Sunday, 4 September 2011

A literary lament for death and dying

It's a coincidence that this delightful post should follow soon after Five Minute Fiction: Dead Imagination. But really, what is it about death and dying that captures the fertile imagination of writers of fiction? Why have some of the world's most famous authors obsessed with this glorious reality? What impels them to wax eloquent about a historical fact of life? Why is there acceptance and denial of the final hour and grand journey to the netherworld? How do you explain their morbid sense of humour? Really, what is the deathly excitement all about?

I don't know the answers to all these questions but the following literary czars with a predilection for death talk might be able to satisfy your curiosity.
Go Maugham...

Dying is a very dull, dreary affair. And my advice to you is to have nothing whatever to do with it.

If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph: THE ONLY PROOF HE NEEDED FOR THE EXISTENCE OF GOD WAS MUSIC.

Thank Heaven! the crisis — The danger, is past, and the lingering illness, is over at last —, and the fever called "Living" is conquered at last.

Death doesn't exist. It never did, it never will. But we've drawn so many pictures of it, so many years, trying to pin it down, comprehend it, we've got to thinking of it as an entity, strangely alive and greedy. All it is, however, is a stopped watch, a loss, an end, a darkness. Nothing.

I have wrestled with death. It is the most unexciting contest you can imagine. It takes place in an impalpable grayness, with nothing underfoot, with nothing around, without spectators, without clamor, without glory, without the great desire of victory, without the great fear of defeat.

Ignore death up to the last moment; then, when it can't be ignored any longer, have yourself squirted full of morphia and shuffle off in a coma. Thoroughly sensible, humane and scientific, eh?

Against you I will fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O Death!

Let us endeavour so to live that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry.

The call of death is a call of love. Death can be sweet if we answer it in the affirmative, if we accept it as one of the great eternal forms of life and transformation.

For those who live neither with religious consolations about death nor with a sense of death (or of anything else) as natural, death is the obscene mystery, the ultimate affront, the thing that cannot be controlled. It can only be denied.

Well, there's a remedy for all things but death, which will be sure to lay us flat one time or other.

Woe, woe, woe... in a little while we shall all be dead. Therefore let us behave as though we were dead already.

It is not death, but dying, which is terrible.

Boy, when you are dead, they really fix you up. I hope to hell when I do die somebody has sense enough to just dump me in the river or something. Anything except sticking me in a goddam cemetery. People coming and putting a bunch of flowers on your stomach on Sunday and all that crap. Who wants flowers when you are dead? Nobody.

Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have.

NEXT UP ON DEATH AND DYING: Poets, Actors, Satirists, Playrights, Scientists, Politicians...


  1. Love these quotes! My favorite is Mark Twain's. But also Somerset Maughn's.

    Aldous Huxley has hit the nail on the head, I think. :)

  2. Dark but brilliant — that's how I would describe quotes by most of the early authors. They were so profound. Among present-day writers, Woody Allen is on my guest list. I like his brand of humour.

  3. And I'll step in here just to note at the moment that the author of VENUS ON THE HALF SHELL wasn't Vonnegut but Philip Jose Farmer (I responded in slightly longer form on James Reasoner's blog).

    Thanks for enrolling my blog in your links!

  4. Well, at some level or another, writers are fascinated with how life and the world work, and death is certainly an unavoidable part of that...along with being feared and/or welcomed as it is by every person who can form that kind o thought...

  5. You're most welcome, Todd. I am the outsider with a ringside view of all that's happening on all these great blogs I'm reading. Thanks for stopping by and for your comments too.