Dirty Dying


Albrecht Dürer, Knight, Death and the Devil, 1513

by Jenny Diski

On the subject of death I’m inclined to turn to my two favourite writers. Vladimir Nabokov begins Speak Memory, an autobiography of sorts, with the kind of banality any reader of his knows better than to get cosy with: ‘The cradle rocks above an abyss and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.’ Given how much respect he had for common sense we shouldn’t be anything but wary. Before the end of the paragraph the old ‘chronophobiac’ (though he claimed it to be ‘a young chronophobiac of his acquaintance’) is trembling at the memory of a home movie of his mother waving from a window just weeks before he was born (‘some mysterious farewell’), and most frightening, ‘the sight of a brand-new baby carriage standing there on the porch, with the smug, encroaching air of a coffin’. Then: ‘I rebel against this state of affairs. I feel the urge to take my rebellion outside and picket nature’. Quite right, and common sense go hang, I say.

Beckett, too, was outraged by the prenatal abyss, and not crazy about the postnatal one. ‘They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.’ The first abyss warns of what is to come (‘Birth was the death of him’). If we’ve not been here once, we could not be here again. And the fable has it that nobody escapes the other abyss. Worse, though, since the invention of photography, or even of writing, it is clear that the world, waving gaily at those who are there already, got on perfectly well without one – and One is the only word that counts in the nasty business of abysses. Even the joyful prospective parents are only anticipating someone, not VN, not you, not me.

I’ve heard of people who are able to take that first oblivion as some sort of comfort. Been there, done that. It wasn’t so – anything. But the first abyss is before and the second one after and it’s the taking leave of that bit of us in the middle that’s the problem. You can see why there are people who choose to believe in reincarnation; it makes so many befores and afters that, although it may be a very tiring prospect, it isn’t at least so singular.

I’ve never understood about boredom. I realise that with time and repetition all pleasures can run out.  Yelling in our cots and watching them come to hover over us anxiously; sex; TV; reading; long walks on frosty afternoons if that is the sort of thing you like; drugs, even; everything palls, eventually. But how can anyone be bored when there’s always death to think about? Every day. Every hour. Don’t you? All the rest is just evading or glossing the real subject of our lives. Beckett, again, the maestro of death: Never but the one matter. The dead and gone. The dying and the going. From the word go. I too shall cease and be as when I was not yet, only all over instead of in store. 1

However, having read recently Allan Kellehear’s The Study of Dying a book of essays on the sociology of dying, it became clear to me that dead and gone is very different from the dying and the going. And if abysses are anything like as consciousness-proof as they’re cracked up to be, it’s the dying and the going we should most worry about. Dying, unlike death, is not universal. Sudden death may involve no period of dying at all to speak of. Just there you are and then you aren’t. A random accident. A massive heart attack or stroke – out of the blue, as they say. No dying – at any rate, no perceived dying, and what you don’t know… There’s something to be said for skipping the run up to death. Although the shock for those left behind is worse; speaking selfishly, from what I read about the biomedical processes of dying, I wonder if sudden death might not be preferable to the ‘long illness’ that obituarists write of, or even that sometimes very long illness that people call old age.

When I was young I thought differently. Partly, I had no personal face to face experience with death. It was always hearsay, and I hadn’t then read up on the many and diverse ways in which the body can pack up. A lingering death struck me as the way to go. Until the age of eight or so, I succumbed to a picture of being surrounded by weeping loved ones, sorry as hell now for whatever I thought they had to be sorry about. The movies….and death was so very like the Yorkshire moors, a vaselined lens and a smouldering glance.

Later, I fancied the idea of a slow, knowing build-up to death, of having time to watch it come, time to think about it and take a position on it. I couldn’t understand people (men, usually, when I asked) who were hoping for a quick violent death they would know nothing about. Peter Pan and I were at one on our position that death was an awfully big adventure. Also, I’ve never been keen on surprises. What I never imagined until quite late in life was that pain, disintegration, degradation and awfully big difficulty might skew my fascinating journey to extinction. Reading about why I should give up the comparatively easy, and pleasant evasions of Peter Pan, and the abysses of Nabokov and Beckett, to fix on the physical and mental deterioration looming not so far ahead in the smog, I’m not sure. The more visceral accompaniments to a lingering end have begun to grip me, quite taking over from the intellectual thrill and shiver of a lifetime of thinking about my own extinction. Actually, I’ve discovered myself to be in a pure funk about how my going is going to go.

The very old idea of a good death, allows us tell a less frightening story of the period before the end. What Francis Bacon called ‘a fair and easy passage’. You make your peace with your life, your people and if necessary with your god, divide up the inheritance, say something notable, then you are ready to withdraw. Even in 1605, Bacon knew that this good death depended rather on circumstances:

I esteem it the office of a physician not only to restore health, but to mitigate pain and dolors; and not only when such mitigation may conduce to recovery, but when it may serve to make a fair and easy passage.

But even now, with presumably much better mitigaters of pain and dolors, a fair and easy passage can’t be assured. ‘Dirty dying’ is how one researcher describes ‘the combination of leaking, painful and difficult bodies that no longer respond to personal control by their owners.’ Actually, leaking and difficult was just as much a problem with young bodies, it’s the pain that’s added with age – plus, of course, the leaking and difficulty doesn’t lead to nearly as much fun. There are too many ways to die, but just the one to get born.

Piece crossposted with This and That Continued.

Piece originally published in Swedish Goteborgs-Posten.