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Thursday
Mar202014

Some Recollections of Mortality

We had been excited in the highest degree by seeing the Custodians pull off their coats and tuck up their shirt-sleeves, as the procession came along. It looked so interestingly like business.

                                                                                              Charles Dickens

One spring day and evening in New York twenty years ago I happened to watch, at intermittent points, the television news (what this author claims "tells no more than the survival of greed and fear and pain and hate"). Three white men, bearded and stout, were leaning against a vehicle surrounded by reporters, cameramen and, as it turned out, forces unsympathetic to their cause. Their cause, as it were, appeared to be nothing more than mere survival. They had been riddled with lead, not in any critical areas yet enough to stymie flight, and they pleaded with the camera and anyone to whom the camera dispensed its images to have pity on them. Should they be pitied because their cause is just or simply because without medical attention they will not live more than twenty-four hours? One of the three men, the broadest of chest, spoke loudly and with a Germanic accent, and the casual observer could not help but ask where all this was taking place. He spoke and the camera decided to listen for a minute or two, and then other events of the days required other cameras and other pleas. When, hours later, we returned to the three wounded soldiers – they were mercenaries in a pro-Apartheid South African militia – there was nothing more to hear or sense. They leaned motionlessly on the tires of their jeep, ambushed on the outskirts of this desert and the camera found them all quiet and cooperative. I asked myself and my uncle sitting next to me whether they were still alive and he responded with three words: "They look dead." There was no other confirmation, no voiceover from the camera which surveyed their bodies, no statement of anguish or regret; these were contract killers who had known that they would probably die pursuing their odious profession. We were not expected to pity but to observe them, gaze upon them, and, as it stated in this essay, "look at something that could not return a look."

Perhaps not surprisingly, our narrator is British and the field of his investigation French; death, after all, is a foreign affair. In the first paragraph, he saunters out at four o'clock in the morning – when nothing but birds and the most debauched of Paris's nightcrawlers are out and about – only to end up, a few hours later, at the far end of the plaza before Notre Dame. It is here that he beholds "an airy procession coming round," which he mistakes for "a marriage in Blouse-life, or a Christening, or some other domestic festivity," yet which happens to be the funeral march of an old man. He ponders how we can insouciantly look upon the lot of a stranger and speculate as to the reasons for his demise. The ideas that surface are not among the most pleasant:

An old man was not much: moreover, we could have wished he had been killed by human agency – his own, or somebody else's: the latter, preferable – but our comfort was, that he had nothing about him to lend to his identification, and that his people must seek him here. Perhaps they were waiting dinner for him right now? We liked that. Such of us as had pocket-handkerchiefs took a slow intense protracted wipe at our noses, and then crammed our handkerchiefs into the breast of our blouses.

His death may not be tragic; it may in fact be just as commonplace as his life. A wonderful passage follows between a pair of creaking hinges in which the custodian to the funeral,  a "tall and sallow Mason," reminds the crowd of onlookers about the procedures necessary so that this man, unknown to most if not all of them, may enjoy full burial rites in accordance with the lay tradition. 

The scene is the first of three glimpses at death: an old man who passed after a long life; an unknown thirty-year-old woman found dead on the street; and then the narrator's participation as a juror in the inquest of the death of a child. All three stations in life – thirty being roughly halfway through our existence according to life expectancy of the mid-nineteenth-century – are accounted for, as are three very different ways to look at what may happen to us when our biological systems fail and end. In the case of the young child who may or may not have been done away with by his mother, the courtroom's suspicious faces and baleful implications are not kind to the accused:

The miserable young creature who had given birth to this child within a very few days, and who had cleaned the cold wet door-steps immediately afterwards, was brought before us when we resumed our horse-hair chairs, and was present during the proceedings. She had a horse-hair chair herself, being very weak and ill; and I remember how she turned to the unsympathetic nurse who attended her, and who might have been the figurehead of a pauper-ship, and how she hid her face and sobs and tears upon that wooden shoulder.  

Despite her posturings and testimony, the woman was convicted although "her sentence was lenient, and her history and conduct proved that it was right." Her child had barely tasted life, and her responsibility for its well-being was never quite bereft of doubts about her ability and desire to be a good mother. Thus the one who is to bestow life upon her child cannot bring herself to accept the commitment she has entered into, leaving her child from her inception already in the dark and thorned arms of death.

For those unaware of Dickens's contributions as an essayist – he is one of the finest in the English language – look no further than this succulent collection. The pieces range from odd piles of observations on life's minutia to short and modest tracts on more profound matters, and they are unequivocally a rousing success. Dickens has a love for Paris betrayed only by his greater endearment to certain facets of his homeland, and his feelings are evident in the detail which he proffers on death in its various guises. He wonders aloud "whether it is positively in the essence and nature of things, as a certain school of Britons would seem to think it, that a Capital must be ensnared and enslaved before it can be made beautiful" (we would do well to apply this credo to our own daily routines). He is also puzzled by the inquest, considering that the truth might never be fully revealed, attributing all of this to his own ingenuousness:

The thing happened, say five-and-twenty years ago. I was a modest young uncommercial then, and timid and inexperienced. Many suns and winds have browned me in the line, but those were my pale days.

And his brown skin will one day become pale and sallow like that of the pallbearer and custodian, as we too become greyer and night gains in its darkness.

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