The idea that one can report on one’s own death is paradoxical, if not preposterous. As Epicurus wrote in his Letter to Menoeceus, “When we exist, death is not; and when death exists, we are not.” To which Woody Allen added the footnote, “I don’t mind dying . . . as long as I don’t have to be there when it happens.”
To be there when it happens can be dreadful, indeed, but also tempting insofar as man desires to use or control his death, which means mastering death’s power. Think of Ben Jonson’s comedy Volpone, in which the title character fakes his own death to deceive his enemies. Staging one’s death and funeral, and hearing the eulogy . . . is this not a power trip? To be there, beyond the grave—it is a grandiose dream of total control. But only a dream, since it requires not being dead in order to enjoy the dream fulfilled.
As a matter of literary art, however, a number of writers have sought to capture the very instant of death. In articulo mortis, the joint between life and death, is the subject of Edgar Allan Poe’s tale “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.” The instant of death in this tale has apocalyptic meaning in the original sense of the word. Death lifts the veil of the world, separating truth from illusion. Passing from life to death is the moment one encounters one’s full, actual self. Poe lingers over this transition as M. Valdemar utters the line “I am dead” before he expires. The reader is left to linger at the door between life and death. We wonder if, when he pronounces those words, M. Valdemar is anticipating the next moment. Or is he already dead? Can we look back from beyond the grave?
“Passing” serves as a common euphemism. It is a progressive verb. Dying, for the living, is an unfinished job: I can never be dead. The moment I die, I am no longer an I. There is something neutral and impersonal in being dead. Death is dispossession. In Kafka’s parable “The Hunter Gracchus,” a man is suspended over the seas between life and death without ever being able to die. His “passing” has no end.
Writing one’s death requires one to speak posthumously, as it were. As a matter of fact, one can say “I am dead,” as M. Valdemar does. But in principle this cannot be so, for if you say “I am dead,” it means that you are no longer there to say it. This reminds me of a childhood prelude to sleep: the question “Are you sleeping?” followed by the response “Yes I am.” Thus went the nocturnal exchanges with my sibling. This was a way of playing with language—less with words themselves than with the split between language and experience, words and consciousness.
Giving an eyewitness report on one’s death is beyond the possible. But what about experiencing death, even if only through our pens? Modern philosophers have argued over the meaning of death, and over whether we can talk of an experience of it at all. For some, death is not an experience; it is the limit of experience, as Epicurus’s Letter to Menoeceus suggests. For others, death is the capstone experience, the “moment of truth.” Mid-twentieth-century existentialists thought as much. For them, the finitude of life is the first premise of consciousness. Death is not a new beginning, nor is it a telos. It is the eschaton, the dark illumination of all that comes before. Death is not the passageway to eternal life. It is life’s fermata, the fructifying endpoint.
Martin Heidegger affirmed that death, precisely to the extent that it does not lead to the other world, is the occasion of authenticity. My death belongs only to me; my death is the ultimate proper event of my life, the one that cannot be sold, play-acted, or in any way alienated. No one can live my death for me, and it is therefore a strangely precious moment in which I am truly myself. Death, Heidegger wrote, is “that possibility which is one’s ownmost.”
Heidegger, a thinker who had a great deal of influence on twentieth-century French philosophy, can seem lofty and abstract. But any memorialist or autobiographer must confront the problem of authenticity—the full possession of “me.” Without grappling with death, how can he complete his memoirs and provide a full account of himself? When Michel de Montaigne wrote the first major European autobiography, he entitled it Essais. Essayer, in French, means “to try, to test, to taste, to experience.” Les Essais are exercises in life—trying out various lines of thinking and angles of vision in an effort to get a complete picture of personal experience. In one of the best-known chapters, Montaigne tells the story of his own death: At least, he tries. The experience Montaigne recounts is that of a coma following a fall from his horse. Montaigne can only use a proxy, an analogy. As Samuel Beckett might say of this effort, “Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”
For Montaigne, the purpose of philosophy, understood as an art of living and of reaching wisdom and temperance, was to learn how to die. His account of his loss of consciousness serves as an approach, one that gets “inside” and thus tames his inevitable death. Of course, his actual “passing” remains forever outside his experience. Nonetheless, Montaigne records his own absence to himself in a state of unconsciousness, drawing death close through the process of writing about his accident and resulting coma. He does not overcome death in the sense of defeating or avoiding it. But he incorporates it into his life. Most of us would look back on a bad fall resulting in a coma and tell a story about how we avoided dying. Montaigne goes in the opposite direction, writing as if it had been “the end.” Perhaps we cannot master our own death, but it seems we can narrate it.
At the dawn of the nineteenth century, French aristocrat François-René de Chateaubriand endeavored to write a memoir that would incorporate his own death. His life threatened by the Reign of Terror, he fled to London and eventually ended up in a small English town where the locals, unable to pronounce his name, called him “Shatterbrains.” After a seven-year exile, he returned to France. But this did not restore him to his former condition. The Revolution and its aftermath had shocked him into an obsession with impermanence, including the impermanence of himself.
Early in the century, Chateaubriand decided to write his memoirs (more on this anon). Having already lived an adventurous life, visited America (where he claimed to have met Washington himself), fallen in love in England, and later served as an ambassador in Rome and London, his fame spread throughout Europe. His commitments to journalism, politics, historiography and literature paved the way for the other literary great of the century, Victor Hugo.
By 1830, this autobiographical project had become monumental and very nearly impossible to master. After all, writing an account of one’s life is a strange business, since living keeps modifying the writing. New experiences permeate the writing and demand to be accounted for; they are superimposed on older memories in a multilayered architecture that can never be complete. Perhaps anticipating Heidegger’s sense that death “seals” life and makes it finally one’s own, Chateaubriand gave his sprawling autobiography the title Mémoires d’outre-tombe, literally “Memoirs from Beyond the Grave”—one of the most intriguing and solemn titles in the history of French letters. He meant for his book to be published posthumously and for his voice to resound as if coming to us from an abode of shadows. Chateaubriand’s gothic imagination resonated with late-eighteenth-century romantic fascination with ruins, which is one reason his prose gained such a wide audience in his day. Think of the painter Hubert Robert and his famous depictions of ruins eroded by wild vegetation, or Volney’s book The Ruins, or Meditations on the Revolution of Empires. At the personal level, Chateaubriand saw himself as a survivor of a world destroyed, literally returning from the underworld, a memento mori in human form. In his own mind, his return to France after the radical transformation of the country by the forces of revolution made him into a revenant.
Chateaubriand believed in the power of the pen. He convinced himself that his writing alone had defeated Bonaparte in 1814 and led to the Restoration of Louis XVIII to the throne. Chateaubriand had a larger-than-life imagination. He envisaged his memoirs as a testament to himself and his time. “I have seen the end of the old world,” he proclaimed. The advent of the railroads didn’t inspire him with technological visions of progress. It made him see the world as shrinking. Against death, against the Sic transit gloria mundi, the vanity and transience and mutability of this world, Mémoires d’outre-tombe was to stand as the unshakable rock of self-witness. He imagined this exercise in memory to serve as an epitaph to the reader and traveler who reads it after his demise: Here lies a man of letters, an ambassador, a Christian, a historian, a witness. Pause, reader! Mémoires d’outre-tombe was going to be a three-thousand-page monument of memory meant to resist the passage of time. And indeed, its immediate (and enduring) popularity secured a kind of immortality for the vicomte after he was buried in 1848 on the Grand Bé, a tidal island off the shores of Brittany.
Chateaubriand had been primed for his task. Events of the Revolution caused him to witness death on a large and a small scale. Exile was an experience of loss, a kind of dying as that which one holds dear slips away. After having been a zealous defender of reason and of the Enlightenment philosophers, Chateaubriand was changed. The execution of Louis XVI and the Reign of Terror, as well as the death of his mother and his own flight into exile, converted him back to religion—“I cried and believed.” He completed a devout study of the Church, The Genius of Christianity, that included Church history and natural history, along with marvels of nature presented as ontological proof of God. But his book was not a conventional apology for Christianity. It also meditated on ruins and melancholy, transience and loss. The book’s preface was a novella, René, which became a classic of French romanticism, the French Werther, whose title character is the personification of postrevolutionary ennui. This condition he called “mal du siècle” and “vague des passions”—the “sickness of the age” and “vagueness of passions,” an absence of purpose and a loss of meaning that turn the young (albeit the privileged ones and idle aristocrats) into disoriented wanderers.
Genius appeared in 1802, two years before Napoleon’s megalomaniacal self-coronation. At first an admirer, Chateaubriand gradually realized that Napoleon was a usurper and a fraud, a power-mad “foreigner” (a Corsican) who must be stopped. The French had to defeat him by all means to restore the Bourbon monarchy. In 1804 Bonaparte, then first consul, abducted the Duc d’Enghien, the last heir to the House of Condé, and ordered his execution, by some accounts to demoralize the monarchic reaction. In 1807, still mourning the assassination of Duc d’Enghien, Chateaubriand wrote his first assault on the emperor, a polemical tract in which he compares himself to Tacitus and Napoleon to Nero. The historian, avenger of the enslaved peoples, he claims, must vindicate the oppressed nation. His voice breaks the “silence of abjection” and exposes the crimes of the tyrant.
In 1814, sleeping with a gun concealed under his pillow, Chateaubriand wrote and circulated underground his tract against Bonaparte. The eighty pages, he later boasted, did more than a whole army to defeat the “Italian ogre.” The press, the written word, Chateaubriand claimed, is “social electricity.” In Mémoires, he follows Napoleon’s life to the end just as he monitors his own, even recording the fallen Emperor’s fate after his life has ended:
While I have been writing this, time has marched on; it has produced an event which would contain a measure of grandeur if events nowadays did not immediately sink into the mud. London has been asked for the return of Bonaparte’s remains; the request has been granted: what does England care about old bones?
In 1844, four years before his death, at the suggestion of his confessor the abbot Séguin, the vicomte wrote his last book, a sort of codicil to his Memoirs, the biography of Rancé. Rancé was a seventeenth-century abbot of La Trappe and the founder of the Trappists. Chateaubriand wrote this biography in order to make expiation for a life of sins. The Life of Rancé (long overdue in English translation) is an ascetic endeavor, an act of contrition and an homage paid to two holy men (Rancé and Séguin).
In his Life of Rancé, Chateaubriand wrote an enigmatic sentence: “I am quoting myself. I am nothing but Time.” This sentence has haunted me for many years. What does “to be nothing but Time” mean? Perhaps it means to be old and venerable, to be so filled with Time that one is little else. Or, perhaps, it means being always in flux, like memory, passing by, fleeing. Tempus fugit. Or, still further, to be nothing but Time might mean to have reached a state of neutrality, a state of impersonality. The clock ticks without regard to human affairs. Time will not wait or hurry up for our sakes. This indifference is the ascetic condition of expiatory writing. There is something at once pretentious and humble here. To be nothing but Time can mean to embody one’s epoch and become its oracle (Chateaubriand in major key), or it can suggest that one has become nothing more than Time’s scrivener or clerk, writing dutifully under the dictation of Chronos (Chateaubriand in minor key).
Chateaubriand coined a term that captures this paradox: “unknown glory.” It is an oxymoron if there ever was one. A glory that does not ring out is an odd kind of glory, a glory in minor key. This is the Chateaubriand that has always attracted me, the author who is writing his way toward his extinction, a condition beyond the reach of what can be honored and acclaimed by the living. Whatever glory accumulates to Chateaubriand’s masterpiece—and a great deal has—it is for him an unknown glory.
There is one high hurdle that stands between Memoirs from Beyond the Grave and its lofty title: Its author has to be dead. And that, Chateaubriand could not arrange. “Sorry, reader, I am still alive,” he wrote in an unpublished preface to his memoirs. By the mid-1830s he still had years to live and, more importantly, a living to make. To that end, writing was not a bad idea. In 1834, he gave away pages of his Memoirs to Revue des Deux Mondes and the Revue de Paris. Eager to tease his future readership and whet Parisian literary appetites, the vicomte was also somewhat embarrassed to promote a competition among publishers—he was keen to secure the most advantageous payments—over his autobiography, which he saw as his own life. The tactic of releasing tidbits in advance was so successful that in 1836 the publisher Delloye established a limited company to purchase the Memoirs. They made a deal with Chateaubriand. He would be able to pay off his debts with an advance, and his life annuity would increase based on his production.
And so, the vicomte signed a Faustian contract, writing his memoirs on the installment plan, wages for pages. “I will write ten pages a day as long as I live,” he sighed, complaining that he had mortgaged his work and that his own life no longer belonged to him. He had yielded it to a literary company that would cynically profit from his writing, which in this case was, in effect, his life in words—anathema for an aristocrat and a Christian who saw commerce and economic interests as vile, especially after the fall of the Bourbon Monarchy and its replacement with the House of Orléans, a regime Chateaubriand viewed as promoting bourgeois interests. He worried that the Memoirs might turn into a mere monthly serial, a vulgar feuilleton. It didn’t, of course. The book that we know today, after the efforts of different editors and philologists to turn it into a coherent whole, has a sublime reach and a genuine magnitude. But the prospect of being reduced to sensational fodder for popular magazines certainly upset him at the time.
Chateaubriand’s friend, author, and publisher Pierre-Simon Ballanche captured well the obsession fueling this concern: “It is not dying in first person that torments me. It is instead dying in others, dying gradually in others and in myself, dying piece by piece, that provokes my sorrow.” Dying gradually . . . is this not true to the work of everyone who writes a memoir? To use the title of Louis-Ferdinand Céline’s second novel, offering episodes in one’s life as time marches forward is “death on the installment plan.”
One hundred years later, another French master gave Chateaubriand’s project an ironic twist. In Search of Lost Time is Marcel Proust’s great literary achievement. In it he likewise writes an account of his life with death ever in mind. In the last volume, Time Regained, Proust’s doppelgänger and narrator of this mock autobiography rarely stops meditating on writing and dying for very long. As long as he writes, Marcel claims, death will be postponed, suspended. Like Scheherazade telling her tales to tame the tyrant, the writer puts pen to paper, buying time and putting off his own death sentence. As long as one writes, death is kept at bay.
But there is more. When he reaches the last page of this monumental work, a book that Proust had imagined and designed as a cathedral, he admits that he has not yet begun. It is now time, says Marcel, to begin to write his masterpiece, but he hasn’t the energy to continue. He has lost his time—an aspect of the “lost time” referred to Proust’s evocative title. Marcel wasted it in salon gossip and futile jealousies and tawdry little plots. At this point, you have to wonder what the purpose of this vast novel is. Have I read this sprawling novel just to find out on the last page of the last volume that in fact the book has not yet begun? That the truly great masterpiece is yet to come? If I had at least the time to write my book, Marcel says, “I would stamp it with the seal of Time . . .”
We may take the discrepancy between the author Marcel Proust, who clearly saw himself composing a masterpiece when he wrote In Search of Lost Time, and his character and narrator Marcel as a lesson in human destiny. You can write yourself into a hundred thousand words, you can record your existence in microscopic detail, you can, like Montaigne, try to explain what death feels like and hope your readers learn how to meet it well, and you can, like Chateaubriand, try to compose your life and your death into a masterly autobiography, but the task is impossible, and it’s exhausting. At best, writing about yourself means to fail again and to fail better—and then to die.
Bruno Chaouat is professor of French and Jewish studies at the University of Minnesota.