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Views & Reviews Between the Lines

The spur of death

BMJ 2010; 340 doi: (Published 12 May 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;340:c2491
  1. Theodore Dalrymple, writer and retired doctor

    However many times one swears not to leave matters to the last possible moment, one’s resolution is never kept; the lecture that one has agreed to give next Tuesday remains unwritten until Monday evening. There is nothing like a little panic to concentrate the mind wonderfully.

    Deadlines are not called deadlines for nothing. The term hints at the suspicion that without the prospect of death we should never get anything done. Everything could wait for another few centuries; nothing would be urgent.

    Valuable as death may be as a stimulus to human effort, however, it is an uncomfortable subject for human minds. La Rochefoucauld said that neither the sun nor death could be stared at for very long, and a little collection of stories about death by Emile Zola (1860-1902), the great French novelist, called How We Die, shows that this is so.

    Like the registrar general, Zola divides his society into five, in Zola’s case the classification consisting of the aristocrat, the bourgeois, the shopkeeper, the working class unemployed, and the peasant. His stories consist of sketches of how each of them dies.

    Zola was himself to die a dramatic death, suffocated by a fire in his Paris bedroom. He is said to have staggered towards the window in an attempt to get air but collapsed before he could get there; his wife, though later revived, was unconscious and could not help him. There have been rumours ever since that it was murder, carried out by his many enemies; but this seems unlikely, as suffocation by a domestic fire is rather difficult deliberately to arrange.

    The deaths in How We Die, however, are all unremarkable, raising no suspicions of foul play. Doctors are called in the first four cases but are, of course, quite useless; in the last, an old peasant aged 70 dies without the permission of his doctor because it is harvest time, and the time of none of the family can be spared to fetch him from several miles away.

    La Rochefoucauld believed that we couldn’t contemplate death for long because the prospect of personal extinction was too painful for us; for Zola, however, it derived from the fact that we are too rooted in the concerns of everyday life for it to preoccupy us for long. The three sons of Madame Guerard, who dies after a short illness, genuinely love their mother and cry at her death; but a far more prolonged and consuming consequence of her death than grief is struggle over the inheritance, which all of them (wastrels in one way or another) badly need.

    But the death, or rather the burial service, that had most effect on me was that of le Comte de Verteuil. The mourners soon grow bored at this service. They think and talk of business, love affairs, gossip. One of them reads the inscription on another grave—“the qualities of heart, generosity and goodness”—and murmurs, “Oh, I knew him, he was a complete swine.”

    I used to watch mourners at funerals from my study window overlooking a splendid church. Most of the mourners—the men, anyway—furtively looked at their watches, consulted their diaries, or sent text messages, as if funerals were primitive ceremonies conducted by a strange tribe (the dead) of no possible application to them. We need death to spur us on to effort but also a sense of time remaining to us to make that effort.


    Cite this as: BMJ 2010;340:c2491