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In The Face of Death — Defying Disability and Stigma

Mar 29, 2018
Jerald Schwartz
Core Spirit member since Dec 24, 2020
Reading time 4 min.

When, in December of 1981, a 55-year-old Swiss legal scholar named Peter Noll learned that he had bladder cancer, and that his only hope lay in submitting to an operation that would leave him “diminished and mutilated,” he made an immediate and unusual decision: instead of opting for surgery, Noll, a proud man who was loath to submit to the “indignities” of medical technology and to “the role of a patient,” would let himself die.

He also decided to keep a written record of his final months, and he dictated entries until a few days before his death the following October. That extraordinary document, together with a five-page postscript by Noll’s daughter Rebekka and a funeral oration by his friend, the Swiss novelist Max Frisch, makes up the text of which (aside from a few lapses in grammar and diction) has been elegantly translated from German by Noll’s older brother, Hans.

One approaches a book of this sort with certain expectations: it will be emotional and anecdotal, replete with drastic changes in the author’s way of life, touching family vignettes and eruptions of fear and anger. But Noll upsets one’s expectations at every turn. Though he gets worked up about political and legal issues, his tone, when discussing his personal life and imminent demise, is consistently passionless. After his diagnosis, he sticks to his usual work and social schedule for as long as possible. And his family figures only marginally here: he sees his mother twice (briefly), covers each visit in a sentence or two and never gives us an idea of what she is like, how he feels about her or what he has told her about his illness. Likewise, though he says that the thought of leaving his two daughters (by a former wife) brings him pain, his references to them are curiously detached, and he appears not to have considered consulting them before making his momentous decision.

At times, indeed, one suspects that Noll’s greatest fear is of manifesting - whether to friends, relatives, the blank page or even himself - normal human signs of anxiety, vacillation or vulnerability. “I’m dictating these thoughts,” he declares pointedly, “not so much to seek my own solace as to portray dying and death as an event imposed on us all, but one that can truly be overcome.” This posture is characteristic of Noll: a law professor at the University of Zurich, he’s a teacher through and through, and his way of coping with his impending death is to use it as an instructional tool. Obsessed with the philosophy of power and authority, he refuses to dwell on his powerlessness against his illness, choosing instead to look upon it as having made him an instant authority in the biggest subject of all.

It is a subject, he realizes, that most people would prefer not to think about. But, though he understands that the constant thought of extinction “would be too great a stress for the human psyche,” his newfound goal is to alter other people’s behavior in this regard as much as possible. “We are in need,” he contends, “of a reformation of dying and death… Since we live with death, we ought also think of it while living.” He plans a funeral that will “challenge the public to confront what, aside from birth, is life’s most important event. Nothing shall be whitewashed or glossed over; I intend to block off the escape route of repression, as well as airs of false piety and the solace of last-minute faith.”

Noll’s ambition sounds noble. But what does all this talk of confronting and overcoming mortality really mean? How does one, as he puts it, “cultivate” death’s “company”? And is such cultivation desirable? It is, after all, the ability to push death to the backs of our minds that enables us to conduct and enjoy our day-to-day lives. Besides, whether we become preoccupied with death is hardly something over which most of us have conscious control: those who have recently lost someone are likely to have trouble not thinking about it; the young, blissful and unorphaned, on the other hand, may be unable to accept that they are mortal. Noll’s argument presumes a degree of willpower that is far beyond the capacity of most human beings.

For Noll, however, the presumption is typical. A pastor’s son and a socialist, regarded by colleagues as an outsider, he can be naively idealistic about human behavior, and throughout this book one finds him formulating social and cultural ideas without any regard to the limitations of human nature. Paradoxically, he can also be downright nihilistic, proffering an abundance of apocalyptic cliches about the modern world, whose ruling powers, he argues, are steadily raising the level of economic injustice, increasing conformism and eroding civil liberties. Plainly, Noll’s title has a secondary meaning: it is not only he who is facing death, but civilization itself. Yet it is hard not to see his frequent assertions to the effect that “life is no longer possible” and that “everything will be over soon anyway” for humankind as his own oddly touching way of trying to feel less alone in his fate.

One may, then, argue with Noll’s opinions. But his earnestness and dedication (this is a man who kept grading papers to the end) demand one’s respect. So does his gift for the occasional provocative insight (death announces its proximity, he notes, “by the conversion of eros into agape”). His journal is a good deal more than the chronicle of his decline; it is a moving affirmation of his continuing power to think, to speak, to act. Perhaps Mr. Frisch provides the most compassionate epitaph: Peter Noll, he observes, died “free, not afraid of knowing what he knows, and expecting the same from us.” While this book may not transfigure its readers’ views of death, as Noll wished, it is nonetheless a remarkable piece of writing - an evocative, harrowing, maddening and ultimately poignant self-portrait of an enigmatic soul in extremis.

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