When You Aren’t Here To Argue Anymore

David Runciman (that’s 4th Viscount Runciman of Doxford, a professor at Cambridge University) writes about the final days of the poet Philip Larkin and Runciman’s father Garry:

The last letter​ Philip Larkin wrote was to Kingsley Amis on 21 November 1985. He was too ill to hold the pen himself and dictated it to be typed and signed by his secretary . . . He told Amis he was going into hospital that day for more tests – “only tests, but of course they are looking for something, and I bloody well hope they don’t find it”. Still, he tried not to sound too downcast. “Don’t get unduly alarmed; the doctors, as always, are cheerful and light-hearted, but I don’t really trust them anymore.” Eleven days later he was dead.

In fact, Larkin’s doctors had found what they were looking for months earlier. During the summer, after an operation on his esophagus, they had discovered inoperable cancer. The surgeon told his companion, Monica Jones, who . . . decided to keep the news to herself. She was worried about the effect of a terminal diagnosis on a man who had often expressed his terror of dying. So Larkin’s doctors kept up a cheerful front and told him that they were still investigating, while the disease took its toll. Whether he believed what he was told is open to question, but he did his best to keep up his side of the deception.

After falling downstairs that September, he wrote that although no bones were broken “my chief worry is a “funny feeling in my throat” which lasted about a week, and which of course I fear the worst about. It makes me very bad company.” That said, “my doctors are quite happy about me (they don’t know about the throat or falling downstairs).” This dance of deceit continued to the end. When he was taken to hospital for the last time, he was sedated to spare him a confrontation with the truth. “If Philip hadn’t been drugged,’ his friend Michael Bowen remembered, “he would have been raving. He was that frightened.”

Larkin’s letters are full of references to his fear of death, some humorous, some grimly foreboding. . . . At the start of the decade, he’d written to Amis: “How are you, old cock sparrow? If like me, then enduring vertiginous waves of realisation every so often i.e. about every three hours when not drunk that during this decade we i.e. MEEEE are quite likely to be dead.”

But Larkin’s most direct engagement with his fear of dying can be found in a letter he wrote to my father, W.G. Runciman, in November 1978, following the publication of his poem “Aubade”, which begins:

I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

My father, who was then in his mid-forties, suffered from the same intense fear of death. He would sometimes talk of waking in the night gripped with a sense of utter terror at what was to come. After ‘Aubade’ appeared, he discussed this fear with his friend Martin Roth, a psychiatrist and fellow academic, who tried to persuade him it was a treatable neurosis rather than a reasonable response to inevitable extinction. My father wrote to Larkin . . . about Roth’s opinion, conveying his own scepticism. “Roth asked whether I seriously wished to come for a clinical consultation, to which I replied, rather like Yossarian in Catch-22, that the condition can hardly be treated as paranoia when he himself agrees that whoever is up there is indeed going to dispose of us all quite soon.”

‘It is hard to say whether fear of death is a neurotic condition,’ Larkin responded. ‘My first impulse is to say that it is simply seeing things clearly, and it’s the rest of the world who ought to visit Sir Martin Roth; or that it’s simply being more sensitive, like worrying about cruelty to animals (I do that too).”

He was, however, open to the idea that it might be a temporary state of mind. “A lady of seventy wrote to me about the poem ‘When I was fifty I felt as you do; now I don’t’. So perhaps we can comfort ourselves with the thought that when death is really near, it won’t worry us. We shall become as thick-skinned as everyone else.”

He completely resisted the idea that worrying oneself to death about dying was selfish and that the sufferer should simply get a grip. ‘Nothing really expunges the terror: it remains a sort of Bluebeard’s chamber in the mind, something one is always afraid of – and this is bad for one. It certainly doesn’t feel like egocentricity!”

. . .Though they never met, my father continued to feel close to Larkin, and took me – then aged eighteen – to his memorial service at Westminster Abbey in February 1986. The event was open to the public, and we sat at the back along with hundreds of other ‘poetry-lovers’, as Larkin would no doubt have hated to hear us called (it probably wasn’t true of plenty of those there, including me, who didn’t much like poetry in general, just Larkin’s). . . .

At the start of the service the sub-dean quoted from “Aubade”:

We give thanks for [Larkin’s] intellectual integrity which would not allow him to accept the consolations of a faith which he could not share and which would have delivered him from a fear of dying by which all his life he was haunted. Of this he frequently wrote or spoke and never more movingly than in the lines:

“This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try
That vast, moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die.”

Now we commend him to the God who is the loving Father of all, of those who cannot yet believe in Him as well as those who do. . . .

That’s one way to do it. In a valedictory poem published in February 1986, Clive James made a similar point, though less unctuously:

A bedside manner in your graveyard tone
Suggests that at the last we aren’t alone.

You wouldn’t have agreed, of course. You said
Without equivocation that life ends
With him who lived it definitely dead
And buried, after which event he tends
To spend a good deal less time with his friends.

But you aren’t here to argue. Where you are
By now is anybody’s guess but yours.

My father, a lifelong atheist who never wavered in his conviction that there was nothing next, died in December aged 86, after a long illness. He was diagnosed with a slowly fatal heart condition a few years ago, but outlived the prognosis he was given then. . . . At the end, when he had stopped eating and his GP gave him a couple of days to live, he clung on tenaciously for two weeks. Perhaps his fear of dying had something to do with it, but he didn’t seem afraid. Indeed, in his later years he conformed to the suggestion in his exchange with Larkin that age diminishes and perhaps even extinguishes the terror. I can’t remember him mentioning it after about the age of seventy. . . . My father’s final months were relatively peaceful. He was calm and uncomplaining throughout. He died at home.

I happened to be with him at the end. After a day when he had found it hard to breathe, he became peaceful again towards midnight and slept. I fell asleep too and twenty minutes later was woken by the fact that the room had become completely silent and still. I had never been present before when someone had died. I was deeply struck by a feeling that the step from the half-life my father had been leading to no life at all was less significant than the earlier step from his full life to his bedbound one. Dying did not seem something to be afraid of. . . .

Many Deaths, No Cameras

From The Washington Post:

Death is now everywhere and yet nowhere in America. We track its progress in daily bar graphs. We note its latest victims among celebrities and acquaintances. Yet, in many parts of America, we carry on — debating holiday plans, the necessity of mask mandates, how seriously to take the virus, whether it’s all a hoax.

In the face of one of the biggest mass casualty events in American history, we are growing increasingly numb to death, experts say — numb to the crisis and tragedy it represents and to the action it requires in response.

Something happens in the brain when fatalities reach such high numbers, say psychologists who have studied genocides and mass disasters. The casualties become like a mountain of corpses that has grown so large it becomes difficult to focus on the individual bodies.

With the coronavirus in particular, experts say, the deaths have been hidden from sight even from friends and family — the human cost sequestered in hospitals and nursing homes.

“Sometimes I think, if only others could see what we see every day,” said Joan Schaum, a hospice nurse who has spent the past year caring for the dying in Lancaster, Pa.

“Other times,” she said, “I think, no one should have to see the amount of death and suffering going on right now. It changes you. It stays with you.”

In 1994, hundreds of thousands in Rwanda were murdered in the space of weeks by soldiers and militias from a rival ethnic group. In response, the United States and much of the world largely shrugged. President Bill Clinton later called his administration’s failure to act one of his great regrets.

Puzzled by that apathy, a psychologist named Paul Slovic began conducting experiments to better understand people’s reaction to mass suffering and death. What he found was troubling.

In one study, his researchers showed people a picture of a . . . girl dying of starvation and asked for donations to help her. He showed another group two starving children, then even larger sets of children. Slovic found people’s distress didn’t grow with the number of children in danger, but often shrank.

“In fact, the more who die, sometimes the less we care,” Slovic said in an interview. In greater numbers, death becomes impersonal, and people feel increasingly hopeless that their actions can have any effect.

“Statistics are human beings with tears dried off,” Slovic said. “And that’s dangerous because we need tears to motivate us.”

With the coronavirus — the death toll substantially exceeding 300,000 in the United States [100 times as many as died on 9/11] — many of our strongest impulses are working against us, experts say.

“Think about the disasters that have captured our national attention. … A hurricane like Katrina hits. News crews show the devastation, and people open their wallets,” said Lori Peek, who directs the Natural Hazards Center at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “But this pandemic isn’t a camera-ready event like that.”

Instead of a single discrete event — like the twin towers collapsing on Sept. 11, 2001 — the pandemic has unfolded as an invisible, slow-creeping, chronic hazard. Over time, our brains gradually tune out the danger.

Peek likened the effect to heat waves, which kill more people in America than all other natural disasters combined. “But you never hear that much about heat waves because it’s gradual. You don’t see people trapped on rooftops like Katrina. You don’t have homes going up in flames like in wildfires.”

Without visual, physical manifestations of deaths, the alarm bells in our heads fail to ring, experts said. Because we don’t see the deaths, we fail to see their connection to us — including our role in preventing their growing numbers.

This is what death in the pandemic looks like up close: Patients often grow ashen as their body struggles for nutrients. Their skin becomes mottled with splotches of reddish purple as their heart pumps less and less blood to parts of the body that need it.

Often, the room is eerily empty, with nurses and doctors trying to minimize risk of infection. The only constant is the low, steady hum of an oxygen compressor piping air to the patient’s nostrils.

Amid the silent void, the patients’ dying breaths become magnified.

“The hardest thing about it is how alone they are in the end,” said Schaum, a nurse with Hospice & Community Care in Lancaster, Pa. . . .

“You do everything you can to make sure they don’t feel alone,” she said. “But it’s hard to convey just how isolated it is”. . . .

When families are unable to be there, Laura Carey, a social worker for Hospice & Community Care, sometimes sits with covid-19 patients during their last moments. . . .

She sits quietly beside them as their breath slows and becomes increasingly shallow and irregular, until it stops.

“There’s something so incredibly sacred and powerful about that moment,” Carey said. “If only others could experience it, maybe things would be different.”

Death and Fear

In the final episode of the DEVS series, which kind of made sense in the context of the show, a thoughtful software developer named Stewart stands in a corridor for no apparent reason, reciting poetic words about death. Stewart suggests to an important passerby that the words might have something to do with Mark Antony, perhaps spoken that time Antony came to bury Caesar, not praise him.

The words Stewart is reciting are actually from the poem, “Aubade”, by the 20th century English poet, Philip Larkin.

An aubade can be a poem about lovers separating at dawn or simply “a composition evoking daybreak”. This is most of Larkin’s poem (the whole poem can be found here).

Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse …
—The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused— …
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out …

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse….
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

Note: Doctors going from house to house? It’s a poem from the 1970s.

One of the things that struck me about “Aubade” is that Larkin says “what we fear” is death’s nothingness. I don’t doubt that some people fear the nothingness, but such a fear is hardly universal. Some of us only fear the suffering that can precede death. Some, unfortunately, fear eternal damnation.

Shall I quote Nietzsche from Human, All Too Human? Why not?

Paul thought up the idea, and Calvin rethought it, that for innumerable people damnation has been decreed from eternity, and that this beautiful world plan was instituted to reveal the glory of God: heaven and hell and humanity are thus supposed to exist — to satisfy the vanity of God! What cruel and insatiable vanity must have flared in the soul of the man who thought this up first, or second.

Yes, and I’ll add that thinking up and then spreading around the idea of eternal damnation, period, even without the curse of predestination, were rotten things to do.

There are other things about death that we fear. One of the most common fears is that our loved ones will suffer as the result of our deaths.

Here’s another fear, no doubt much less common, from an anonymous contributor:

I dreamed that I died, but was still conscious. Whatever was left of me was floating in a vast, black emptiness. There was nothing to see, nothing to hear, nothing at all except my thoughts.

I was shocked, suddenly realizing that their stories were true. There is an afterlife after all.

But this afterlife will be almost empty. I will remain in this state forever, condemned to ruminate, ponder and regret for all eternity.

It was the worst, most unforgettable nightmare I’ve ever had.

Is that the same nothingness Philip Larkin had in mind? I don’t know. But the idea of nothingness and the idea of being in a void without anything to do but think and remember don’t sound the same to me.

So much for that. On a lighter note, here is the Irish novelist Kevin Barry imagining two aging gangsters speculating about the afterlife, seemingly without any fear at all. They think it might be more like a vacation:

I’m not seeing a meadow full of flowers…. Not seeing a moonful bay neither. With all your old birds there, and they lined up, waiting on you, one after the other, in the peach of their youths. Their rosy cheeks and their glad little eyes. I’m not seeing that by any means. But what I am imagining, Maurice, is a kind of…quiet. You know? Just a kind of…silence.

Lovely, Maurice Hearne says. Restful.

When you think what we put up with in our lives? Noise-wise?

It’s a cacophony, Mr. Redmond.

My own feeling is that when we go, we’re “out, out, brief candle” gone. There is nothing to fear except the timing and mode of our departure and how our passing will affect those we leave behind. One day though their troubles and joys will be behind them too, since nobody lives forever. And who would want to?