Stomping off with effect

Stomping off with effect

The course of any human-'s life has three significant episodes – hatching, matching and despatching. The first we have no control over, the second...

The course of any human's life has three significant episodes – hatching, matching and despatching. The first we have no control over, the second doesn't entirely depend on us and in only the third can we have some say. While we can never predict when this may come, we can at least try to make the ending – or even our less permanent exits – somehow exceptional.

And writers – from Shakespeare to Jonathan Swift to James Thurber, as well as some philosophers, scholars, and others have been in the forefront of doing so – through their works or even personally. It may seem incongruous to focus on mortality in a festive season – but it is a time of endings, with the year drawing to close and the natural conditions bleak.

"The leaves falling like our years, the flowers fading like our hours, the clouds fleeting like our illusions, the light diminishing like our intelligence, the sun growing colder like our affections, the rivers becoming frozen like our lives," said 18th-century French diplomat Francois-Rene de Chateaubriand in "Memoires d'Outre-Tombe (Memoirs from Beyond the Grave)".

We can argue about propriety, but a memorable exit does count. Let's start with Crinis the Stoic, of a school of thought priding itself on its indifference to worldly concerns and fears. Of him, we only know that he died of fright at the squeaking of a mouse. Stoic philosophy never got over it – and perhaps that is why they suppressed all knowledge of him.

Chrysippus of Soli (c.280-c.207 BC) died of laughing at one of his own jokes. While most accounts say he died of excessive laughter after watching his drunk donkey try to eat figs, the best version is that the donkey, belonging to an old woman, once ate a large amount of his figs. Thereupon, he offered her a wineskin, saying, "Better give him this to wash them down better." Then he fell about laughing. Then he died.

One uncharitable introduction to philosophy observes that, with such a sense of humour, it may be considered a good thing that none of Chrysippus' more than 700 books has survived to the present.

More temporarily, the father of Sceptism, Pyrrho of Elis (360-270 BC), whose philosophy held that you cannot believe anything exists – with his devoted friends ensuring his long life by preventing him from walking off imaginary cliffs, into imaginary chariots – once ended an argument with rivals by jumping fully clothed into a (illusory?) river and swimming powerfully away.

In our times, Austrian Paul Feyerabend (1924-1994), whose position on truth, in his own words, was "Anything goes", ended his lectures at the London School of Economics by jumping out of the window (fortunately out of a ground-floor classroom), and riding away noisily on his motorcycle.

Of others, venerable French grammarian Domique Bonhours, on his deathbed, whispered: "I am about to – or I am going to – die; either expression is used", while the Marquis de Favras, reading his death warrant during the French Revolution, told his executioners: "I see that you have made three spelling mistakes."

In literature, there is Shakespeare's stage direction "Exit, pursued by a Bear" in Scene III, Act III of "The Winter's Tale". Unfortunately, we never know the fate of Antigonus, a lord of Sicilia, who was ordered to abandon the baby Princess Perdita in the jungle.

Then there is "Verses on the Death of Dr. Swift, D.S.P.D." by that unsurpassed satirist, Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), who has much more to his credit than ‘Gulliver's Travels’. In 1731, Swift was inspired by French writer La Rochefoucauld's maxim: "In the hard times of our best friends we find something that doesn't displease us" to begin writing a poem on how society and his friends would react to his death.

Finally published in 1739, the nearly 500-line poem begins with a digression on human weaknesses – and literary envy – before he comes to the point. The best part is: "Here shift the scene, to represent/How those I love my death lament./Poor Pope will grieve a month, and Gay/A week, and Arbuthnot a day" and "St. John himself will scarce forbear/To bite his pen, and drop a tear/The rest will give a shrug, and cry,/'I'm sorry-but we all must die!'" Hours of fun for those so inclined to insert their own options.

And then the ending of that Thurber masterpiece – in all senses of the word. "Walter Mitty lighted a cigarette. It began to rain, rain with sleet in it. He stood up against the wall of the drugstore, smoking... He put his shoulders back and his heels together. 'To hell with the handkerchief,' said Walter Mitty scornfully. He took one last drag on his cigarette and snapped it away. Then, with that faint, fleeting smile playing about his lips, he faced the firing squad; erect and motionless, proud and disdainful, Walter Mitty the Undefeated, inscrutable to the last."

Who can beat that?

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