Life, Death and Hamlet: an interview with Gene Veith

By Kimberley Pfeiffer

On his recent visit to Australia, Dr Gene Veith, author of Spirituality of the Cross and retired literature professor spoke to various audiences on topics ranging from post-modernism to vocation.

At one of his talks, Dr Veith spoke about despair and how it relates to the culture of death that is so prevalent today.

This connection seemed intuitive to me as, in many cases, despair is what drives people across the world to end their life by euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide.

The fear of despair no doubt contributes to the push for the legalisation of euthanasia or physician-assisted suicide in our own country.

However, Dr Veith’s reflections on despair and the culture of death are by no means limited to the euthanasia debate. He has broader insights into how we, as a community, conceptualise or idealise death, which I was able to chat to him about.

Being a retired literature professor, the conversation quickly turned to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Here is a transcript of our discussion.

Kimberley –

You talk about the culture of death as a product of post-modernism. How can we better understand how death is conceptualised given the time we live in?

Gene –

There are different ways we can look at these issues. For example, one way is that it is a horrible thing to kill another human being and another from the perspective of those who want to do these things.

For people who believe life has no meaning, we’re just here for a little while then we’re gone. Life has no purpose. It has no value. It might have value while we’re enjoying ourselves, but if we get old and sick or if somebody else gets old and sick, then life clearly has no value and we should just put them out of their misery.

Post-modernism tells us that the only meaning is the meaning we can create for ourselves. If there is no meaning to life, no objective value to life, then nothing gives life a priority and so life is no better than death.

In the end, these people find themselves wanting to end their lives out of despair. Post-modernism has not found a way to give life meaning and so what we’re seeing is an embrace of death – it is a horrible thing to think this way. From a Christian point of view, it is like what it is to be “lost”.

Kimberley –

When I think about death from a Christian point of view, I think about heaven, our knowledge of Christ’s redeeming work on the cross and the hope it gives us to live eternally in perfect relationship with God and the community of believers.

I know it is impossible for us to fully imagine what heaven might be like but I know that we believe that we must cling to the hope we have in Christ so that we can enter into life through our earthly death.

I think it is uncommon these days to hear people concerned about what might come after death. We read in books of old, such as those by Homer and Dante, an awareness that the soul lives on after death but I don’t think that this presses upon the mind of our time.

Gene –

Yes, we probably don’t emphasise it as much as we ought. There’s a great reflection in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, in his “to be or not to be speech”:

To be, or not to be, -that is the question: –
whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer
the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of of troubles,
the heart-ache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, -’tis a consummation

Hamlet here is meditating very deeply about whether it is better to exist or not to exist. He’s basically saying to himself, it would be so nice not to exist, wouldn’t it be better if we didn’t have to bear with the world’s calumnies, slanderers and the injustices of the world, if we could all “quietus make with a bare bodkin”, if we could cause our own quiet death with a dagger.

Traditionally, the way we handle our heartaches is how we grow as human beings, that’s how we grow into nobility, that’s where we cultivate our virtues, and as Christians, learn to cling to Christ. Hamlet here knows that it nobler to suffer and when things go bad and to battle it out. It is not to take arms against our seas of troubles – we cannot end them by ending ourselves.

And by opposing end them? —To die, —to sleep, —
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, —to sleep; —
To sleep! perchance to dream: —ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;

But at the thought of death’s sleep, he knows that death would not bring about the dreams of slumber – ay, there’s the rub. The prospect of something after death shoots down all of his notions that death could be better than life, that death won’t solve our problem if there is eternal life. Hamlet goes on:  

For who would put up with all this?”
“But that the dread of something after death, —
The undiscover’d country, from whose borne
No traveller returns, —puzzles the will,
And makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of?”

Hamlet’s concern about death is a good Lutheran reflection. Hamlet, the Prince of Lutheran Denmark went to a good Lutheran University in Wittenberg. He knows that there is life after death and that it ought to give us perspective on our earthly life. If you don’t have it, that despair, that nihilism is everywhere, and you don’t have to scratch too far below the surface in unbelievers to find that. Life after death is our condition so even after death, we can’t throw life away.