A Twitter trend this afternoon is #OneDayLeft, which asks us to imagine how we would behave if we had only one day left to live. Looking at the unimaginative responses that have been posted, I responded sarcastically: “if I had #OneDayLeft I’d do some stereotypical sentimental bullshit, because isn’t that was life’s all about?” One could point to these answers as a sign of the profound meaninglessness of contemporary American life, etc., etc. Yet the fundamental problem is not with the vacuous answers, but with the question, which is literally meaningless.
This hypothetical situation can never arise — and not for probabilistic reasons (as in the “ticking timebomb” scenario), but for structural reasons. The very nature of the human experience of death is that one’s time of death can never be certain. We can think of scenarios where one does clearly have a very limited amount of time to live, but those scenarios do not include the kind of agency being envisioned here. The most natural response to this question, then, is that if you have the ability to do whatever you want, you should try to figure out a way to stave off your death!
Of course, the purpose of this question is to try to reveal something about your deepest values, what is most important to you, etc. With the clarity that supposedly comes from impending death, you can perhaps see where you’re not living the life you want to live and change accordingly. Whatever you would do with the sword of death hanging over your head, you should prioritize! This is all supposed to be very edifying. Yet any scenario in which we are sure we are going to die is one in which we already are effectively dead — our experience of life is precisely one in which death may come at any minute but probably not this minute.
Whatever we do in this hypothetical state of certain-death-but-total-agency would be tinged by desperation and bitterness. If I wanted to make sure The Girlfriend knew I loved her in such a state, she would be justified in wondering whether I was trying to convince myself I really loved her. If I wanted to indulge in my favorite pleasures, they would all ring hollow. If I wanted to try to complete one last important task, it would reek of desperation. Anything I did that resembled an everyday task would be tainted — indeed, pathetic. This is the insight of Melancholia: if I’m thinking along these lines, I might as well take one last really good shit.
Any action I take in the state of certain-death-but-full-agency would be necessarily empty. There would be no “right” thing to do, because our entire system of valuation would be meaningless in that state. There would, however, be a “fitting” thing to do — i.e., to make a gesture that is consciously empty. That could be a gesture of defiance or of acceptance — or, in the case of Melancholia, a gesture that elegantly combines the two.