In which I discuss the theme of death in literature

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Victor Brombert offers an octogenarian’s reflections on death, literature, and the creative process (storytelling, history-creating, poetry-inspiring) in a recent Chronicle of Higher Education. I found his musings of interest partly because I have best beloveds who are octogenarians and partly because Brombert is a dyed-in-the-wool humanities professor (professor emeritus of Romance and comparative literatures at Princeton) whose thoughts on mortality cannot help but have been shaped by his long associations with such texts, as well as by his long life and his experiences. “After Omaha Beach, where I discovered that I decidedly did not have a heroic vocation, I also discovered between the hedgerows of Normandy how repellent the smell of dead cows and dead men can be, how repulsive the sight of half-burned tank drivers finished off by machine-gun bullets, their bodies folded over the turrets, or of gunmen and mechanics who had tried in vain to crawl out of escape hatches,” Brombert recalls; then, he reminds himself that he had considerable warnings about war’s savagery–through literature–citing Montaigne and The Iliad. In fact, he says that “the theme of death stood for me in a special relation to literature.”

About death’s “special relationship with literature,” my education agrees with his. Before I ever had much experience with death in the immediate small circle of my own life, I had encountered it in the books I read voraciously. I knew death could be gruesome, sentimental, slow, quick, painful, transformative, pointless. But I was very young, and I did not, could not, fully understand with what I was engaging: the very question of being and non-being, of what comes “after” and if there is an “after,” and if those words as we know them (temporally) mean anything at all.

Brombert says: “I began to understand that all art and the love of art allow us, according to André Malraux’s famous pronouncement, ‘to negate our nothingness.'” His reading, his studies of art and humanist thinking, “elated” him. He felt drawn to Montaigne, whose essays he calls “flexible and meandering” and whose reflections on mortality seemed affirming in that death itself was “subject to laws of transition, passage, natural progression, or process.”

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Brombert recognized his job as a teacher of literature was a kind of giving voice to the dead. Here, I think of Hofstadter’s conclusion about human consciousness: that it is shared, carried on–in part–by living human beings after the bodily death. Is that troubling, or comforting? Some excerpts:

[W]riting itself was implicitly suffused with the theme of mortality, especially narratives and storytelling in general (the example of Scheherazade of One Thousand and One Nights came to mind) as ways of eluding or delaying the inevitable.

Plato set the tone in the Phaedo when he had Socrates tell his disciples, before drinking the poison hemlock, that true philosophers concern themselves with nothing but dying and death, that philosophy is in fact the study of death. This seemed to me rather excessive.

Though never losing sight of his mortal condition, Montaigne is primarily intrigued by the processes of life, the mutations from day to day, as he watches his own decline and feels, as he puts it, that he is dissolving and slipping away from himself (“Je fons et eschape a moy“). His concern is not with essence or being but rather with transition: “I do not portray being, I portray passing” (“Je peints le passage“). Throughout, his Essays affirm the need to live to the fullest. Yet, in a deep sense, his thought seems prompted by the recurrent sense of the transitory and the perishable.

Kind of dovetails with the concept of impermanence, no?

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On a closing note, and back to my favorite topic of poetry….Billy Collins has claimed that “the theme of poetry is death.” Like Brombert’s assessment of Socrates’ claim, I’m inclined to think this statement is a bit exaggerated. There’s merit to it, however. Worth thinking about.

Collins’ poem “The Dead” offers one way of thinking about death in a poem; this link will take you to a clever animated version of this poem.

And there’s a nice example of paronomasia: animating the dead!

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7 comments on “In which I discuss the theme of death in literature

  1. Rachel Bowman says:

    For me, it was when I took a literature class called Ways of War and Peace that I began to really process my brother’s death. Especially through the beautiful and poetic novel _Fugitive Pieces_ by Anne Michaels.

    Also, I can’t find it anymore, but the thoughts stuck with me: there is an essay about King Lear in which a person dying of cancer says she never really understood the play until she knew she was dying. How could Shakespeare have known?

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    • It’s a good novel! I liked the first half of it better, though–the wartime part. And the author has such a good name…if she’d just delete the extra e and s at the end. 😉

      If you think of the essay, let me know. The last season of the Canadian TV series Slings and Arrows features a storyline in which a dying actor plays King Lear, and it’s rather magnificent.

      I’ve long had an interest in reading the last works of poets.

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  2. I recently got around to seeing Wit (based on the Margaret Edson play). I thought it was unnecessarily dark, but this post reminded me of it. The point, as I see it, is the opposite: the inability of literature to really prepare us for death, to truly capture its gruesomeness. Have you seen it? Though it’s a bummer, you might be interested.

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    • I’ve wanted to see “Wit,” but I’ll have to rent it and be in the right mood to view it. Thanks for reminding me, though! Dr. Brombert seems to disagree with Edson, but his experience has been quite different from that of the protagonist of “Wit.” For one thing, he encountered death’s “gruesomeness” when he was young (in warfare). I wonder if that makes a difference.

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      • I would think so. Edson doesn’t give much but the academic background of the lead, but she seems typically sheltered, all books and no life, which I suppose is the point. To have only a literary experience of death can’t possibly be relevant against the real thing, but I can see how literature can give a context to reality in which we can process it in different ways. Which is of course my argument for continuing to demand that medical students receive a well-rounded education, a point that Edson might surprisingly not agree with. It’s weird; the play is obviously didactic, yet its point seems to be that education is not good preparation for human empathy. All the academics and MD’s are cold, and the only human is a nurse who (ridiculously) doesn’t know the meaning of the word “soporific.”

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  3. emilyardagh says:

    I am so happy to have found your blog. It’s a pleasure to read such a well-expressed exploration of these ideas. Thank you 🙂

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