Swans Commentary » swans.com January 26, 2015  



Death In Context Or Infamous Last Words


by Peter Byrne





(Swans - January 26, 2015)   Readers of book chat have sniggered over Alfred Jarry's last words for a century. But few could say what he meant when he asked the priest at his bedside for a toothpick. They knew him for a drunk and so laughed at what they took for his delirium. They were Jarry's lifelong bugbear, the bourgeoisie, who need a display of flamboyant self-destruction to feel cozy and safe themselves. See our celebrity reporting. After sniggering they called Jarry absurd, i.e., senseless, and honored him as the founder of the Absurdist School of Literature. That current is still with us and counts writers like Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, and Harold Pinter. None of them are senseless. It's just that we don't want to know the grim sense they force upon us.

It would take a whole book to explain Jarry's simple request for a toothpick. He was telling the priest that he had ended the digestive stage of his life, the last, and was ready for the ultimate nap. Since his diet had been in the main liquid, principally absinthe, he was being ironic about the need to pick his teeth. He was telling the cleric, who may not have been underweight, about the spirituality-light appetites of the Belle Epoch. The menus of restaurants on the Parisian Grand Boulevards in the 1890s would have staggered a Roman emperor. Among much else, the dying writer was reaffirming the mindset of Ubu, the character of his play, whose answer to the society around him was a repeated "merde," or more precisely, "merdre."

Jarry's indifference let France's Gilded Age know that money-grubbing was beneath him. He had done down the bourgeois in himself by squandering his inheritance in a flash. He wasn't going to risk hypochondriac chit-chat with the good Father. If Jarry mentioned the tuberculosis that was killing him, the priest might counter with talk of his gout. Jarry was pointing out to marshmallowy romantics that a poet dying young -- he was thirty-four -- was not really a big deal. And more, much more.

Last words, like first words or any words, are meaningless out of context. A marvel of our age places at our fingertips hundreds of deathbed utterances in Wikiquotes' compilation of last words. There were already reference books, of course, but few who labored in a serious library would dare sit browsing Last Words of Notable People: Final Words of More than 3,500 Noteworthy People Throughout History, of the Reference Desk Press Inc. In any case that heavy volume is as light in furnishing context as the cyberspace Wikiquotes.

Famous last sayings are as various as the colors on a map. You could sort them in every kind of pigeonhole -- political, metaphysical, ignorance-is-bliss, even according to national types. For instance, the USA, because of its affection for death sentences and executions, is prolific in the last words of criminals about to face the chop. Thus, offered a last request, Domonic Willard, prohibition mobster going before a firing squad, asked for a bullet-proof vest. Frederick Charles Wood, convicted killer, prefaced his electrocution with, "Gents, this is an educational project and you are about to witness the damaging effect electricity has on Wood." Such facile one liners need no context. Nor does the sublime two-word reply of comedian Bob Hope to his wife who ask him where he wanted to be buried. "Surprise me," said Hope, and departed to applause.

On the other hand, we need background to fathom playwright Lope de Vega's last words. Told time was short, he answered, "All right, then, I'll say it: Dante makes me sick." That was in 1635. Lope, a Spanish friend of Shakespeare, wrote more than a thousand plays, often emulating Italian authors. His narrative poem La Circe portrayed Charon, the ferryman of souls in Virgil's Aeneid. Dante had drawn Charon too, in the Divine Comedy, Infernal III. The two treatments of the boatman were very different. Nevertheless Lope had Dante thrown in his face for a lifetime. What Harold Bloom called "the Anxiety of Influence" had so lodged Dante in Lope's gullet that he finally had to spit him out. Dante Alighieri had died in 1321 with, surprisingly, no last words attributed to him. But Virgil's last words to him in the Purgatorio Canto XXVII, gave Dante the power finally to guide himself. He was his own man at last.

In the case of Voltaire's last words, problems multiply as dimensions are added. The original talking head never stopped wagging his tongue. His last words were heard selectively. The left remembered his urbane reply to a priest who urged him to renounce Satan: "Now, now, my good man, this is no time for making enemies." Agnostic liberals preferred to remember him telling the priest "For God sake, leave me alone!"

An Evangelical theologian heard differently. The great Frenchman died in 1778 and it took Charles Buck in England a quarter century to gather in Voltaire's last words on his side of the Channel. Buck claimed to have heard them clearly in dramatic English, "I am abandoned by God and man! I will give you half of what I am worth if you will give me six months' life. Then I shall go to hell; and you will go with me. O Christ! O Jesus Christ!" Buck became a bestseller amongst American bible thumpers. For us he raises the suspicion that the last-word game is only another branch of fiction.

So let's play it and clutter our minds twitter-wise by thinking up last words for the living. The rules are simple: choose a celebrity name and then imagine a last say to go with it. Examples:

Barack Obama: Yes, we didn't.
Donald Rumsfeld: At last, the unknown known.
Vladimir Putin: God will know me by my horns.
Madonna (Ms. Ciccone): I've got nothing to wear.
François Hollande: Pack my teleprompter.
Sylvio Berlusconi: Hand me my pants.
Lady Gaga (Ms. Germanotta): So what? I'll parody it.

The game will get you through a night's insomnia. There are others to play on the subject. People write their own wills and testaments and some swollen heads have been known to write their own obituaries: Bertrand Russell, Tony Benn, Spike Milligan, Garry Trudeau, Alan Dershowitz, and other luminaries. There are now adult education courses entitled, "Writing Your Own Obituary," and Web sites offer to help: "Why not get started on writing your own obituary? This is your chance to say what you want others to know about you. Do it for yourself: for peace of mind knowing that you have had your say." (obituaryguide.com/writeyourown.php) "What you want others to know," is right on. Goodbye journalism.

Why not, then, compose and have ready your own last words, a final selfie? It's an idea, but, even before second thoughts, not a very good one. Spontaneity and improvisation are essential to last words. Though even with them and in the face of eternity the utterances still manage to be mostly self-serving. Imagine the whitewashing if they were premeditated. Commerce would worm its way in. The non-literary would call on ghost writers. Books would appear, Last Word Composition for Dummies or How to Sell Yourself at the Last Doorstep. We would be back in the world we thought we were finally getting out of. So forget it and repeat what John Quincy Adams said expiring, "This is the last of Earth! I am content!"


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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published January 26, 2015