The 'Aura of Life' After Death, and Other Famous Takes on Mortality

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Twenty impressions of when living stops; from Faulkner, Proust, and other great minds

Yesterday marked the publication of Mortality, Christopher Hitchens' posthumous work about his experiences with the cancer that killed him. We've lost a lot of great minds recently -- Nora Ephron, Maurice Sendak, David Rakoff, and Hitch himself -- and we think this end-of-life memoir in essays, full of Hitchens' trademark wit and his clear-eyed dissection of life as he sees it, may just heal us a little bit, as books tend to do. To celebrate the book's publication, and to help recalibrate our own perspectives on the loss of so many of our intellectual heroes, we've put together this selection of passages on death and mortality from a few of our favorite authors.

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"Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more." - Christopher Hitchens, The Portable Atheist

"People living deeply have no fear of death." - Anaïs Nin, The Diary Of Anaïs Nin, Volume Two

"Life was not a valuable gift, but death was. Life was a fever-dream made up of joys embittered by sorrows, pleasure poisoned by pain; a dream that was a nightmare-confusion of spasmodic and fleeting delights, ecstasies, exultations, happinesses, interspersed with long-drawn miseries, griefs, perils, horrors, disappointments, defeats, humiliations, and despairs -- the heaviest curse devisable by divine ingenuity; but death was sweet, death was gentle, death was kind; death healed the bruised spirit and the broken heart, and gave them rest and forgetfulness; death was man's best friend; when man could endure life no longer, death came and set him free." - Mark Twain, Letters from the Earth

"I can remember how when I was young I believed death to be a phenomenon of the body; now I know it to be merely a function of the mind -- and that of the minds who suffer the bereavement. The nihilists say it is the end; the fundamentalists, the beginning; when in reality it is no more than a single tenant or family moving out of a tenement or a town." - William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying

"Death is no more than passing from one room into another. But there's a difference for me, you know. Because in that other room I shall be able to see." - Helen Keller

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"A normal human being does not want the Kingdom of Heaven: he wants life on earth to continue. This is not solely because he is 'weak,' 'sinful' and anxious for a 'good time.' Most people get a fair amount of fun out of their lives, but on balance life is suffering, and only the very young or the very foolish imagine otherwise. Ultimately it is the Christian attitude which is self-interested and hedonistic, since the aim is always to get away from the painful struggle of earthly life and find eternal peace in some kind of Heaven or Nirvana. The humanist attitude is that the struggle must continue and that death is the price of life." - George Orwell, "Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool"

"We die containing a richness of lovers and tribes, tastes we have swallowed, bodies we have plunged into and swum up as if rivers of wisdom, characters we have climbed into as if trees, fears we have hidden in as if caves.

I wish for all this to be marked on by body when I am dead. I believe in such cartography -- to be marked by nature, not just to label ourselves on a map like the names of rich men and women on buildings. We are communal histories, communal books. We are not owned or monogamous in our taste or experience." - Michael Ondaatje, The English Patient

"The meaning of life is that it stops." - Franz Kafka

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"For those who live neither with religious consolations about death nor with a sense of death (or of anything else) as natural, death is the obscene mystery, the ultimate affront, the thing that cannot be controlled. It can only be denied." - Susan Sontag

"Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you're there. It doesn't matter what you do, he said, so as long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that's like you after you take your hands away." - Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451

"If people bring so much courage to this world the world has to kill them to break them, so of course it kills them. The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry." - Ernest Hemingway

"People do not die for us immediately, but remain bathed in a sort of aura of life which bears no relation to true immortality but through which they continue to occupy our thoughts in the same way as when they were alive. It is as though they were traveling abroad." - Marcel Proust

"No one knows whether death, which people fear to be the greatest evil, may not be the greatest good." - Plato

"The kindest and most meaningful thing anyone ever says to me is: your mother would be proud of you. Finding a way in my grief to become the woman who my mother raised me to be is the most important way I have honored my mother. It has been the greatest salve to my sorrow. The strange and painful truth is that I'm a better person because I lost my mom young. When you say you experience my writing as sacred what you are touching is the divine place within me that is my mother. Sugar is the temple I built in my obliterated place. I'd give it all back in a snap, but the fact is, my grief taught me things. It showed me shades and hues I couldn't have otherwise seen. It required me to suffer. It compelled me to reach." -- Cheryl Strayed, Dear Sugar, The Rumpus Advice Column #78: The Obliterated Place

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"Ignore death up to the last moment; then, when it can't be ignored any longer, have yourself squirted full of morphia and shuffle off in a coma. Thoroughly sensible, humane and scientific, eh?" - Aldous Huxley

"I have wanted to kill myself a hundred times, but somehow I am still in love with life. This ridiculous weakness is perhaps one of our more stupid melancholy propensities, for is there anything more stupid than to be eager to go on carrying a burden which one would gladly throw away, to loathe one's very being and yet to hold it fast, to fondle the snake that devours us until it has eaten our hearts away?" - Voltaire, Candide

"Dying is a troublesome business: there is pain to be suffered, and it wrings one's heart; but death is a splendid thing -- a warfare accomplished, a beginning all over again, a triumph. You can always see that in their faces." - George Bernard Shaw

"Droll thing life is -- that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose. The most you can hope from it is some knowledge of yourself -- that comes too late -- a crop of unextinguishable regrets. I have wrestled with death. It is the most unexciting contest you can imagine. It takes place in an impalpable grayness, with nothing underfoot, with nothing around, without spectators, without clamor, without glory, without the great desire of victory, without the great fear of defeat, in a sickly atmosphere of tepid skepticism, without much belief in your own right, and still less in that of your adversary. If such is the form of ultimate wisdom, then life is a greater riddle than some of us think it to be." - Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness

"The fundamental fact about all of us is that we're alive for a while but will die before long. This fact is the real root cause of all our anger and pain and despair. And you can either run from this fact or, by way of love, you can embrace it." - Jonathan Franzen

To be, or not to be, --that is the question:-- 
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer 
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune 
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles, 
And by opposing end them? --To die, --to sleep,-- 
No more; and by a sleep to say we end 
The heartache, and the thousand natural shocks 
That flesh is heir to, --'tis a consummation 
Devoutly to be wish'd. To die, --to sleep;-- 
To sleep! perchance to dream: --ay, there's the rub; 
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come, 
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, 
Must give us pause: there's the respect 
That makes calamity of so long life; 
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time, 
The oppressor's wrong, the proud man's contumely, 
The pangs of despis'd love, the law's delay, 
The insolence of office, and the spurns 
That patient merit of the unworthy takes, 
When he himself might his quietus make 
With a bare bodkin? who would these fardels bear, 
To grunt and sweat under a weary life, 
But that the dread of something after death,-- 
The undiscover'd country, from whose bourn 
No traveller returns,--puzzles the will, 
And makes us rather bear those ills we have 
Than fly to others that we know naught of? 
Thus conscience does make cowards of us all; 
And thus the native hue of resolution 
Is sicklied o'er with the pale cast of thought; 
And enterprises of great pitch and moment, 
With this regard, their currents turn awry, 
And lose the name of action." - William Shakespeare, Hamlet

"To be the father of growing daughters is to understand something of what Yeats evokes with his imperishable phrase 'terrible beauty.' Nothing can make one so happily exhilarated or so frightened: it's a solid lesson in the limitations of self to realize that your heart is running around inside someone else's body. It also makes me quite astonishingly calm at the thought of death: I know whom I would die to protect and I also understand that nobody but a lugubrious serf can possibly wish for a father who never goes away." - Christopher Hitchens, Hitch-22: A Memoir



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