Death, Achilles & The Tortoise & Eugene Luther Gore Vidal's MessiahMonday, September 26, 2011
Most prominent among the negative mental states is fear, above all the fear of unreal dangers, such as death. Death, Epicurus insists, is nothing to us, since while we exist, our death is not, and when our death occurs, we do not exist (LM 124–25); but if one is frightened by the empty name of death, the fear will persist since we must all eventually die. This fear is one source of perturbation (tarakhê), and is a worse curse than physical pain itself; the absence of such fear is ataraxy, lack of perturbation, and ataraxy, together with freedom from physical pain, is one way of specifying the goal of life, for Epicurus.
Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
|Loyalist Militiaman at the Moment of Death, Cerro Muriano, September 5, 1936. |
By Kim Severenson
NY Times: September 21, 2011
I watched CNN from 10:30 until a press conference was given outside the Jacksonville, Georgia penitentiary. Anderson Cooper who always seems to have the last word was out of his league when he asked the on site CNN reporter something close to this, “What can I possibly ask you in a situation like this one?”
The media spectacle that I watched included people asking, “What were his last words?” “Did he go quietly?” I wondered why so many people had to be present for the execution or why the relatives of the murdered policeman had wanted to be present. Would the pleasure of revenge bring the victim back? One word that I loathe is the increasingly used word (an ugly word at that) closure as, “We finally arrived at some closure.”
When I switched off the TV I thought about death and the first thing I did was to look for my copy of Gore Vidal’s Messiah of which I will write about here. I then thought of my first dealings with the realization of the existence of death.
These first inklings all happened when I was around 8 years old living at Melián 2770 in Coghlan, in Buenos Aires. Melián was two blocks from one corner of Hospital Pirovano. And the corner was not far from the entry and exit that horse-drawn hearses took for removing dead patients. My friends and I would often watch these hearses parade by with their plumed horses and their exquisitely dressed coachmen. We knew that the hearse going would be empty but coming back we would run out. We would be mesmerized by the polished mahogany coffins that would lie behind the bevelled glass windows. The clopping of the horses’ shoed hooves on Melian’s cobblestones, were for me the first sounds of death.
It was when I was around 8 that my neighbour’s son slammed his Vespa into a train. He had been returning from his job as a night watchman and went through the level train crossing. They had an open coffin wake and I sneaked in to see. What I saw was the bandaged face (eyes closed) of my neighbour’s son. It was my first look at death.
In 1952 when Eva Perón died there were huge funeral ceremonies including a public wake that was ominously called capilla ardiente or flaming chapel. It was then when listening to the radio or watching the newsreel at the movies that I first heard the funeral music of Chopin and Édouard Lalo. Evita’s funeral was my first glimpse of the pomp and ceremony of death.
It was in 1966 when I purchased Markings by Dag Hammarskjöld (translated by Leif Sjöberg & W.H. Auden) at a English bookstore on Corrientes that I read this and I have come back to it often since:
It occurs to you in a flash: I might just as well never have existed. Other people, however, seeing you with a guaranteed salary, a bank account and brief-case under your arm, assume that you take your existence for granted. What you are can be of interest to them, not that you are. Your pension – not your death – is what you should think about ‘while de day lasts’.
The fuss you make is far too much:
I really have no need of such. (Birger Sjöberg.)
If even dying is to be made a social function, then, please, grant me the favour of sneaking out on tiptoe without disturbing the party.
Hammarsjöld got his wish. In September 1961, Hammarskjöld learned about fighting between "non-combatant" UN forces and Katangese troops of Moise Tshombe. He was en route to negotiate a cease-fire on the night of 17–18 September when his Douglas DC-6 airliner SE-BDY crashed near Ndola, Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). Hammarskjöld and fifteen others perished in the crash.
I have the recurring thought and wish to die, like Hammarsjöld, vaporized in an airplane crash. It would be clean and neat. There would be no remains to be found that could possibly be inserted in any pine box.
As most humans I have thought of death often and more so as I lived in Mexico for many years. It was a place where bakeries sold sugar skulls ( on demand you could buy one with the name of your loved one, a very much alive loved one, nicely scribbled on its forehead with coloured cake filling and sequins.) on the día de los muertos. As a teenager I looked forward to my Colegio Americano school bus passing by the huge Panteón Dolores with the elaborate tombs, and moss growing on its flaking walls.
It was in 1964 that I met Ramón Xirau at the University of the Americas. I took as many of his philosophy classes as possible. I remember so well that day when he (with a slight and calming smile on his face) told us of us Epicurus, “Death is non feeling. Non feeling is not painful. Death is not painful. Death should not be feared.”
And of course no matter how much we dwell on Epicurus’s words the very thought of non thought, the very thought of non being is what is so scary to us, or at least to me.
It was about that time that I became enamoured with existentialis, and I read Martin Heidegger and Jean-Paul Sartre. It was then I read and re read Albert Camus's The Stranger. I was at first startled by Meursault's nonchalance on going to his mother's wake. I could not believe his empty talk and his complaint of the stiffling heat of the wake and how it was a dicomfort. It was then that I thought I caught one and for a short while (perhaps a few months) I paraded around being unfazed by most things as I played my own version of Meursault.
|La Santa Muerte|
Rogatnick told me he was not afraid to die. I visited him daily for weeks before he died. He knew he was going to die. One day I brought Ambrose Bierce’s story, Parker Adderson, Philosopher, the account of the captured Union Army spy who is ready to die the next day as he must. The commanding Confederate officer cannot understand the man’s lack of fear and cannot believe such statements as, "We all have to die, some of us sooner than others.” But the officer finally figures it out and tells the spy, “You are ready to die so you shall die now. Take him away.” The spy is unprepared for immediate death. He is unprepared for an unprepared death. Spy and officer scuffle and both die in the struggle. I asked Rogatnick if he would be afraid if death faced him that instant. His answer, was, “No.”
For the rest of us we can only wonder how we will face death if like the Union spy we are given moments to reflect on it or if we are blessed (is it one?) with a painless death in our sleep.
|Premortem Daguerreotype of Boy Lying in Bed With a Ball|
It was around 1994 that I purchased a beautiful used picture book called Sleeping Beauty – Memorial Photography in America by Stanley B. Burns, M.D. (Burns, in 1995, subsequently visited and lectured in Vancouver so I was able to chat with him and he wrote a pleasant dedication in my book). The book with wonderful but startling portraits of dead people, including children (see above and below) taken mid 19th century, begins with the following:
All likenesses taken after death will of course only resemble the inanimate body, nor will there appear in the portrait anything like life itself, except indeed the sleeping infant, on whose playful smile of innocence sometimes steals even death. This may be and is oft-times transferred to the silver plate.
Photographic and Fin Art Journal, March 1855
|Postmortem Daguerreotype of The Same Boy Lying In Bed|
Annonymous circa 1848
As soon as photography was invented people saw in it its ability to record reality in ways that painting could not. For a while photography was indeed captured reality. A few thought that a camera could capture in a murdered man’s eyes an image of his murderer. Some how were not aware of the pre-Socratic Zeno of Elea who has Achilles race with a female tortoise who is given a head start. Even though Achilles is the faster runner he has to get halfway between his starting point and the tortoises and so on in the famous paradox that was not really to be solved in a satisfying way until Newton and Leibnitz invented the calculus. While the photographs of dead American Civil war soldiers were perhaps the first that showed death in the unblinking new reality of photography it was not until 1936 that Robert Capa's photograph (now under siege of controversy) of the moment of death of a loyalist soldier (above) or Eddie Adams' photograph of General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan's, Chief of National Police, summary execution of handcuffed prisoner Ngueyễn Van Lém Viet Cong soldier gave us the closest look we would ever have of death until later vidoes of people beeing beheaded dulled our senses to the shock.
These scientific photographers thought that they could capture the moment when the soul left the body. That may explain the two portraits here of the boy alive and then dead. As a little boy I would try to keep alive the little birds that fell of the trees of our Buenos Aires garden. I would feed them milk with droppers but always the eyes would cloud over and they would die. I could not understand but I did accept an inevitability.
|Rebecca Stewart, La Santa Muerte|
John Cave smiled for the first time. I suppose, if I wanted, I could recall each occasion over the years when, in my presence at least, he smiled. His usual expression was one of calm resolve, of that authority which feels secure in itself, a fortunate expression which lent dignity to even his casual conversation. I suspected the fact that his serene mask hid a nearly total intellectual vacuity as early in my dealings with him as this first meeting; yet I did not mind, for I had experienced his unique magic and I already saw the possibilities of channelling that power, of using that force, of turning it like a flame, here, there, creating and destroying, shaping and shattering … so much for the spontaneous nature of my ambition at its least responsible, and at its most exquisite! I could have set the one-half world aflame for the sheer splendour and glory of the deed. For this fault my expiation has been long and my once exuberant is now only an ashen phoenix consumed by flames but not quite tumbled into dust, nor re-created in the millennial egg, only a gray shadow in the heart which the touch of a finger of windy fear will turn to dust and air.
Yet the creature was aborning [archaic form of born] that day: one seed had touched another and a monster began to live.
“The first day? The first time?” The smile faded. “Sure, I remember it. I just finished cosmeticizing the face of this big dead fellow killed in an automobile accident. I didn’t usually do make-up but I liked to help out and I used to do odd jobs when somebody had too much to do and asked me to help; the painting isn’t hard either and I always like it, though the faces are cold like…like…”He thought of no smile and went on: “Anyway I looked at this guy’s face and I remembered I’d seen him play baseball in high school. He was in a class or two behind me. Big athlete. Ringer, we called him…full of life… and here he was, with me powdering his face and combing his eyebrows. Usually you don’t think much about the stiff (that’s our professional word) one way or the other. It’s just a job. But I thought about this one suddenly. I started to feel sorry for him, dead like that, so sudden, so young, so good-looking with all sorts of prospects. Then I felt it.” The voice grew low and precise. Iris and I listened intently, even the sun froze in the wild sky above the sea; and the young night stumbled in the darkening east.
With eyes on the sun, Cave described his sudden knowledge that it was the dead man who was right, who was part of the whole, that the living were the sufferers from whom, temporarily, the beautiful darkness and non-being had been withdrawn. In his crude way, Cave struck chord after chord of meaning and, though the notes were not in themselves new, the effect was all its own… and not entirely because of the voice, or the cogency of this magician.
“And I knew it was the dying which was the better part,” he finished. The sun released, drowned in the Pacific.
In the darkness I asked, “But you, you still live?” “Not because I want to,” came the voice, soft as the night. “I must tell others first. There’ll be time for me.”
I shuddered in the warmth of the patio. My companions were only dim presences in the failing light. “Who told you to tell this to everyone?”
The answer came back, strong and unexpected. “I told myself. The responsibility is mine.”
That was the sign for me. He had broken with his predecessors. He was on his own. He knew. And so did we.
The principal protagonist Eugene Luther from Gore Vidal’s 1954 novel Messiah.
I first read Messiah around 1960. I was a fanatic of science fiction and both Gore Vidal with Messiah and Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan were firmly, then in the science fiction camp. In fact The Sirens of Titan (1959) was nominated for Hugo Award.
In this third reading of Messiah find that I agree with Larry McMurtry’s take:
Messiah: A Neglected Book by Gore Vidal
November 16th, 2006
In a review of Gore Vidal’s new memoir, Point to Point Navigation, in the New York Review of Books Larry McMurtry drops his nominee for unjust neglect:
One reason I wouldn’t mind taking my near-complete holdings of Gore Vidal away to a far place is that there maybe I could just enjoy reading the writer and not always be having to ponder the Personality. There’s not much wrong with the Personality: he’s usually on the right side, and eloquently so. But the best of the writing is much more telling than the Personality or any Personality, is likely to be. I refer particularly to Julian, to Homage to Daniel Shays, and to the excellent Messiah, a book that’s not remotely had its due.
Messiah deals with the rise of the next great religion of Western civilization, and the collapse and destruction of Christianity. It takes the form of the memoirs of Eugene Luther, a former apostle of Cavism. Founded by one John Cave, a California Undertaker, Cavism holds that it is a good thing to die–a holy thing, in fact, preferable to living. After the experience of the Jonestown massacre, David Koresh, and the Heaven’s Gate cult, Vidal’s dystopia seems less fantastic than it did when the book was first published in 1954.
Oh, yes, and note the sly jokes: John Cave (J. C.) and Eugene Luther (Vidal’s full name is Eugene Luther Gore Vidal).
What’s fantastic is to imagine Myra Breckenridge or Duluth written by Luther Vidal
In glee I read John Cave’s description of painting the stiff. Inside Sleeping Beauty – Memorial Photography in America I found a clipping I had cut out from the NY Times on February 16, 2004. Here is the description by the Harlem undertaker Isaiah Owens of the “stiff” James Patterson (see picture with photographer):
At the funeral home he was dressed, as his family had requested, in a Lakers jersey, but the smile, the innocence, the deep serenity was all Isaiah Owens, Mr. Owens said. “When you look at him,” he said, “you are seeing what I look like on the inside.”
Now the shutter clicked. Another portrait done.
“That right there is me, Mr. Owens said, “It’s me, all me.”
While John Cave might have agreed, if you happen to read Messiah you will find out that Eugene Luther might not have. As for Eugene Luther Gore Vidal’s opinion I don’t have a clue.