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!”

Monday, June 11, 2018

Apparently he wished to be cremated

Fantasy/adventure writer Robert E. Howard (Conan the Barbarian) committed suicide on this day in 1936. He left a note:

All fled--all done, so lift me on the pyre;
The feast is over, and the lamps expire

which may or may not have been lifted from another source.

A great movie about Howard's life is The Whole Wide World, starring Vincent D'Onofrio.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

He didn't feel so great

Nurse, leeches, please
Alexander the Great died on this day (or on June 11, or perhaps on June 14) in 323 B.C.  He had said a short time before:

"I am dying, with the help of many doctors."

His epitaph:  “"A tomb now suffices him for whom the world was not enough." 

Saturday, June 9, 2018

A hero of my life

Charles Dickens, the world's greatest novelist (in my highly subjective opinion), died on this day in 1870. He was 58.

Dickens captured my imagination and my compulsive attention when I was a kid of 12 or so. One summer I lay on the couch day after day, reading his books one after the other.

"There is perhaps no person living who can remember reading David Copperfield for the first time," wrote Virginia Woolf, but I can, vividly. It was the work of Dickens' that I first essayed, and I was a goner after the opening pages, when David talks about the father he never knew, buried in the churchyard close by their house, and "the indefinable compassion I used to feel for (him) lying out alone there in the dark night."

(My own father had died a couple of years before.)

I re-read Dickens through high school, and in college I had a Dickens seminar, during which our professor would expound, noteless, for three hours at a stretch, twice weekly, about the man and his work. It was a thrilling experience -- here was someone even more in love with Dickens than I was. He particularly loved Copperfield , probably because Dickens himself loved the novel above all his others. ("I have my favourite child, and his name is David Copperfield," Dickens wrote.)

What Woolf meant was that reading this particular novel of Dickens is one of those timeless experiences:

"Like Robinson Crusoe and Grimm's Fairy Tales...Pickwick and David Copperfield are not books, but stories communicated by word of mouth in those tender years when fact and fiction merge, and thus belong to those myths and memories of life...

"We remodel our psychological geography when we read Dickens...What we remember is the ardour, the excitement, the humour; the oddity of people's characters; the smell and soot and savor of London; the incredible coincidences which hook the most remote lives together; the city, the law courts; this man's limp, that man's nose; some scene under and archway or on the high road; and above all some gigantic and dominating figure...stuffed and swollen with life."

Contrary to his wish to be buried in Rochester Cathedral, Dickens was laid to rest in the Poets' Corner of Westminster Abbey. The inscription on his tomb reads:

"He was a sympathiser to the poor, the suffering, and the oppressed; and by his death, one of England's greatest writers is lost to the world."

"Dickens did not merely believe in the brotherhood of man in the weak modern way," wrote G. K. Chesterton; "he was the brotherhood of man, and knew it was a brotherhood in sin as well as in aspiration."