“Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well, yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number, really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, some afternoon that’s so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four or five times more, perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless.” – Paul Bowles, The Sheltering Sky.

Martin Amis once claimed that writing sex scenes produced only two results: comedy or pornography. Perhaps the great insight of Philip Roth was to combine these elements. At the other end of things, we are confronted with a similar problem: how to write death. This was a problem that Roth never tackled in his writings – unless one counts the social death associated with being transmogrified into a tit.

What Amis is getting at is that there are certain subjects writing fails to capture. Things that form the very fabric and preconditions of our existence, that remain uncapturable in a way that describing, say, a living room does not.

This problem, which Amis identifies with sex, occurs at the other end, so to speak. There is a problem with writing death. How can one write death in the first person?

First, let us consider some failures. In Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin the author seeks to capture the moment the guillotine comes down on dissident Otto Quangel’s neck. We move quickly from Quangel’s interiority to the exteriority of the narrator, the only obvious way to capture demise:

“Then the edge bit through his neck. Quangel’s head lands in the basket. For an instant he lay there perfectly still, as though the headless trunk were puzzled about the trick that had been played on it. Then the trunk arced up, it pushed against straps and steel stirrups, and the executioner’s assistants hurled themselves on it to hold it down. The veins in the dead man’s hands grew thicker and thicker, and then everything collapsed in on itself. All that could be heard was blood – hissing, rushing, falling blood. Three minutes after the arc had fallen, the pallid doctor with trembling voice pronounced the prisoner dead. They cleared the body away. Otto Quangel no longer existed.”

Let us consider a more valiant attempt.  Here is the end of the penultimate chapter of Malcolm Lowry’s Under The Volcano, wherein Geoffrey Firmin, the protagonist and sometimes narrator, meets his demise:

“Suddenly he screamed, and it was as though this scream were being tossed from one tree to another, as its echoes returned, then, as though the trees themselves were crowding nearer, huddled together, closing over him, pitying … Somebody threw a dead dog after him down the ravine.”

The problem Lowry and Fallada run into is that they do not write the final moment, only the final moments. We are, as we read of these closing trees, still within a consciousness very much alive. Who tells us the dead dog that comes in after him? The narrator. There is a necessary shift in perspective We experience the lead up to death, but not death itself.

There is one death scene that runs against this grain. In Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky there is a moment where the entire prose of the book shatters. When Port Moresby dies, suffering in the desert, Bowles’ reasonable clear and concrete prose gives way to a perplexing abstractness:

“His cry went on through the final image: the spots of raw bright blood on the earth. Blood on excrement. The supreme moment, high above the desert, when the two elements, blood and excrement, long kept apart, merge. A black star appears, a point of darkness in the night sky’s clarity. Point of darkness and gateway to repose. Reach out, pierce the fine fabric of the sheltering sky, take repose.”

The next chapter – and note all these passages come from the end of chapters – immediately makes clear that Port has died, as his wife Kit finds his lifeless body. Bowles’ suppression of the text, the radical shift in his writing style to capture this moment that cannot be experienced because it is the cessation of experience itself, might tell us something about how to write death.

We have reasons to suspect a task such as writing death is impossible. This much is indicated by Fallada and Lowry, but there are more theoretical reasons too. For dead German philosopher Martin Heidegger “language is the house of being”, i.e we are, we exist through language, and if this is the case then perhaps it is only natural that we cannot write about death. Thus, Heidegger is completely consistent when he claims that death, even the death of others, remains totally inaccessible to us: “We do not experience the dying of others in a genuine sense; we are at best always just ‘near by’.” Yet Bowles’ text with its strange turn opens up to us the possibility of writing death. Perhaps to write death is not to write death as a singular moment. Perhaps if we wish to write about death we must write about it as a general mood or atmosphere, a general distortion of experience and thus language.

Death haunts Andrey Platonov’s The Foundation Pit, a book where language itself is distorted. The distortion of this language can be read as a comment on Stalinism and the effects of totalitarianism on communication and the mind. A philosophical commentary on what it means to assume that praxis determines thought (collapsing the dialectical tension between the two). Yet for Platonov this death of thought is itself a kind of death, and it means that he, however incidentally, ends up also exploring this question of writing death.

Platonov’s main technique in The Foundation Pit is to distort language, not just the speech of his characters, but the very language used by the narrator himself. Thus, one encounters sentences such as “lying in his place, like a memory of someone who had disappeared forever, was some worn-out footwear.” As the novel progresses, the strange phrases tied to labour, work and thought turn into strange phrases related to death, as coffins and bones and bodies pile up. As these morbid images come to infest the text, the narration and language of the novel become more and more saturated with death. A sunset, in the hands of Platonov’s gravedigger prose is described as such: “a devasted summer’s day was departing into evening; everything, near and far, was gradually ending”. Everything that is not dying is described in the language of death, in the stilted prose that for Platonov, is supposed to indicate the suppression of thought itself. A retirement is described thusly: “Kozlov was also able to think thoughts and so he departed speechlessly into a higher life of general use and benefit” – Kozlov has just been described as a “guard angel” in view of the workers “ascension”.

Death is a mood, a technique of language, a building of imagery that clogs the arteries of the prose. The great joke at the heart of The Foundation Pit is that the pit they are building is not the foundations for some great socialist project, but a mass grave. And indeed, in an eerie and haunting final scene, what is buried in the pit is nothing other than the future of socialism itself, a child who dies wrapped in the bones of her mother. And although Platonov never attempts to portray a moment of death in the way Lowry, Fallada or Bowles do, a sense of a death permeates his entire novel; to write death as a mood and not a moment.

Let us return to the question of sex, or more rightly what it implies: birth and otherness. The funny nature of the failure of language in the case of sex and death is that this failure expresses a form of communication that whilst negative, remains a form of communication. These words stand to express to others – to those who come and will keep coming into the world through a cycle of birth and death – the very issues with thinking their preconditions.  We know what is being expressed in this passages that are passages of distortion and failure, and in doing so perhaps we can move beyond the myopic vision of language that is obsessed with its limits. We are finite, but it may be that language is infinite.


Duncan Stuart is an Australian writer living in New York City. His writings have appeared in 3:AM Magazine, Overland, Demos Journal and The Cleveland Review of Books. Find him on twitter @DuncanAStuart


Image: Collage by Joan Pope