Last Words: Variations on a Theme in Cultural History

Last Words: Variations on a Theme in Cultural History

Last Words: Variations on a Theme in Cultural History

Last Words: Variations on a Theme in Cultural History

Synopsis

Whether Goethe actually cried More light! on his deathbed, or whether Conrad Hilton checked out of this world after uttering Leave the shower curtain on the inside of the tub, last words, regardless of authenticity, have long captured the imagination of Western society. In this playfully serious investigation based on factual accounts, anecdotes, literary works, and films, Karl Guthke explores the cultural importance of those words spoken at the border between this world and the next. The exit lines of both famous and ordinary people embody for us a sense of drama and truthfulness and reveal much about our thoughts on living and dying. Why this interest in last words? Presenting statements from such figures as Socrates, Nathan Hale, Marie Antoinette, and Oscar Wilde (I am dying as I have lived, beyond my means), Guthke examines our fascination in terms of our need for closure, our desire for immortality, and our attraction to the mystique of death scenes. The author considers both authentic and invented final statements as he looks at the formation of symbols and legends and their function in our culture. Last words, handed down from generation to generation like cultural heirlooms, have a good chance of surviving in our collective memory. They are shown to epitomize a life, convey a sense of irony, or play to an audience, as in the case of the assassinated Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, who is said to have died imploring journalists: Don't let it end like this. Tell them I said something.

Excerpt

Death, as the taboo of our time, arouses secret interest. The “last words” of the dying stand on the border of that taboo region. Interest in them is less inhibited, having grown for centuries before death itself became a forbidden topic. As a result, last words have been a familiar concept in the world of our experience, an institution in fact; paying attention to them is a well-established tradition. Accordingly, such words of the final moment, such exit lines, meet certain expectations. What expectations? Why? How? The last words of the famous and the not-so-famous have become so commonplace in our everyday life that we forget to ask such questions–until we are made conscious of them by a film or novel or play, a newspaper story, a biography, a hit song, or one of those anthologies of last words which have become ever more popular in recent years.

How does one come upon such a subject? To commemorate the bicentenary of the death of the Swiss scientist and writer Albrecht von Haller (whose remarkably bad looks are flatteringly portrayed on the 500-franc note), I was asked several years ago to deliver an address in Berne, his hometown. It was only natural to start with the circumstances of his death. One source stated that Haller, whose works include edifying Christian apologetics, had passed on with an appropriate confession of faith on his lips; another source claimed the opposite, that Haller had–in so many words–died the unbeliever he was rumored to have been. Yet a third reported that the great empiricist physiologist felt his own pulse and whispered with his last breath: “It's beating…beating…beating–it's stopped.” Was Haller's lifelong intellectual conflict played out on his very deathbed? A biographer commented that “for a . . .

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