in Opinion | 01 JAN 07
Featured in
Issue 104

The Long Goodbye

A new collection of short stories explores the rich terrain of last words

in Opinion | 01 JAN 07

It is said that Derek Jarman’s last words were: ‘I want the world to be filled with white fluffy duckies.’ Andy Warhol’s final thoughts were the equally distinctive: ‘Eh, yeh, you know, eh.’ Dying words are a performance that everyone must execute, whether they want to or not. Karl Marx’s final utterance, ‘last words are for fools who haven’t said enough’, show the problems inherent in trying to escape the task.

Despite their seemingly ephemeral nature, a peculiar amount of weight rests on last words. They tend to be judged not only as the final indication of a person’s character but also as the neat summation of a life. Thus they bear the heavy responsibility of acting as miniature biography and ultimate maxim, an encapsulation of all that ever was.

With so much riding on the outcome, the choosing of last words can be somewhat problematical. Prepare too much, and you run the risk of sounding pompous or contrived; prepare too little, and you run the risk of slipping off to the great beyond with an appeal for your bedpan. Few words are as pitiful as the revolutionary Pancho Villa’s: ‘Don’t let it end like this. Tell them I said something.’ The small but potent power of last words can be seen in the way they have been subjected to moral and political manipulation. For some years a rumour prompted by evangelical churches suggested that Charles Darwin had renounced evolution on his deathbed and called for a Bible. In fact, he seems to have struck a more determined course, saying: ‘I am not in the least afraid to die.’ At other times last words appear engineered to consolidate myths, resulting in suspiciously pat phrases. As Saint Lawrence was being broiled alive on a grid­iron, he is alleged to have turned to his tormentor and said, rather jauntily: ‘This side enough is toasted, so turn me, tyrant, eat/And see whether raw or roasted I make the better meat.’ Such miraculous insouciance was presumably one of the reasons for his canonization.

Part of the problem in coming up with a loquacious adieu is that we are never quite sure when death will take place, or how long the moment will last – hence the charming ingenuity of Robert Olen Butler’s latest collection of short stories, Severance (2006). Prompted by the concept that the human head is believed to remain conscious for one and a half minutes after decapitation, and combining this knowledge with the seemingly unrelated fact that people speak at a rate of 160 words per minute when in a heightened state of emotion, Severance contains 62 short stories, each exactly 240 words long, capturing the last thoughts of those whose heads have been severed.

Butler’s prose poems span 40,000 years of history, from a caveman beheaded by a sabre-toothed tiger through executed courtiers and accidentally killed factory workers to the author’s own projected death in 2008, decapitated as he peers out of an elevator. Mythical characters such as the Medusa and a dragon mix freely with the mundane – a chicken killed in Alabama in 1958. The thoughts of the celebrity headless, such as Jayne Mansfield and Nicole Brown Simpson, flow seamlessly into those of Viet Minh guerrillas and aid workers decapitated in Iraq. Taking the form of a breathless stream of consciousness, Butler’s talking heads are shown congested with experience, bubbling with tales of lust, sex, regret and disdain, adroitly capturing the final moment and attempting to encapsulate every moment before. Great deeds and minor exploits mingle in the final heave towards eternity.

Using a slightly different calculation for the length of consciousness of a decapitated head, a similar effect was provided in Douglas Gordon’s 30 Seconds Text (1998), which consisted of a dark room, a wall text regarding consciousness after decapitation, and a light that flicked off after 30 seconds. Here viewers felt a tumbling rush similar to Butler’s stories as they attempted to read the text before the room was plunged into darkness. As with Butler’s tales, Gordon’s work studied the experience and the end of experience at once, revelling in the paradox of the startling duration, and extreme suddenness, of expiration.

Butler is renowned for using such high conceits. In Tabloid Dreams (1997) he took the headlines from supermarket tabloids, such as ‘Titanic Victim Speaks through Waterbed’, ‘Woman Loses Cookie Bake-Off, Sets Self on Fire’ and ‘Jealous Husband Returns in Form of Parrot’, and turned these surrealist fantasias into heartfelt meditations on loneliness, conformity and the frustrations of being reincarnated as a parrot. In Severance the same mixture of comic and tragic coalesces, with an originality reminiscent of Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics (1965). As Sir Walter Raleigh’s head tumbles to the ground, he remembers a night of passion spent with Queen Elizabeth I, and off-handedly mentions his smoking of the first ever post-coital cigarette. Sentenced to death by Mark Antony, the orator Cicero recounts struggling for the perfect insult with which to leave existence. It is enough to make one concur with the last words of the Victorian painter William Etty: ‘Wonderful! Wonderful this death!’