Tag Archives: Death

Coffins, rats, corpses, and life – Bloom in hell

James Joyce, Zurich, 1915.

James Joyce

Hades is where it’s at.

The sixth chapter of James Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ is not only one of the most accessible in the book, it’s also a forensic depiction of an Irishman’s mind, as he considers life, the universe, and everything else.

The action plays out (or in, given that so much of it is internal monologue) against the backdrop of that greatest of Irish social occasions – a funeral.

The book’s hero, its Odysseus, Leopold Bloom, attends a service and burial for an acquaintance, Paddy Dignam. Bloom doesn’t know Dignam all that well but nonetheless, in the Irish tradition, feels duty bound to be present at the obsequies.

He travels there in a carriage with three other acquaintances, crossing Dublin from Sandymount to Glasnevin Cemetery, encountering on the way a child’s funeral, a herd of cattle, and the Royal Canal, while also spotting various places and people.

Glasnevin Cemetery

Glasnevin Cemetery

But the real activity is in Bloom’s mind, as his thoughts race from the undiscriminating nature of death (spurred on by the sight of the child’s coffin) to the mundane (as he reminds himself to switch a bar of soap between his pockets without being seen) to the fantastical (could a gramophone be put at a grave so the dead could ‘speak’ to the living?)

But for all the preoccupation with death, from the size of the child’s cortege (“paltry funeral: coach and three carriages”), to a fat rat running alongside a crypt (“one of those chaps would make short work of a fellow. Pick the bones clean”), to the “saddened angels, crosses, broken pillars, family vaults…old Ireland’s hearts and hands”, ‘Hades’ ends with a note of affirmation, a commitment to life.

As he walks away from Dignam’s grave, passing the cemetery’s hundreds of headstones, Bloom’s mood lifts. It moves from Dignam’s grave to his wife’s bed, from death to life, as Bloom exits Hades, stepping back into the living world of Dublin on June 16, 1904.

“The gates glimmered in front: still open. Back to the world again. Enough of this place. Brings you a bit nearer every time…”

“There is another world after death named hell. I do not like that other world she wrote. No more do I. Plenty to see and hear and feel yet. Feel live warm beings near you.

“Let them sleep in their maggoty beds. They are not going to get me this innings. Warm beds: warm fullblooded life.”

And so Bloom’s day continues.

_____

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

A lad insane…for a good sandwich

David Bowie. Pic ArthurNYC

David Bowie. Pic ArthurNYC

Many words have been associated with David Bowie in recent days – among them ‘visionary’, ‘icon’ and – naturally enough – ‘starman’.

But not ‘prosciutto di Parma’ – unless you were the owner of Bowie’s local sandwich store, a man likely to feel his passing more than most, given that the star was a regular customer. (Insert gag about ‘the return of the thin white loaf’ here.)

Because Bowie – along with being Ziggy, Aladdin or just David Jones – was a sandwich man. Amidst the reams of coverage of his death this week I read a quote from an Irish caterer, who recounted how the star’s after-show snack-of-choice  in the 1980s was a cheese sandwich.

In latter days, according to Danilo Durante, owner of Bottega Falai in New York’s Soho, it was Parma ham, accompanied by a strawberry sfogliatella pastry (well, he was a rock star after all).

Ziggy had taste. When it comes to sandwiches the Italians – in the face of stiff competition from the Vietnamese (the glorious banh mi) and the Americans (the dripping Reuben) – do it best.

If I needed further evidence of this, apart from that provided by the late Mr Bowie’s dining habits, I encountered it on a visit to Santa Monica a fortnight ago. Braving the hordes of big, small or any-screen wannabes my brother-in-law and I hit Bay Cities Italian Deli – a staple in the area since 1925.

Bay Cities Italian Deli

Bay Cities Italian Deli

The place, and it’s ‘Godmother‘ sandwich, therefore have something of a reputation. A reputation which accounted for a three deep throng at the deli counter and a 20-plus minute wait for service.

The Starman himself would have been happy – there was prosciutto (and just about every other type of cured meat) aplenty. I, however, used my Italian sandwich acid test – order one with burrata.

My all-time favourite sandwich, Fiore Market Cafe’s roast chicken, features this soft cheese. The Bay Cities option was a burrata caprese – essentially a caprese salad in a roll, with the mozzarella subbed out for the softer cheese.

The purists may be sceptical, but it was perfect. The burrata was creamy cold and cut through with just enough sliced onion. The tomatoes and basil were as good as you’d expect in a 90-year old Italian deli. And the whole deal was served up on still-warm house bread. I didn’t want it to end.

All this is a long way from a 60-something David Bowie nipping out for a quick ham roll on his lunch break, of course.

That said, Bowie did play a famous show in the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in 1972 – a venue just a few minutes stroll from Bay Cities Deli.

Did he pop in for a cheese sandwich? He should have.

The burrata caprese

The burrata caprese

_____

 

 

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

All that remained was long grass

132.Richard Flanagan-The Narrow Road To The Deep North coverAnd of that colossal ruin, boundless and buried, the lone and level jungle stretched far away. 
Of imperial dreams and dead men, all that remained was long grass.

Will we be remembered after our deaths? Our legacy, for most of us, will be confined to the memories of loved ones and friends. As they pass, so what remains of us ebbs away.

Our grandchildren may remember us, our great-grandchildren may read our names half a century hence, but by then they’ll likely be meaningless, small notches in history. Traces.

The lines above are from Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road To The Deep North, a novel which depicts the experience of Australian prisoners of war forced to build the notorious Burma Death Railway in the Second World War.

Memory is at the core of the book – the soldiers’ memories of home during their imprisonment and their memories of the railway, and each other, decades later, as men in the last light of life.

In as much as it can be relied on, memory is a finite thing, a resource that runs down, like our years.

POWs laying track on the BUrma Death Railway, 1943.

POWs laying track at Ronsi, Burma in 1943.

And so a great human outrage – the construction of a railway though 415 km of murderous tropical terrain in just 11 months at the cost of 160,000 lives – fades in the mind. Even this, an experience more deserving of remembrance than most, one of mankind’s brutal catastrophes, slips away.

It exists in commemorations, in records and in pictures. But these are impressions, facsimiles of reality. Even the men who lived it, as Flanagan depicts them, find it hard to remember all the details as they approach the end of their lives.

Reading Flanagan’s book leaves one with a realisation. If the memory of an event wich as the building of the Burma Railway, and the men involved, fades what hope is there that any of us will be remembered after we pass?

_____

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Clearances that suddenly stand open

Madame Cezanne in the Conservatory Paul Cezanne (1891)

‘Madame Cezanne in the Conservatory’
Paul Cezanne (1891)

Mother’s Day is an occasion often observed more in the absence.

No voice, no presence, instead a void. A loss.

The feeling is unique to each person in a hundred ways but it’s also shared, among family members and outwards, to friends and acquaintances.

The Irish poet Seamus Heaney saw the absence of a mother as a clearance – an emptiness where a tree had been, rooted in a homeplace.

Shortly after his mother died Heaney wrote ‘Clearances’, a short cycle of sonnets documenting her life and his bereavement.

The details are personal, like breath in a room – his mother’s voice, how she folded sheets, how he felt closest to her when Heaney, as child, would help her chop potatoes.

In the final two sonnets, below, these details gather, as we stand with Heaney and his father at his mother’s final bedside, witnessing a ‘pure change’ happen.

For many Mother’s Day is not a celebration, nor is it a commiseration, instead it’s a simple, clear, unified absence.

‘Clearances’ extends no explanations or simple comforts. It does offer up a final hope that somewhere there’s “a soul ramifying”,  forever in a place “beyond silence listened for”.

 

In the last minutes he said more to her
Almost than in all their life together.
‘You’ll be in New Row on Monday night
And I’ll come up for you and you’ll be glad
When I walk in the door . . . Isn’t that right?’
His head was bent down to her propped-up head.
She could not hear but we were overjoyed.
He called her good and girl. Then she was dead,
The searching for a pulsebeat was abandoned
And we all knew one thing by being there.
The space we stood around had been emptied
Into us to keep, it penetrated
Clearances that suddenly stood open.
High cries were felled and a pure change happened.

 

I thought of walking round and round a space
Utterly empty, utterly a source
Where the decked chestnut tree had lost its place
In our front hedge above the wallflowers.
The white chips jumped and jumped and skited high.
I heard the hatchet’s differentiated
Accurate cut, the crack, the sigh
And collapse of what luxuriated
Through the shocked tips and wreckage of it all.
Deep-planted and long gone, my coeval
Chestnut from a jam jar in a hole,
Its heft and hush become a bright nowhere,
A soul ramifying and forever
Silent, beyond silence listened for.
_____

 

 

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

God’s a maniac…but we really, really need him

Detail from ' Creation of the Sun and Moon' Michelangelo (1511) Sistine Chapel

Detail from ‘ Creation of the Sun and Moon’
Michelangelo (1511)

Well that’s Him told.

Comedian Stephen Fry reckons God is “utterly evil, capricious and monstrous”. He’s also “quite clearly a maniac” – one who inflicts unjust pain on people.

Something similar has occured to most rational people at some point, and even to the most devout, surely, on occasion. And yet we believe.

The believers were among the many who read and shared Fry’s remarks after they were reported this week.

But the comedian missed the point somewhat. It’s not God himself, a grumpy reactionary with odd, millennia-old, moral habits and preachy ground staff that we need, it’s the comfort believing in him offers us.

How would we get up in the morning (or face what’s lies before us at any other time of the day) without a repository for our fears, a cosmic counterweight to life’s unpredictable shifts?

God is an answer to the headline terrors: fear of death, fear of illness, fear of losing loved ones. “But he allows horrible cancers to kill children,” it’s pointed out. Well, we let that go.

We know most sin is bad and that some of the Ten Commandants have merit, but we seem less interested in holy box-ticking than in having an otherwordly comfort blanket to keep the bad stuff away.

Stephen Fry Pic: vpjayant

Stephen Fry
Pic: vpjayant

If we were guaranteed this comfort blanket we could do without the judgmental heavenly curmudgeon Himself, constantly watching and assessing us. But one comes with the other and – despite Stephen Fry’s outrage – most people find it hard to drop the lot.

There is a way out of this existential echo-chamber, of course, which doesn’t involve hoping, praying and queuing, fingers crossed, outside the Pearly Gates. This is to reject a God, accept the meaninglessness of life…and just get on with it.

If only it were that easy. Even those of us who profess disbelief, who can’t see through the celestial curtain to whatever lies beyond, have an occasional ‘what if’ moment.

What if there is a God? What if he’s reading my mind, putting me on His List or taking me off it? And if I believed would have to go through this tortuous second guessing every time I have insomnia, or am stuck at the traffic light, or walking on a beach?

There may well be a God. if it’s not each of us, or Stephen Fry, it may – to pick one contender among millions – be Randy Newman.

After all, didn’t He sing:

I burn down your cities-how blind you must be
I take from you your children and you say how blessed are we
You all must be crazy to put your faith in me
That’s why I love mankind
You really need me

_____

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , ,

‘A few will think of this day’

WB Yeats, 1923

WB Yeats, 1923

“He disappeared in the dead of winter:
The brooks were frozen, the airports almost deserted,
And snow disfigured the public statues;
The mercury sank in the mouth of the dying day.
What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.”

So begins WH Auden’s elegy for the poet WB Yeats, who died on a late January day in 1939 in his room at the Hôtel Idéal Séjour, in the town of Menton on the French Riviera.

A great deal will be heard about Yeats this year, due to the Irish Government-funded commemoration Yeats2015 – a 12-month celebration of the poet’s life and work.

Not that the Yeats has faded from view in the 76 years since his death. Few poets command attention like he does.

This stretches beyond the poetry to the man himself and his life – the fairy-courting mysticism, the obsession with Maud Gonne, the Celtic Revival manifested in the Abbey Theatre.

And on: the nationalist politics, the automatic writing and spirit guides, the Nobel Prize and finally, the old man of later years. And – throughout all – the poetry.

WH Auden, 1939. Pic: Library of Congress

WH Auden, 1939.
Pic: Library of Congress

Amidst the celebration of his life Yeats’ death, and its effects, may not attract much mention.

But the pure change that happened in that Riviera hotel room elicited one of the 20th century’s great elegies.

The loss was harvested by WH Auden, one at the few poets of the time who could – at his best – go stanza to stanza with the Irishman.

Like readers and writers, generations and governments since, Auden’s poem celebrates the man.

But as he casts Yeats as an fount, a culture and “a mouth”, he leaves a residue of something else – an observation of the mundanity of death.

“Far from his illness
The wolves ran on through the evergreen forests,
The peasant river was untempted by the fashionable quays…
But for him it was his last afternoon as himself”.

Two years earlier Auden had confronted the same subject, writing on Brueghel’s painting The Fall of Icarus.

'Landscape with the Fall of Icarus' Pieter Brueghel (1558) Pic: Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’
Pieter Brueghel (1558)
Pic: Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium

“About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along…”

And so no death is greater than any other, and most pass unnoticed.

Auden’s Icarus attempts something unknown, unbelievable, in trying to fly. As he fails:

“…everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure.”

But, if death is often unremarked, memory is not. So it was for WB Yeats.

Amidst the wide world’s daily drudge, in places where hearing of a poet’s passing is as momentous as walking dully along, a handful would remember.

“In the importance and noise of to-morrow
When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the
Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly
accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his
freedom,
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.”

A dark, cold day.

 

_____

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Into the dark that was everything and nothing

Dublin shoreline. Pic: Peter Gerken

Dublin shoreline.
Pic: Peter Gerken

The dark hung above the marshland that ran from the road to the sea.

It was everything and it was nothing. It ran above the wetlands and over the dunes and on out into the water.

It moved in winter storms, or hung silent in the fog. The dawn banished it, but only slowly.

_____

In the morning he would wake, rising into the winter blackness.

Because the routine was the man, he believed, he would put on his clothes in the same order each time, trying not to wake her.

He had run his route so often he didn’t question why he did it anymore, or if he should change it, or stop doing it.

He would run when he felt good, rested, and when he was tired or sick. Injury would stop him but he would always, eventually, run through that too.

He knew when he didn’t do this, or if didn’t do it often enough, he felt empty, like he hadn’t engaged with what the morning or with what his life offered.

_____

He ran into the dark.

Ten minutes along the unlit causeway, the road linking the city’s edge to the dunes, he was alone.

He carried a headlamp and most mornings he used it, the thin blue light a comfort, though it barely showed the marshland’s edge.

But there were mornings he didn’t bring a light.

Then he ran by habit and experience, by guesswork and luck, facing ahead into the dark that was everything and nothing.

_____

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

‘Burned by my vision of a world that shone’

Brittany Maynard

Brittany Maynard

Some time on November 1 a 29-year-old woman in Oregon will take medication to end her life.

Brittany Maynard’s decision went global over the past couple of weeks. She has an untreatable brain tumour and faces a certain and debilitating death.

Faced with this Maynard decided that “death with dignity was the best option”. She intends to end her life, with legal medical assistance, later this month, shortly after her husband’s birthday.

Now an advocate for America’s leading end-of-life choice organisation the coverage of Maynard’s story has, understandably, precipitated a debate on assisted dying/suicide (take your pick), medical ethics, and the existence and role of a God.

At times the commentary, again understandably, has overshadowed the tragedy of Maynard’s diagnosis, the fact of a life unlived, plans unfulfilled, the cruel cost of mortality.

Reading her story I tried to focus on that, rather than the mechanics of her death.
_____

Two days after I first encountered Brittany Maynard’s case I was sitting in work when, on a radio in the background, I heard the familiar, now fainter, voice of the writer and critic Clive James.

James has, like Maynard, an aggressive cancer which he acknowledges will soon claim his life.

Clive James. Pic: RubyGoes

Clive James.
Pic: RubyGoes

Interviewed two days after his 75th birthday he spoke of his surprise at still being around. “I do have a brand of leukaemia that will come back and get me, but nobody knows when,” he stated.

While Maynard has faced her illness by becoming a public activist James, a long-time public figure in Britain, has turned inwards, writing poems that address his mortality and assess his life.

“I had a new subject, death itself…It’s all very interesting. It’s adventure. And writers are usually a bit short of adventure,” he explained.
_____

Maynard will die with the help of medication, James will not.

When I foresee their passing it’s not the pain or distress, the ethics or the tablets, that come to mind.

Instead it’s the last stanza of one of James’ final poems, Japanese Maple, in which he foresees his death, lying in his room and looking upon his garden, his “slow fading out” complete.

Filling the double doors to bathe my eyes,
A final flood of colors will live on
As my mind dies,
Burned by my vision of a world that shone
So brightly at the last, and then was gone.

Japanese maple, Musée Albert-Kahn, Paris. Pic: Line1

Japanese maple, Musée Albert-Kahn, Paris.
Pic: Line1

_____

Tagged , , , , , ,

The Grim Reaper will see you now

'Just out of sight...'

‘Just out of sight…’
Pic: InSapphoWeTrust

PHYSICALLY I was sitting in the optician’s waiting room, about to be called for an eye exam.

In my mind I was – of course – waiting on death, as it edged closer minute by minute, my body a decaying vessel, my organs weakening, a Great Black Nowhere just out of sight around the corner, past ‘Frame Fitting’.

It’s the same feeling every time. Doctor, physio, dentist: each appointment another ‘fingers-crossed for the check-up’ episode.

This never happened before my mid-30s, before I ‘got sensible’ and started scheduling regular check-ups and appointments.

But since then I rarely walk out of a surgery or into a physio’s office without some inkling of my mortality. In fact it’s probably what drives me to make the appointment in the first place.

I’m not the only one, of course.

Death anxiety has been a popular concept since the 1970s, when cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker published his book The Denial of Death.

Becker argued that humans understand that death is inevitable, and this creates an anxiety which erupts sporadically, leading us to spend our lives trying to forestall, avoid or simply deny our end. (In my case usually all three, as I wait for name to be called in another airless room).

He wrote: “The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity—activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for man.”

'The result of all this existential agonising.'

‘The result of all this existential agonising.’

So there you go. That impression of dread, that fear of The End, that incipient feeling of sand slipping through your hourglass, isn’t because you had an extra glass of wine last night or a heavy fry-up or read the news from the Middle East this morning.

You’re desperately trying, between parking the car and texting your brother, to process the reality that we’re all going to die some day, later or sooner. That’s all.

And the result of all this existential agonising, for me?

Turns out I need new glasses.

My declining eyesight is, of course, an indication that one day I will die, my cognitive function, memory and existence wiped out, removed, eradicated. That’s the downside.

The upside? I do like the frames.

_____

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Why I climbed Mont Blanc

On the summit of Mont Blanc, 22 August 2008, with Eamon Costello (left) and guide Ludo.

On the summit of Mont Blanc, 22 August 2008, with Eamon Costello (left) and guide Ludo.

SITTING in the departures lounge at Geneva International Airport I had little sense of feeling lucky.

I felt sore. My toe was busted up and my legs ached.

I was happy though. It was Sunday, August 24, 2008 and I had summitted Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in western Europe, 48 hours earlier.

Then I got the message.

“Are you ok? Eight missing on Mont Blanc after avalanche yest.”

The text came from a work colleague back in Dublin, himself a climber, who knew I was pushing for the summit that weekend (just not exactly when).

More messages followed in the coming hours as the full scale of one of the worst accidents in  the French Alps in decades began to emerge.

The climbers, five Austrian and three Swiss, were swept to their deaths when a huge ice serac  broke off, avalanching down the mountain and burying them underneath. Seven other were injured.

The final ridge to the summit,

The final ridge to the summit.

Eyewitnesses told of a huge tract of ice, 200m long and 50 wide, sweeping silently and rapidly down the mountain face at 3,600m, and climbers’ desperate attempts to get out of its path in time.

The recovery mission was later suspended; the local mountain rescue chief said there was little chance of recovering the bodies.

The French interior minister described the serac fall as “monumental” and “inescapable”.

All this unfolded on the same peak where I stood a little over a day earlier.

Reading the reports over coffee in a sunny airport cafe I had a sense of ‘there but for fortune’.

But I was aware, as most who undertake any Alpine climb are, that accidents happen on Mont Blanc like they do anywhere else.

It’s just that when they happen on Mont Blanc they tend to be far deadlier.

Despite the thousands who attempt it each year ascending the peak is not safe. There are areas of the mountain, such as the notorious rockfall run of the Grand Couloir, that remain very dangerous – despite every precaution.

The mountain – and the risks borne in climbing on it – was back in the headlines this week.

On the summit, 22 August, 2008.

On the summit, 22 August, 2008.

An accident on the Dent du Geant, a sub-peak on the Mont Blanc massif, claimed the lives of two Irish climbers last Sunday.

The two were experienced climbers and, by all accounts, were operating well within their comfort zone.

Nonetheless a single event – which appears to have been a rope breaking loose from the face – caused the pair to fall 200m to their deaths.

Many people are troubled by the apparent meaningless of such a tragedy. Every such catastrophe leads to loss of life and devastation for families left behind. People ask ‘for what’?

Nothing tangible, it would appear. No great advance, no ground-breaking progression. The significance rarely stretches beyond whoever’s on your rope.

The Irish climbers surely knew this, as do the hundreds of others on Mont Blanc today.

That’s because at its core, and despite the necessity of teamwork, mountaineering is a solipsistic pursuit. The camaraderie is enjoyable but for many a successful ascent is, firstly, a personal achievement.

That achievement comes at the cost of personal risk and most who climb seriously, on Mont Blanc or anywhere else, will accept this.

The gains – chief among them watching the dawn break from the highest point on the continent – completely outweigh the risks. The danger is traded for the feeling and the memory – a bargain forgotten once you step off the mountain.

But all that didn’t stop me sensing an echo of that Geneva Airport feeling as news of this week’s tragedy broke.

There but for fortune.

'Watching dawn break from the highest point on the Continent". Mont Blanc, August 22, 2008. Pic: Eamon Costello

‘Watching the dawn break from the highest point on the Continent.  Mont Blanc, August 22, 2008.
Pic: Eamon Costello

_____

Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,