Lapham’s Quarterly Fall 2013: Death

[CATEGORIES: Literature, Lapham’s Quarterly, Reading, Book Review]
[Click HERE to see my previous posts reviewing or referencing Lapham’s Quarterly.]


(Yes, that is Abraham Lincoln but no, that is not a death mask.  According to sources here and here that is a life mask.)

DEATH TO THE INFIDELS!  (That’s just about everyone isn’t it?)
UNTIL DEATH DO US PART!  (Or until we get a sometimes amicable separation, someone gets the kids, the dog, the house.  A friend has often told me “I was married three times.  All my wives were good housekeepers.  They each kept one.”  He also tells me “The difference between a toilet and a politician is that you can flush a toilet”.  But I digress.)

Ah, I personally like this last one best.  Great minds think alike and all that.  Lewis Lapham states “…the leading cause of death is birth” in his preamble and I have said the same thing my way many, many times, as though there were a scrap of wisdom in it beyond my years.  I do like it when Lapham says it.


“Death is that which we know is most inevitable in life and that which we are least willing to face.”  (Me, now.)

We live life as though we were going to live forever.  (At least I did in my youth and adulthood until about the age of sixty.)  Carefree, careless.  They say cats have nine lives.  I’m fairly certain I’ve had more near-misses with death than that.  (Walking into a full-swinging baseball bat as a 5-year old (don’t remember that one), nearly sledding into a semi- truck as a 12-year old, T-bone auto crash in college (no injuries, totaled the car), somersaulting down a snowy slope my first winter skiing and slapping a tree stump with my forearm instead of my head (still skiing 42 years later), nearly leaving pavement onto gravel while motorcycling Glenwood Canyon (but no incidents recalled from motorcycling 7,000 miles in Europe after Vietnam), no incidents recalled from a year in Vietnam (!).)  That’s only five but there must be others.  But enough about me.


Cropped portion of photo from inside back cover L.Q. Fall 2013.
Cropped portion of photo from inside back cover L.Q. Fall 2013.

What if we grew up and were taught to make a plan for our life.  We could start with a hundred year spreadsheet.  Few of us would make it to 100 but isn’t that part of our modern, carefree, live forever western civilization attitude.  (Would a third world person start with an overly optimistic 50 year plan?)

Could we start a plan at the age of six and get more seriously engaged at 10 or 12?  Should our parents start a plan when we’re born with their hopes or expectations, then turn it over to us at age 6, 10, or 12?

Of course the purpose of the plan would be to serve as a guideline, always changeable but something to set our sights on, keeping us engaged in today while looking at the horizon. Perhaps it is just me but I felt somewhat aimless during many times in my life. That is my fault.  Many people have generated their own purpose and goals and pursued them successfully.

Is is too late for me to start a spreadsheet at age 67?  Age 100 is out of the question, save some miracle of modern science.  Lets face it, tomorrow, next month, or next year is not guaranteed.  But goals.  It’s like the ‘bucket list’ concept.  Things to do, accomplish, strive for.  Why?  Just because.  Because you are here, now.  Personally I don’t believe in the afterlife.  This is it.  If you don’t do it now there is no other chance ‘after’, or in a next life. If I’m wrong I’ll be pleasantly surprised.  If I’m right, then shame on me for wasting the only opportunities I would ever have.  Ever.

I strongly disagree when I hear Dennis Prager say to the effect “If you don’t believe in God you have nothing to live for!”

I strongly agree with Werner Erhard, to loosely paraphrase: “Life is empty and meaningless and for me that is exciting.  You can create anything you want out it.”

In recent years I have committed to learning until death do I part.  Why?  You can’t take it with you.  I want to learn just because I CAN.  I can see I’m not nearly as committed as I could be.  It’s a life’s work I suppose.  But enough about me.

Mirriam-Webster’s Dictionary
Definition of MEMENTO MORI
:  a reminder of mortality; especially :  death’s-head

Latin, remember that you must die

The Free Dictionary by Farleigh
memento mo·ri  (môr)
n. pl. memento mori
1. A reminder of death or mortality, especially a death’s-head.
2. A reminder of human failures or errors.

[New Latin mement morbe mindful of dying : Latin mement, sing. imperative of meminisseto remember + Latin morto die.]

Lewis Lapham’s Preamble essay, Momento Mori, is eloquent as usual.  He is 78 years old and like many of us in our later years is contemplative.  He thinks of his grandfather, father, and death.  Just a couple of noteworthy passages:

“For forty years during the Cold War, the American government,
both Democrat and Republican, deployed the shadow of
death (i.e., the constant threat of nuclear annihilation) to limit the freedoms and
quiet the voices of the American people. The surveillance apparatus now waging
the perpetual War on terror is geared to control a herd of trembling obedience.

The settled opinion that Americans don’t deserve to die-not their kind
of thing-protects the profits of the insurance, healthcare, pharmaceutical,
and media industries, puts the money on the table for the cruise missile, the
personal trainer, and the American Express card that nobody can afford to
leave home without.” (pp. 17-18)

“lf my luck holds true to its so far winning form, death will drop by uninvited
and unannounced, and l’ll be taken, as was my grandfather, by surprise, maybe
in the throes of trying to write a stronger sentence or play a perfect golf shot.
If not, I’ll hope to show at least a semblance of the composure to which many
of the authors in this issue of the Quarterly bear immortal witness. Certain
only that the cause of my death is one that I can neither foresee nor forestall,
I’m content, at least for the time being, to let the sleeping dog lie.” (p. 19)

The three sections of Voices in Time are Preparation, Expiration, and Postmortem.  I found this issue to be somber, but not gross or morbid.  It’s about Death, not Killing, per se.  Killing might be a more controversial topic for a future issue.  Why do we do what we do to our fellow man?

Some of the essays/extracts that I particularly enjoyed:
Joseph Heller – Catch 22 (p. 86)
Edgar Allan Poe – The Masque of the Red Death (p. 93) (Available free.)
1918 – Yetakaterinburg (Execution of Tsar Nikolai and the Romanov family.  Not pleasant, but methodical.  Also available free.)

This is but a mere snippet of the great authors, historians, and rhetoricians presented.

I also enjoyed the slightly longer essays in the Departments section after Voices in Time.  All are generously available free.

Last Meals was intriguing, with cogent thoughts about capital punishment and executions.  “As of June this year, governing bodies in the U.S. and its colonial predecessors had executed some 15,825 men and women since the first permanent European settlements were established.” (p. 186)  Woof!  That’s not just death, that’s killing.  I have mixed thoughts about the death penalty (what if the victim were a personal friend or loved one) but I think the term legalized murder is not inaccurate.  Such a culture and species mankind is, or is not.  I recommend this essay.

Mournful Creatures posits whether some animals mourn, grieve, or at least acknowledge the death of fellow creatures.  So it would seem, but the results are (surprise) inconclusive.  There has been a lot of study on this.  Must be government subsidies supporting.

The American Way of Death/Fond Farewells.  The funeral and mortuary business as only enterprising capitalism knows how.

In closing:


(p. 70) (p. 74)(p. 121)

9 thoughts on “Lapham’s Quarterly Fall 2013: Death

  1. Iv’e got a spreadsheet of my life – it’s called my body – it has lots of cells and its spreading…

    As for death, Ive always liked the “Life is a terminal disease..”

    None of us experience our own deaths, only our loved ones do…


  2. I don’t support spending one’s time brooding about death but it is the one thing most certain in life and the one thing we are least willing to face. I read all the homilies (“live each day as if it’s your first… and your last!”) then go take a nap.


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