Quotations: On Death and Immortality

Ted Kooser, Poet

“When the heart stops, my contemporaries say,/Shrugging their shoulders, that’s it.”

—Czeslaw Milosz’s poem “Treatise on Theology,” in his collection Second Space

“. . . after all, the manner in which a person dies, the little details of an autopsy, say, whether the corpse has spots on its liver or lungs, doesn’t in any way cancel the loss.”

—Ted Kooser, The Poetry Home Repair Manual

Writing about an important passage in Joseph Conrad’s canonical work Heart of Darkness, David Denby says, “It is perhaps the most famous death scene written after Shakespeare.” He then quotes at length in demonstration of his claim:

“Anything approaching the change that came over his [Mr. Kurtz’s] features I have never seen before and hope never to see again. Oh, I wasn’t touched. I was fascinated. It was as though a veil had been rent. I saw on that ivory face the expression of somber pride, of ruthless power, of craven terror—of an intense and hopeless despair. Did he live his life again in every detail of desire, temptation, and surrender during that brief moment of complete knowledge? He cried in a whisper at some image, at some vision—he cried out twice, a cry that was no more than a breath:

“‘The horror! The horror!’ . . .”

—David Denby, Great Books

“I think, just as you do Socrates, that although it is very difficult if not impossible in this life to achieve certainty about these questions, at the same time it is utterly feeble not to use every effort in testing the available theories, or to leave off until we have considered them in every way, and come to the end of our resources. It is our duty to do one of two things, either to ascertain the facts, whether by seeking instruction or by personal discovery, or, if this is impossible, to select the best and most dependable theory which human intelligence can supply, and use it as a raft to ride the seas of life—that is, assuming that we cannot make our journey with greater confidence and security by the surer means of a divine revelation.”

—Simmias, in Plato’s dialogue Phaedo 85 c-d

“A man should be mourned at his birth, not his death.”

—Charles de Montesquieu, Lettres Persanes (1721)

On Biography

“The history of my stupidity would fill many volumes./. . . . The history of my stupidity will not be written./For one thing, it’s late. And the truth is laborious.” —From Czeslaw Milosz’s poem, “Account,” in New and Collected Poems, 1931-2001

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