This is a long read, but it is also one of the best essays you’ll read all year. Kate Roiphe examines how writers confront their own mortality.
Particularly fascinating to me is John Updike’s hope that he can somehow avoid the inevitable: ““God save us from ever ending, though billions have. / The world is blanketed by foregone deaths, / small beads of ego, bright with appetite.”
My answer to him, which is my answer to all of them, which is the answer of the ages, comes from Sir Thomas Browne, “Hydriotaphia,” Chapter V:
“Oblivion is not to be hired: The greater part must be content to be as though they had not been, to be found in the Register of God, not in the record of man. Twenty seven Names make up the first story, and the recorded names ever since contain not one living Century. The number of the dead long exceedeth all that shall live. The night of time far surpasseth the day, and who knows when was the Æquinox? Every house addes unto that current Arithmetique, which scarce stands one moment. And since death must be the Lucina of life, and even Pagans could doubt whether thus to live, were to dye. Since our longest Sunne sets at right descensions, and makes but winter arches, and therefore it cannot be long before we lie down in darknesse, and have our lights in ashes. Since the brother of death daily haunts us with dying memento‘s, and time that grows old it self, bids us hope no long duration: Diuturnity is a dream and folly of expectation.”
By all means, read the whole thing–both Browne’s little book, and Roiphe’s searching, personal, meditative essay.
Our mortality fascinates us because, in all of our living and growing and knowing, it is the one thing we cannot know. Not by accident was the forbidden tree of knowledge planted by the tree of life in Milton’s spotless garden, to serve as both a deep ironic symbol of and a grim joke regarding the uneasy human condition: “So near grows death to life, whate’er death is, / Some dreadful thing, no doubt; for well thou know’st / God hath pronounced it death to taste that tree, / The only sign of our obedience left, / Among so many signs of power and rule/ Conferred upon us. . . .”
“Some dreadful thing,” indeed. Adam had no idea.