I don’t know to what extent I should feel free to be familiar or direct and to what extent literariness is obligatory (even in a diary) – to scrutinize everything as if from a distance, sub specie æternitatis. My wife is 76 – I myself 90. I take my little Piroska to the university hospital to be examined. The Saint George Hospital is a friggin huge complex, I’d say a good one and a half square kilometers. It’s always ”finished” and always under construction, the temporary construction buildings will take their time to come down, the cranes to disappear. Labyrinthine lanes, rambling forkings, plastic glass shades lighting up underground, a profusion of signs guiding the way; my Piroska walks with difficulty, seems like we would have arrived already, but the Addison Institute is further on. Drooling withered old mammies in wheelchairs; next to us: cripples, clubfoots, wheezing, scoliosis, crooked necks, bony cronies – I am almost ashamed that I still walk on my own two legs; that I am alive at all. Rheumatology. Sacks of arthritic, withered bones, it’s impossible not to think of death as one struggles past this. Of course everyone is thinking of death all their lives; the mimosa spirited teenage girl who contemplates suicide (herself not knowing why), the brooding young man who conjures in his reveries what it would be like to do himself in. The poet who, though still in the prime of his life, inevitably meets with the dark shadow of the Grim Reaper, the scythe resting on his shoulder – it occurs to me that he is one of the familiar figures of the ormolu clocks of the 18th century. He sits atop the bronze-gold tympanum to caution us of the ephemeralness of our lives here – beautiful, rare clocks, I myself had one. It’s just that the image that a man in the prime of his life has of death is different from that of the greybeard, who cannot forget that he is in the province of death, he has arrived in its proximity. A great deal has been said about the constat of our passing, but what came to my mind here, in the hospital complex, this death factory, I think very few have thought. If someone is an avant-garde poet – which I was held to be in my youth and in the prime of my life – then he is loved by many and equally hated by many for being what he is: “avant-garde.” (…) But there is one form of art that cannot become worn, that goes beyond everyday novelty, innovation. And this – in its content, the experience, its formulation, its captivating betrayal – is death. Death, from which this fine quality cannot be taken away or contested. At the moment when one comes face to face with it and encounters its “message.” It says something new to everyone, something which he has not yet come across. And this is the multiple gigabyte novelty. Unrivalled avant-garde itself. Death is always new. It doesn’t even notice if, as we approach, we are disrespectful or mocking. I myself wrote some such thing, and for those who have not yet come across it, allow me to write it here: the title:
Oh Weh! Oh woe! Oh Weh!
Life is ebbing away.
Oh my! Oh my! Oh my!
The dark of night draws nigh!
Tra la, la la, we warble
Crouched beneath the marble
O guai per me – per me o guai
Piss off, you, be gone! Ubiray!
We can give our talk a different spin, taking a more serious note – if we’re already on the Grim Reaper; for it is common knowledge that from time to time newspapers give accounts of those who, nearing death, almost tip over the edge of the Gorge from which there is no return, but they turn back and “bring news” of something. The accounts of these bearers of tidings are greeted sometimes with shining faces and pious jubilation, other times with a wry smile and wrinkled brow. Everyone has his own “final proof”: some aver this, some that (and history’s greatest Life Insurance Salesman, Pascal, begins to harvest). As far as how I see this exceedingly thorny question, and whether or not one can speak, in the case of those returning from Beyond, of authenticity? Allow me to insert here a mini-essay on this from my book, currently under preparation –
Death is Always New
One cannot speak of birth as an experience yet; for in the newborn that which experiences – the intellect – is, at the time of its coming into the world, nowhere. Death is the singular experience about which one can no longer speak
singular in the sense that as an experience it is incommunicable and therefore in its primary, original form unknowable. If it can even be called that – experience – then it is an experience that happens once and never again. And these are the bitter dregs of our knowledge of it.
The reports of those who have come near to the experience of death are completely unreliable. They are, without suspecting it, in the sway of the body’s physiological trickery
the decline of the world of the mind – the substance of the brain – is accompanied by phenomena, and these phenomena are confused by the predisposed moribund with various “metaphysical” mythologies – our alluvial notions from antiquity that have long since lost their basis and meaning
people stray on digressions about “tunnels,” the mystical light at the end of the tunnel; relief, a feeling of bliss, rapture, the experience of fluttering about – everything the heart might desire. This can all simply be traced back to the progression of the physiological processes of death, the degeneration of the mass of axons that directs, interprets, and synchronizes sight, the sense of light and image, leading to a feeling of a burst of light which, with the final putrefaction, plunges into nothing, there is nothing following disintegration
and when there is, the mind, after its dangerous adventure, returns to consciousness with mental images that can be interpreted in a variety of ways. It is obvious that at such times what is particularly near at hand is the silt of religious quackery: ascension, flitting about, enlightenment, redemption. The ascending “soul” looks back, as it were, on its flesh-dwelling remaining below, the sarx which for decades was its sheath, its bearer, its home
the moment the “soul” progressing out of the “tunnel” of earthly existence espies the extraordinary, exalted deluge of light, it bathes itself in it – in that radiance invisible to the living eye named “angel light” by the eminent 13th century philosopher and fervent scientist of light and vision Bishop Robert Grosseteste (1168–1253). (He had just enough time to butt heads with the Pope, but in the eighty-fifth year of his life, when abbit ad plures, he chose to pass on to the next world, and thus he too could not offer credible reports.)
In truth, there remains that which is, in its entirety, unknowable: the experience of those who do not return, when he who is experiencing death breaks down, the electric discharge of the synapses does not occur, the afferent-efferent systems do not innervate (the primary nervous system of the splanchnic organs waste away once and for all) and in the mind of the moldering person the reflex apparatus comes to a stop.
tanatology can attend the transfiguration of living tissue into corpse, the sequential shutting down of the individual organs – the decay of a being in death. However, given the nature of things the science (as such) of death is limited, almost beyond development. To those who “fall asleep” once and for all in their dreams death offers the pleasant surprise of removing the burden of their lives, and they are then no more. Someone who would pester with questions about what it was like to be gulped down the throat of death – there is no such one: it doesn’t occur to us.
The presentiment remains, the fundamental truth of which is unassailable
that death is always new.
This is an excerpt from Victor Határ's 2004 weblog on Litera, translated by Thomas Cooper. For the original Hungarian version, click here.
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