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. . . .

A President, a Poet and Poor Deluded Souls

Joe Biden gave an excellent speech at his inauguration. But as somebody said on Twitter:

Well that’s it. The ceremony is over and Amanda Gorman is now the president.

Gorman is from Los Angeles, is 22 years old and is America’s first National Youth Poet Laureate. She spoke for six minutes and made a huge impression. You can read read her poem, “The Hill We Climb”, but it’s better to see and hear her recite it:

Poet Amanda Gorman reads ‘The Hill We Climb’ – YouTube

Here’s something else that happened. The New York Times reported that QAnon believers are  “struggling with the inauguration”:

Followers of QAnon, the pro-Txxxx conspiracy theory, have spent weeks anticipating that Wednesday would be the “Great Awakening” — a day, long foretold in QAnon prophecy, when top Democrats would be arrested for running a global sex trafficking ring and President Txxxx would seize a second term in office.

But as President Biden took office and Mr. Txxxx landed in Florida, with no mass arrests in sight, some believers struggled to harmonize the falsehoods with the inauguration on their TVs.

Some QAnon believers tried to rejigger their theories to accommodate a transfer of power to Mr. Biden. Several large QAnon groups discussed on Wednesday the possibility that they had been wrong about Mr. Biden, and that the incoming president was actually part of Mr. Txxxx’s effort to take down the global cabal.

“The more I think about it, I do think it’s very possible that Biden will be the one who pulls the trigger,” one account wrote in a QAnon channel on the messaging app Telegram.

Others expressed anger with QAnon influencers who had told believers to expect a dramatic culmination on Inauguration Day.

“A lot of YouTube journalists have just lost one hell of a lot of credibility,” wrote a commenter in one QAnon chat room.

Still others attempted to shift the goal posts, and simply told their fellow “anons” to hang on and wait for future, unspecified developments.

“Don’t worry about what happens at 12 p.m.,” wrote one QAnon influencer. “Watch what happens after that.”

And some appeared to realize that they’d been duped.

“It’s over,” one QAnon chat room participant wrote, just after Mr. Biden’s swearing-in.

“Wake up,” another wrote. “We’ve been had.”

Followers hoping for guidance from “Q,” the pseudonymous message board user whose posts power the movement, were bound to be disappointed. The account has been silent for weeks, and had not posted Wednesday.

Ron Watkins, a major QAnon booster whom some have suspected of being “Q” himself, posted a note of resignation on his Telegram channel on Wednesday afternoon.

“We have a new president sworn in and it is our responsibility as citizens to respect the Constitution,” he wrote. “As we enter into the next administration please remember all the friends and happy memories we made together over the past few years.”

Unquote.

Wow. If more of the previous president’s supporters realize they’ve been had — and more of their leaders admit President Biden won a fair election — there may be blue skies ahead.

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?

How Can You Miss Me If I Won’t Go Away?

My urge to save the world one post at a time waxes and wanes. Lately, it’s waned.

Its waning could be a response to the daffodils blooming:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

                               — William Wordsworth

But did you know that Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) strikes some of us in the spring or early summer, not in the dark days of winter?

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

                               — T. S. Eliot

Life in itself 
Is nothing 
An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs, 
It is not enough that yearly, down this hill, 
April 
Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.

                              — Edna St. Vincent Millay

But first, these messages:

Gravity was nominated for seven Oscars and 97% of the critics on Rotten Tomatoes liked it, but it’s not a good movie. They spent millions and millions making it look great but seem to have thrown the script together over a long weekend. One miraculous escape after another eats away at the suspense. And that capsule should have landed on a giant heap of corn.

it’s a simple fact of arithmetic that one person’s vote hardly ever matters. How many elections are decided by one vote? Since voting makes no sense from a practical perspective, we need to stop thinking of voting in practical terms. Instead, we should view voting as a democratic ritual. Ritual behavior doesn’t have to be practical. If everyone in this country – at least those of us who don’t have to wait in line for hours to vote – treated voting as a symbolic celebration of democracy, something that every citizen just does as a matter of course, we in the majority (those of us who favor less military spending, for example) could make a difference. Accepting that voting is impractical but doing it anyway would be a very practical thing to do.

Glenn Greenwald is one of the journalists selected by Edward Snowden to receive those secret National Security Agency files. Greenwald now has a website called The Intercept. The site includes links to “top secret” documents. For example, there’s a set of slides from the UK’s Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) called “The Art of Deception: Training for Online Covert Operations”. It suggests ways to discredit people or organizations by applying “The 4 D’s: Deny / Disrupt / Degrade / Deceive” (apparently, the NSA and GCHQ don’t merely listen; they also manipulate). There are also some light-hearted internal blog posts, like this one from the NSA regarding SIGINT (Signals Intelligence):

So, SIGINT is downright cool! As much as we complain about our “Big Data Problem”, collection/processing issues, dismal infrastructure/outdated browsers/OS’s, our ability to pull bits out of random places of the Internet, bring them back to the mother-base to evaluate and build intelligence off of is just plain awesome!

In conclusion, please don’t expect too much from Gravity, remember to vote, and visit The Intercept. As for everything else, I’ve got nothing (as of now anyway).

Farndale Daffodil Field

The Iliad by Homer, translated by Robert Fagles

Another disappointment, especially compared to The Odyssey.

Achilles is offended by Agamemnon and becomes so angry that he withdraws himself and his troops from the war with the Trojans. He refuses repeated attempts to coax him to return to battle, even though the Greeks are losing without him. He eventually allows his best friend to lead his troops into battle, and when his best friend is killed, he finally decides that he should fight again, after much lamenting. He kills Hector and that’s The Iliad. Honor is honor, but as depicted in The Iliad, Achilles must be the biggest drama queen in the history of Western literature.

Maybe we have made cultural progress since Homer’s time. (1/14/10)