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'Mors viva': literary renderings of life-to-death transitions.

In the third century AD Menander the Rhetor devised a typology of speeches (and, by extension, the poems) associated with journeying, from those of arrival (epibateria and prosphonetika) to those of departure (syntaktika and propemptika) to those centred on the actual process of getting from point A to point B, viz. hodoiporika. (1) At least two classical writers before him had inflected the last-named genre with a dark, thanatological colour. In his elegy for Lesbia's sparrow, Catullus (first century BC) imaged death as a one-way ticket into darkness:

... per iter tenebricosum

illuc, unde negant redire quemquam. (2)

... along the dark road, thither whence they say no one returns.

And the emperor Hadrian (r. AD 117-38) would later project the afterlife of his soul in comparably uncertain terms:

animula vagula blandula,

hospes, comesque corporis,

quae nunc abibis in loca,

pallidula, rigida, nudula,

nec ut soles dabis iocos? (3)

Dear fleeting sweeting, little soul,

My body's comrade and its guest,

What region now must be thy goal,

Poor little wan, numb, naked soul,

Unable, as of old, to jest?

The difference between these two projections of death lies in the greater inwardness of Hadrian's, dispensing as it does with the received theology of the underworld, and conveying the naked terror the soul must feel at the thought of the unspecified loca that await it. And latent in the idea of a deathly hodoiporikon is the possibility, per impossibile, of tracking the experience of death with the conscious mind. This topos was never formally named, and, though rare, it recurs throughout literature as an imaginative way of drawing death's sting. Let us call it the mors viva motif. This essay will attempt to sort out its prefigurations and eventual embodiment over the centuries.

If the mors viva took a while to root itself in Christian literature, that might be due to the prohibition implicit in I Timothy 6. 16, which claims that divinity exists 'in the light which no man can approach unto; whom no man hath seen, nor can see'. If that is so, only a Promethean spirit would wish to render into words those godly encounters assumed to exist on the other side of death. However, misgivings about hubris and impiety in this regard subsided in time, and mors viva redeemed the idea of death as an experiential unknown. To evoke is to embody, and to embody is to concretize. Dying will remain an imponderable negative only if consciousness ends with its onset. But by sustaining consciousness through a process more usually viewed as nullification, writers could forge a tangible positive out of the play of two negations, for once death became not nothing, it became something. The metaphysical appetite for paradox made capital of this deconstruction, but always at a spectatorial remove, allowing the tensions between absence and presence to implode before one's eyes. Donne, for example, turned death into a self-ingesting fulfilment of its own ingestiveness ('And death shall be no more, Death thou shalt die' (4)). This dexterous juggling of neant with presence would prove to be more difficult to secure from an inward perspective, however. Insentient subjectivity is a paradox that can barely hold together, as Helen Vendler, defining the voix d'outre-tombe, has pointed out. To write 'in a posthumous voice means to make the supreme imaginative act of imagining oneself dead, one's desires ended, one's record of utterance of feeling complete, one's structures of feeling obsolete and gutted'. (5) But to imagine oneself dead is, in terms of the ancient poet-as-deity topos, to resurrect oneself, for how else can a voice operate but through consciousness? The same problem besets Iris Murdoch in Bruno's Dream:

Death refutes induction. There is no 'it' for it to be all about. There is just the dream, its texture, its essence, and in our last things we subsist only in the dream of another, a shade within a shade, fading, fading, fading. (6)

This refutation of subjective death--of death both as subject and as sentient process--unravels itself, for true absence can register only in aposiopesis, ellipsis, or a blank page. So Murdoch cannot avoid setting up an 'it' at the very moment she denies it, instantiating the blankness of death by means of Plato-culled dreams, eschatological 'last things', and Keatsian shades. The same aporia unseals her further claim that 'Death is notan event in life. Death is not lived through' (p. 81), for narrative subsists in eventuality, and Bruno does indeed live through his death towards the end of the novel, testing various pious hypotheses about dying against his first-hand experience, and looking at death at an objective remove--an objectivity often encountered in reports of 'near-death experience':

I spin out my consciousness, this compulsive chatterer, this idle rambling voice that will so soon be mute. But it's all a dream. Reality is too hard. I have lived my life in a dream and now it is too late to wake up.

'What was the other thing?' said Bruno.

'What other thing, my dear?'

'The other thing.'

If only one could believe that death was waking up. Some people believed this. Bruno stared at his dressing gown hanging on the door. He never used it now since he did not leave his bed, and it had hardened into folds that were every day the same. (p. 286)

Christianity has traditionally imaged resurrection as arousal from the sleep of death: 'Behold I tell you a mystery; We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed' (1 Corinthians 15. 51). It has also seen that awakening in terms of vestment--'For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality' (1 Corinthians 15. 53)--which is why Bruno's dressing gown remains intractably a dressing gown, a stony monument to its own failure to transfigure itself. As he dies, the garment offers itself to him, parodying the vesture of the redeemed in Revelation--'The dressing gown had moved forward towards him and was standing at the foot of the bed' (p. 288). Bruno's terminal vision is of his invalidism: no eschatological ceremonies of vestment for him. After all, he has already acknowledged the untenability of another Christian doctrine, viz. the refiguration of time by grace. Like the hardened folds of his dressing gown, time, even in articulo mortis, remains irreversible:

'If only it could work backwards, but it can't?

Some people believed that too. That life could be redeemed. But it couldn't be, and that was what was so terrible. (p. 287)

In all these instances, Murdoch comes close to tracking death as a process, but her rationalism in the last resort disables the effort. Death, a non-event defying registration, can, at best, be viewed as a doomed, transitional resistance to nonentity:

'Was it--hard for him to go?'

'Yes. Like a physical struggle. Well, it was a physical struggle, trying to do something.'

'I suppose death is a kind of act. But I expect he was really unconscious at the end.'

'I don't know. Who knows what it is like at the end?' (p. 131)

Bruno's Dream comes at the tail-end of a tradition that sought to conceive the inconceivability of death, and in order to achieve a better sense of its evolution, we must return to the ideas of Christian eschatology. In the afterlife imaged by the author of Revelation, the stress falls on the tearlessness of immortality: 'the Lamb which is in the midst of the throne shall feed them, and shall lead them unto living fountains of waters: and God shall wipe away all tears from their eyes' (7. 17). Of especial interest is the vestigial hint of a journey, a process of transition between death and eternity, for here the faithful follow their ovine deity from the point of entry to a point more desirable still. The idea of process has not yet attached itself to dying, but rather to what follows immediately after death. A related idea of process also found its way into Christianity via the appropriation, by the author of Hebrews, of the life-as-quest motif--'But now they desire a better country, that is, an heavenly: wherefore God is not ashamed to be called their God: for he hath prepared for them a city' (Hebrews 11. 16)--a logical enough development of the Nazarene injunction: 'But seek ye first the kingdom of God' (Matthew 7. 33). However, while there is evidence of some mobility in heaven and a great deal of movement on earth, Christianity's initial conception of death remained a static, inscrutable gap between a changeable 'before' and a (slightly mutable) 'after'. Paul, for example, saw resurrection in terms of instantaneous change, not of gradation: 'we shall all be changed, In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye' (1 Corinthians 15. 51-52). And only much later, when purgatory was pushed into the equation, did the idea of prolonged process enter the official versions of an afterlife, though that doctrine centred less on the actual transition through death than on cleansing post mortem.

Even so, one of Jesus' parables did imply some kind of ceremonious reception--the formal welcome that Menander called a prosphonetikon--shortly before or during the point of entry into heaven: 'His lord said unto him, Well done, thou good and faithful servant: thou hast been faithful over a few things, I will make thee ruler over many things: enter thou into the joy of thy lord' (Matthew 25. 21). Succinct and brief though it be, this speech implies some kind of colloquy, some kind of liminal pause at the point of reception, and this idea of a ceremonious welcome had developed still further when Everyman was staged in the fifteenth century:

THE AUNGELL. Come, excellente electe spouse, to Iesu!

Here aboue thou shalte go

Bycause of thy synguler vertue.

Now thy soule is taken thy body from,

Thy rekenynge is crystall-clere.

Now shalte thou in to the heuenly spere,

Unto the whiche all ye shall come

That lyueth well before the day of dome. (7)

Derived from the Christian reconception of the Song of Songs as a conversation between deity and soul, this speech amplifies the receptive element in the parable and also blends in the language of another genre altogether--the epithalamium. It is not the lamb who embraces Everyman's soul on the threshold (as in Revelation), but rather the archangel Michael, whom folklore had turned into a celestial welcoming committee. We see this, for example, in the offertory of the Requiem Mass: 'sed signifer sanctus Michael repraesentet eas in lucem sanctam' ('but may the holy standard-bearer Michael bring them into the holy light').

Everyman's amplification of hints and nuances in scripture does not stop there, however, for the author also presents a wholly new adaptation of the life-as-quest topos. The author of Hebrews had presented life as an arduous quest for heaven, but the morality play applies the journey topos to the actual process of dying:

DETHE. Almyghty God, I am here at your wyll,

Your commaundement to fulfyll.

GOD. Go thou to Eueryman

And shewe hym, in my name,

A pylgrymage he must on hym take,

Whiche he in no wyse may escape;

And that he brynge with hym a sure rekenynge

Without delay or ony taryenge.

(ll. 64-71, p. 3)

While the ars moriendi no doubt helped to shape the play's graded transition from life into death, that form focused less on the act of crossing over than on a discrete 'before' and 'after'. In The Art of Dieing, for example, we learn that death is 'but a partynge bitwen the body and the soule', (8) and only a 'brook that departeth deeth and lif, for deeth is here and lif is there' (p. 135). Nor is Everyman more explicit on this point, for although much of the play ritualizes the process of divestment (thus fulfilling the directives of the ars moriendi), it does not track the hero's experience of death at the point of cross-over. His last speech takes the form of a viaticum this side of death:

In to thy handes, Lorde, my soule I commende;

Receyue it, Lorde, that it be not lost.

As thou me boughtest, so me defende,

And saue me from the fendes boost,

That I maye appere with that blessed hoost

That shall be saued at the day of dome.

(ll. 880-85, p. 26)

Even so, one senses a half-declared spatial negotiation, as though Everyman's soul were about to pass upward into a divine embrace, running counter to the gravitational drag of a fiend 'down there'.

Not surprisingly, Shakespeare took the idea of this dramatic conception of the mors viva to greater heights still. In Measure for Measure, III. 1, Claudio images death as a sensory privation that is paradoxically sensed:

Ay, but to die, and go we know not where;

To lie in cold obstruction, and to rot;

This sensible warm motion to become

A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit

To bath in fiery floods, or to reside

In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;

To be imprison'd in the viewless winds

And blown with restless violence round about

The pendent world: or to be worse than worst

Of those that lawless and incertain thought

Imagine howling,--'tis too horrible.

(III. 1. 117-27)

The poignancy of his projection derives in part from Shakespeare's going beyond the iter tenebricosum motif of Catullus, but, even as he does so, he sets up a cul-de-sac sign at the start of that dark road. Death thus conceived is a journey denied, a claustrophobic stasis in place of a pilgrimage--consciousness inside the grave. By the same token, the autonomous mobility of the free spirit yields to the inertia of a passive clay, worked upon from the outside, and all the time aware of its own degradation. And that is the point where the mors viva of Claudio's projection peters out. For the images towards which he modulates relate to the fate of the soul rather than to the process of its passing. Its release from the grave carries no sense of liberation, given the infernal punishments culled directly or indirectly from John Bromyard's Summa predicantium, the sixth book of the Aeneid, and the first of La divina commedia. Bromyard had based his ideas of hell on an experiential before and after, an idea that needed a bridging consciousness for the contrast to tell:

Their soul shall have, instead of palace and hall and chamber, the deep lake of hell, with those that go down into the depth thereof. In place of scented baths, their body shall have a narrow pit in the earth; and there they shall have a bath more black and foul than any bath of pitch and sulphur. (9)

These punitive tableaux contain tiny foretastes of Measure for Measure to the extent that they half-posit the idea of the grave experienced from within, and of death as never-ending corruption. If life becomes in any way pleasurable, Bromyard believes it must be countervailed in the afterlife by a hellish parody of its pleasures. In fact, he simply carries through the reversals of the Magnificat, putting down the mighty from their seat, and exalting the humble and meek.

However, while in Measure for Measure Claudio is subjectively terrified by the imponderability of the death that seems to await him, Hamlet centres on a revenant from the grave, one who details the circumstances of his dying with all the external objectivity of a witness. This to some extent anticipates the twentieth century's cult of the 'near-death' experience, in which the subject seems to float out of the body and look down upon it--the perspective from which the elder Hamlet views his own murder:

So did it mine,

And a most instant tetter bark'd about,

Most lazar-like, with vile and loathsome crust

All my smooth body.

Thus was I, sleeping, by a brother's hand

Of life, of crown, of queen, at once dispatch'd,

Cut off even in the blossoms of my sin,

Unhousel'd, disappointed, unanel'd,

No reck'ning made, but sent to my account

With all my imperfections on my head.

O horrible! O horrible! most horrible!

(I. 3. 70-80)

In this we witness a further development of the mors viva, at least to the extent that a hitherto unconscious process finds subjective expression, despite the objectifying third-person mode. We have no sense of the elder Hamlet's waking up to witness the anthrax-like effects of the poison on his 'smooth body', but rather of his seeing it from another vantage altogether, even as it happens. This implies that sentience has by-passed the channels of conventional experience. However, Hamlet offers us only a rough sketch of the topos. The ghost cannot (or will not) relay the purgatorial results of his premature death, resorting to an aposiopesis of sorts, for his threefold roar of 'horrible' implies that language itself has broken down.

An advance on this inscrutable silence can be detected in The Pilgrim's Progress, prose analogue of Everyman. Here Bunyan can take the mors viva a step further because his protagonist's consciousness does not close down at the point of death. After all, his allegorical method requires him to give a narrative shape to the process of dying, whereas Claudio and the elder Hamlet both deal in static instants. Protestantism also contributed to this development, for, after the mid-sixteenth century, a greater inwardness and emotionalism had become de rigueur in some varieties of English Christianity. Because, for Bunyan, doctrines needed to be felt on the pulse--emotional rather than intellectual assent the sine qua non of being 'saved'--he set out to animize (and so to animate) the abstract tenets of theology. The 'four last things' figure less as the inventory and checklist of Everyman than as events to be lived through and felt first-hand. The mors viva embedded at the end of The Pilgrim's Progress, Part I, thus takes form as a 'Lisztian' paraphrase of Revelation 22. 1-2, where a river flows from the throne of God.

But again, like Liszt after him, Bunyan has reconstituted his materials, for this stream, far from being 'the pure river of water of life, clear as crystal', is a turbid, life-threatening Styx, evolved from another text altogether, the despondent eighth verse of the forty-second Psalm ('all thy waves and billows are gone over me'):

Now I further saw, that betwixt them and the Gate was a River, but there was no Bridge to go over; the River was very deep: at the sight, therefore, of this River, the Pilgrims were much stun'd; but the men that went with them, said, You must go through, or you cannot come at the Gate.

The Pilgrims then began to enquire if there was no other way to the Gate; to which they answered, Yes; but there hath not any, save two, to wit, Enoch and Elijah, been permitted to tread that path, since the foundation of the World, nor shall, until the last Trumpet shall sound. (10)

At every point we feel the externality of the allegorical method, which, ever since Prudentius in the fourth century, had imposed a third-person, epic dispassionateness on first-hand subjectivities. But even though Bunyan has one eye on his biblical sources (the text, like The Holy War after it, makes chapter-and-verse postings in the margin of all the material it has rendered into allegory), he breaks new ground by presenting, however externally, the sense of death as a process:

Then said the other, Be of good cheer, my Brother, I feel the bottom, and it is good. Then said Christian, Ah, my friend, the sorrows of death have compassed me about, I shall not see the land that flows with Milk and Honey. And with that, a great darkness and horror fell upon Christian, so that he could not see before him; also here he in great measure lost his senses, so that he could neither remember nor orderly talk of any of those sweet refreshments that he had met with in the way of his Pilgrimage. But all the words that he spake tended to discover that he had horror of mind, and hearty fears that he should die in that River, and never obtain entrance in at the Gate: Here also, as they that stood by perceived, he was much in the troublesome thoughts of the sins that he had committed, both since and before he began to be a Pilgrim. (p. 167)

There is an arresting sense here, avant la lettre, of a cellphone's reception inside a tunnel. The scrambling and incoherence suggest the breakdown of the subject, while, at the same time, his consciousness dissolves into the godly omniscience of the onlookers. It is they who perceive the nature of his thoughts, thoughts that language cannot articulate as it struggles over the threshold of death.

Picking up, in a sense, where Bunyan left off, Edward Young devoted a part of his Night Thoughts to just this sort of collective experience of death, redefining the 'cloud of witnesses' in Hebrews 12. 1 in meteorological terms, and borrowing also from Thomas Parnell's 'Night-Piece on Death', in which the 'bursting Earth' likewise unveils 'visionary Crouds' who

... all with sober Accent cry,

Think, Mortal, what it is to dye. (11)

Young's revenants differ from Hamlet senior in offering palatable reports on the process of death. They throw light on the iter tenebricosum and construct an Augustan highway across the obstructive mountain range that has displaced the river of The Pilgrim's Progress as an eschatological threshold. And, as in the parable of the faithful servant, arrival in heaven is greeted by a collective prosphonetikon:

Our dying friends come o'er us like a cloud,

To damp our brainless ardours, and abate

The glare of life which often blinds the wise.

Our dying friends are pioneers, to smooth

Our rugged pass to death; to break those bars

Of terror and abhorrence Nature throws

Cross our obstructed way; and thus to make

Welcome, as sale, our port in every storm. (12)

The early Augustan horror of mountains can perhaps to be glimpsed in Young's notion of death as a passage through a 'rugged pass', though he also avails himself of the more traditional idea of the 'valley of the shadow of death' that Christianity had derived from Psalm 23. But even here Young modifies a pious tradition with neo-classical decorum, his dab of color Romanus locating the valley in the darkness of the legendary north:

The vale of death! that hush'd Cimmerian vale,

Where darkness, brooding o'er unfinish'd fates,

With raven wing incumbent, waits the day

(Dread day!) that interdicts all future change!

(p. 84)

Since Night Thoughts is, in part, an Augustan ars moriendi, it comes as no surprise that Young should want to exercise his imagination in traversing this valley, half allegorical, half realized ('There let my thought expatiate' (p. 84)), just as, before him, Parnell had imaginatively rehearsed the transition to death:

Death's but a Path that must be trod,

If Man wou'd ever pass to God:

A Port of Caltas, a State of Ease

From the rough Rage of swelling Seas.

(p. 84)

As the Age of Sensibility drew on, these austere, prospective takes on death gave way, in Gray's 'Elegy' at least, to a liminal backward glance at the vista left behind:

For who to dumb Forgetfulness a prey,

This pleasing anxious being e'er resigned,

Left the warm precincts of the cheerful day,

Nor cast one longing lingering look behind? (13)

Despite his ostensible faith in an afterlife, Gray's involuntary vision of the nothingness of death enhances the pathos of this departure, a pathos we sense also in a song from Tennyson's 'Tears, Idle Tears'. There, as if two rheostats were operating in contrary motion, the dawn comes up while consciousness ebbs, so that even as the light discloses the position of the casement in the wall, the dying eye perceives it only as a faint geometric radiance:

'Ah, sad and strange as in dark summer dawns

The earliest pipe of half-awakened birds

To dying ears, when unto dying eyes

The casement slowly grows a glimmering square;

So sad, so strange, the days that are no more.['] (14)

Utterances such as these show how Darwinian misgivings underlay the confidence of Tennyson's faith, and led him to the hope, rather than the certainty, that he would meet his pilot in 'Crossing the Bar'.

We must not assume, however, that the mors viva remained the preserve of Christian piety alone. Leigh Hunt's 'Reflections of a Dead Body' adapted the topos to his home-brewed Pelagian deism, trying to detect pattern and purpose in life instead of propounding the extra ecclesia nulla salus doctrines that, when all is said and done, lie behind Bunyan's enterprises as much as they do behind Everyman. Presenting a soul at the point that it transcends its flesh (a prefatory 'stage direction' tells us that 'The soul within the dead body soliloquizes'), (15) Hunt offers an eclaircissement different from the 'glass darkly' promise of Paul (even though he remains deeply indebted to him) simply by dispensing with the Christian conditions for salvation:

What change is this! What joy! What depth of rest!

What suddenness of withdrawal from all pain

Into all bliss? into a balm so perfect

I do not even smile. I tried but now,

With that breath's end, to speak to the dear face

That watches me--and lo! all in an instant,

Instead of toil, and a weak, weltering tear,

I am all peace, all happiness, all power,

Laid on some throne in space.--Great God! I am dead

(A pause.) Dear God! Thy love is perfect; thy truth known.

(Another.) And he,--and they!--How simple and strange! How


(p. 267)

Given this overlap of purpose between a freethinker and the orthodox Christians that preceded him along the way, it comes as no surprise that the generic line of succession after Hunt's poem should also have included Cardinal Newman's Dream of Gerontius (1866), an exercise in mors viva clearly inspired by 'Reflections of a Dead Body', though the relevant Roman doctrines have been filled in at points that the deist had discreetly left blank. While Newman obviously wrote The Dream of Gerontius in Catholic defiance of The Origin of Species, which had effectively dismantled the notion of an immortal soul, the mors viva, even though predicated on such ideas, showed a surprising reluctance to retire from the scene. Some unbelieving writers adapted it to ironic discourse about the impossible, recovering the paradoxes of Donne, but without his doctrinal confidence. Others again--writers with religious convictions different from Bunyan's or Newman's--made it a vehicle for their own particular brands of mysticism.

So far as the ironic option goes, we can remark that the demythologizing legacy of Darwinism had found some support within Christianity itself, some strands of which began discarding traditional ideas about heaven and hell, those loci so important to the topos. In the first phase of withdrawal, F. D. Maurice lost his Fellowship at Cambridge for denying the doctrine of eternal damnation, but it did not take heaven long to go the way of hell, both of them impossibly burdened by their materiality, whether of tire and brimstone or harps and clouds. The heavenly afterlife that the author of Revelation had extrapolated as a converse of life on earth seemed no less inconceivable than the traditional hell, and Kenneth Burke has pointed out how it even replicated the slave culture through which Christianity's earlier proselytes had moved:

Suicide in this context can be a refuge from the oppressor. Hence, in slave cultures, the priests were careful to make it clear that, by their powers, the suicide slave would be pursued beyond the grave. (The authorities there, that duplicated the authorities here, would be waiting for him.) Christianity holds out the 'promise' of immortality, along with the 'threat'. (16)

Indeed, even a humanist such as Hamlet expresses fears about the edicts of that slave master when contemplating the potential relief of suicide.

The credibility of afterlives worked up from the hopes and fears of the living is proportional to the degree of their concreteness, for the more tangible the idea, the less tenable it became over time. For example, the tires of hell originated in those that burnt continuously in Gehenna, Jerusalem's rubbish dump. Translating them into abstract space, and revising the principles of combustion in the process, could invite belief only as long as nature's laws lay hid in night. Moral revulsion also played a part in rewriting or dismantling heaven and hell. Most liberal theologians of the twentieth century have shied away from the tinselled heavens of the Victorian hymnists and speak in altogether more abstract terms of the afterlife, and, inspired by the humanity of F. D. Maurice, dispense with hell altogether. Freethinkers had anticipated them, however, and their mortes vivae often ironically focused on traditional projections of heaven as the yearnings of moribund consciousness for the immortality that it cannot enjoy.

Writing in those very hymn metres that vectored belief in the Victorian heaven, Emily Dickinson projected the mors viva as an irresistible passage towards the 'endless night' (in 'The Bard') (17) and the 'dumb Forgetfulness' that Gray could not help envisaging in spite of his orthodox self. 'I Heard a Fly Buzz' registers death as an experiential noose that constricts item upon item before choking off consciousness itself:

... and then it was

There interposed a Fly--

With Blue--uncertain stumbling Buzz--

Between the light--and me--

And then the Windows failed--and then

I could not see to see--(18)

This seems to recall the casement of 'Tears, Idle Tears' and furthermore parallels the unintelligent scrabblings of an insect against an impassable barrier with the no less futile effort of the human mind to shore up fragments against its own extinction. Dickinson also turns Christian iconography inside out to subvert its tidying appropriations. We recall, for example, the well-behaved, well-focused fly on the parapet of Carlo Crivelli's Bache Madonna, which signifies, via its association with Beelzebub, the raison d'etre of the incarnation. And we also recall, as the speaker's vision fails altogether, the confident promise of I Corinthians 13. 12 ('now we see through glass darkly; but then face to face'). For whereas Paul had promised the perspicuity and coherence of a view sub specie aeternitatis, Dickinson offers the blue uncertain stumbling buzz of her own interruptive syntax--for all the world like the


Of terror and abhorrence Nature throws

Cross our obstructed way

which Young's Augustan blank verse had tried so conscientiously to clear aside.

Ambrose Bierce rendered the process of dying in no less acerbic and sceptical a way in 'An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge' (1891):

As Peyton Farquhar fell straight downward through the bridge he lost consciousness and was as one already dead. From this state he was awakened--ages later, it seemed to him--by the pain of a sharp pressure upon his throat, followed by a sense of suffocation. Keen, poignant agonies seemed to shoot from his neck downward through every fibre of his body and limbs. These pains appeared to flash along well-defined lines of ramification and to beat with an inconceivably rapid periodicity. They seemed like streams of pulsating tire heating him to an intolerable temperature. [...] He was conscious of motion. Encompassed in a luminous cloud, of which he was now merely the fiery heart, without material substance, he swung through unthinkable arcs of oscillation, like a vast pendulum. (19)

The irony of this writing centres on the undisclosed reality behind the discourse. Farquhar is actually being hanged, that instantaneous death prolonged by narrative nanoseconds that, like the surreal magnification and sharpening of mechanical time, turns his watch into a juggernaut:

The intervals of silence grew progressively longer; the delays became maddening. With their greater infrequency the sounds increased in strength and sharpness. They hurt his ear like the thrust of a knife. He feared he would shriek. What he heard was the ticking of his watch. (p. 11)

Like Dickinson's, Bierce's ironic method incorporates and demythologizes traditional Christian eschatology. We catch a glimpse of the tires of Gehenna (or Phlegethon, their pagan counterpart), and likewise have a fleeting vision of disembodied souls in a cloudy landscape, the cliched cartoon account of heaven, or, to put the best possible gloss on it, of Goethe's 'Ganymed':

Es schweben die Wolken abwarts, die Wolken

Neigen sich der sehnenden Liebe,

Mir! mir! (20)

However, all these things have here been internalized as physical sensations, the nervous system's response to a broken neck and the momentary cessation of pain. Hebrew iconology had located its invisible deity within a cloud, as in Exodus 24. 16: 'And the glory of the Lord abode upon mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it six days: and the seventh day he called unto Moses out of the midst of the cloud.' Bierce's mors viva subverts such beliefs, for even as Farquhar imagines himself the luminous centre of a cloud--as though he had for a moment been encompassed in the bosom of Abraham, or, like Ganymede, been absorbed into godhead itself--the narrator punctures the subjectivity with a deadpan account of his death.

Something similar occurs in the coda to L. P. Hartley's trilogy Eustace and Hilda. As Eustace lies dying in his sleep, the author begins by tracking a dream of salvation, one centred on a text from the apocryphal Wisdom of Solomon:

But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and there shall no torment touch them. In the sight of the unwise they seemed to die: and their departure is taken for misery, and their going from us to be utter destruction: but they are in peace. (21)

Here again, Hartley has reworked traditional Christian eschatology, turning the liber scriptus of the Dies Irae into a public-school examination, and parodying the triumphal reception of the redeemed as the rite-of-passage rituals of a public school: 'Suddenly there was a shout, "Eustace has passed! Three cheers for Eustace!" and the ancient rafters rang with acclamations' (p. 735). But then the dream (which in Bierce had also taken form as wish-fulfilment nanoseconds before death) shifts to Eustace's childhood by the sea. The world of Darwin-of anemones that prey on shrimps--supervenes at the moment of dying, of passing in a different sense altogether from that implied by school exam, for it involves the eclipse of consciousness in dark, insentient oblivion:

Then he knew what he must do. Taking off his shoes and socks, he waded into the water. The water was bitterly cold; but colder still were the lips of the anemone as they closed around his finger. 'I shall wake up now', thought Eustace, who had wakened from many dreams.

But the cold crept onwards and he did not wake. (p. 736)

Just as Hartley takes 'An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge' as the point of departure for his rendering of death, so Patrick White himself seems partly to have based the mors viva in The Eye of the Storm on that in Eustace and Hilda. Here too we have the symbols of beach and water, though inflected with the author's own theistic vision of things. Mrs Hunter dies while attempting to pass a stool, an apparently incongruous circumstance that, far from undercutting the content of the vision, attempts to validate it. It shows White's contempt for the body and its processes, and his corresponding belief in an immortal soul that will escape it:

It she strained periodically on the commode it was as a formality to please her nurses and her doctor. Now the real business in hand was not to withdraw her will, as she had once foreseen, but to will enough strength into her body to put her feet on the ground and walk steadily towards the water. (22)

Here Elizabeth Hunter relives her encounter with deity conceived as the calm eye of the temporal storm. Just as Eustace Cherrington senses his death as an inscrutable directive--'Then he knew what he must do'--so too Elizabeth leaves behind the stasis of the commode to address the 'real business' of her death, a moment rendered as a faithful encounter with water--that of baptism and other rites of lustration. She has a psychopomp in her husband Alfred, the man whose death had earlier led to the partial reconstitution of her sense of purpose.

White dramatizes that reconstitution by having the objective 'eye' of deity replace the exorbitant 'I' of Elizabeth's self-enclosure:

Alfred my dearest dearest you ate the one to whom I look for help however I failed.

And know that I alone must perform whatever the eye is contemplating for me. (p. 550)

At this point, conventional syntax breaks down, and the prose evolves in streamof-consciousness continuity in which the self, no longer autonomous, moves 'by some miraculous dispensation', and finite verbs yield to the notional movement of infinitives--'To move'; 'to feel':

To move the feet by some miraculous dispensation to feel sand benign and soft between the toes the importance of the decision makes the going heavy at first the same wind stirring the balconies of cloud as blows between the ribs it would explain the howling of what must be the soul not for fear that it will blow away [...].

Till I am no longer filling the void with mock substance: myself is this endlessness. (pp. 550-51)

As that dissolution of subjective consciousness occurs, so a sense of primordial union takes its place, the wind of the storm now identified with the rhythm of human lungs as much as with the ruach or spirit of God that moves on the waters in Genesis 1. 2. The broken concord between the first-person subject (itself implied only by the reflexive pronoun) and the third-person verb ('myself is this endlessness') emblematizes the shift from subject to object that we have already witnessed in such mortes vivae as the senior Hamlet's account of his death.

White had already pioneered this virtuosic language of dissolution in The Vivisector, though there our final glimpse of the process is from the subject's end of the telescope:

'Lookther paint ig'. Don the Painter-Heartsudent-Harkangel. 'Thiss iss hizz Miss the paint iss.'

Why all the hissing and whizzing might piss it out no the INDIG0 decisive it.

'My dearest God.'

'Miss Courtney don't dead the live will live will tell you see Miss Courtenee?'

'0 my God my live my lovely.'

'Miss Courtney the bell I tell.'

'Whoever it is they won't dare!'

'Miss Cauter? Soon here.'

'Yes Don. The arable. My dear-rest Lord.'

O rose Rose

Too tired too end-less obvi indi-ggoddd. (23)

In 'I Heard a Fly Buzz' Emily Dickinson had registered the onset of death as the godless deletion of faculties, whereas White does the same thing from a vantage of a wavering faith. For the poet, language had ended in aposiopesis, the irresolute closure of consciousness; for the novelist, it yields new meaning even as it breaks up. This breakage issues in morphemes that reassemble themselves in nonsense words with a locally generated significance. For example, 'obvi' makes possible both the sense of obliteration ('obviation') as well as encounter ('obvious'), while the 'vi' morpheme can now spark across the gap and forge an entirely different semantic relationship with 'vindicare', implying the triumphalism of 'vindicate'. Also, because it cannot escape the semantic shadow of 'vindictive', it evokes the idea of the vivisector god that has been posited for much of the novel.

While, therefore on the surface the language of dissolution might seem 'Chaos-like together crush'd and bruis'd', it turns out, like the corresponding concordia discors in 'Windsor Forest', to be 'harmoniously confus'd'. (24) Certainly the gibberish word 'indi-ggoddd' seems to contain the sense of arrival ('In I go'). And, as language loses its precision and opens up avenues to creative misprision, it also becomes iconic. The phonetically impossible (a continuous as opposed to a sequential pronunciation of alveolar plosives, which would have been signified by hyphens) forces us to read the three 'd's as a symbol--of the trinity, perhaps, or, since White's is a syncretic vision of deity, of the three instructions of the thunder in the Hindu Upanishad that Eliot adapted in 'The Waste Land'. The two 'g's, equally unpronounceable, could, in triplicate, have enclosed the word 'god' in a book-ended symmetry. As it is, however, they function as an 'error for Allah', a breakdown of vision even as vision arrives. Hurtle's hubris is chastened even as the mors viva brings him home.

Hubris--of a very different kind--also plays a part in Oscar Moore's A Matter of Life and Sex. Like The Vivisector, this novel ends with the death of its anti-hero, and with an elaborately crafted passage of consciousness from life to death, but there the resemblance ends. It is not Moore's intention to affirm, and while the sequence picks up elements from the novel, it does so without tidying or shoring them up. Rudy, for example, is a figure who has entered the picture quite late, neither central nor emotionally close to Hugo. And yet he has a prominent part in the mors viva, as indeed does Hugo's mother's lover, otherwise so tangential to the book that he does not have a name. In this instance, the topos borders on nightmare, with the classic nightmare experience of irrelevance and humiliation and difference measured, as it is here, by a failure to conform to mass action. Equally nightmarish is the way in which space changes identity--the confident assumption that we are in a chapel half-revoked by the reference to the waiting room of a railway station.

Even so, the passage has one feature that, more than any other, nudges it away from nightmare towards the mors viva--that sense of life-assembly, and of an individual's being cheered on towards the goal of his death such as we see in Christian's crossing of the river, and in Parnell's and Young's 'visionary Crouds'. The separative italics might record the purely subjective dissolution of Hugo's consciousness, but, as the other participants vanish, and we become aware of his mother alone in the church, we know that subjective and objective experiences have begun to reconverge, and that he is indeed looking at her for the last time as she sits, not in the church of his vision, but in the hospital ward where he dies. The italics could, to all intents and purposes, have stopped running at the line 'as he looked back, the only person he saw was his mother':

And before Rudy could say anything and before Hugo could interrupt and ask Rudy if he could keep his voice down, because, after all, his mother was here, before Chas and Rudy could exchange glances, and before Hugo could say hello to Dolly, who was standing at the back in a hat with a very large brim and greet Sam, who was sitting in the comer looking shabby in glasses and holding a bottle in a brown paper bag, the organ started and everybody sat down and Hugo, more in alarm than anything else, stood up.

And as he stood there with everyone sitting round him and no-one looking at him, not even his mother, whose hands were playing games with the hands of the fancy man, it occurred to Hugo that he was feeling very vague. Almost as if he shouldn't really be here. Almost as if they were just waiting for him to go. And then, turning to the church that may just have been a railway waiting hall, and moving past the people in the pews, none of whom stood to let him pass, Hugo realised that really, to all intents and purposes, he had already gone.

He walked to the front of the room. To the table with the starched white table cloth and the lilies that looked as if they had been ironed. He stood still on the steps leading to the table and turned to face the church. But this time, as he looked back, the only person he saw was his mother, in a grey cardigan, her hair dark brown as it had been for some years, her eyes puffy with tears, sitting alone. He smiled at her and she smiled at him and hen he closed his eyes.

His mother called the nurse. She had watched him for ten minutes, letting the fact sink in. But then she was worried he would get too cold, so she rang the bell.

'He's gone, I think', she said.

The nurse took his pulse. Turned off the oxygen. Closed his eyes. (25)

The novel's epilogue seems to validate the content of this mors viva, which in retrospect figures as a semi-mystic dress rehearsal for the real event, or so at least the simile about the railway waiting room would seem to imply. But, at the same time, the other details are deliberately left disharmonious for fear of an ending too sweet and affirmative. Rudy, present in the vision, is represented in reality only by his telegram:

They buried Hugo in Hendon. In the cemetery. He would have hated that. He was always such a stickler for good postal codes. The service was very quiet. The chapel was very clean but sterile, like a railway waiting room. Some of the old friends sent flowers. Cynthia carne, in a full-length wolfskin coat. Rudy sent a telegram that nobody understood. The vicar made comments that nobody understood either. But afterwards they thought he may have got his timetable wrong. Hugo would have liked that. (p. 323)

In Bruno's Dream, Murdoch had tracked the onset of death in terms rather similar to Hartley's and Moore's, for there the consciousness of the dying subject, at each reawakening into life, is reawakening into a life that has begun to turn into an increasingly shadowy paraphrase of itself:

This other pain was of the mind, or somehow of the whole being as if in the doomed animal mind and body were fusing into almost diaphanous ectoplasm, only vaguely located in space, which vibrated blindly with the agony of consciousness. The return from sleep into this ectoplasmic consciousness was always misery. I am still here he thought. (p. 281)

When life and death have blurred into this kind of suspended animation, the borderline between dream and death becomes very hard to plot, and so the mors viva dissolves imperceptibly into its generic cousin, the dream vision.

(1) Menander Rhetor, ed. with translation and commentary by D. A. Russell and N. G. Wilson (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981), passim.

(2) Poem III, lines 11-12, in Catullus, Tibullus and 'Pervigilium Veneris', ed. and trans, by F. W. Cornish, J. P. Postgate, and J. W. Mackail (London: William Heinemann, 1967), pp. 4-5.

(3) Poem III, in Minor Latin Poets, with Introductions and English Translations, ed. and trans, by J. Wight Duff and Arnold M. Duff (London: William Heinemann, 1954), pp. 444-45.

(4) 'Divine Meditation', 10, in The Complete English Poetas, ed. by A. J. Smith (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971), p. 313.

(5) Helen Vendler, Wallace Stevens: Words Chosen out of Desire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1980), p. 35.

(6) Iris Murdoch, Bruno's Dream (London: Chatto & Windus, 1909), p. 7.

(7) Everyman, 894-901, ed. by A. C. Cawley (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1961), p. 27. Subsequent page references are to this edition.

(8) Middle English Religious Prose, ed. by N. F Blake (London: Edward Arnold, 1972), p. 134.

(9) Quoted in G. R. Owst, Literature and Pulpit in Medieval England: A Neglected Chapter in the History of English Letters & of the English People (1933; repr. Oxford: Blackwell, 1966), pp. 293-94.

(10) John Bunyan, The Pilgrim's Progress from this World to That Which is to Come, ed. by James Blanton Wharey (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1928), pp. 166-67.

(11) Poetry of the Landscape and the Night, ed. by Charles Peake (London: Edward Arnold, 1967), p. 84.

(12) 'Night III', from Night Thoughts, in Edward Young (1683-1765), intro, by Brian Hepworth (Cheadle: Carcanet Press, 1975), p. 85.

(13) In The Poetas of Gray, Collins and Goldsmith, ed. by Roger Lonsdale (London: Longman, 1969), pp. 132-33.

(14) In The Poetas of Tennyson, ed. by Christopher Ricks (London: Longman, 1969), p. 785.

(15) In The Poetical Works of Leigh Hunt, ed. by H. S. Milford (London: Oxford University Press, 1923), p. 267.

(16) Kenneth Burke, 'Thanatopsis for Critics: A Brief Thesaurus of Deaths and Dyings', Essays in Criticism, 2 (1952), 369-75 (p. 371).

(17) The Poetas of Gray, Collins and Goldsmith, ed. by Lonsdale, p. 200.

(18) In The Norton Anthology of Poetry, ed. by Margaret Ferguson, Mary Jo Salter, and Jon Stallworthy, 4th edn (New York: W. W. Norton, 1996), p. 1016.

(19) In The Collected Writings of Ambrose Bierce, intro, by Clifton Fadiman (New York: Citadel Press, 1946), p. 13.

(20) In Goethes Werke, ed. by Erich Tranz, 14 vols (Munich: C. H. Beck, 1981), 1, 47.

(21) L. P. Hartley, Eustace and Hilda: A Trilogy (London: Faber, 1979), p. 734.

(22) Patrick White, The Eye of the Storm (London: Jonathan Cape, 1973), p. 550.

(23) Patrick White, The Vivisector (London: Jonathan Cape, 1970), p. 642.

(24) Alexander Pope, 'Windsor Forest', in The Poetas of Alexander Pope: A One-Volume Edition of the Twickenham Text with Selected Annotations, ed. by John Butt (London: Methuen, 1965), p. 195.

(25) Oscar Moore, A Matter of Life and Sex (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1991), p. 322.

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Author:Edgecombe, Rodney Stenning
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Date:Jan 1, 2003
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