The Dabbler published some of my mutterings on sex and death and Woody Allen while I was out last week.
Tag Archives: Death
I had to forgive myself this past weekend for not finishing a Henry James novel. Earlier this year I’d read maybe a dozen of his shorter fictions, all of them with relish. The Middle Years, The Pupil, The Liar, The Real Thing, and The Altar of the Dead were personal favorites. Time again, I thought, to try one of his later “masterpieces.” Having failed before with The Ambassadors, I turned instead to The Wings of the Dove. I was defeated, however, after only two hundred pages. The psychological minutiae and circumlocutions of James’s portraiture, which I could bear lightly enough in short form, began to feel like one of those leaden bibs donned for x-rays at the dentist’s office. Life, I decided, was simply too short to voluntarily endure suffocation like this for another four hundred pages.
It’s not entirely up to me, of course, but I do hope to continue as a viable organism for a long time yet. Unfortunately, my doctor tells me that my cholesterol is a bit of a problem. Not that it’s so very high, but it’s a little high for a regular Joe, and higher still for a forty-year-old man like myself whose father had a heart attack at age forty-nine. My grandfather too had his first heart attack about fifty, and his father – an Iowa farmer – died of cardiac arrest in the fields near the same age. Accompanied by no extravagant risk factors which might explain it or give prevention an easy target, heart disease with us is a family tradition. With regard to this particular tradition, however, I aim for apostasy.
To that end, my new doctor, a talkative British Indian man my own age, would like to see me on statins. The wife and I have opted first to see what could be done by an aggressive change of diet. As such, though I’m still allowed minor indulgences (a glass of wine, a small square of dark chocolate), the foods I generally prefer to eat are now out of the question. Goodbye therefore to beef. Goodbye to sausage and bacon and cooking with lots of butter. There will be no more French bread and cheese just for the hell of it. I’m learning to feel a little hungry all the time and not to expect much of lunch or dinner.
You grow older and you notice that people tend rather easily to die. Not that death itself is easy, but the routes by which one may arrive at it are surprisingly numerous and convenient. The expressway to the grave is always near at hand. I assume that I will die one day of heart disease, but I might just as easily die of cancer, or an automobile accident, or by fire, or by drowning at sea, or by being crushed in a subterranean parking garage during an earthquake. It must be especially horrible to know that you are right now suffering from a disease that will, in all likelihood, put you into the flowerbed before long. Persons I know and care about are facing that prospect as I write. But living itself is a terminal condition and no one is finally spared the hard prognosis. In the cosmic scheme all human lives are brief. Some are only slightly briefer than others.
One thing I have so far avoided in my grudging play for healthfulness is initiation into the modern cult of exercise. Walking or bicycle riding for pleasure I will gladly engage in, but programmatic exercise regimens of the sort that my neighbors and coworkers apparently enjoy seem to me more than a little absurd. What would our forebears three or four generations ago have made this habit of unnecessary exertion, of middle-age denialists signing up in droves for spinning classes, or CrossFit, or (God forbid) parkour? Though rooted, it seems, in the denial of decay and mortality, there’s nonetheless an element of the hypocritically ascetic in it. If our employment is no longer honest enough that we break a sweat in earning our bread (only white-collar workers exercise), then we will force the sweat of virtue from our pores as an act of penance. Immediately afterwards, of course, we trumpet our accomplishments through social media.
On setting aside The Wings of the Dove I began thumbing again through a small volume of Robert Louis Stevenson’s non-fiction. After the rather tedious company that I’m afraid James had become, RLS was all charm and good humor. In his essay on Thoreau, Stevenson warns against the delicate, fearful, self-obsessed pursuit of healthfulness. “True health,” he says, “is to be able to do without it.” He knew personally of what he spoke, but one shouldn’t press the aphorism too far. Eventually we all, in fact, do without it, but this state in its final form is known as death and not health. Nonetheless, to learn to accept with a good grace the inevitability of one’s own decrepitude, with the restrictions on liberty and pleasure which it necessarily imposes – well, that seems a health goal worthy of pursuit.
My wife informs me that she had a romantic dream the other night involving Bill Murray. I asked her whether it was Ghostbusters-era Bill Murray or present-day Bill Murray. She wasn’t sure but said that his hair was definitely gray. It seems that as we age our notion of what’s attractive in members of the opposite sex keeps pace with us. When I was eighteen, I remember thinking it impossible I could ever find a thirty-eight-year-old woman appealing. Now I’m amazed to think that I ever found eighteen-year-olds appealing. When I’m seventy, I suppose that fifty-year-olds will look like pre-adolescents. At any rate, I can hardly blame Mr Murray for taking his chances with my wife.
Meanwhile our cat has died. More precisely, she was euthanized. It turns out that she had cancer in her bowels, which probably explains why she had taken to shitting in the hallway and vomiting over par this last year. She was just shy of twenty. I married into her acquaintance, but my wife had adopted her as a kitten from the Humane Society, back when Bill Murray was notably less gray than he is now. I used to make morbid jokes about the cat, as if I might willingly hasten her departure from this vale of tears. But in fact I miss her getting in the way when I’m reading on the couch. I miss her too-early good-mornings and the patter of her little feet on the wood floors.
Praying at bedtime with the kids, we ask God’s mercy on the soul of our cat. I suppose that cats must have souls as well as people. Why not? We miss them similarly when they’re gone. Reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s Travels with a Donkey the other day, I found this poignant bit on mortal farewells: “The world gives and takes away, and brings sweethearts near only to separate them again into distant and strange lands; but to love is the great amulet which makes the world a garden; and ‘hope, which comes to all,’ outwears the accidents of life, and reaches with tremulous hand beyond the grave and death. Easy to say: yea, but also, by God’s mercy, both easy and grateful to believe.” It’s the kind of passage I might like to have read at my own funeral, by Bill Murray.
“I felt no trace whatever of fear; it was pure delight and welcome.” William James, on the infamous morning of April 18, 1906, woke to a real earthquake, his first. He was visiting Stanford University, thirty miles below San Francisco. A number of the brick dormitories and other campus buildings collapsed, though James was unharmed. Fascinated, he traveled into the city where he spent all day touring the rubble and watching the progress of the fire.
James was impressed by the general lack of histrionics. Survivors survived and made little fuss about it. The dead made no fuss at all. What particularly interested him was the strange vigor and excitement that he – and so many others – reported feeling. It was out of place, but undeniable. “Mental pathos and anguish, I fancy, are usually effects of distance,” he wrote. “At the place of action, where all are concerned together, healthy animal insensibility and heartiness take their place.”
Three hundred and some years earlier, Michel de Montaigne was nearly killed in a riding accident. He was knocked to the ground, delirious and vomiting blood. His companions were horrified at his apparent suffering, but Montaigne himself experienced the moment quite differently. Though he expected to die, he was in a state near ecstasy. “It seemed to me that my life was hanging only by the tip of my lips; I closed my eyes in order, it seemed to me, to help push it out, and took pleasure in growing languid and letting myself go.”
“I believe,” he says, “that this is the same state in which people find themselves whom we see fainting with weakness in the agony of death, and I maintain that we pity them without cause.” Our pity of the dying, Montaigne suggests, is an effect of distance similar to what James describes. To move from health to the worst extremities of disease and injury seems, from where we stand, a horrible traverse. But the conclusions we draw from our perception of the moment may not correspond at all to the inward experience of the sufferer. (It would be nice to believe this.)
There are, of course, various philosophical approaches to suffering. One is to suggest that suffering is the basic condition of existence and the lack of it only a brief anomaly. Another is to see in suffering something which may contribute toward a higher good, in this world or the next. Yet another is to deny that suffering is real at all. It’s tempting, but wrong, to read this last view into James and Montaigne. They don’t mean to suggest that suffering is illusion, only that we are wrong to imagine we always understand or recognize it.
Human beings have no monopoly on suffering and death. All living things die, and most, it seems, are capable of suffering to one degree or another. How many trillions of creatures were starved, maimed, crushed, tortured, devoured, or killed by disease before our ancestors ever came down from the trees? Some people find the idea of a life founded on these conditions intolerable and so they choose to believe in a primordial state without disease or violence, and a historic fall from that condition to our present one. They feel that suffering and death prove a sort of satanic disruption in the cosmos.
If there is a mystery to suffering, we’re not likely to solve it. Part of what James, at least, seems to have experienced, was the thrill of survival. I felt it myself in the first days after a car accident in which I was knocked unconscious and for an hour or two lost my memory. Even when we do not personally survive, however, survival is the universal rule. The world continues without us, and the life that we shared in for our portion of eternity is practically indestructible. I draw no conclusions, but this may provide a handle by which to turn the problem around in curious ways. In a passage from Walden Thoreau almost exonerates a murderous universe:
“I love to see that Nature is so rife with life that myriads can be afforded to be sacrificed and suffered to prey on one another; that tender organizations can be so serenely squashed out of existence like pulp, – tadpoles which herons gobble up, and tortoises and toads run over in the road; and that sometimes it has rained flesh and blood! With the liability to accident, we must see how little account is to be made of it. The impression made on a wise man is that of universal innocence. Poison is not poisonous after all, nor are any wounds fatal.”
The only thing I can think of that distinguishes a man is a death sentence, Mathilde thought: it’s all there is that can’t be bought.
~ Stendhal, The Red and the Black
Death sentences aren’t sold only because we each get one free of charge at the moment of birth. There are ways to move up the date, but this is not recommended. As boys, my brother and I used to joke that dying was the only thing you ever really had to do in life; everything else was purely elective. Funny, I don’t remember us being morbid kids, and neither of us had read ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’ yet.
Hrapp soon died…and difficult as he had been to deal with during his life, he was now very much worse after death, for his corpse would not rest in its grave; people say he murdered most of his servants after death, and caused grievous harm to most of his neighbours.
~ Laxdaela Saga
The histories of nations and families alike are thick with just this sort of zombie, deceased persons of such potent awfulness that their malice keeps spending itself even after death. The sign of a virtuous life and a spirit of philanthropy is to leave your survivors unhaunted and simply stay buried.
Happy are they whom privacy makes innocent, who deal so with men in this world, that they are not afraid to meet them in the next, who when they die, make no commotion among the dead.
~ Sir Thomas Browne, Hydriotaphia, or Urne-Buriall
A beatitude of anonymity. I am torn, day to day, between the comical lust for my name to live on the lips of future generations (for what accomplishments, I don’t know), and the more comfortable ambition of passing unremarked into death and fertilizing some convenient tree. I like most trees better than I like most people.
Life is the sum of the functions by which death is resisted.
~ Xavier Bichat, Physiological Researches on Life and Death
The most succinct explanations are sometimes the most inadequate. Bichat himself died at age thirty after falling down the stairs. I’m tempted to say that he was asking for it. But what is any man’s death except the sum of the functions by which he eventually succumbs to gravity?
She had carried me, dead, in her heart for three kilometers.
~ Jules Renard, Journals
To bear news of a death (prematurely in Renard’s case) will convince anyone that words have mass and weight. I once learned of an acquaintance’s suicide before his girlfriend, a close friend of mine, knew about it. I understood that to tell her myself would mean the end of our relationship as it had existed. I told myself it was a friend’s duty to see that she didn’t hear it from a stranger. Which seems right. But it’s also true that, as a nineteen-year-old ravenous for anything savoring of adult life, I was secretly thrilled at the prospect of being the awful messenger. I carried his corpse for two hours before finally delivering it to her.
Twenty years ago I was somehow able to think about sex all day long. I could think about sex even when I wasn’t thinking about it. Temporarily distracted by bus schedules, term papers, potential muggers, or the likelihood of being able to pay my rent, sex still bubbled away undisturbed at the back of the old brain. Somewhere along the way, however, I traded my preoccupation with sex for a preoccupation with mortality. Death is the slow simmer now.
You might think that this would make me no fun to be around, but not so. I can be very charming when I happen to notice you or when I’ve downed a couple drinks. I don’t think my friends would consider me a morbid person. But then no one who knew me as an eighteen-year-old would have considered me a sex-obsessed monomaniac either.
Twenty years ago my experience of sex was, let’s say, comprehensively limited. I knew a bit about it, of course, the various scenarios in which it might occur, the basic biological processes involved. I knew people who had actually had sex. My experience of death today is similarly limited. I know a bit about it, the various scenarios in which it might occur and the basic biological processes involved. I know people who have actually died. But death for me (knock on wood) is still virgin territory.
Faced with the great catalog of life’s alumni, some people will panic at the thought of their own graduation day. Others find comfort in the thought of joining the beloved and admired who have gone before. Some may look to death as a final opportunity for rebellion or individualistic self-expression, but you might just as well see it as the ultimate surrender to peer pressure.
If death is a problem for you, religion may offer some limited assistance. “Limited” because you’ll always question your motives for faith if fear of death is what brings you to it. You may be so scared of dying that you’ll believe anything to make it seem less horrible. Anyway, religious solace only goes so far. If death is mere illusion, then life probably is too, and you’re back where you started. And even if there is a resurrection for dessert, you still have to eat your vegetables first.
Philosophy isn’t very helpful either. Spinoza wrote that the wisdom of a free man is a meditation on life rather than death, but he had to meditate on death a bit even to write that sentence. Socrates said that the whole business of philosophy was learning how to die. He said this because his sort of philosophy was all about cutting the threads that bind the divine and ethereal soul to the stinking, lice-ridden flesh – which is, conveniently, what death does too.
Montaigne wanted to endorse something like Socrates’ notion of philosophy in his earlier essays, but he couldn’t reconcile himself to making life into a death cult. Montaigne’s solution to the problem of death – if you want to call it a solution – was to not think of it as a problem in the first place. In his final essay, Of Experience, he recommends that we gratefully accept the world as God hands it to us, sex and death and all. It’s not as if we’re in a position to negotiate a better deal.
Death manages to feel like a problem anyway. I’m afraid of my children dying, or my wife. I’m less afraid, I think, of my own death, but I may be fooling myself. Twenty years ago I never would have admitted that I was afraid of sex, but of course I was terrified.
I can’t think about any of this without remembering Woody Allen’s 1975 send-up of Russian literature, Love and Death. In one scene, Boris (Allen) gets conscripted into the army that will face off against Napoleon, but before leaving he visits his cousin Sonja (Diane Keaton), whom he’s always loved. Full of foreboding on his own account, he asks Sonja if she’s scared of dying.
“Scared is the wrong word,” she answers, “I’m frightened of it.” An interesting distinction, Boris says.