The Story of Death

In its “List of Deaths for the Year 1750,” the Gentleman’s Magazine included one

Mrs Reed of Kentish Town, aged 81. She had kept a mahogany coffin and shroud by her 6 years, when thinking she should not soon have occasion for them she sold them, and dy’d suddenly the same evening. (188)

There’s an elaborate art of dying premised here. We can start with the articles of burial, at the ready, signaling Mrs. Reed’s vigilant preparation. Coffin and shroud are inmates, given the privilege of domestic intimacy, and death too will arrive like an intimate relation returning home. By disposing of the accoutrements of burial, Mrs. Reed presumed she would live. The unstated conclusion: her lapse in preparation invited the very thing she had ceased to fear. And it caught her, cruelly, without the benefit of last rites. (As Philippe Ariés explains, it is only recently that we have come to desire a quick death.) Death may be unknowable, but it seems to have an eye for formal irony and narrative resolution. Where we nod, it comes winking.

Seventy years after the passing of Mrs. Reed of Kentish Town, the New Monthly Magazine was awed by the death of John Keats: “There is something very impressive about the death of genius, and particularly of youthful genius” (257). The spectacle of pity at stake in the Keats narrative is of a specific moment in the history of sentimental culture, yet the New Monthly’s version is faithful to much older traditions. To take just one example, we learn that the poet “often talked of his approaching death, with the resignation of one who contemplated its certainty without anxiety, and seemed to wish to ‘steal from the world’ into silence and repose” (256). The virtue of calm resignation was a matter of consensus throughout the early modern discourse of ars moriendi, from the Tractatus artis bene moriendi (1415) to the work of Erasmus (1533) and Jeremy Taylor (1650-51). Curiously, the New Monthly’s sketch of the peacefully resigned Keats appeals not to any personal account, but to desires voiced in the “Ode to a Nightingale” recast as reported conversation: “He is said to have wished to ‘drink of the warm South,’ and ‘leave the world unseen,’ and his wish was accordingly fulfilled” (257). Biography and poetry have become coterminous, tightly sealing the casket of the Keats myth for mass consumption.

My interest here is in the process of consuming death through narrative. In each case, death is narrated into a compact, portable form, primed for the extraction of affective, cultural, and financial capital. In the case of the latter, we’re talking most immediately about the salable content of the obituary. Where the grave plot must be purchased on behalf of the deceased (thx Shelley), the obituary gainfully employs the dead as “news” for distribution in the increasingly competitive periodical market. More abstractly, death is molded into pedagogical and affective significance. Narratives of death might prospectively model how to die and retrospectively define the life that has passed. Discourses of resignation, consolation, idealization, and defiance disclose the truth of a life that becomes knowable only in its conclusion. In 1959, Herbert Marcuse termed this process of orienting towards death and extracting meaning from death the “ideology of death”:

On the one hand, the attitude toward death is the stoic or skeptic acceptance of the inevitable, or even the repression of the thought of death by life; on the other hand the idealistic glorification of death is that which gives “meaning” to life, or is the precondition for that which gives “meaning” to life, or is the precondition for the “true” life of man…. Man’s empirical existence, his material and contingent life, is then defined in terms of and redeemed by something other than itself: he is said to live in two fundamentally different and even conflicting dimensions, and his “true” existence involves a series of sacrifices in his empirical existence which culminate in the supreme sacrifice—death. (ID 123)

Marcuse’s vulgar fact-value distinction is useful precisely for its bluntness and scope. The ars moriendi, in their contemporary and historical forms, mortgage present existence towards an end that must redeem the present. Mrs. Reed’s cautionary tale leverages her unexpected death—implicitly invoking the threat of damnation—to regulate conduct in this world. Keats’s death secures the sensibility that made him a poet, authenticating his “youthful genius” by authoring a fitting end to his story. By figuring Keats’s alienation and destitution as worldly correlates of his sensitive soul, the New Monthly cashes out suffering into sentimental catharsis—what Robert Markley has called the “affective spectacle of benign generosity” (211). In his tragically apt narrative, Keats is both the vehicle and recipient of that benignity.

Whether issuing warnings, tendering consolations, or soliciting the sentimental discharge of pity, the cultural transmission of death puts death to work for life, as life threatens to come unmoored from meaning without death. For Marcuse, death’s surplus value arises between the biological (“ontic”) fact of death and its ideological appropriation, which flattens the historically specific cause of death into the universal constant of its result. One version of this appropriation is expressed in the death-the-leveler trope, cherished by the graveyard poets and voiced with typical verve by Hamlet: “your fat king and your lean beggar is but / Variable service, two dishes, but to one table: / That’s the end.” Like beggars, kings are circumscribed by finitude. And yet this shared finitude ameliorates—perhaps even licenses—the violent distinction between the luxury of kings and the suffering of beggars. Appeals to a “philosophical” death thus tend to overlook the material circumstances crucial to a peaceful end; in the existentialist vocabulary, specific social conditions (above and beyond “ontological” conditions) are requisite to an authentic confrontation with death. The “perverting [of death’s] biological fact into an ontological essence” ends in exploitation, leveraging fear into subservience, justifying distinction, and extracting sacrifice in the name of necessity (Marcuse, Eros and Civilization 236).

Death becomes life’s essence through narrative. And the narrativity of death was a self-conscious affair in the eighteenth century, as Joseph Addison’s formula suggests: “the End of a Man’s Life is often compared to the winding up of a well-written Play” (Spectator no. 349). For Addison, this meant that the performance of death disclosed the truth of a great life, and that inner truth, paradoxically, could be affirmed only by continuous performance unto the end. Thus a “good Man” must maintain “Uniformity in his Actions, and preserve the Beauty of his Character to the last,” or be exposed as a fraud (ibid.). The deathbed had become a dress rehearsal for the last judgment, affirming the virtuous and unmasking terrified sinners. Fittingly, Addison composed just such a “well-written Play” in his Cato (1712), capped by its protagonist’s heroic suicide (this extravagance was licensed by the pre-Christian source material). More fitting still, Addison died in just the manner he had advocated in the pages of The Spectator. As Samuel Johnson recorded, when Addison felt his end nearing he called for a young lord “of very irregular life, and perhaps of loose opinions,” and told him upon arrival, “I have sent for you that you may see how a Christian can die” (165). The dissolute young noble is both beneficiary of and witness to Addison’s virtue. So despite its pious punch line, Addison’s art of dying was rather earthly in its preoccupations. Its emphasis fell on posthumous life in this world—the kind of life Johnson affords Addison’s death by recording it in his Lives of the English Poets.

As the radical Enlightenment recognized, the afterlife was a flexible tool for worldly manipulation by worldly ministers. Yet attempts to renegotiate the politics of the afterlife often wound up consolidating the more basic meaning-making function of death. Baron d’Holbach argued that there is nothing mysterious or sublime about death—it is an intelligible biological transformation, and as such, “if [man] could figure to himself a true image of this state of annihilation, he would from thence cease to fear it” (1:207). Yet any “true idea” of death is occluded by the nexus of church and state power, a nexus in turn sustained by the fear of death: “Almost all human institutions, nearly all the opinions of man, conspire to augment his fears—to render his ideas of death more terrible—to make them more revolting to his feelings” (1:209). The greatest British theorist and practitioner of the enlightened death was David Hume, who claimed, via Boswell, that “he was no more uneasy to think he should not be after his life, than that he had not been before he began to exist” (Boswell 1:362).

Yet the anthropological accounts of the fear of death that emerged in Enlightenment philosophy did not challenge the order of resignation and consolation. 1 In fact, skeptics like Hume performed their own version of the Christian good death with heightened discipline and vigor. Faced with his own end, Hume sought to prove that religious belief was not only unnecessary but antithetical to a tranquil death. Death, for Hume, was a means to advance his larger contention: Christianity was a hindrance (at best) to the development of a polite, commercial society. Hume’s epistemology of skeptical probability was revolutionary, and his naturalistic genealogy of morals was radical, but each concluded with a conservative reaffirmation of the status quo, based not in innate or divine truth but in habit and convention. Similarly, Hume’s death was his most forceful rhetorical performance of the virtues of a secular worldview because it replaced the specific ideational contents of the good death but maintained and perfected its affective and formal structure.

In this respect, Enlightenment skepticism consolidated the narrative significance of death by transforming the deathbed into a stage of political theatre. Certain impulses in high Romanticism–Wordsworthian mourning in perpetuity, Keatsian half-love of “easeful death,” Shelleyan immortality, etc.–could be seen as rarified forms of this accelerating drive, which both organizes life as a long anticipation of death and retrospectively discloses a life’s meaning through death. This genealogy extends into the present. 2 In a  future post, I’ll explore a minor tradition of Romantic writing that withdraws from death, challenging its sovereignty and capacity to signify.

 

Addison, Joseph and Richard Steele. The Spectator. Ed. Donald F. Bond. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965.

Anonymous. “A List of Deaths for the Year 1750.” Gentleman’s Magazine 20 (1750): 188.

Anonymous. “Incidents, Appointments, Births, Marriages, Deaths, &c. in London, Middlesex, and Surrey.” New Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal 3 (1 May 1821): 251-258.

Ariés, Philippe. The Hour of Our Death. Trans. Helen Weaver. New York: Oxford UP, 1981.

Bewell, Alan. Wordsworth and the Enlightenment. New Haven: Yale UP, 1989.

Boswell, James. The Life of Samuel Johnson. Ed. Roger Ingpen. New York: Sturgis & Walton, 1909.

De Man, Paul. The Rhetoric of Romanticism. New York: Columbia UP, 1984.

Johnson, Samuel. The Lives of the English Poets. London: Jones & Co., 1825.

Marcuse, Herbert. Eros and Civiliation. Boston: Beacon, 1955.

—. “The Ideology of Death.” Philosophy, Psychoanalysis, and Emancipation. The Collected Papers of Herbert Marcuse, Volume 5. Ed. Douglas Kellner and Clayton Pierce. New York: Routledge, 2011. 122-131.

Markley, Robert. “Sentimentality as Performance: Shaftesbury, Sterne, and the Theatrics of Virtue.” The New Eighteenth Century: Theory, Politics, English Literature. Ed. Felicity Nussbaum and Laura Brown. London: Methuen, 1987. 210-230.

Sandy, Mark. Romanticism, Memory, and Mourning. Burlington: Ashgate, 2013.

Thiry, Paul Henri, baron d’Holbach. Nature and Her Laws: As Applicable to the Happiness of Man, Living in Society; Contrasted with Superstition and Imaginary Systems. London: James Watson, 1834.

Notes:

  1. See chapter five of Alan Bewell’s Wordsworth and the Enlightenment for eighteenth-century anthropological accounts of the idea of the afterlife.
  2. Heidegger is a central figure in this process, arguing in Being and Time that authentic existence can only emerge through the self-conscious confrontation with life as being-toward-death. This awareness of mortality is in turn posited as the distinctive feature of human consciousness. The horizon of possibility, openness, and vulnerability that constitutes Dasein depends upon the inevitability of its end, and that radical vulnerability must be confronted in full awareness. We could further adduce the constitutive resonances between writing and death that sustain deconstructive models of textuality; as Paul de Man wrote, “death is the displaced name for a linguistic predicament” (81). Romanticism of course plays a central role as both ancestor and object of this theory, such that the negativity of Romantic poetics comes to be understood as a relation to death inherent in language itself. Mark Sandy, quoting Lacoue-Labarthe and Nancy, offers a recent version of this position: “This ‘unnameable, shapeless, faceless’ figuration of Romanticism finds a haunting affinity with the ultimate ‘nothing’ that figures, and stands in for, the reality of death” (8).