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“Die, my dear? Why that’s the last thing I shall do!”

As I type these words, there is positioned to the right of me, next to a slightly dishevelled philodendron, a memento mori in the form of a human skull. It is, as the picture above suggests, a stage prop from the days when ‘treading the boards’ meant something entirely different to me.

As we know, memento mori form part of the ancient practice of remembering we are all mortal.  Witness, for example, the slave standing in the chariot behind the returning triumphant Roman general repeatedly whispering amongst the shouts of adulation from the adoring crowds, “Respice post te. Hominem te esse memento. Memento mori!” “Look behind. Remember you are mortal. Remember you must die!”  And in the 16th and 17th centuries it would be entirely normal for a scholar to have a skull on their desk not for any morbid reasons but as a reminder that none of us are here forever.

Perhaps it’s an occupational hazard that the Director’s thoughts turn towards death on a fairly regular basis.  After all, most literature deals, in some way or another, with the business of shuffling off this mortal coil.

Let’s take a gander at a small sample of my current teaching roster:

Hamlet: where our tragic hero is responsible for possibly 8 deaths (including his own) by the end of the play.

Paradise Lost where shenanigans with an apple brings into the world, “Sinne and her shadow Death…”

Jekyll and Hyde: where our eponymous hero(es) end(s) up dead, slain by his (their) own hand(s).

The Road: where death is an ever present feature stalking the post-apocalyptic landscape in various guises.

And only last week, my wonderful colleague, Ms Passco lent me the slightly less wonderful book, tuesdays with Morrie which is a tale of a man facing his impending death.

Or perhaps it’s also to do with the well documented fact that time passes more quickly as we get older.  Apparently science cannot account for this phenomenon, but then science has never asked me.

Now, to my extremely limited knowledge of such things, humans are the only creature to exist that can imagine as well as meditate on their own death. And of course death is important in the natural life cycle, as I believe Elton John powerfully reminded us in The Lion King. However there seems to be a growing rebellion against it, in that wonderfully futile and paradoxical human way of ours. On such a topic, I recommend Why We Die by Venki Ramakrishnan; a recent publication where the Nobel prize winning author gives a thorough account of our quest throughout history, to avoid the inevitability of death, right up to the ludicrous sight of uber wealthy individuals getting frozen in the hope of outliving death.

So some thoughts on our unwillingness to become personally extinct that my reading has suggested to me.

Christopher Hitchens, amongst no doubt others,  once talked about how it wasn’t really his own impending death which troubled him so much as a fear of leaving the party that would be carrying on without him.  Well, Milton’s Eve expresses exactly the same idea after eating of the forbidden when she wonders whether to mention it to Adam.  She can’t bear the thought of him enjoying the party of Paradise without her.

I think, like Eve, we might have a very narrow vision of what a life is, what a human being is, and what our relationship with the world is.  Namely that it’s all about me therefore the only terrible thing would be if I came to an end.

Can you imagine how awful it would be if we did live forever? Many, if not all of the things that we value would have very little meaning if we could do anything anytime and all the time. Experience would be valueless.

As The Road demonstrates, death is not the opposite of life.  Death is the natural end point of life. It’s not the goal of life of course but it is the end of it.  In much the same way that the end of a piece of music is the completion of the work.  Without that ending it wouldn’t be a piece of music, but it doesn’t mean that the whole purpose of the music was the last chord. Whatever it is exists.  It is there to be experienced. The purpose of the road of the pilgrimage is not that it gets you to your destination, but rather, as Chaucer so aptly shows in The Canterbury Tales, it enables you to share stories on the way there.

The final story (I think) in A History of the World in 10½ Chapters by Julian Barnes, is the tale  of a man waking up in heaven and being told he can do anything he likes;  play golf with champions, philosophise with the greats etc.  And he can do it whenever and forever.  He is deeply perturbed by the utter meaningless boredom of this existence and asks how people deal with this.  He is told that after a couple of hundred years people ask to go back to the world that they came from so that they can die.

Some people are surprised that Hamlet’s father’s last words to his son are ‘remember me’, not ‘avenge me’.  Hamlet’s dilemma is how he can best tell his father’s story. Because, as Jose Mourinho said of his mentor, Bobby Robson, “Somebody only dies the day when the last person who loves them dies.”  And love never dies, and stories never die. This is why Hamlet’s last words to his friend, Horatio are a request that he lives to tell his story.

You see, it always ends up with the business of telling a story.  And whilst stories have an end, storytelling need not.

Until next time, Happy reading/telling stories!

Director’s Tip #2

Freeze your books

A musty-smelling book will come out fresh if left overnight in a frost-free freezer. This applies to many other items, including Tupperware.  Who knows, it may even work for shoes.  Let me know how you get on.