03 December 2016

A few quotes on death


To be ready to die. To act while knowing that your deed might result in your death.

Last night I watched the documentary King: A Filmed Record… Montgomery to Memphis (1970) about Martin Luther King Jr. I am in awe of King: he is a god to me. I don’t follow any organized, official religion, but when King speaks of Jesus and epitomizes his teachings, it truly moves me. The idea of nonviolence moves me, especially in this age of constant war.

I’m afraid of death. I am NOT ready to die. I’m a pampered tosspot who wants to remain babied forever. And I’m ashamed of this; I only admit it to force myself to perceive its ugliness: the first step in solving a problem is facing it. But I’m also afraid that if I get comfortable with the idea of death, I might learn to like it too much; I might even desire it. This last fear can be conquered by living for passion rather than necessity. Have something to live FOR. To stay alive just to stay alive – that is a cycle not worth saving. But to strive for the sake of humanity, as King did, centers the worlds of suffering and bliss. Although one doesn’t yearn for death or seek it out, one doesn’t shrink from it either: one’s fear is transcended by the knowledge that one’s life is being well spent.

This topic reminds me of something I recently read: an interview with Cornel West (another hero of mine). Here’s an excerpt:

What’s with the black suit, white shirt, black tie outfit you always wear? Do you have anything else in your closet?

I’ve got four black suits that I circulate, and they are my cemetery clothes — my uniform that keeps me ready for battle.

Your cemetery clothes?

It’s ready to die, brother. If I drop dead, I am coffin-ready. I got my tie, my white shirt, everything. Just fix my Afro nice in the coffin.

That’s an attitude that I admire and would love to acquire. Now I’m reminded of Socrates’ remark, from Plato’s Phaedo:

I prefer to have a bath before drinking the poison, rather than give the women the trouble of washing me when I am dead.

Also my idol Marcel Duchamp wrote this epitaph that appears on his headstone:

D’ailleurs, c’est toujours les autres qui meurent
[Besides, it is always the others who die]

And, for me, everything always manages to funnel towards Hamlet. Here are his famous lines from Shakespeare’s play:

We defy augury. There is a special providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now, ’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all. Since no man, of aught he leaves, knows aught, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be.

I’ve always puzzled over the fact that, when he is actually dying, Hamlet’s last request of his friend Horatio is to “tell my story.” It seems odd to me that he would bother about this, when so much else that any common soul would care for—like the nonchalant slaughter of relations—seems not to concern Hamlet. Maybe the point is that poetry outshines reality; with poetry meaning reality’s embellished retelling, as Werner Herzog opposes the “ecstatic truth” to the “accountant’s truth”; and since history, or biography, is in essence creative play, it is therefore vital.

I guess this entry wants to be an accumulation of quotes; why fight it? Here’s a passage from Harold Bloom’s Hamlet: Poem Unlimited.

Hamlet dies an extraordinarily extended death: it takes nearly sixty lines from the fatal wound through “the rest is silence.” There is no reason it could not go on for six hundred lines: Hamlet would continue to dazzle us.

There are also many fine things said by Shakespeare’s other sacred (anti)hero, Falstaff; yet I’ll underrepresent Sir John with just this one exchange:

PRINCE: …thou owest God a death.

FALSTAFF: ’Tis not due yet; I would be loath to pay him before his day. What need I be so forward with him that calls not on me?

And here’s a paragraph from Schopenhauer (translated by T. Bailey Saunders), from the essay “On Suicide”:

It will generally be found that, as soon as the terrors of life reach the point at which they outweigh the terrors of death, a man will put an end to his life. But the terrors of death offer considerable resistance; they stand like a sentinel at the gate leading out of this world. Perhaps there is no man alive who would not have already put an end to his life, if this end had been of a purely negative character, a sudden stoppage of existence. There is something positive about it; it is the destruction of the body; and a man shrinks from that, because his body is the manifestation of the will to live.

This reminds me of Hamlet’s mega-famous “to be or not” reflection, where he muses that if “to die” means no more than “to sleep,” then it is “a consummation devoutly to be wish’d” (perhaps no man alive would bear time’s evils, if “he himself might his quietus make”); yet if sleeping leads to dreaming, then the thought of just what type of dreams might come “must give us pause”: the “dread of something after death…”

…makes us rather bear those ills we have
Than fly to others that we know not of…

But enough about dying. Why waste life carping on death, when flux is the only great constant!

If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry; Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately. She will do this job perfectly for you; don’t bother your head about it.

That’s the sound advice of Michel de Montaigne, who I’m told was a major influence on Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The sentiment reminds me of the ending of the 2008 film Synecdoche, New York (which if anyone has not seen, let him or her set out in search of this day). The above translation is Donald Frame’s, by the way. I recalled seeing this exact excerpt in another book by Harold Bloom (Where Shall Wisdom Be Found?), and I assumed that it was from Montaigne’s essay “Of experience” but it turns out that it’s actually from “Of physiognomy.” Since I re-read the entirety of the former before realizing my mistake, let me compensate my effort by copying one last quotation. The following really is from “Of experience” (near the very end); and although it has not much to do with the subject at hand, it seems pertinent to our Age of High-speed Everything:

Aesop, that great man, saw his master pissing as he walked. “What next?” he said. “Shall we have to shit as we run?” Let us manage our time; we shall have a lot left idle and ill spent.


M.P. Powers said...

Another excellent essay, Sir. As I'm sure you know by now, a lot of the names in it are near to my heart, but I don't think we've ever confabbed over Montaigne. One of my faves! Not surprised you feel the same...

Bryan Ray said...

Ah thanks!! I swear, if anyone else were to claim a love of Montaigne (although this should be the opposite of unusual), I would croak with surprise! but when I hear it from you, please take it as a compliment that my feeling is: it makes perfect sense. I think we are spiritual siblings that got thrown into this kaleidoscope through separate passageways, or as Whitman calls them: “sills of the exquisite flexible doors.” Brothers from other mothers. …Thanks again for baffling probability by reading this!

M.P. Powers said...

I am in full agreement re: your above statements about brotherhood. You're the first person I've ever met who shares my literary tastes. Very refreshing, but it shouldn't be surprising. What's surprising is all the people who don't read Montaigne, for instance. What a sad creature the human animal is! Oh well, I guess I should start getting more interested in sports and money and cars. Maybe start beating my girlfriend, etc. Anything to take my mind off thinking.


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