Mortal Thoughts

by Chris Horner

Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death —Wittgenstein

The anaesthetic from which none come round —Phillip Larkin

What can we do with the thought of death? Nothing can be done about death: you, me, everyone will die. Thinking can’t remove the fact. But the thought of death is another matter. We live with it; we get accustomed to it; we put it out of mind.

Not always of course: that epicurean advice meant to comfort us, that ‘where death is, I am not, and where I am death is not’, has its limits, particularly when we wake in the night. So does the admonition that since we don’t grieve for the aeons in the past when we did not exist, we should not mind not existing in the future. For that is what we fear: no future. We are creatures in time, forever projecting ourselves forward, and so the future we might miss weighs with us more than any past we never had. It’s another reason for dismissing the irritating injunction to live every day as if it were one’s last. We can’t do that: we need to know there will be a tomorrow.

Still, we make a pretty good fist of it on a daily basis. It’s as if the knowledge we have can be safely tucked away and disavowed: ‘I know very well how things are…but still…’ But one day, perhaps not too far in the future, we will cease to exist, be erased, vanish forever. For that is what death is, however we dress it with phrases like ‘passing on’. And we – me, you -are only one diagnosis away from that becoming imminent. Closer every day, comes that unimaginable end. Is it like going into a deep dreamless sleep under an anaesthetic and never waking? I hope so. There are lots of bad ways to die but that seems about the best to be wished for. Read more »

Fear of Flying

by Deanna Kreisel (Doctor Waffle Blog)

It’s not about dying, really—it’s about knowing you’re about to die. Not in the abstract way that we haphazardly confront our own mortality as we reach middle age and contemplate getting old. And not even in the way (I imagine) that someone with a terminal diagnosis might think about death—sooner than expected and no longer theoretical. It’s much more immediate than that.

Whenever I teach logical reasoning to my students, I start with a classic syllogism to illustrate deduction: All humans are mortal; Socrates is a human; therefore Socrates is mortal. For an example of inductive reasoning I ask them to think about the major premise of the syllogism: All humans are mortal. How do we know this statement is true? The only reason we assume that anyone currently alive is mortal (including ourselves) is that a very large number of people have died before us. We have no proof.

But if you’re in an airplane hurtling toward the earth, my guess is that such airy sophistries fly right up to the ceiling along with the beverage carts. Suddenly an incurable cancer diagnosis might seem kind of warm and cozy in comparison: you would have some time to get more used to the idea, say your goodbyes, rewrite your will to indulge your current spites. People in a crashing airplane might just have time to clutch an arm or an armrest, gabble a hasty prayer, perhaps make a quick phone call to leave an unerasable message on a loved one’s voicemail.

And that’s what I’m really afraid of: those 60-to-600 seconds. Read more »

Six weeks to live

by Cathy Chua

Ambrose finds out he has only weeks to live. How to spend that time is the premise of The End of the Alphabet (2007). It’s a condensed weepie in which Ambrose decides to visit a series of places with his wife that will take them through the alphabet. Somehow Richardson manages to stick to a minimalist elegance which probably saves the book from being schmaltzy book club fodder. And heck, you’d almost look forward to dying the way it’s put. Bucket list: die like this.

But then, there is real life. I’ve watched people who have been given a few weeks to live and it isn’t anything like art. My friend Richard found out in his mid-fifties. He’d complained about his stomach, been told there was nothing wrong, complained some more and was given the revised verdict. Pancreatic cancer, six weeks left. If it could be reassuring to be told this, he was advised that the first misdiagnosis didn’t matter. Richard spent what time he had left with his family: I felt guilt that we got to visit him for a precious hour. He was a Christian, maybe that inspired the serene and accepting way he set about his dying days.

I read The End of the Alphabet some years after Richard died. It didn’t give me any answers. How would I spend those last days of my life, should I be given that sentence? Perhaps it depends on the odds. Richard’s chances of survival were zero. What if you had ways of making that 1%? Would you take it? What would you be willing to pay to roll that dice? Read more »

The Northern Moment

by Gautam Pemmaraju

Because I could not stop for Death
He kindly stopped for me
The Carriage held but just Ourselves
And Immortality.

– Emily Dickenson


The wise emperor of Marguerite Yourcenar’s masterful Memoirs Of Hadrian, says to his successor Marcus Aurelius that his frail, diseased body is fast approaching its demise. It is the evening of his life. Despite the “vague formulas of reassurance” that his loyal physician Hermogenes offers him in an attempt to mask the imminent end, the sage old man knows that he is sure to die of a dropsical heart. The time and place is uncertain, and he “no longer runs the risk of falling on the frontiers, struck down by a Caledonian axe or pierced by an arrow of the Parths…” but he does know that his days are numbered. His body, a faithful companion all these years, may well turn out to be “a sly beast who will end by devouring his master”. But what of the moment itself, Hadrian contemplates:

I shall die at Tibur or in Rome, or in Naples at the farthest, and a moment’s suffocation will settle the matter. Shall I be carried off by the tenth of these crises, or the hundredth? That is the only question. Like a traveler sailing the Archipelago who sees the luminous mists lift towards evening, and little by little makes out the shore, I begin to discern the profile of my death.

Often enough in literary descriptions we find familiar tropes: the inner light dims, an ethereal illumination brings in the uttara kshanam, a phrase used in literary Telugu to describe the dying moment. A most intriguing phrase if ever, it can be translated in numerous ways but the most literal one appears to me the most elegant. The moment exists ‘up there’, in some mystical northward quadrant, and as we approach it, it reveals itself. As we apprehend it, it embraces us. The Northern Moment is then the final one. It is the peak of earthly life. There is a wide fascination for the dying moment – how will it come to pass, in what circumstances, will it be filled with pain and suffering or under the comforting shroud of sleep, will it be in the presence of loved ones, or alone, on some forsaken highway? Will it be a ‘good death’ or a ‘bad death’? How indeed do we imagine our final moments?

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The Immutable, Dusty Path

by Gautam Pemmaraju

He felt closer to dust, he said, than to light, air or water. There was nothing he found so unbearable as a well-dusted house, and he never felt more at home than in places where things remained undisturbed, muted under the grey, velvety sinter left when matter dissolved, little by little, into nothingness.

6a00d83451bcff69e2012875a9ed93970c-300wiThe narrator of WG Sebald’s The Emigrants informs us that the lonesome painter Max Ferber, worked in a studio in a block of ‘seemingly deserted buildings’ located near the docks of Manchester. His easel, placed in the centre of the room, was illuminated by “the grey light that entered through a high north-facing window layered with the dust of decades”. The floor, the narrator observes, was thickly encrusted by deposits of dried up paint that fell from his canvas as he worked, which in turn mixed up with coal dust, and came to resemble lava in some places. Thinking inwardly that “his prime concern was to increase the dust”, the narrator watches Ferber over the weeks working on a portrait, ‘excavating’ the features of the posing model. The melancholic painter’s tenebrous kinship with the accumulative debris of his days strikes him as profoundly central to the artist’s very existence, for as Ferber says to him, the dust itself “was the true product of his continuing endeavours and the most palpable proof of his failure”. Ferber had come to love the dust ‘more than anything else in the world’, and wished everything to remain unchanged, as it was. In the neon light of the transport café bearing the unlikely name of Wadi Halfa, Ferber’s haunt, and where the two often met after the day’s gloomy exertions in the ‘curious light’ of the studio that made everything seem ‘impenetrable to the gaze’, the narrator observes the dark metallic sheen of Ferber’s skin, particularly due to the fine powdery dust of charcoal. Commenting on his darkened skin, Ferber informs his companion that silver poisoning was not uncommon amongst professional photographers and that there was even an extreme case recorded in the British Medical Association’s archives:

In the 1930s there was a photographic lab assistant in Manchester whose body had absorbed so much silver in the course of a lengthy professional life that he had become a kind of photographic plate, which was apparent in the fact (as Ferber solemnly informed me) that the man’s face and hands turned blue in strong light, or, as one might say, developed.

Atmazagaon1In Carloyn Steedman’s Dust (2001), an intriguing collection of essays on a most curious set of concerns, she writes that in the early 19th century “a range of occupational hazards was understood to be attendant on the activity of scholarship”. She makes clear the distinctions between Derrida’s seminal meditations on Archive Fever (see some interesting entries here, here & here), the febrile “desire to recover moments of inception; to find and possess all sorts of beginnings”, from Archive Fever Proper. There was a specific attention to dust and the ill effects it had on artisans and factory workers, during the 19th century and the early 20th century. She points to Charles Thackrah’s investigations into the occupational diseases arising from various trades, particularly in the textile industry, wherein the employments produced ‘a dust or vapour decidedly injurious’. In John Forbes’ Cyclopeadia of Practical Medicine of 1833, Steedman writes, there was also an entry on ‘the diseases of literary men’, a subject of interest among investigators, albeit, for a short thirty year period between 1820 to 1850. In Forbes’ view, the ‘brain fever’, no mere figure of speech as Steedman points out, was a malaise of scholars caused predominantly “‘from want of exercise, very frequently from breathing the same atmosphere too long, from the curved position of the body, and from too ardent exercise of the brain.’”

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