Sunday, February 1, 2009

no happy returns


“Don’t speak of that man!” he said, unenticed
on his deathbed, not willing to share
his last time with a priest if he talked about Christ,
and he rests now in peace. Vive Voltaire!

The critic of reason that’s pure, Manny Kant,
when the angel of death paid a visit,
said: “My stomach is hurting and that’s why I can’t
have some wine that is watered. Sufficit.”

After his birthday L. Wittgenstein died;
he’d received a warm blanket as present,
presumably since it was electrified,
it killed him, which he thought was pleasant.

No happy returns for Ludwig, course,
and none for Voltaire or for Manny,
but wine without water can make the life force
amusing and sometimes uncanny.

Inspired by an anecdote about Voltaire recounted by Simon Critchley in his book, “The Book of Dead Philosophers,” reviewed by Dinitia Smith (“Dying and Death: When You Sort It Out, What’s It All About, Diogenes?” NYT, January 30, 2009). The book relates anecdotes concerning the deaths of 190 philosophers:

As a result, Mr. Critchley, philosophy chairman at the New School for Social Research, has made a book out of marvelous and funny anecdotes about the deaths of some 190 philosophers, from ancient to modern. Don’t be daunted by the many centuries involved. And you don’t have to read the book all at once, Mr. Critchley advises. You can just dip in and out of it at your pleasure. Fortunately this reviewer was obligated to read it all. And, as the philosopher would say, it was all for the good. Thus, we have Diogenes, who disdained fleshly pleasures and was said by some to have committed suicide by holding his breath; Julien Offray de La Mettrie, atheist and hedonist, who died after eating large amounts of truffled pâté; and Ludwig Wittgenstein, who saw life and death as part of the same timelessness. He died the day after his birthday. A friend had given him an electric blanket as a present. “Many happy returns,” the friend said. “There will be no returns,” Wittgenstein supposedly replied. Mr. Critchley recounts that Voltaire, after decades of denouncing the Roman Catholic Church, announced on his deathbed that he wanted to die a Catholic. But the shocked parish priest kept asking him, “Do you believe in the divinity of Christ?” Voltaire begged, “In the name of God, Monsieur, don’t speak to me any more of that man and let me die in peace.” Hegel, who, as much as any philosopher, Mr. Critchley says, saw philosophy as an abstraction, while he was dying of cholera, moaned, “Only one man ever understood me ... and he didn’t understand me.”

© 2009 Gershon Hepner 1/30/09

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