[...]I went for a run along the ocean… Well, along an asphalt path along the ocean. And twenty minutes in, I stopped beside some wood, you know, planks, that someone had made to spell “Bye, Kurt [Cobain].” I took a breath, looked up at Seattle and wondered, “What didn’t he see?” And if I’ve ever been to a vigil, I guess that was it. – From “Vigil“, by Bruce McCulloch
Long-time readers know that although I’m a medievalist by training, I harbor great affection for the “Long 18th Century” (Call it 1660-1798 or so, or Dryden through Johnson). As part of that, one of my go-to texts is Johnson’s “Vanity of Human Wishes.” I include it each time I cover the period, and talk to the kids about the various things Johnson tells us aren’t worth asking for — preferment, wealth, beauty, and the intellectual life among them. But one that often startles the kids is when Johnson adds “multitude of days” to the list. “What’s wrong with living a long time?” they ask.
Enlarge my Life with Multitude of Days,
In Health, in Sickness, thus the Suppliant prays;
Hides from himself his State, and shuns to know,
That Life protracted is protracted Woe.
Time hovers o’er, impatient to destroy,
And shuts up all the Passages of Joy:
In vain their Gifts the bounteous Seasons pour,
The Fruit autumnal, and the Vernal Flow’r,
With listless Eyes the Dotard views the Store,
He views, and wonders that they please no more;
Now pall the tastless Meats, and joyless Wines,
And Luxury with Sighs her Slave resigns[...]
But grant, the Virtues of a temp’rate Prime
Bless with an Age exempt from Scorn or Crime;
An Age that melts in unperceiv’d Decay,
And glides in modest Innocence away;
Whose peaceful Day Benevolence endears,
Whose Night congratulating Conscience cheers;
The gen’ral Fav’rite as the gen’ral Friend:
Such Age there is, and who could wish its end?
Yet ev’n on this her Load Misfortune flings,
To press the weary Minutes flagging Wings:
New Sorrow rises as the Day returns,
A Sister sickens, or a Daughter mourns.
Now Kindred Merit fills the sable Bier,
Now lacerated Friendship claims a Tear.
Year chases Year, Decay pursues Decay,
Still drops some Joy from with’ring Life away;
New Forms arise, and diff’rent Views engage,
Superfluous lags the Vet’ran on the Stage,
Till pitying Nature signs the last Release,
And bids afflicted Worth retire to Peace. (255-66 ; 291-310)
I thought of this passage this morning when I read Kevin Williamson’s essay on the death of an 89-year-old British woman named Anne, who euthanized herself with the assistance of a Swiss organization called Dignitas, so weary she was of a world in which she no longer felt she belonged. Indeed, the inability to belong seemed a driving factor in her suicide: Williamson quotes her as saying, “They say adapt or die.”
Williamson’s piece is well written and compassionate, and worthy of your attention. And wherever Anne is, I pray she sees what she wants to see.