Friday, March 11, 2016

Final Chapters

Maurice Sendak, in old age

Author Katie Roiphe has published a remarkable essay. In it, she explains how she came to write a book on the death of famous modern authors. I have found it interesting as I contemplate death again. Once, thirty years ago, I did because I wasn't sure I would live to be old; now, because I have.

She writes, in part:

Maurice Sendak sat with the people he loved as they were dying and drew them. To some, this might seem like a perverse or weird thing to do, but I understand it completely and intuitively. In fact, I am doing something like it myself. I am writing about deaths. Not the deaths of people I loved but of writers and artists who are especially sensitive or attuned to death, who have worked through the problem of death in their art, in their letters, in their love affairs, in their dreams. I’ve picked people who are madly articulate, who have abundant and extraordinary imaginations or intellectual fierceness, who can put the confrontation with mortality into words in a way that most of us can’t or won’t. I chose writers who meant something to me, whose voices were already in my head, whose approach toward death was extreme in one direction or another: inspiring or bewildering or heroic or angry. 
Sigmund Freud, in great pain, refused anything stronger than aspirin so he could think clearly, and finally chose the moment of his own death. Susan Sontag, on the other hand, fought her death to the end, believing on some deep irrational level she would be the one exception to mortality. Sendak worked his whole life on death, taming his fear and obsession through drawings, and finally creating out of his wild imagination a beautiful painterly dream to comfort himself. The month before he died, John Updike laid his head on his typewriter, because it was too hard to type up his final poems about dying and he was ready to give up, and then he found the strength to finish them. Dylan Thomas, in his last days, left his mistress downstairs at a party and went upstairs to sleep with the hostess, hurtling along with his peerless mixture of vitality and self-destruction; as he put it, “I sang in my chains like the sea”. 
There are in these deaths glimpses of bravery, of beauty, of crushingly pointless suffering, of rampant self-destruction, of truly terrible behaviour, of creative bursts, of superb devotion, of glitteringly accurate self-knowledge, and of magnificent delusion. There are things I could never have guessed or theorised or anticipated, and it is in the specifics, the odd, surprising details, the jokes, the offhand comments, that some other greater story is told and communicated...

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