Flann O’Brien’s darkly comic tour of one man’s Hell, the real place, led me to The Oxford Book of Death- e compilation of quotes and wisdom. This one was edited by D.J.Enright, one of those grand old men of literature known as eminent critics; a man who has managed to squeeze a living out of the business of reviewing books. And how do you divide up the references? Into what categories? Does it matter as long as we get some juicy wisdom. And there is some here. Here are the ones that struck me as capturing the essence of the business:
“When compared with the stretch of time unknown to us, O king, the present life on earth is like the flight of a single sparrow through the hall where, in winter, you sit with your captains and ministers. Entering at one door and leaving by another, while it is inside it is untouched by the wintry storm; but this brief interval of calm is over in a moment, and it returns to the winter, whence it came, vanishing from your sight. Man’s life is similar; and of what follows it, or what went before, we are utterly ignorant.”
This was the Venerable Bede, a monk who lived in the north of England around 675-735 A.D. Note he was honest enough not to bore us with guff about Heaven and Hell. And he has put it so simply that it cannot be improved upon. Our lives are no more than a sparrow’s flight through the hall of life. This is the truth. What else can one say about it. Well, a great deal, as it happens:
Alexander Pope puts the objective facts to rhyming couplets:
See dying vegetables life sustain
See life dissolving vegetate again
All forms that perish other forms supply
(By turns we catch the vital breath and die
Like bubbles on the sea of Matter born
They rise, they break and to that sea return.
And yes, of course we can see that. And Pope was not above joking about other people’s deaths (not in the best of taste of course – but funny!) Here is his couplet on a couple killed by lightning
Here lie two poor lovers, who had the mishap
Though very chaste people, to die of a Clap
But of course it is not death in general the concerns us. It is our own death that obsesses us (or not – In my case I have long been an Epicurean, one of those who believe that life is fine as long as it is comfortable but when not, not. There is one thing I fear infinitely more than death – and I speak as one who has just entered The Death Zone (the age of 60 onwards) – and that is a long and helpless long life. My father has just been released from a solitary confinement more punitive than any handed out to a criminal – locked into his own body by advanced Parkinson’s. Also I have seen death – my wife’s, my daughter’s – and this makes an enormous difference. The Japanese poet Issa expressed this more poignantly than anyone ever could:
This world of dew
Is a world of dew
A poem written on the death of a son. Acceptance and regret lashed together.)
It is Andre Malraux who makes this point:
“There is…no death…There is only…me…me…who is going to die…”
Malraux had a full life and lived to the age of 75. He can have no complaints. Twelve more years for me and I would happily follow him. (If I am blessed with 12 more years, the heart twinges from time to time and there are fears (my doctor’s) that I may have had one of those pre-stroke thingies called TIAs – transient ischaemic attacks. I don’t believe I had, and nor did the cardiac specialists that I talked to (they told me they had never heard of the kind of symptoms I had had (it happened the evening of my father’s death (could it have been spirit possession?) – but that’s not what they said in their report (covering their asses)).
And who says the Germans have no sense of humour. Here’s Heine:
The heavenly fields of Paradise,
That happy country, don’t tempt me:
I’ll find no women in the sky
Lovelier than those that here I spy
O Lord I think the best for me’s
To leave me in this world, don’t you?
But first, heal my infirmities
And see about some money too.
And then there’s the matter of epitaphs and last words. I’m sure Oscar Wilde didn’t say: “Either those curtains go, or I do!” But it’s so good I’m sure he would have been pleased to have the ascription. And then there’s this from Malcolm Lowry.
Late of the Bowery (it’s true he was a terrible drunk)
His prose was flowery (hmmm?)
And often glowery
He lived, nightly, and drank, daily
And died playing the ukulele (if only!)
I was pleased to see this as I have in fact been to visit – as many Catholics visit Lourdes – the grave of Malcolm Lowry in Ripe, East Sussex on which, if memory serves, are just his name and dates.
In his book on Savannah, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (a truly wonderful book), John Berendt describes how the poet Conrad Aiken had his grave so arranged that people could sit on it by the river side. Wonderful. And Lowry was once a student of Aiken’s (one of those frivolous links that appear to be significant but aren’t).
And as for me, there will be no epitaphs, no clever last words. I will be cremated and my ashes will be dissolved in the waters of Nam Tam bay on Cheung Chau island, Hong Kong, where, from time to time, when I am able to do so, I spread flowers on the water in remembrance of Bern and Stevie, and some are washed back to the shore and some are taken out to sea. And so it goes..
This story is told in Wordjazz for Stevie http://amzn.to/JdZ2UY