E.M. Forster, who was sometimes criticized for scattering deaths too wantonly over his own plots, complained of “the studied ignorance of novelists” and advised them to “recapture their interest in death.” He considered that interest to be a necessary element in true creativity. The novelist Julian Barnes easily eludes this criticism, being, as T.S. Eliot said of the dramatist John Webster, “much possessed by death.”
Dying and the mysterious state of being dead may be difficult and necessary subjects for novelists, but the question arises whether they are less urgent for the noncreative who lack the skill to make up stories about them. The whole business may have been easier when dying was considered the occasion for a ritual party for the family, the neighbors, and the clergy, yet apparently even that celebration did not of itself remove the sting. Medieval people also sought secular advice on the problem; for many generations they consulted the Distichs of the heroic Roman Cato, still thought helpful by Polonius in Hamlet, but frankly, in our eyes, not much use:
We well know that death shall come
And our future is unknown:
stealthy as a thief he comes
and body and soul he does part
So be of trust and confidence:
Be not too much afraid of death,
For if you fear him overmuch
Joy you nevermore shall touch.
Note the unhelpful non sequitur: “Death will do terminally bad things to you, so don’t be too afraid of him,—it will spoil your fun.”* Presumably it was not thought inconsistent to quote this advice yet continue to believe that the moment of one’s death was of paramount importance, a prospect to be remembered in daily prayer, and attended, when it arrived, by the appropriate sacraments and supplications—so unlike the awkwardness of the typical modern demise, probably in hospital, very likely alone in the presence of the Four Last Things—Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell—but unqualified to deal even with the first of them.
Included among the observations of Montaigne, who is often credited with the first modern account of death, there is one that notes how ready we are to deceive ourselves as we approach what he describes as “the most remarkable action of human life” (Florio’s translation):
Few men die with a resolution that it is their last hour, [preferring to believe that] the cause is not so desperate as it is taken; and [that] if the worst happen, God hath done greater wonders.
So we can deceive ourselves with hope; and our reason for doing so is simply that “we make too much account of ourselves.”
For Montaigne to die is after all not a weighty matter; just as “to live is no such great thing, thy base grooms and brute beasts live also.” We should reflect, with Montaigne, that our lives are inevitably afflicted by “bad and intolerable accidents”; and we should also remember how boring they can be; that the…
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.