The Death of Edward Lear
Mr. Edward LEAR
Nonsense Writer and Landscape Painter
Requests the Honour of Your Presence
On the Occasion of his DEMISE.
San Remo 2:20 A.M.
The 29th of May Please reply
In this Donald Barthelme short story, Mr. Edward Lear, the nonsense poet of ‘The Owl and the Pussy-Cat’ and ‘The Dong with the Luminous Nose’, is alive and waiting his guests…
Mr. Lear sits on his bed, “wearing an old velvet smoking jacket and his familiar silver spectacles with tiny oval lenses.” Once the guests have all arrived, Mr. Lear greets them by telling them that he has no money, gives them a pithy twelve minute lecture, offers a homily on friendship and a disquisition on Cats, before, and right on time, he “reached over to the bedside table, picked up an old-fashioned pen which lay there, and died.”
A strange sort of funeral.
Appropriate, though, because death’s a strange sort of thing. Trying to pin down our relationship with death is fraught. The ‘Five Stages of Grief’, or the ‘Kübler-Ross model’, which describes the denial then anger then bargaining then depression then acceptance, as experienced by the terminally ill, might be the most famous attempt to categorise death and put Him in order; but, as critiqued by Wikipedia, the model is confused and arbitrary: “the stages arose from anecdotes and not underlying theoretical principles.”
Death refuses to be pigeonholed by theoretic.
As much as anything can be certain, ‘I think therefore I am’ seems to be at about 100 per cent. It’s as certain as anything, anyway. The claim is a strong one, because it doesn’t answer any how questions, it solely reports one logical step: that without being (“I am”) it wouldn’t make sense to be able to say (“I think”). Therefore, I am, (or rather, “I must be”).
After Death, however, we do not think, so we are not. But what is it like to be ‘not’? It doesn’t make any sense to ask the question, and in this sense, the question of what death itself is like, is a nonsense one.
Death is often inappropriately used as a sense-making machine. The usual suspects apply: near death experiences; the life that flashes before the eyes; the out of body experience; “back from the dead”; a close-shave with cardiac arrest; a risky resuscitation… the problem with using any of these experiences as a lesson from mortality is that none of them have anything to do with death. These things might very well have something to do with dying, but dying is not the same as death. Dying is not so mystifying – we know dying pretty well, and it makes good sense to be frightened of it given how painful and humiliating it can be.
Frightened of dying? Sure. Frightened of death? Why? I suppose you could be frightened of your death for other people’s sake once you understand that they’ll mourn you after you’re gone, but, when it comes to you and just you, why be frightened when there’s no good reason to think you’ll be capable of thinking anything?
Comas provide an illuminating example.
We do not call people in comas dead, because the condition of a person in a coma is not yet a final one. A person who thinks that because they believe in an afterlife they’ll know about death once they’re dead, should consider what finality really means, and whether they should use the word ‘transition’ instead of ‘death’ to describe their belief. Finality has to mean there’s no way back, and it seems overly hopeful to run at death as if it were a cat-flap instead of a brick wall.
If death is brick wall then our one certainty, (that we ‘think’, and therefore we ‘are’), will finally be taken away from us. Unlike what it’s like to ‘be’ dead, the idea of what it’s like to ‘be’ in a coma does sort of make intuitive sense, because although in a coma we do not think, we nevertheless go on with the business of existing. Now, the person in the coma cannot think the thought, “I do not think, but I still am” (because if you do not think, you cannot know anything, let alone know that you ‘are’); but, crucially, someone looking at the person in the coma from the outside could say without getting into metaphysics that: “she does not think, but she is.” While we’re busy vegetating, the present tense of the verb ‘to be’ can still be reasonably said of us via third-person proxy.
So, we can know about death, the facts and the figures etc etc, but it’s impossible to know death as we know other experiences, even strange ones like what it was like for us to be us when we were comatised.
It’s not particularly original to claim that we can’t know what death is like, but the one thing I hope to have stressed and that isn’t always obvious is the sheer distance between us and the experience of the thing.
To put this distance in perspective: the closest experience we have to death is not ‘feeling like death’, and it is not a near-death experience, and it is not even the process of dying because all of us are dying all the time from the moment we’re born. No. The closest experience we have to death is the experience of what it would be like for us ‘to be’ before we were even conceived.
Try conceiving of yourself before your conception. It’s nonsense, and likewise it’s nonsense to talk about death without acknowledging that all we’re capable of is throwing around terribly weak suppositions. All we can do is look at all the human corpses and go – “Huh, I wonder what finality is like?” – and the only feeble answer I have to that question is that it doesn’t look like they’re anywhere much.
Thomas M. Leitch once said that all of Donald Barthelmes stories might as well have begun with the word – Suppose.
Mr. Edward Lear was the pioneer of nonsense poetry, from which we get words which didn’t exist but appear always to have existed – words that seem impossibly familiar.
Death too, has these qualities.