Dying in Character

Dying in Character: Memoirs on the End of Life

Jeffrey Berman
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 336
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  • Book Info
    Dying in Character
    Book Description:

    In the past twenty years, an increasing number of authors have written memoirs focusing on the last stage of their lives: Elizabeth KüblerRoss, for example, in The Wheel of Life, Harold Brodkey in This Wild Darkness, Edward Said in Out of Place, and Tony Judt in The Memory Chalet. In these and other endoflife memoirs, writers not only confront their own mortality but in most cases struggle to “die in character”—that is, to affirm the values, beliefs, and goals that have characterized their lives. Examining the works cited above, as well as memoirs by Mitch Albom, Roland Barthes, JeanDominique Bauby, Art Buchwald, Randy Pausch, David Rieff, Philip Roth, and Morrie Schwartz, Jeffrey Berman’s analysis of this growing genre yields some surprising insights. While the authors have much to say about the loneliness and pain of dying, many also convey joy, fulfillment, and gratitude. Harold Brodkey is willing to die as long as his writings survive. Art Buchwald and Randy Pausch both use the word fun to describe their dying experiences. Dying was not fun for Morrie Schwartz and Tony Judt, but they reveal courage, satisfaction, and fearlessness during the final stage of their lives, when they are nearly paralyzed by their illnesses. It is hard to imagine that these writers could feel so upbeat in their situations, but their memoirs are authentically affirmative. They see death coming, yet they remain stalwart and focused on their writing. Berman concludes that the contemporary endoflife memoir can thus be understood as a new form of death ritual, “a secular example of the long tradition of ars moriendi, the art of dying.”

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-215-8
    Subjects: Language & Literature, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. INTRODUCTION “It Is When Faced with Death That We Turn Most Bookish”
    (pp. 1-19)

    In his memoirNothing to Be Frightened Of,a witty meditation on how writers confront their own mortality, the contemporary British novelist Julian Barnes quotes an observation by Jules Renard, the late nineteenth-century French novelist, playwright, and philosopher: “It is when faced with death that we turn most bookish.” Countless novelists, poets, and memoirists have turned bookish to deal with their death fears. They have turned bookish in a double sense: they read and write books on death. For many creative writers, particularly those who realize they are approaching the end of life, death is the undying muse of art....

  5. CHAPTER 1 “I Never Saw or Heard the Car Coming” My Close Call with Death
    (pp. 20-37)

    I end my bookDeath in the Classroomwith a chapter called “Teacher’s Self-Eulogy,” in which I imagine dying in character—teaching until my eighties, believing, with George Steiner, that there is no more privileged craft than teaching: “To awaken in another human being powers, dreams beyond one’s own; to induce in others a love for that which one loves; to make of one’s inward present their future: this is a threefold adventure like no other” (Steiner 183–84). My imagined death is, admittedly, a fantasy, but it reflects my passion for teaching and my belief in pedagogical love: “He...

  6. CHAPTER 2 “Death Itself Is a Wonderful and Positive Experience” Elisabeth Kübler-Ross and The Wheel of Life
    (pp. 38-74)

    Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, known famously and infamously as the “death and dying lady,” was the most influential thanatologist of the second half of the twentieth century. Nearly every researcher in the field still cites her first book,On Death and Dying,published in 1969. The book’s many psychiatric insights challenged the entrenched conventional wisdom of the age, including the belief that physicians should withhold the truth from terminally ill patients. Kübler-Ross postulated inOn Death and Dyingthe “stage theory” of dying, in which terminally ill patients experience a sequential series of emotions, beginning with denial and ending in acceptance. Following...

  7. CHAPTER 3 “With Autobiography There’s Always Another Text, a Countertext” Philip Roth and Patrimony
    (pp. 75-107)

    A “father’s death,” Freud contends in the preface to the second edition ofThe Interpretation of Dreams,is the “most important event, the most poignant loss, of a man’s life” (xxvi). Although most psychoanalysts now believe that a mother’s death has a greater impact on a son’s or daughter’s life, Philip Roth would agree with Freud. Roth’s memoirPatrimonyis a deeply moving account of his relationship with Herman Roth, who died in 1989 at the age of eighty-eight. Roth cared for his father in the final months of his life, when he struggled with a massive brain tumor. The...

  8. CHAPTER 4 “Death Confers a Certain Beauty on One’s Hours” Harold Brodkey and This Wild Darkness
    (pp. 108-134)

    “Depend upon it, sir,” Dr. Johnson remarked sardonically to Boswell, “when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Nowhere is this more evident than in Harold Brodkey’s astounding memoirThis Wild Darkness,written while he was dying from AIDS. Concentration and clarity describe Brodkey’s story, a contrast to the loquacity of his earlier works.This Wild Darknessopens in the spring of 1992 with the stark sentence, “I have AIDS,” and it takes us on a portentous journey that ends in the late fall of 1995, when he is close to...

  9. CHAPTER 5 “I Have Never Been Tempted to Write about My Own Life” Susan Sontag, David Rieff, and Swimming in a Sea of Death
    (pp. 135-167)

    “There is a Jewish saying,” David Rieff observes ruefully inSwimming in a Sea of Death,his 2008 memoir about the death of his mother, Susan Sontag, “just as it is an obligation to tell someone what is acceptable, it is an obligation not to say what is not acceptable” (104). The meaning of this paradoxical proverb reverberates throughout the memoir, containing more disturbing ironies than Rieff grasps.Swimming in a Sea of Deathreveals the striking continuities and discontinuities of Sontag’s life—and of Rieff’s as well. The memoir also raises a crucial question for the dying and their...

  10. CHAPTER 6 “Sleeplessness for Me Is a Cherished State” Edward W. Said and Out of Place
    (pp. 168-193)

    Like Susan Sontag, Edward W. Said was one of the most influential literary theorists, culture critics, and public intellectuals of his age. Born in West Jerusalem, Palestine, in 1935, he attended prep school in Cairo and visited the United States for the first time in 1948, during the Arab-Israeli War. An undergraduate at Princeton and a graduate student at Harvard, he was appointed an assistant professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia in 1963, where he was later promoted to University Professor, Columbia’s most prestigious position. His 1978 bookOrientalismhas become a foundational text in postcolonial studies, revealing...

  11. CHAPTER 7 “There Is More Than One Sort of Luck” Tony Judt and The Memory Chalet
    (pp. 194-208)

    “It might be thought the height of poor taste to ascribe good fortune to a healthy man with a young family struck down at the age of sixty by an incurable degenerative disorder from which he must shortly die.” Judt’s sardonic observation inThe Memory Chaletcannot fail to startle us. How can anyone feel fortunate to be in his situation? The answer, he explains, is that there is more than one sort of luck. “To fall prey to a motor neuron disease is surely to have offended the Gods at some point, and there is nothing more to be...

  12. CHAPTER 8 “I Never Realized Dying Could Be So Much Fun” Art Buchwald and Too Soon to Say Goodbye
    (pp. 209-224)

    Art Buchwald, one of America’s most beloved humorists, wrote three memoirs, includingToo Soon to Say Goodbye,which he began while waiting to die in a Washington, D.C., hospice. He entered Washington Home and Hospice in mid-March 2006 after the decision to end dialysis following the amputation of the lower part of his right leg due to poor circulation. He expected to die in a few weeks, but then, to his doctors’ amazement, his kidneys started to function again. Hundreds of visitors, celebrities and strangers alike, came to pay tribute to him, and he received nearly three thousand letters. In...

  13. CHAPTER 9 “Learn How to Live, and You’ll Know How to Die” Morrie Schwartz’s Letting Go and Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie
    (pp. 225-239)

    Nearly everyone has heard ofTuesdays with Morrie,Mitch Albom’s best-selling memoir about his relationship with his former Brandeis University sociology professor Morrie Schwartz, who succumbed to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis on November 4, 1995, a month short of his seventy-ninth birthday. Few people know, however, that a year before Albom published his book, Schwartz published his own end-of-life memoir,Letting Go,in which he offers his reflections on “living while dying.” Curiously,Tuesdays with Morrienever refers toLetting Go,which offers a fascinating insight into Schwartz’s life. Nor does Schwartz, who writes about reestablishing ties with people he had...

  14. CHAPTER 10 “I’m Dying and I’m Having Fun” Randy Pausch and The Last Lecture
    (pp. 240-253)

    Randy Pausch’sThe Last Lecturenever refers toLetting Goor Tuesdays with Morrie, but the stories have much in common. Like Schwartz, Pausch was an academic who disclosed to his students that he was dying. Both believed in the inseparability of life education and death education. Both offered their advice—personal, psychological, philosophical, and educational—to readers, many of whom were college students, about achieving a good death. The two professors demonstrated that death is both private and communal.

    There is no evidence thatToo Soon to Say Goodbyeis the inspiration behindThe Last Lecture,but Art Buchwald...

  15. CHAPTER 11 “Now I Cultivate the Art of Simmering Memories” Jean-Dominique Bauby and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly
    (pp. 254-264)

    Imagine waking up to discover you are paralyzed from head to toe, unable to walk, talk, eat, drink, swallow, or breathe. Imagine finding yourself in this situation without preparation, warning, or explanation. You cannot move your hands, which feel as if they are burning hot or ice cold. Your arms and legs exist only to convey unrelenting pain. Your head weighs a ton, and the only movement of which you are capable is blinking your left eyelid, your only means of communicating with the world. You are imprisoned in a body that has become an oppressive diving bell. Imagine being...

  16. CHAPTER 12 “I Live in My Suffering and That Makes Me Happy” Roland Barthes and Mourning Diary
    (pp. 265-283)

    Roland Barthes, one of the most influential writers, literary theorists, and semioticians of the late twentieth century, died in 1980 at the age of sixty-four, but he was back in the news in 2010 with the publication ofMourning Diary,written in response to his mother’s death. Barthes is best known for his 1967 essay “The Death of the Author,” which contends that the author is irrelevant in trying to understand a text. His structural and poststructural writings were often abstract and abstruse, but there was nothing theoretical about his searingly personal grief over maternal loss. Losing his father at...

  17. CONCLUSION Alive When They Died
    (pp. 284-298)

    Many people believe that we live in a death-denying culture where men and women don’t “die” but “pass away,” where dying and death remain hidden from view, where the terminally ill withdraw silently from life, and where bereavement lasts only a few months. Geoffrey Gorer argues that death has become “more and more ‘unmentionable’as a natural process” (172). He contends that if social prudery prevents people from coming to terms with the basic facts of birth, copulation, and death, then such discussions will be done surreptitiously. “If we dislike the modern pornography of death, then we must give back...

    (pp. 299-312)
  19. INDEX
    (pp. 313-321)
  20. Back Matter
    (pp. 322-322)