On Living and Dying Well
What the shared life – and death – of volcanologists Katia and Maurice Krafft can teach us about a "timely death".
Humans have achieved many remarkable things, but every so often we benefit from a dose of humility – something to remind us that we take a place within the cosmos, rather than the cosmos being built around us. One major source of our humbling comes from the planet we call home, which periodically reminds us that we are ridiculous little creatures living on its surface at its pleasure until it decides to shake, burn, drown, or otherwise wipe out large numbers of us. Not only us humans – some ninety-five per cent of all animal species have been eradicated over the course of the planet’s long and fraught history.
One of Earth’s more impressive methods of killing off its denizens (terrifying, yes; awful, of course; no less impressive for the horror) is the volcano and its mighty eruptions. Volcanoes were the focal point of the entwined lives of Katia and Maurice Krafft, two scientists who lived, loved, and died by the Earth’s fire, and who were the subject of the 2022 documentary Fire Of Love. The Krafft’s passion for impersonal, geologic forces was born, in part, of their disdain for the absurdities of politics and war. Born into a Europe emerging from the ruins of war, the volatility and seeming randomness of volcanoes made sense to the couple. As Maurice explained:
“Both Katia and I got into volcanology because we were disappointed with humanity. And since a volcano is greater than man, we felt this is what we need – something beyond human understanding.”
This reverence for and humility in the face of mother nature is echoed in their shared rejection of scientific classifications of volcanoes by “the old beards and academics”, whose human vanity motivates the futile desire to categorise the natural world. “Volcanoes cannot be classified,” Maurice insisted, “because each has a unique personality.” To borrow a phrase, the Kraffts had traded their certainty for awe*. They were committed to a life of reckless wonder.
Recalling a moment when they stood at the edge of a volcano’s mouth as it spat out lava, Katia wrote in her journal, “Maurice says we are crazy to stay here. And yet, we remain. Curiosity is stronger than fear.” Elsewhere, Maurice expressed his desire to get “right into the belly of the volcano”, insisting: “It will kill me one day, but that doesn’t bother me at all.” They shared a resolve that looks to many others like fearlessness, but which I think is better thought of as a firm sense of their priorities in life; they desired to live fully and meaningfully more than they feared dying.
It’s no spoiler to reveal that Katia and Maurice died together during an eruption (we learn this in the opening of Fire Of Love). “We do everything together, Maurice and I,” Katia once said. “I like it when he walks in front of me ... I follow him because if he’s going to die, I’d rather be with him. So I follow.” Their final moments were shared as they filmed the eruption at Mount Unzen. In the end, neither had to follow the other; they went together into death, side by side.
The late conservative philosopher Roger Scruton once argued, in an essay called “Dying in Time”, that a life that outstays its welcome is a detriment to living well. In the essay, he lays the foundation of his thesis with the observation that “life prolonged by the elixir of immortality would be a life from which the things that we most value ... would inexorably leach away”. As I once argued in my own essay on dying well:
“In an infinity in which you cannot die, ‘consequence’ becomes a meaningless concept ... Failure means nothing as success is always eventually guaranteed, and as such, success must lose value because it is all that there is. Along a timeline of infinity, all is reduced to infinite insignificance.”
This inevitably leads to the conclusion that there is value in dying, and Scruton argues that there is even more value in what he calls a timely death. “A life is an object of judgment,” he writes, “like a work of art; and judgment means viewing it from outside, as the life of another.” Viewing life in this way is a “moral point of view”, because it forces a person to view their own life through the eyes of the other, thereby rejecting solipsism (which by its nature negates even the possibility of morality, which is dependent on relationships between conscious entities).
When we view our lives from the outside, we are able to see our life as a whole, which makes death part of it. There are those for whom the manner of their death exemplifies or even elevates the life that came before; think of soldiers who lay down their lives for their comrades and country, or firefighters who die valiantly rescuing others. Then there are those whose tardy death, after an otherwise well-lived life, turns their final years into an epilogue of bored and uncomfortable decline, or even a loss of self to dementia they would have chosen to avoid by dying sooner if they’d had the option.
In order to achieve some reassurance that our life story might enjoy a timely death, Scruton argues that we ought to cultivate what he calls “benign shabbiness”. That is, we should live in ways that exercise the mind and increase our usefulness to others, while simultaneously, by the fruits of joyful living (drinking, smoking, engaging in risky activities such as mountaineering), increase the odds of dying after a successful and not too long life. In short: to live in a way “that will give maximum chance of dying with [your] faculties intact”.
I am not entirely convinced that the physicality of being can be so divorced from its mental, emotional, and spiritual dimensions. I’m reminded of how Christopher Hitchens used to insist, “I don’t have a body, I am a body.” (Note that this is not quite the same as saying I am only a body; it is possible to assert that you are a body in addition to being, or having, a soul.) Exercise of the body is often only possible through exercise of the will, a virtue required for making oneself useful to others. What’s more, healthy diet and regular fitness provide a more reliable vehicle for the mind to carry on deep conversation, for playing with one’s children, and for exploring the world beyond the realm of the armchair traveller.
That objection aside, Scruton’s description of a life of benign shabbiness is laudable. He insists that it also commits us to the risks and tensions associated with “the forthright expression of opinion”, and the dangers involved in helping others, especially when it involves disease or political struggles. He finishes by saying that the important point is to “maintain a life of active risk and affection ... remembering always that the value in life does not consist in its length but in its depth”.
This view of death makes high demands on life. It is not enough to live a long, safe, and unproductive existence; nor is it enough to simply die early to avoid later regrets or avoid perceiving yourself as having become a burden. What this view of things calls for is a life one can be proud to have lived, and a death that honours such a life.
I don’t see the way that Katia and Maurice Krafft died as a tragedy. Yes, it might have been nice if they could have had longer to work and to love each other. But they died together, doing what they loved, in a very quick manner following a sight they would never have otherwise witnessed. And there is every chance that, if not in the eruption of a volcano, they would have died instead at different times of separate diseases or the vagaries of old age. Given a choice between a quick death alongside my wife while doing something wonderful in our sixties or dying in the normal fashion of one at a time after prolonged sickness in our eighties, I’d pick the former.
The real task, in the end, is not to concern oneself unduly with how and when one will die. The task is to go out and live a life worthy of a good death.
* Silent Planet, “Dying in Circles”:
“To truly live, I must begin anew and be consumed. Make a heart of flesh from these hollow stones. I’m learning what it means to trade my certainty for awe.”
• Fire of Love, dir. & written by Sara Dosa (2022)
• Confessions of a Heretic, Roger Scruton (revised edition, 2021)
• Inside Story, Martin Amis (2020)
• Nuns and Soldiers, Iris Murdoch (1980)