Thoughts on mortality
All sorts of thoughts drifted through my head when I was uneasily climbing up and down nine dark flights of my apartment house’s stairs for four days during Hurricane Sandy. The thought that kept recurring, despite all my macho bravado, was that this is the kind of situation that could easily lead to a heart attack. But I survived the storm and the stair climb without incident, except for feeling fatigued. And thinking about death has always been part of my nature -- and over the years has given me more than a touch of angst.
That’s especially true since I have reached my 70s, and have seen good friends pass away, making attendance at memorial services develop into an integral part of my calendar. Death is no longer merely an abstraction to contemplate (e.g., what does it mean that all our life energies end in nothingness?), but something looming, an event that will probably take place in the near future rather than decades from now.
It’s nothing I feel blithe about. I don’t spend my days contemplating my demise, but it’s gnawingly present; and on rare occasions, feelings of death anxiety seep into my consciousness. On those days, when I look at strangers (especially older people), their faces seem to momentarily turn into death masks, and I instantly avert my eyes. These feelings of desolation are worst during holidays, for multiple reasons that I can’t quite articulate. The one thing I do that provides both insight and solace when I’m affected this way is to turn to books and films that evoke how other people have dealt with death.
Recently, I read this quote from the melancholic, hedonistic actor Richard Burton’s "Diaries," where he rails profanely against dying: "Death is a son-of-a-bitch. The swinish, unpredictable, uncharitable, thoughtless, [expletive]-pig enemy." Burton’s rage was fueled no doubt by a struggle with the unfulfilled potential, even betrayal, of his great talent. More significant for me is the writing of my intellectual hero, Albert Camus: "There will be no lasting peace either in the heart of individuals or in social customs until death is outlawed." Camus, despite his deep sense of life’s absurdity and meaninglessness and his giving much thought to death, passionately embraced existence.
I also recently saw the film "Amour" at the New York Film Festival directed by the brilliant Austrian filmmaker Michael Haneke ("Cache," "The White Ribbon"), whose work is visually imaginative, and darkly pessimistic about human nature. "Amour" is an unusually tender film for the coolly cerebral Haneke. It realistically renders how a cultivated Parisian octogenarian husband and wife -- Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) -- who have had a lengthy and good marriage, face their mortality.
Anne becomes ill -- a blockage in her carotid artery -- has an operation, which doesn’t work, and after a stroke becomes bed-ridden. Georges, loyal and totally supportive, but frail, dedicates himself to taking care of her.
And except for a few visits -- from Eva (Isabel Huppert), their once removed but now concerned daughter; a former music student of Anne’s; the building’s concierge and wife; and two nurses, one a skilled professional, the other insensitive and odious -- they have cut off their connection with the outside world. Georges may pride himself on his infinite patience and deep commitment to his wife, but he still can have nightmares about being trapped. Anne has moments of dementia, and her speech becomes unclear, but she maintains her dignity throughout the ordeal. In her utter dependency, she flares up at him, but their profound link is never threatened.
The film never sentimentalizes their relationship, nor manipulates the audience’s emotions. There is no back-story provided about their pasts and little explicit revelatory talk. But by observing their faces we learn a great deal about these two restrained, tough-minded musicians who have shared a world, and a deep friendship.
Georges speaks in a controlled fashion about Anne’s deterioration, and never articulates a sense of despair. But amidst the compassion and love, the anguish of death’s imminence is ever-present. It’s a quietly harrowing and truthful film, devoid of false notes or magical resurrections. The couple cope in their own individual way, but the situation they face is universal. Amour powerfully depicts in painstaking detail what we all must ultimately confront -- aging and mortality.
And then there is the tendentious, witty, extraordinarily fluent polemicist and essayist Christopher Hitchens’ final book, "Mortality." Its seven eloquent short chapters deal with, in his words, "the year of living dyingly," chronicling his 19-month battle with esophageal cancer before he died in 2011.
Facing death, Hitchens avoids self-pity, makes no sudden conversion from his outspoken atheism to religious belief, and maintains his linguistic verve and gift for apt literary quotations. He still has the need and the energy to give talks with the aid of morphine, until he temporarily loses his voice.
Hitchens inhabits what he calls "Tumortown," where there is "a permanent temptation to be self-centered, even solipsistic." Living in that place of anguish, he vividly describes the excruciating pain and sense of powerlessness that courses through his body.
If I were faced with a terminal disease, Hitchens would be my model. To the end he embraced life -- writing and talking -- knowing that without those abilities his "will to live would be attenuated." A flawed man like all of us, but bold, passionate, and risk-taking. I doubt if confronting death I could emulate his brio, but it would be nice to think so.
Leonard Quart can be reached at
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