Book Review: The Grim Reader (Pt 2)
I have reviewed one essay from this collection, but it occurred to me a few days after I'd posted that I didn't really introduce the book itself.
This collection of writing is divided into seven parts. The first part is Reckonings, where different writers contemplate Death and how it pertains to life and living; they examine their attitudes to death and dying.
Part two studies writers seeking out the right words at a time of grief or confusion. Writers have to be sensitive to the impact of words, but at times of great sorrow and pain, what are the right words to use? Shakespeare writes, "Give sorrow words: the grief that does not speak / Whispers the o'er fraught heart, and bids it break." Expressing our emotions over a death using words can help to give the immensity of the experience shape and form, and allow us to begin processing our emotions.
Part three is on death in large numbers: whether by war, by pestilence, or by genocide, the loss of life on a large scale sometimes feel unreal; the writings in this section are collected from those who went through turbulent times, in order to give us a much more personal perspective.
Part four examines the rites and customs involved in funeral arrangements, along with how death and culture affect each other. Part five goes into the nitty-gritty, the logistics, the mundane problems facing those who are left behind, as well as the thorny issue of euthanasia and assisted suicide.
The final two parts are less somber, bringing back the humor in and about death, and wraps up with Hamlet's soliloquy in the graveyard with Yorick's skull. The living and the dead, Life and Death; knowing the form of one and utterly unable to understand the form of the other. Every death is different, and some deaths are more tragic than others; yet, over time, laughter resumes. Life resumes.
Confession time: I have not read every essay in this collection in detail, but what I have read have allowed me to examine my own thoughts about death and dying. One particular essay that stuck with me is Michel de Montaigne's To Philosophize is to Learn to Die. Written and rewritten over the course of twenty years, this essay captures Montaigne's contemplation on most people's fear of death and why it is, ultimately, unnecessary, because to die means that we have lived. And since we do not know what we were before we were brought wailing into this world, who knows what happens when we exit it?
"The advantage of living is not measured by length, but by use; some men have lived long, and lived little; attend to it while you are in it." I suppose the modern equivalent is "YOLO", but the spirit of it is that of a gardener's, tending with care to help a plot of land grow. In fact, Montaigne wrote earlier in the essay that he'd "want death to find (him) planting (his) cabbages, but careless of death, and still more of (his) unfinished garden." There is a saying that gardens are a symbol of hope in the future; what loveliness it is to always have hope in the future while tending to the present, always conscious that it may be the very last moment.
Montaigne wrote: "It is uncertain where death awaits us; let us await it everywhere." With the awareness that every breath may be the last breath, that every heartbeat may be the last bit, we can really focus on the now.
It may seem counterproductive to keep mulling on the end, but isn't that the same with writing a novel? We know what the end product should be, but getting there means we focus on this current word, keeping in mind the overall structure, and hoping all the while that our efforts will come to mean something when it's all said and done. If philosophizing means learning to die, then I think writing, as in all forms of art, captures that philosophy of truly embracing the effort of the now while intent on the end.
I will probably return to this collection over the years to eke more meaning out of it. While it isn't easy reading for a rainy afternoon, I find it comforting in these times of distress to remember we have always dealt with death and dying; we can make it through simply because we can and we have.