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The Death of American Exceptionalism—and of Me

On the changing American idea of mortality

| Tue Sep. 24, 2013 2:33 PM EDT

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website. It will appear in "Death," the Fall 2013 issue of Lapham's Quarterly. This slightly adapted version is posted at TomDispatch.com with the kind permission of that magazine.

It's not that I'm afraid to die, I just don't want to be there when it happens.
Woody Allen

I admire the stoic fortitude, but at the age of 78 I know I won't be skipping out on the appointment, and I notice that it gets harder to remember just why it is that I'm not afraid to die. My body routinely produces fresh and insistent signs of its mortality, and within the surrounding biosphere of the news and entertainment media it is the fear of death—24/7 in every shade of hospital white and doomsday black—that sells the pharmaceutical, political, financial, film, and food products promising to make good the wish to live forever. The latest issue of my magazine, Lapham's Quarterly, therefore comes with an admission of self-interest as well as an apology for the un-American activity, death, that is its topic. The taking time to resurrect the body of its thought in LQ offered a chance to remember that the leading cause of death is birth.

I count it a lucky break to have been born in a day and age when answers to the question "Why do I have to die?" were still looked for in the experimental laboratories of art and literature as well as in the teachings of religion. The problem hadn't yet been referred to the drug and weapons industries, to the cosmetic surgeons and the neuroscientists, and as a grammar-school boy in San Francisco during the Second World War, I was fortunate to be placed in the custody of Mr. Charles Mulholland. A history teacher trained in the philosophies of classical antiquity, Mr. Mulholland was fond of posting on his blackboard long lists of noteworthy last words, among them those of Socrates, Marcus Aurelius, Thomas More, and Stonewall Jackson.

The messages furnished need-to-know background on the news bulletins from Guadalcanal and Omaha Beach, and they made a greater impression on me than probably was expected or intended. By the age of 10, raised in a family unincorporated into the body of Christ, it never once had occurred to me to entertain the prospect of an afterlife. Eternal life may have been granted to the Christian martyrs delivered to the lions in the Roman Colosseum, possibly also to the Muslim faithful butchered in Jerusalem by Richard the Lionheart, but without the favor of Allah or early admission to a Calvinist state of grace, how was one to formulate a closing remark worthy of Mr. Mulholland's blackboard?

The question came up in the winter of 1953 during my freshman year at Yale College, when I contracted a rare and particularly virulent form of meningitis. The doctors in the emergency room at Grace-New Haven Hospital rated the odds of my survival at no better than a hundred to one. To the surprise of all present, I responded to the infusion of several new drugs never before tested in combination. For two days, drifting in and out of consciousness in a ward reserved for patients without hope of recovery, I had ample chance to think a great thought or turn a noble phrase, possibly to dream of the wizard Merlin in an oak tree or behold a vision of the Virgin Mary. Nothing came to mind.

Nor do I remember being horrified. Astonished, but not horrified. Here was death making routine rounds, not to be seen wearing a Halloween costume but clearly in attendance. The man in the next bed died on the first night, the woman to his left on the second. Apparently an old story, but before being admitted to the hospital as a corpse in all but name, it was not one that I had guessed was also my own. I hadn't been planning any foreign travel, and yet here I was, waiting for my passport to be stamped at the once-in-a-lifetime tourist destination that doesn't sell postcards and from whose museum galleries no traveler returns.

Minus three toes destroyed by the disease, I left the hospital four months later knowing that my reprieve was temporary, subject to cancellation on short notice. Blessed by what I took to be the smile and gift of fortune, I resolved to spend as much time as possible in the present tense, to rejoice in the wonders of the world, chase the rainbows of the spirit, indulge the pleasures of the flesh, defy the foul fiend, go and catch a falling star.

I had been outfitted with a modus vivendi but no string of words with which to account for it, and so for the next three years at college I searched out writers who had drawn from their looking into the face of death a line of poetry or the bulwark of a philosophy. I don't now remember how accurately or in what sequence I first read, but I know that with several of them—Michel de Montaigne and Seneca the Younger, Plutarch, W.H. Auden, and John Donne—I've stayed in touch.

Their collective counsel continues to confirm me in the opinion reached in Athens by Epicurus in the fourth century B.C., transmuted into verse by the Roman poet Lucretius at about the same time that Caesar invaded Gaul, and rendered as equations in the twentieth century by Ernest Rutherford and Niels Bohr. If it's true that the universe consists of atoms and void and nothing else, then everything that exists—the sun and the moon, mother and the flag, Beethoven's string quartets and da Vinci's decomposing flesh—is made of the elementary particles of nature in fervent and constant motion, colliding and combining with one another in an inexhaustibly abundant variety of form and substance. No afterlife, no divine retribution or reward, nothing other than a vast turmoil of creation and destruction. Plants and animals become the stuff of human beings, the stuff of human beings food for fish. Men die not because they are sick but because they are alive.

Old-Fashioned Death

"Death… the most awful of evils," says Epicurus, "is nothing to us, seeing that when we are, death is not yet, and when death comes, we are not." My experience in the New Haven hospital demonstrated the worth of the hypothesis; the books I read in college formed the thought as precept; my paternal grandfather, Roger D. Lapham, taught the lesson by example.

In the summer of 1918, then a captain of infantry with the American Expeditionary Force in World War I, he had been reported missing and presumed dead after his battalion had been overwhelmed by German poison gas during the Oise-Aisne offensive. Nearly everybody else in the battalion had been promptly killed, and it was six weeks before the Army found him in the hayloft of a French barn. A farmer had retrieved him, unconscious but otherwise more or less intact, from the pigsty into which he had fallen, by happy accident, on the day of what had been planned as a swift and sure advance.

The farmer's wife nursed him back to life with soup and soap and Calvados, and by the time he was strong enough to walk, he had lost half his body weight and undergone a change in outlook. He had been born in 1883, descended from a family of New England Quakers, and before going to Europe in the spring of 1918 was said to have been almost solemnly conservative in both his thought and his behavior, shy in conversation, cautious in his dealings with money. He returned from France reconfigured in a character akin to Shakespeare's Sir John Falstaff, extravagant in his consumption of wine and roses, passionate in his love of high-stakes gambling on the golf course and at the card table, persuaded that the object of life was nothing other than its fierce and close embrace.

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Which is how I found him in the autumn of 1957, when I returned to San Francisco to look for work on a newspaper. He was then a man in his middle seventies (i.e., of an age that now surprises me to discover as my own), but he was the same vivid presence (round red face like Santa Claus, boisterous sense of humor, unable to contain his emotions) that I had known as a boy growing up in the 1940s in the city of which he was then the mayor.

A guest in his house on Jackson Street for three months before finding a room of my own, most mornings I sat with him while he presided over his breakfast (one scrambled egg, two scraps of Melba toast, pot of coffee, glass of Scotch) listening to him talk about what he had seen of a world in which he knew that all present (committee chairman, lettuce leaf, and Norfolk terrier) were granted a very short stay. Although beset by a good many biological systems failures, he regarded them as nuisances not worth mention in dispatches. He thought it inadvisable to quit drinking brandy, much less the whiskey, the rum punch, and the gin. At the bridge table he continued to think it unsporting to look at his cards before bidding the hand.

My grandfather's refusal to consult doctors no doubt shortened his length of days on Earth, but he didn't think the Fates were doing him an injustice. He died in 1966 at the age of 82 on terms that he would have considered sporting. The grand staircase in his house on Jackson Street was curved in a semicircle rising 30 feet from the entrance hall to a second-floor landing framed by a decorative wooden railing. Having climbed the long flight of stairs after a morning in the office and the afternoon on a golf course, Roger Dearborn Lapham paused to catch his breath. It wasn't forthcoming. He plunged head first through the railing and was dead—so said the autopsy—before his body collided and combined with the potted palm at the base of the stairwell. He had suffered a massive heart attack, and his death had come to him in a way he would have hoped it would, as a surprise.

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