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Last Words

Last Words: Variations on a Theme in Cultural History

Karl S. Guthke
Copyright Date: 1992
Pages: 268
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  • Book Info
    Last Words
    Book Description:

    Whether Goethe actually cried "More light!" on his deathbed, or whether Conrad Hilton checked out of this world after uttering "Leave the shower curtain on the inside of the tub," last words, regardless of authenticity, have long captured the imagination of Western society. In this playfully serious investigation based on factual accounts, anecdotes, literary works, and films, Karl Guthke explores the cultural importance of those words spoken at the border between this world and the next. The exit lines of both famous and ordinary people embody for us a sense of drama and truthfulness and reveal much about our thoughts on living and dying. Why this interest in last words? Presenting statements from such figures as Socrates, Nathan Hale, Marie Antoinette, and Oscar Wilde ("I am dying as I have lived, beyond my means"), Guthke examines our fascination in terms of our need for closure, our desire for immortality, and our attraction to the mystique of death scenes. The author considers both authentic and invented final statements as he looks at the formation of symbols and legends and their function in our culture. Last words, handed down from generation to generation like cultural heirlooms, have a good chance of surviving in our collective memory. They are shown to epitomize a life, convey a sense of irony, or play to an audience, as in the case of the assassinated Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, who is said to have died imploring journalists: "Don't let it end like this. Tell them I said something."

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2071-9
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Preface
    (pp. vii-x)
    Karl S. Guthke
  4. A Note on the English Version
    (pp. xi-2)
    Karl S. Guthke
  5. 1 LAST WORDS IN EVERYDAY CULTURE Forms and Meaning of a Convention in Life and Letters
    (pp. 3-47)

    “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Such has been the conventional wisdom of the educated ever since Plato reported the words of Socrates in theApology(38 B). Goethe, the unfailing oracle of worldly wisdom in German-speaking lands, equated the unexamined life with that of an oyster,¹ which generally enjoys a lesser reputation with writers than with gourmets; Hume and Holberg come to mind. Samuel Johnson thought a life without reflection was fit for oxen.² But whether oyster or ox, the opposite is man as a being conscious of himself. This “eccentric” ability of man to reflect on himself...

  6. 2 WHY THE INTEREST IN LAST WORDS? Completion, Immortality, Mystique
    (pp. 48-66)

    Last words surround us everywhere—this is the obvious conclusion from the wide, and somewhat haphazardly assembled, variety of observations on the vitality of last words in our everyday culture. Nor is this a phenomenon only of the present; as indicated, the vigorous present-day life of the institution of last words is preceded by a tradition dating back to antiquity and biblical times. One might say (and Chapter 4, on anthologies of exit lines, will confirm this) that such serious attention over the millennia to what is said with the last breath, the passing on of such lore from generation...

  7. 3 PORK-PIE OR FATHERLAND: AUTHENTIC OR BEN TROVATO? The Last Word as Artifact and “Inherited Mythology”
    (pp. 67-97)

    Some commonsensical reservations and objections are overdue. If the moment of dying is significant for our understanding of human nature in general or in particular, does it necessarily follow that last words, too, are significant, be it as indicators of true character or of the quality of the Grenzerfahrung from which they supposedly derive? More specifically, does it follow that the utterance reported or generally “known” as the last word is of significance? If one pays attention to last words and ascribes significance and meaning to them, as is customary in our culture, then one would first of all like...

  8. 4 GUIDANCE, ENTERTAINMENT, AND FRISSON Anthologies of Last Words
    (pp. 98-154)

    Montaigne confessed in theEssaisthat he found nothing so intriguing as the manner in which people died: “What words, what look, what bearing they maintained at that time.” If he were a writer of books, he continued in the same essay (1:20; 1580), he would compile a “register” of “various deaths” with a view to teaching not only how to die but also how to live. The project, essentially an anthology of last words—that is, of avarietyof dying words—confirms what was anticipated at the conclusion of Chapter 3: such a collection would have been timely....

  9. 5 AN INTELLECTUAL HISTORY OF LAST WORDS? Landmarks in Uncharted Terrain
    (pp. 155-190)

    Is there, as the German novelist Jean Paul put it, a “world history of the dying”¹ in the sense of manners or “styles” of dying differing from epoch to epoch? And would last words be indicators of such styles and their change? Would an anthology of last words be “an intellectual, cultural and literary history in miniature,” as the German weeklyDie Zeitput it on 6 January 1984 (p. 36)? Our survey of anthologies suggests that this question implies confidence in the concept of Zeitgeist. This is the underlying assumption of Charles D. Stewart’s essayistic historical overview “The Art...

  10. Notes
    (pp. 191-228)
  11. Select Bibliography
    (pp. 229-236)
  12. Index
    (pp. 237-250)