Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Past President

 Augustine somewhere reminds us that all our cultural investments in the ceremonies of death—funerals, memorials, official periods of mourning, and the like—while we may think that they truly honor the dead, are actually and of necessity palliatives for the living.  This idea seems to be one of those obvious truths which we could well do without, and so usually do.  I think that in the Antique world, at least as regards members of those social classes who have left us the written and archaeological records out of which so much of our history is constructed, the ceremonies of death on the whole were more elaborate and protracted than they are with us.  There was in the first place rather more death, so to speak, certainly a greater awareness of the fragility of life and how it could be taken in an instant from a living person of any age at any time.  Honoring the dead is reassuring to the living at least to the extent that only the living can do it.

I think of all this, of course, as the body of one of our former presidents, George H. W. Bush, lies in state awaiting an elaborate funeral amid what the papers are calling “a national outpouring of emotion.”  I think that’s probably an exaggeration, but nonetheless I have seldom been more aware of the truth of Augustine’s observation.  The living are mourning for—the living.  Most of the “coverage” scarcely even tries to disguise the fact that what is on our minds is not a dead president but a living one.  One of the burdens of advancing age is a weakening of the memory.  “Old men forget, ” says Shakespeare’s Henry V in his immortal speech, "yet all shall be forgot.”  But not quite yet.  Anyone who was sentient in the year, say, 1990—not so very long ago—must be amazed, not to say mind-boggled, at the stream of hagiographical commentary from journalists and political oppositionists who barely had a civil word for the defunct during the relatively short course of his incumbency.  But the line “Middle-aged men forget” fails to scan.  It just doesn’t cut it at the poetic level.  As for the possibility of young men forgetting, you need not worry; most of them never knew in the first place.  As for us—meaning the living—we yearn for the hagiography and will welcome it on whatever terms are on offer.

I found very moving the press report of the former president’s final hours.  President Bush was with an old and dear friend, James Baker, like the former president himself an eminent American statesman animated by nearly antediluvian concepts of patrician public service, duty and honor, with whom he had a terse religious conversation.  Bush apparently declared that he would like to go to Heaven.  Baker apparently opined that he was about to do so.  The former president was ready to move on.  I never expected to hear so straightforward and unsophisticated an exchange reported on the PBS “News Hour,” but there it was.  And it really could have come straight out of medieval hagiography—specifically, from the deathbed accounts of various monastic saints.  Perhaps my favorite among these is the report of the last moments of Aelred of Rievaulx on January 12, 1167 given by his friend Walter Daniel.  Aelred has to have been one of the sweetest characters God ever made, and he was dearly loved by all the brothers.  As he lay dying, a pall of gloom blanketed the whole monastery, and everyone awaited a “word”.  In Cistercian religious houses a great deal of time was spent in silence.  The monks even developed a sign language that allowed them to combine taciturnity with various practical necessities.   But of course the Office was recited in Latin, which was also the ordinary language of discourse and even casual conversation.  Yet the last words of the dying saint were uttered in English.  They were: for Crist love.  The reason for this vernacular departure, so to speak, is that what the saint wanted to say required six syllables in Latin but only three in English.  Aelred was in a hurry to get on.

As a schoolboy I was made to memorize “Thanatopsis,” a poem about death by the early American poet William Cullen Bryant.  That may seem harsh, but remember that in those days it was not uncommon for an irate teacher to come after you with a razor strop.  Though I begrudge it the precious space the poem takes up in my contracting memory, there is nothing I can do to dislodge it.  So at this season of the waning year, of my own antiquity, and of the national “outpouring of emotion,” I am inclined to take encouragement from its final good advice and from the good example of our late president: “Sustained and soothed by an unfaltering trust, approach thy grave like one who wraps the drapery of his couch about him and lies down to pleasant dreams.”