王的功业没有留下任何痕迹。只有砂砾。

The poem’s message is perennial: All of this will be over soon, faster than you think. Fame has a shadow — inevitable decline. The year 2016 has delivered a string of deaths that serve as bracing reminders of this inevitability: Prince, Nancy Reagan, David Bowie, Elie Wiesel, Bill Cunningham, Muhammad Ali, Gordie Howe, Merle Haggard, Patty Duke, John Glenn. Of course, it has also been a year that has ushered in a new empire and, simultaneously, the specter of apocalypse. The year’s end is a time to take account of kingdoms built, but also the sheer rapidity of their destruction. It is a chance to come to terms with the existential fragility that is overlooked in most of our waking hours and that must be faced even by the greatest among us.

这首诗传递的信息是永久的:所有的一切都会很快告终,比你想象的要快。名望伴随着一道阴影,那就是不可避免的陨落。2016年发生了一系列的死亡,刺激着人们,提醒人们这种不可避免:王子(Prince)、南希·里根(Nancy Reagan)、大卫·鲍伊(David Bowie)、埃利·威塞尔(Elie Wiesel)、比尔·坎宁安(Bill Cunningham)、穆罕默德·阿里(Muhammad Ali)、戈迪·豪(Gordie Howe)、默尔·哈格德(Merle Haggard)、帕蒂·杜克(Patty Duke)、约翰·格伦(John Glenn)。当然,这一年也带来了一个新的帝国,与此同时还有末日灾变的幽灵。在今年结束之际,是时候思考王国的建立,也是时候思考王国的败落何其迅速。这是一个机会,帮助我们安然接受生存的脆弱,我们在清醒的时间里总是忽视它,然而甚至我们之中最伟大的人也必须面对它。

We tend to defer the question of living or dying well until it’s too late to answer. This might be the scariest thing about death: coming to die only to discover, in Thoreau’s words, that we haven’t lived.


Facing death, though, is rarely simple. We avoid it because we can. It’s easier to think of “dying” as an adjective than a verb, as in a dying patient or one’s dying words. This allows us to pretend that dying is something that is going to happen in some distant future, at some other point in time, to some other person. But not to us. At least not right now. Not today, not tomorrow, not next week, not even next decade. A lifetime from now.


Dying, of course, corresponds exactly with what we prefer to call living. This is what Samuel Beckett meant when he observed that we “give birth astride the grave.” It is an existential realization that may seem to be the province of the very sick or very old. The elderly get to watch the young and oblivious squander their days, time that they now recognize as incredibly precious.

当然,“垂死”正好同与我们所谓的“活着”(living)相应。塞缪尔·贝克特(Samuel Beckett)说我们“在坟墓之上分娩”,指的就是这个意思。这种对生存的认识似乎属于年迈或重病的人。认识到时间宝贵的老人,可以眼睁睁看着年轻而健忘的人们虚度时光。

When dying finally delivers us to our unexpected, inevitable end, we would like to think that we’ve endured this arduous trial for a reason. Dying for something has a heroic ring to it. But really it’s the easiest thing in the world and has little to do with fame and fortune. When you wake up and eat your toast, you are dying for something. When you drive to work, you’re dying for something. When you exchange meaningless pleasantries with your colleagues, you’re dying for something. As surely as time passes, we human beings are dying for something. The trick to dying for something is picking the right something, day after week after precious year. And this is incredibly hard and decidedly not inevitable.


If we understand it correctly, the difficulty is this — that from the time we’re conscious adults, maybe even before that, we get to choose how we’re going to die. It is not that we get to choose whether we contract cancer or get hit by a bus (although certain choices make these eventualities more or less likely) but that, if we are relatively fortunate (meaning, if we do not have our freedom revoked by circumstance or a malevolent force we can’t control), we have a remarkable degree of choice about what to do, think and become in the meantime, about how we go about living, which means we have a remarkable degree of choice over how we go about our dying. The choice, like the end itself, is ultimately ours and ours alone. This is what Heidegger meant when he wrote that death is our “own-most possibility”: Like our freedom, death is ours and ours alone.

如果我们理解得没错,困难在于――从我们成为清醒的成年人起,或许甚至在这之前,我们就得选择自己将会如何死去。这不是说我们可以自行选择是否患上癌症或者会不会被巴士撞上(虽然确实有些选择可以令这些可能性变大或变小),而是意味着,如果我们是相对幸运的(意思是,如果我们没有因为环境或我们无法控制的恶意力量而丧失自由),我们有相当大的余地去选择该做什么、该思考什么和应该成为什么样的人,并选择自己如何生活,这意味着我们有相当大的余地去选择我们将如何死去。选择同人生终点一样,最终是属于我们自己的,也是我们要独自面对的。这就是海德格尔(Heidegger)所说的,死亡是我们“最本己的可能性”(own-most possibility):和自由一样,死亡属于且仅属于我们自己。

Thinking about all of our heroes and friends and loved ones who have died, we may try to genuinely understand that death is coming, and to be afraid. “A free man thinks of death least of all things,” Spinoza famously wrote, “and his wisdom is a meditation not of death but of life.” But we don’t even begin to think about life, not really, until we confront the fact that we are doing everything we can not to think about death. And perhaps we’re not so much afraid of dying, in the end, as of not living and dying well.


Everyday life has no shortage of things with which to waste our time: the pursuit of money, intelligence, beauty, power, fame. We all feel their draw. But the uncomfortable, claustrophobic truth is that dying for something like money or power tends not to be a choice at all. David Foster Wallace argued that for most of us dying in the pursuit of wealth or prestige is simply our “default setting.” The problem isn’t that we’re picking the wrong things to die for, but that we aren’t actually picking. We chose to live by proxy. We allow ourselves to remain in a psychological trap that prevents us from seeing what might be genuinely meaningful in our own lives. In doing so, we risk, according to Wallace, “going through (our) comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to our heads and to (our) natural default setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone day in and day out.” We might call this the Ozymandias Trap — Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair! — and be on guard against falling into it ourselves.

日常生活中不乏供我们浪费时间的东西:追求金钱、智慧、美丽、权力、名望。我们都能感受到它们的诱惑。但是让人感到不舒服,让人透不过气来的真相是,为金钱或权力这样的东西而死,似乎根本算不上什么选择。大卫·福斯特·华莱士(David Foster Wallace)认为,大多数情况下,在追求财富或名望中死去只是我们的“默认设置”而已。问题不在于我们选择为错误的东西而死,而在于我们实际上没有去选择。我们选择让其他人代替我们活着。我们允许自己留在心理陷阱之中,无法看到在自己生活中可能真正有意义的东西。这样做的时候,根据华莱士的说法,我们冒着这样的风险――“使(我们)舒适、富足、可敬的成人生活变得死气沉沉,无知无觉,在日复一日间让我们臣服于自己的头脑,臣服于自然(为我们)默认设置的那种独特、彻底、威严的孤独。”我们可以称之为奥兹曼迪亚斯陷阱――功业盖世,料天神大能者无可及――并且要小心自己别落入这个陷阱。

Most days we discover that we’re not quite up to the heroic task of extricating ourselves from the Ozymandias Trap. Others, we fear we’ve failed miserably. It is not realistic to love in the awareness that each day might be your last. But at least we can stop pretending that we will endure forever.


In Tolstoy’s famous story “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”, the dying hero reluctantly accepts his own mortality, albeit only once he can no longer avoid the truth:

在托尔斯泰的名作《伊凡·伊里奇之死》(The Death of Ivan Ilyich)中,垂死的主人公不情愿地接受自己的死亡,虽然只有一次,但他再也不能回避真理:

It’s not a question of appendix or kidney, but of life and … death. Yes, life was there and now it is going, going and I cannot stop it. Yes. Why deceive myself? Isn’t it obvious to everyone but me that I’m dying … it may happen this moment. There was light and now there is darkness … When I am not, what will there be? There will be nothing …


Ivan Ilyich can’t pretend that he’s not dying. He recognizes what Ramses II apparently did not: With his death, there is no justification of his life, there is no proof of himself to leave behind, there are no monuments where he is going. He has lied to himself all of his life about the fact that he’s going to die.


In the end, Ivan is liberated from his self-deception. And we, too, can free ourselves from this delusion. As soon as today. Right now.


If we succeed, we may find that confronting the fact of our own impermanence can do something unexpected and remarkable — transform the very nature of how we live.