Mrs Dalloway’s a shaky old dear, burdened by her creator’s sense of the dithery redundant language a brain like hers might kick up (perpetual, always; out, out, out; very, very); but after all she comes by her sense of debility and peril honestly, living as she does in still-traumatized and death-haunted post-war London. Aunt Rosa, in Nabokov’s short story “Signs and Symbols,” shares the same dangerous world, though she doesn’t yet know the half of it:

Aunt Rosa, a fussy, angular, wild-eyed old lady, who had lived in a tremulous world of bad news, bankruptcies, train accidents, cancerous growths—until the Germans put her to death, together with all the people she had worried about.

Philip Larkin, in “The Old Fools,” describes the elderly

crouching below
Extinction’s alp, the old fools, never perceiving
How near it is …

Yet both of these women register, in one way or another, precisely that perception; they simply differ in the ways they cope. Dalloway buys flowers and throws a party, not as death-evasion but as death-defiance; Rosa, like so many people, responds to the unassimilable, appalling fact of the avalanche (see also this recent post about Julian Barnes) with paralyzing anxiety and despair. So does Moses Herzog’s stepmother, in Herzog:

[Tante] Taube, a veteran survivor, … had fought the grave to a standstill, balking death itself by her slowness.

As in, maybe if you don’t live, you won’t die.


With death very much in the spring air, UD returns to the essay “Aes Triplex” (1878), by Robert Louis Stevenson. (It’s short – read the whole thing.) Stevenson begins by noting, drily, that death is the bummer di tutti bummers: The thing stands alone in man’s experience. We propitiate it and the dead by dressing it up in all manner of funerary custom:

The poorest persons have a bit of pageant going towards the
tomb; memorial stones are set up over the least memorable; and, in
order to preserve some show of respect for what remains of our old
loves and friendships, we must accompany it with much grimly ludicrous ceremonial, and the hired undertaker parades before the door.

Lovely writing, no? Playfully alliterative (poorest persons pageant preserve parades) in a tonal – and maybe philosophical – counterpoint to the deadly serious subject… And there are other hints here that the author himself takes a lighter (counsels taking a lighter?) approach to this ultimate heaviness: a bit is gently slangy; memorials for the least memorable is funny; the oxymoron grimly ludicrous captures beautifully the tragicomic nature of many final rituals.

His next paragraph expresses his amazement, given this terror of death, that so many human settlements happily locate themselves right next to volcanoes and earthquake zones, with the people living there having no care in the world:

There are serenades and suppers and much gallantry among the myrtles overhead; and meanwhile the foundation shudders underfoot, the bowels of the mountain growl, and at any moment living ruin may leap sky-high into the moonlight, and tumble man and his merry-making in the dust.

The same playful alliteration (here mainly about the letter M); some wonderful rhyme (bowels/growl); some assonance (sky-high into the moonlight) – this writer is enjoying himself, bringing detached wit and amusement to the strange denialist ways of human beings. Inviting us to laugh at ourselves for our contradictions.

He then deepens the denialist point, noting that catastrophe-adjacent living is only the most dramatic instance of what we all in any case experience – the awareness of/repression of how dangerous it is to live even one day.

And what, pathologically looked at, is the human body with all its organs, but a mere bagful of petards?

Strange indeed how we, with “unconcern and gaiety… prick on along the Valley of the Shadow of Death.” This is not because we have some developed philosophy or theology on the subject of Life; on the contrary, we just enjoy the business of living, of sensate existence, and we enjoy keeping it going.

[W]e are so fond of life that we have no leisure to entertain the terror of death… [We give our whole hearts to] the appetites, to honour, to the hungry curiosity of the mind, to the pleasure of the eyes in nature, and the pride of our own nimble bodies.

Stevenson concludes that this is for the best; we should “stop [our] ears against paralyzing terror, and run the race that is set before [us] with a single mind.” Here his essay’s title comes into play – we need enormous mental strength – triple brass strength – to ignore our fear of death and live a full life. “Intelligence… recognize[s] our precarious estate in life, and the first part of courage [is] to be not at all abashed before the fact.” Don’t reach for philosophies, clarifications, consolations – just live. Dig in. Be engrossed. And then:

In the hot-fit of life, a-tiptoe on the highest point of being, [one] passes at a bound on to the other side. The noise of the mallet and chisel is scarcely quenched, the trumpets are hardly done blowing, when, trailing … clouds of glory, this happy-starred, full-blooded spirit shoots into the spiritual land.

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