Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Contemplating Mortality via Alejo Carpentier, Horacio Quiroga, Federico Garcia Lorca, Herodotus, and Xerxes

So, today in my SPA 260 class we finished our reading of Alejo Carpentier’s The Kingdom of This World, read Federico Garcia Lorca’s poem “Cancion de jinete” [“The Rider’s Song”], and Horacio Quiroga’s short story “The Dead Man.”

The subject was the untimeliness of death, a topic of much relevance to me lately. As I sat preparing for class, I remembered the final passages of Carpentier’s novel that had so moved me the other day. They make feel that It is our ability to be altruistic as we struggle and toil through life that brings us closer to the divine. One of the most beautiful images is that of the person who does for others with no hope of recompense for themselves (I know it’s incorrect grammar, but I like it). We’ve all seen the family with nothing give what little they have to others. The Old Testament story of the widow giving her last bread to Elijah, and the New Testament story of Jesus pointing out the worth of the widow’s mite are two touchstone examples of this wondrous aspect of human nature in Judeo-Christian belief. That is why this life, the kingdom of this world, is a probationary period when we must prove ourselves. Greater love hath no man than this…. Better to live the good life....

But part of the end of the novel is that the protagonist, Ti Noel, realizes that his life has been acted on, that he has not acted on the world. The triumph of the human spirit over the horrors and drudgery of day-to-day existence is the point of the novel. However, we also discussed how brief life is. I told them “if I were to die right here right now, this piece of chalk I’m holding would still be here. If it were used up, its atoms would still exist in the universe. The compounds that comprise my body would still exist; what ceases to be in the Kingdom of This World is the presence, or at least the mortal perception, of my soul, my intelligence."

I asked them if they had ever contemplated their own death. Many lied and said no; some were very frank. One student had woken up on the operating table and related the horrors of searing pain and thinking she was going to die. Most of the ones who admitted having imagined their own death always said that they imagined croaking in old age, in some remote future. I asked if they thought immortality might be boring, a kind of burden. No one thought so, until I related Odysseus and Calypto (thanks Norman!) to them. I also brought up examples in popular culture: the elves in Lord of the Rings, Alf knowing the exact date of his death, and the carousel in Logan’s Run.

As we talked about death being instantaneous, and very rarely planned, we talked about Quiroga’s brilliant “The Dead Man.” A farmer accidentally slips one day and mortally wounds himself, impaled by his own machete. As he lies dying he keeps ranting about how everything else is normal…nothing else has changed except the position of his machete coming out of his abdomen. After he “rests” as the story puts it, the world continues on. His life is but a footnote in the cosmic cycle with the long-vision of eternity.

I reminded them that few get to choose their death, and that in the case of most of us, in 200 years no one will remember who we are. Our milestone data might exist, but no one will know us, study us. I asked them if they could contemplate willingly giving their lives for something or someone. Most said family and friends. A few astute ones said they didn’t know unless they were in the situation; one said she would give her life for any other human being; one, perhaps only half-jokingly said he would die for his dog because his dog would die for him without hesitation.

So, our final work, Garcia Lorca’s poem, tells the story of a horse rider who knows that death awaits him in Cordoba, yet he keeps on riding towards the city. Lorca knew that coming home to Spain would cost him his life. He came home and proved to be a true prophet (he was fusilladed in Granada, summarily). I asked the class if they could do something if they knew that it would lead to their own deaths. By this time they were as morose as you can get a class, but I ended with a perfect post-script, sent to me not 20 minutes before class that day. My dear old friend Norman Sandridge ran in a half-marathon this past weekend and he dedicated his run to my recently-deceased father. He told me that as he ran he began to contemplate just how fleeting our mortal existence truly is, and he thought of this passage from Herodotus, the perfect post-script to my class, which I shared with them:

And now, as he [Xerxes, king of the Persians] looked and saw the whole Hellespont covered with the vessels of his fleet, and all the shore and every plain about Abydos as full as possible of men, Xerxes congratulated himself on his good fortune; but after a little while he wept.

Then Artabanus, the king's uncle (the same who at the first so freely spake his mind to the king, and advised him not to lead his army against Greece), when he heard that Xerxes was in tears, went to him, and said:- "How different, sire, is what thou art now doing, from what thou didst a little while ago! Then thou didst congratulate thyself; and now, behold! thou weepest." "There came upon me," replied he, "a sudden pity, when I thought of the shortness of man's life, and considered that of all this host, so numerous as it is, not one will be alive when a hundred years are gone by." "And yet there are sadder things in life than that," returned the other. "Short as our time is, there is no man, whether it be here among this multitude or elsewhere, who is so happy, as not to have felt the wish- I will not say once, but full many a time- that he were dead rather than alive. Calamities fall upon us; sicknesses vex and harass us, and make life, short though it be, to appear long. So death, through the wretchedness of our life, is a most sweet refuge to our race: and God, who gives us the tastes that we enjoy of pleasant times, is seen, in his very gift, to be envious."

Norman is a damned good friend.


Lora said...

Hey Mac,

We had to memorize Cancion del jinete for our spanish poetry class today and she asked us to write an analysis of the poem. I fell across your blog during my search and I was wondering if you had any ideas on what the poem meant- in any way, and if I could cite you :) if not, I completely understand. thanks.



Anonymous said...

I think I used an old account for the last post, so this one should come up as my most recent blog, from when I was in Spain last semester. Thought it might interest you to read it!


jerry said...

This is a great post. I just had one of the ‘Doh!’ moments and ran back to correct my own site before publishing my comment. You see my own comment form did not match what I’m about to advice. I get less comment than you, so never noticed any problem. I’ve changed it now anyway so here goes.

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