The Chronicle Review

Intimations of Mortality


September 23, 2013

In one's 80s it is perhaps normal to scan the daily obituaries, take note of the average age of the departed, and dream of delaying tactics. But the preoccupation may not be new. Ever since, as a little boy, I found the lifeless body of my pet canary, which only the day before had pecked at my finger through the bars of its cage, I knew that I too was fragile.

The death of the canary was perhaps soon forgotten. Not so the calamity of my sister Nora's death from a brain tumor at the age of 5. I was all of 7. I sobbed, together with my mother, when she told me. But I began to resent my parents' grief, torn between self-pity and guilt. Nora's malady had found me partly indifferent. With time I understood that my parents would never really recover.

Years later, when they too died—first my mother, then my father after a long and lonely widowhood—I timidly approached their caskets. The marblelike immobility of Mama's exposed face in the funeral parlor made me think of the tombs and sarcophagi in the Egyptian rooms at the Louvre that so intrigued her and to which she insisted on taking me on many a Sunday. Of my father's exposed face, I still clearly see one enlarged pore. And I periodically relive the sense of desolation and remorse I felt at his burial on a snowy day, with only a few family members in attendance.

Then there are the trains I so loved in my childhood, and continue to love in their remembered glory, but which carry sinister associations with wartime Europe. Someone dear to me was deported with her infant child, as was my Aunt Anya, similarly conveyed in a boxcar to the death camp in Ausch­witz. They were merely two among anonymous millions. Later I found out about others, former school friends and playmates.

So much since childhood prevented me from thinking that I was invulnerable or that I could be reckless with impunity. As an overprotected boy, I learned after each minor illness to value convalescence as a sensuous return to life, when the simplest sensations—the taste of water, scents in the air—revealed themselves as rediscovered pleasures. When our teachers at the lycée asked us to compose various "dialogues of the dead"—such as imaginary conversations between Pascal and Montaigne or Racine and Voltaire—these remained tedious and abstract school exercises, leaving me unconcerned. Far more troubling was the occasional dialogue I carried on with myself during my adolescent years. Why me? My unreality was early impressed on me when I discovered that I had come very close to nonbeing, had my mother not decided to undergo a delicate operation enabling her to conceive. That too worked both ways, intensifying my delight in being alive. Why me? was turned into, Why not me? And that reminded me once again of my vulnerability. Every wound could be mortal.

Then came the war. 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—many of them disfigured beyond recognition by fire.

Literature had warned me of war's savagery. In his essay "Of Cannibals," Montaigne denounces war as a malignant human disease, pointing out that civilized savagery was more barbarous than the barbarity of primitive savages. As for war's raw ferocity, nothing could outdo Homer's Iliad, which endlessly describes the butchery of men, how they are hacked to pieces, their bones cracked, their eye sockets cut clear through by spears, how the killer gloats over the felled body of the enemy. And yet how unabated the lust for battle remains, despite the yawning gates of Hades.

Death never lets us down. Not even writing about death decreases the fear of it.

Back from the war, settled as a student in a rented room next to a funeral parlor, I could hear during the early-morning hours the limousines depart, conveying their coffined loads to the town's periphery. My own thoughts were often even darker than those ceremonial vehicles. But the books I studied rescued me from the grim scenarios I invented, even when their authors spoke of the vanity of existence, of all strivings, of all careers. I was elated by my readings. Much in the same spirit, I later came to appreciate the uplifting nature of certain still lifes, despite the grim symbolic accessories—the hourglass, the skull, the extinguished candle—that characterize those natures mortes. For 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."

The theme of death stood for me in a special relation to literature. When I was still a boy, my pacifist parents insisted that I read antiwar novels about the First World War, urging on me Erich Maria Remarque's All Quiet on the Western Front, Henri Barbusse's Under Fire (Le feu), and Roland Dorgelès's Wooden Crosses (Les croix de bois). Not always with the expected results, for in my daydreams, I began to envy the frontline experiences of comradeship and acts of courage. But I was deeply disturbed by the accounts of assault waves going over the top to reach the enemy trenches, the horror of artillery barrages, the slow agony of the wounded entangled in the barbed wire of the no man's land.

More poetic exposures to literary representations of death took place in school. One of our provocative young teachers advised us to read Baudelaire, who was at the time still considered an immoral poet and therefore excluded from the school curriculum. We were tipped off to read "Une charogne," describing an animal carcass lying in the sun-drenched countryside teeming with worms, as well as the cycle of poems "La mort." As for our English teachers, they seemed to have a predilection for Keats's sonnet "When I have thoughts that I may cease to be," in which the poet ultimately stares into nothingness, and for Tennyson's poem "Tithonus," about a mortal who, as the lover of a goddess, was granted immortality (though not eternal youth), and with advancing age yearns for death.

It would seem there was no escape. Even later university readings of philosophers led again and again to the "daily dying," the cotidie morimur of the Roman Stoic Seneca.

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.

I was more taken with Montaigne, in whose flexible and meandering Essays thoughts of death seemed omnipresent but subject to laws of transition, passage, natural progression, or process. During his early Stoic phase, Montaigne appeared to echo Plato when he entitled one of his essays "That to Philosophize Is to Learn to Die." But soon he began to prize a seasoned cohabitation with what the flesh is heir to and implicitly affirmed his attachment to life while watching with bemusement his own decline.

Pascal, who across a century took up a quarrel with Montaigne, struck a more properly tragic note, as in his Pensées he crisply denounced the state of denial in which human beings choose to live, distracted by worldly divertissements so as not to face their mortal condition.

Plato, Montaigne, Pascal—those were the major figures in the philosophical pantheon of my student days. But concurrently, in my literature classes, I came to be moved by poems such as John Donne's defiant sonnet "Death Be Not Proud," which concludes on the paradoxically triumphant note that, for the dead, death shall be no more, that death shall die. I was later even more moved—no doubt because of the association with the horrors of Stalin's regime—by the poet Anna Akhmatova's lyric utterances about the regenerative virtues of the poetic logos, the Word that causes death's defeat. These sounded to me like true declarations of freedom.

Literary musings on mortality had of course their romantic side: the dreamy evocation of cemeteries and ruins, the yearning for a return, the nostalgia or Sehnsucht for eternal rest so eloquently expressed in Hymns to the Night by the German poet Novalis. Such notions of death as a poetic principle of life did not altogether appeal to me. But, as I prepared for teaching a literature belonging largely to the past, I came increasingly to view my teachers and myself as engaged in giving a voice to the dead. And writing 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.

Historians have studied the changing role the awareness of death has played in different societies. In a broad survey, Philippe Ariès examined these changes in Western attitudes: notions of pious and heroic deaths, ceremonials and solemnities linked to the art of dying properly, the social importance of burial grounds. His The Hour of Our Death (L'homme devant la mort, 1977) describes the evolution over the past thousand years from the Middle Ages, which cultivated the art of dying well and ceremonially, to the modern desacralization and sanitation of all mortuary realities.

Poets have on the whole stressed the timeless aspects of the mortal condition, even when they provocatively set up an utterly banal contemporary event against an iconic death scene belonging to the "heroic past." Thus, by juxtaposing in "Sweeney among the Nightingales" the murder of King Agamemnon with that of common Sweeney in a sordid pub, T.S. Eliot ironically stresses the incongruous association of these two events yet brings out the universal behind the startling discrepancy. Eliot's nightingales continue to sing in the degraded present, just as they sang in the "bloody wood" when Agamemnon's death cry could be heard.

In his witty yet anguished Nothing to Be Frightened Of (2008), Julian Barnes makes much of the wake-up call of mortality (Barnes uses the French réveil mortel) to describe the fear of death, the timor mortis, the sense of panic when we suddenly feel that we are in a "rented world," that we are living, as the saying goes, on borrowed time. Like Pascal's chained prisoners, who are ignorant of the day of their execution, we are in the dark as to when and how death, the terrorist, will strike.

My own réveil mortel came early and on many occasions, most recently when I learned that all 10 members of the two teams of "Ritchie Boys" with whom I landed on a beach in Normandy, and who later managed to survive in the Battle of the Bulge, were no longer of this world. It was a reminder of the disappearance of an entire generation. Barnes mentions attempts at consolations. But as he put it wryly: "Death never lets you down." It remains on call 24 hours a day, all week long. Nothing seems to help. Not even writing about death decreases the fear of it.

There is an Italian saying one hears occasionally when things go really wrong or when someone wants to express a so-called philosophical resignation in the face of the downward ways of this world: "Aiuta a morire" (it makes dying easier—literally, it helps one to die). Some real philosophers take a loftier view of death, relating dying and death to the very meaning of life, to the essence of things, to philosophy itself.

Perhaps the most striking and pithy statement linking death to essence and being (as opposed to existential flux) is to be found in Hegel's punning formulation in his Science of Logic, equating Wesen (Being) with the past verb form gewesen (has been), that which is already posthumous. Being is what has been. It is in that same sense that, in a disquisition on the nature of genius and the eternity of art, Victor Hugo proclaims that great artists become totally themselves only in death: "Ayant été, ils sont" (Having been, they are).

Some thinkers, like Montaigne, are more attentive to flux and modulations. 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.

Perhaps all thought and all art ultimately find their source in intimations of mortality. Once again, Malraux's oracular pronouncements come to mind, as does his unverifiable, though inspiriting, notion that the first caveman who felt compelled to draw a bison on the stone wall of his cave knew that both he and the bison were mortal but that the act of depicting the perishable animal was somehow a way "to negate our nothingness."

Victor Brombert is a professor emeritus of Romance and comparative literatures at Princeton University and the author, most recently, of Musings on Mortality: From Tolstoy to Primo Levi, from which this essay is adapted. The book will be published by the University of Chicago Press in October.