The Best of Human Wisdom — The Inevitable: Contemporary Writers Confront Death Edited by David Shields and Bradford Morrow

The Inevitable

The Inevitable: Contemporary
Writers Confront Death

EDITED BY David Shields
AND Bradford Morrow
(W.W. Norton, 2011)

From the Publisher:

“What is death and how does it touch upon life? Twenty writers look for answers.

Birth is not inevitable. Life certainly isn’t. The sole inevitability of existence, the only sure consequence of being alive, is death. In these eloquent and surprising essays, twenty writers face this fact, among them Geoff Dyer, who describes the ghost bikes memorializing those who die in biking accidents; Jonathan Safran Foer, proposing a new way of punctuating dialogue in the face of a family history of heart attacks and decimation by the Holocaust; Mark Doty, whose reflections on the art-porn movie Bijou lead to a meditation on the intersection of sex and death epitomized by the AIDS epidemic; and Joyce Carol Oates, who writes about the loss of her husband and faces her own mortality. Other contributors include Annie Dillard, Diane Ackerman, Peter Straub, and Brenda Hillman.”

A summer during which I attended four wakes and four funerals might be expected to have included much discussion about death. Not so. Other than feeble attempts to render the person present, remarks such as ____ would have hated this (the heat) or ____ would have loved to see him (a new nephew), there has been silence. The Inevitable: Contemporary Writers Confront Death, edited by David Shields and Bradford Morrow, seeks to fill a pervasive cultural gap.

The editors have done a masterful job of eliciting different viewpoints, none of them polemical, all partaking of the current ethos, essays which respectfully challenge old tropes or accept and renew them.

How many people, given “death” in a word association game, would say “inevitable,” taxes as the shadowy counterpart playing across their faces? Our handy formulas embedded in cynical jokes, enable us to feel we have dealt with the worst and moved forward. Great literature, of course, and most philosophical and religious traditions confront death head-on. They have packaged the results for our consideration in memorable lines and now-challenged belief systems. It is possible to find websites that compile the best of human wisdom on the topic of death, quotations that could individually be pondered for hours on end and still bear fruit. In fact, many of the essays in this collection similarly draw upon the eloquence of the ages as a springboard for their ruminations.

Ultimately this anthology is interesting because of the contemporary in its title. What gives comfort or meaning in this post-certitude age? What forms does our denial take now? How do we live in the shadow of death? No one has experienced death personally, as the authors here frequently acknowledge; we always see through the glass darkly. The editors have done a masterful job of eliciting different viewpoints, none of them polemical, all partaking of the current ethos, essays which respectfully challenge old tropes or accept and renew them. Some essays I found better than others, but in general, this is an even collection.

In “Lessness,” Lance Olsen structures his personal reflections around aphorisms and received wisdom. Following Karl Jaspers, he writes “at the instant one allows oneself awareness of the Encompassing by confronting such imaginables as universal contingency and the loss of the human, the loss of the body — the latter otherwise known as death” (p. 284), one becomes authentically human. “Everything else refusal, fear, repression” (ibid.). Quite different is Lynne Tillman’s position that what we know about dying and death, “like most received wisdoms concocted of exasperating pieties and galling stupidity, should be eliminated” (“The Final Plot,” p. 280).

In his engaging essay, “Invitation to the Dance,” Kevin Baker chronicles his decision to take the genetic test to discover that he has indeed inherited his mother’s Huntington’s Disease. He integrates that terrible knowledge by realizing “What I really wanted was to live like I always did, taking little care of myself, wasting time worrying over politics, or how the Yankees were doing…” (p. 234). Kyoki Mori astutely claims “Everything we say about death is actually about life” (“Between the Forest and the Well: Notes on Death,” p. 45). In a twist on the Pascalian wager, she writes: “I try to choose as though I would have to live forever with the consequences… Living to see the result of my potential mistake is just as sobering a thought as the possibility of dying with regrets” (pp. 48-49).

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