Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Go Fourth and Meet Your Maker

John Adams died on this day in 1826, at the age of 91.

Adams was our first Vice-President. He and Thomas Jefferson were correspondents for a quarter-century. Adams resolved to live until the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence -- July 4, 1826. That morning he was awakened by his servant, who inquired if he knew what day it was.

"Oh, yes," Adams replied, "it is the glorious fourth of July. God bless it. God bless you all."

He then lapsed into unconsciousness. Later that afternoon, he awakened briefly. "Thomas Jefferson still survives," he said before dying.

Jefferson had died earlier that day. His last words:

Is it the Fourth? I resign my spirit to God, my daughter, and my country.” 

(Trivia: Another U. S. President died on July 4th -- James Monroe, July 4, 1831. Also, Pres. Calvin Coolidge was born on July 4, 1872.)

The great American writer Nathaniel Hawthorne was born on July 4, 1804. He wrote:

"We sometimes congratulate ourselves at the moment of waking from a troubled dream; it may be so the moment after death."

Speaking of presidents: from the sublime to the ridiculous

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Bitter Bierce

Ambrose Bierce, a unique and mysterious American writer, an agnostic and the patron saint of cynics, was born on this day in 1842.

Bierce was a journalist and short-story writer, primarily. He is best-known for “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge,” which Kurt Vonnegut called the greatest American short story, and for “The Devil’s Dictionary.” 

Two of Bierce’s three sons died before he did, one by suicide and the other by pneumonia brought on by his alcoholism. The event that might have wounded Bierce the deepest, however, was the Battle of Shiloh (April 1862), in which he fought for the Union side as a first lieutenant. The horror of war was a preoccupation of his in his later writings.

In his “Devil’s Dictionary, Bierce wrote: “Inhumanity, n. One of the signal and characteristic qualities of humanity.”

And what about religion, that could bring men together?

Religion, n. A daughter of Hope and Fear, explaining to Ignorance the nature of the Unknowable…Religions are conclusions for which the facts of nature supply no major premises.

We’re assuming you include Christianity?

Christian, n. One who believes that the New Testament is a divinely inspired book admirably suited to the spiritual needs of his neighbor. One who follows the teachings of Christ in so far as they are not inconsistent with a life of sin…Camels and Christians receive their burdens kneeling.”

There’s nothing to the Bible, then?

Scriptures, n. The sacred books of our holy religion, as distinguished from the false and profane writings on which all other faiths are based.”

You don’t think there can be genuinely religious people?

Clergyman, n. A man who undertakes the management of our spiritual affairs as a method of bettering his temporal ones.

Or genuine faith?

Faith, n. Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without knowledge, of things without parallel.”

Prayer is useless, then, in your view?

Pray, v. To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner, confessedly unworthy.”

Well, then, how about theology?

Theology is a thing of unreason altogether, an edifice of assumption and dreams, a superstructure without a substructure.”

Don’t people have to have something to look up to?

Piety, n. Reverence for the Supreme Being, based upon His supposed resemblance to man.  Reverence, n. The spiritual attitude of a man to a god and a dog to a man.”  Impiety, n. Your irreverence toward my deity.”

We will assume you’re a non-believer? How does it feel to be called a heathen?

Heathen, n. A benighted creature who has the folly to worship something he can see and feel.”

No one knows how, or where, Bierce died. It was apparently his wish to slip away unnoticed. The man whose motto was “Nothing matters” is still remembered, a fact that would have amused him.  In “The Devil’s Dictionary,” Bierce wrote:

Immortality: A toy which people cry for/And on their knees apply for/Dispute, contend and lie for/ And if allowed/Would be right proud/Eternally to die for.”

Saturday, June 23, 2018

And away he went

The one-and-only Jackie Gleason died on this day in 1987. Gleason was born in 1916. When he was three years old, his dad walked out, saying he was going down the street for a pack of smokes, and never came back. The young Gleason naturally turned to…comedy.

He grew up in Brooklyn, the setting for “The Honeymooners,” in which Gleason played the most famous bus driver ever, Ralph Kramden. (A statue of Gleason as Kramden stands outside the Port Authority bus terminal in New York.) Only 39 major episodes were made, and Gleason eschewed rehearsals, maybe because they cut into his drinking time. He was a fixture at Toots Shor’s restaurant and lounge; when his pal Toots Shor died in 1977, Gleason sent roses and a note: “Save a table for 2.”

He could do drama as well as comedy; he gained the sobriquet, “The Great One,” supposedly hung on him by Orson Welles. A whole new generation was introduced to Gleason as Sheriff Buford T. Justice in “Smokey and the Bandit.”

Gleason was a smoker as well as a drinker, with a five-packs-a-day habit. He died at home, of colon and liver cancer. He donated his huge collection of books, many on the subject of life after death and the occult, to the University of Miami.

In an episode of “The Honeymooners” called “A Matter of Life and Death,” Ralph is convinced he’s dying, having mixed up his medical report with that of his mother-in-law’s dog. “Yeah, Norton,” he tells his pal Ed Norton (the great Art Carney), “my life’s been no bed of roses. Forty years ago I came into this world with a pair of strong lungs, pink cheeks, and a lot of big ideas. And what’ll I have to show for it when I’m leavin’? A blue tongue, a bald head, and a saucer of milk with a pill in it.” (Norton wipes a tear and blows his nose.)

Ralph decides to sell his “story” to a magazine so that his widow, Alice, will have money to live on. When he discovers his mistake, he has his pal Ed Norton pose as a doctor to help him get out of his deal with the magazine.  (“Don’t touch me – I’m sterile,” Norton warns.) The publisher realizes Dr. Norton is a fake, and that his part of the story is a hoax. He blows up.

“Amma, amma, amma,” Kramden stutters, his signature response when he gets nervous. But then the publisher fingers Norton only, still believing Ralph has a fatal illness. He threatens Norton with lifetime in jail for taking advantage of poor Ralph. Norton goes to pieces, and Ralph steps in and confesses. They get out with only a tap on the wrist.

Jackie Gleason’s epitaph: “And a-way we go!”

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Cioran on death

He was Eraserhead's dad, too
E. M. Cioran, a Romanian writer who wrote in French, died on this day in 1995. A sampling of Cioran on death and dying:

"What is neither healthy or natural is the frantic appetite to exist."

"To rid oneself of life is to deprive oneself of the pleasures of deriding it."

"I anticipated witnessing in my lifetime the disappearance of our species. But the gods have been against me."

"Life and death have little enough content...We always know this too late, when it can no longer help us either to live or to die."

"So many memories that loom up without any apparent necessity -- of what use are they except to show us that with age we are becoming external to our own life, that these remote "events" no longer have anything to do with us, and that someday the same will be true of this life itself?"

Cioran's mother's last note to him ended: "Whatever people try to do, they'll regret it sooner or later."

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

I'm taking someone with me

Blaise Pascal, French mathematician, essayist and philosopher, was born on this day in 1623. He wrote:

"We shall die alone."

Pascal himself died at age 39. In his Pensees, he had written:

"For after all what is man in nature? A nothing in relation to infinity, all in relation to nothing, a central point between nothing and all and infinitely far from understanding either. The ends of things and their beginnings are impregnably concealed from him in an impenetrable secret. He is equally incapable of seeing the nothingness out of which he was drawn and the infinite in which he is engulfed."

Monday, June 18, 2018

Erewhonville, man

English novelist Samuel Butler was born on this day in 1835.

In Butler’s most well-known work, the utopian (or dystopian – it’s not always clear) novel, Erewhon, published anonymously in 1872, a traveler named Higgs claims to have visited an undiscovered country, named Erewhon. (Nowhere spelled backwards, or almost.) The book is Butler’s critique of Victorian England.

Narrator Higgs explains the Erewhonians' attitude toward death.

"The Erewhonians regard death with less abhorrence than disease. They insist that the greater number of those who are commonly said to die, have never yet been born--not, at least, into that unseen world which is alone worthy of consideration.”  Can we get a shout-out to Plato? Or maybe Jesus visited Erewhon before Higgs did, during those “missing years.”

In Erewhon, death is no big deal. "The mere knowledge that we shall one day die does not make us very unhappy; no one thinks that he or she will escape, so that none are disappointed.  And why would they be disappointed, since they’ll be headed to that invisible world that is worthy of consideration?

The denizens of Erewhon, Higgs says, "do not put up monuments, or write epitaphs, but they have a custom which comes to much the same thing, for the instinct of preserving the name alive after the death of the body seems to be common to all mankind. They have statues of themselves made while they are still alive (those, that is, who can afford it), and write inscriptions under them, which are often quite as untruthful as are our own epitaphs…”  And why not? Why leave it to someone else to sing our praises? Who among us non-Erewhonians, listening in on our funerals, would be wholly satisfied with the eulogies? Nothing to be done at that point.

"If a person is ugly,” Higgs goes on, “he does not sit as a model for his own statue, although it bears his name. He gets the handsomest of his friends to sit for him, and one of the ways of paying a compliment to another is to ask him to sit for such a statue. Women generally sit for their own statues, from a natural disinclination to admit the superior beauty of a friend, but they expect to be idealised.” The first law of Nature is self-preservation, so be sure and put your best self forward.

Higgs describes the admirable post-death ritual practiced in Erewhon:

"When any one dies, the friends of the family write no letters of condolence, neither do they attend the scattering, nor wear mourning, but they send little boxes filled with artificial tears, and with the name of the sender painted neatly upon the outside of the lid. The tears vary in number from two to fifteen or sixteen, according to degree of intimacy or relationship; and people sometimes find it a nice point of etiquette to know the exact number they ought to send.” (So if sextuplets died, one could theoretically send 96 tears.)

"Strange as it may appear, this attention is highly valued, and its omission by those from whom it might be expected is keenly felt. These tears were formerly stuck with adhesive plaster to the cheeks of the bereaved, and were worn in public for a few months after the death of a relative; they were then banished to the hat or bonnet, and are now no longer worn."

Butler himself died at age 66, in a nursing home in London. His body was cremated (his wish) and the ashes either dispersed or buried in an unmarked grave. There would have been precious few ever to send, or shed, a tear in his memory, had a manuscript of his other famous work, The Way of All Flesh, not been found in a drawer in 1903, leading to a revival and a subsequent intensity of interest in Butler’s works -- a return from the dead.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Death, his bosom friend

Joseph Addison, English politician and co-author with Richard Steele of two famous periodicals, The Tatler and The Spectator, died on this day in 1719. His highly apocryphal last words were:

"See in what peace a Christian can die."

These were supposedly uttered as a challenge to his stepson, Lord Warwick. However, as there is no evidence that Warwick led anything but a blameless existence, the tale is probably a romance.

Addison did, indubitably, say or write the following:

"I have somewhere met with the epitaph on a charitable man which has pleased me very much. I cannot recollect the words, but here is the sense of it: ‘What I spent I lost; what I possessed is left to others; what I gave away remains with me.'"

"The fear of death often proves mortal, and sets people on methods to save their lives, which infallibly destroy them."

"How beautiful is death, when earn'd by virtue!"

"We are always doing something for posterity, but I would fain see posterity do something for us."

And this, not apropos of death but just some words to remember:

"There is no defense against criticism except obscurity."

Saturday, June 16, 2018

To my bed of dirt

As for him, he swallowed kryptonite
George ("Superman") Reeves committed suicide on this day in 1959. He was being visited by friends, when he announced:

"I'm tired. I'm going back to bed."

He went to his bedroom and shot himself in the head.

For a year's worth of super-entertaining last words:

Friday, June 15, 2018

Roses blowin' in the wind?

June is National Rose Month.  This poem by Robert Burns, written in 1794, was cited by Bob Dylan as the biggest influence on his songwriting style.

“O, my Luve's like a red, red rose,
That's newly sprung in June.
O, my Luve's like a melodie
That's sweetly play'd in tune.

As fair as thou, my bonnie lass,
So deep in luve am I;
And I will love thee still, my dear,
Till a' the seas gang dry.

Till a' the seas gang dry, my dear,
And the rocks melt wi' the sun:
I will love thee still, my dear,
While the sands o' life shall run:

And fare thee well, my only luve!
And fare thee weel, a while!
And I will come again, my luve,
Tho' it ware ten thousand mile

Thursday, June 14, 2018

They say journalism is dead, but was it ever alive?

Prolific British author and Christian champion G. K. Chesterton died on this day in 1936.  He was the author of the splendid Father Brown detective tales.  He wrote:

Journalism largely consists in saying "Lord Jones is dead" to people who never knew Lord Jones was alive.”

Today’s deathless verse:

A patron at Kentucky Fried
  Is calmly eating chicken;
A newsman sits down by his side –
  The plot begins to thicken.
With pen in hand, the scribbler dreams
  Of deeds most dire and foul;
The headline on his story screams:

  “Man eating chicken on prowl!”