Sometimes I wonder how the last words committed from my hands will eventually read? What will these final words say? Would they be as I imagined it all ending? Or will death catch up with me and leave me wishing I’d concluded things differently? Could I even begin to write freely and do justice to this moment?
For writers, this final sentence is the equivalent to the final act, the last performance. Yet, as with life, too often the death of the written word arrives too soon, surprising the author and leaving them wishing in the final moment the words left a more thoughtful impression. If only I had been more profound? Or maybe it should have been less serious? If only I had left a more optimistic trace? Others are perhaps more fortunate, knowing the time is coming, so at least they are able to end saying something they hope will be remembered and haunt the present, even if to simply say, I was here, for a while. But maybe that is a curse too. How, after all, is one to write knowing it will be the last, the very last; hoping to do justice to the immensity of the void?
You will note in the opening sentence to this essay I used the word committed. This is important as the last words we bring to the world can take many different forms. It could be a letter, a conversation, death bed confession, it could take the form of a short passage or musing, it may even be a suicide note, or worst still, it may be a social media post. Could we imagine a more tragic end for any serious author, if their last words ended up being a Twitter rant? Good enough reason as any to leave the banal platform. So, by invoking the committed, which I mark, like art, to be defined by intention and duration, what interests me are the final words of a sustained intellectual project. Words that have been the source of great torment. Words perilously crafted and recrafted, tarried over in a discursive mental battle, which is so integral to the writing process and the commitment of words to the surface of life. Words, in other words, revealing something more than a throwaway statement. The last sentence from a committed body, who is committed to the craft and committed to the very idea the sentences we write may live on beyond our making and take on a new life, just like the arrows Nietzsche imagined us picking up from the ground and firing into a different direction.
Some might rightly question here the arrival of the “discovered” or the “delayed” sentence that appears to us from the shadows after the authors death. What of the posthumous publication? Were they circulating freely, like some fugitive thought just waiting for the right time to be revealed? Are they not then more revealing still? Do they not bring us even closer to the point of death?
I am reminded of the fated last request of Franz Kafka, who asked his friend Max Brod to destroy all works not in the public domain. A request ultimately not respected due to the wide interest following the authors untimely death, which included The Trial, America, and The Castle. Should the author be the best judge in such circumstances? Should others be allowed more editorial control as a matter of public duty, to free the words from the author who has chained them with doubt, especially when the author was so reclusive? We can see today these works have tremendous literary value.
We might also consider here the posthumous publication of the transcripts to the lectures of Michel Foucault at the College de France, which despite going against his express permission for no subsequent publication after death, meant we now have a far richer insight into his thinking on the concept of the biopolitical, which has further radicalised our conception of freedom as defined by the circulation of all things. Kafka’s Castle notoriously ends mid-sentence. To read it is like looking upon an unfinished painting from Francis Bacon, who we know was a singular genius who changed beyond measure how we aesthetically look upon the world. But in our desire to look upon the unfinished are we not simply becoming voyeurs into something not intended for us? Do we have the right to freely pry into the work because we so determine its unquestionable value? Or are we misrepresenting for the sake of our own gratitude and enrichments? Sure, they can reveal powerful insights into discernible methods and processes, especially if the incomplete reveals the inner workings of thought. But for what ends? To write like Kafka? To paint like Bacon? Are we not succumbing here to a certain technical will to knowledge, which in the hope of revealing something hidden in the mystery of production, may allow us all to both mimic and better the original? Surely that’s the greatest delusion? Are we not committing a studious autopsy without the deceased permission? And what does this all mean when considering the integrity of authorship? Are we not really dealing with the desire to commodify and profit, which is so evidently the case with Prince and the slow dripping of his unreleased materials? Should we respect more the privacy of unresolved thoughts?
Trying to respect the wishes and integrity of authors, the search for the last sentences has inspired a particular curiosity. What did they say, finally, before the curtain on their lives fell? For those who knew, did this give them unlimited freedom, released from all inhibitions? Would those caught unawares still touch upon something everlasting? And what would they read like together?
Somewhat predictably, I began this survey with the philosophers, revealing perhaps my own intellectual biases. What has always interested me about philosophy is the way it provides the surest mediation between the time we live and the timeless quest to make sense of our ultimately unanswerable condition. Should this mean philosophy ends with a question? Perhaps. As I argued in my latest book[i], the idea that philosophical enquiry demands a traversal of all limit conditions takes us beyond the well-established Platonic idea, which teaches that philosophy is all about learning how to die. There is, no doubt, some truth in this statement. But we need to go further. Philosophy, as I see it, is all about looking upon one’s life as if we were already dead. To think as a ghost. To write as if haunted by the spectre of oneself. Not then to mirror the ego or embody some theory. Rather to obliterate it. Writing as if to transgress the ultimate threshold. Towards a theory then which doesn’t bring us closer to the body, but revels in the abstract apparitions we are soon to become.
Mindful of this, how could we possibly compare to the most untimely of philosophers’ astute and devastatingly assured last sentence? A sentence that is both a question and answer, a welcoming and call to battle? As Nietzsche proclaimed in Ecce Homo: “Have I been understood? — Dionysus against the Crucified”[ii]. But thought is not about comparison as much of it should never be a competition. We should deal with the singularity of the expression, especially when the singularity is the last discursive arrow shot into the impending darkness. To echo the last sentence from the final volume of Marcel Proust’s lasting In Search of Lost Time: “If at least, time enough were allotted to me to accomplish my work, I would not fail to mark it with the seal of Time, the idea of which imposed itself upon me with so much force to-day, and I would therein describe men, if need be, as monsters occupying a place in Time infinitely more important than the restricted one reserved for them in space, a place, on the, contrary, prolonged immeasurably since, simultaneously touching widely separated years and the distant periods they have lived through—between which so many days have ranged themselves—they stand like giants immersed in Time”[iii].
Immersed in time, we encounter numerous other last sentences that reach into the infinity Proust imagined. Walter Benjamin’s crucial and lasting meditation on history and time, for example, ends with a rather elliptic opening onto the messianic and the possibility of future life. “For every second of time was the strait gate through which Messiah might enter”[iv], Benjamin calls. Having taken us on a swirling journey into the vortex of existence, Gilles Deleuze’s final enquiry concerning What is Philosophy? also attends to the concept of a people to come. Inviting comparisons with Paul Klee, who had a notable affinity with Benjamin, Deleuze and his collaborator Felix Guattari summon forth the unthought within thought to write: “It is here that concepts, sensations, and functions become undecidable, at the same time as philosophy, art and science become indiscernible, as if they shared the same shadow that extends itself across their different nature and constantly accompanies them”[v].
With Michel Foucault and Hannah Arendt, the last is more difficult as we know both were near completing further manuscripts before their death. If we take Foucault’s Care for the Self instead of the later published Confessions of the Flesh as being the last, what we are left with is a deeply personal concern with the art of living and how this connects to human desire in ways that seek to transgress laws of renunciation and moral codes that continue to normalise a subjugating fall: “The code elements that concern the economy of pleasures, conjugal fidelity, and relations between men may well remain analogous, but they will derive from a different way of constituting oneself as the ethical subject of one’s sexual behaviours”[vi]. Whereas if we take Arendt’s Crisis of the Republic instead of the posthumously published Life of the Mind, we end with a meditation on politics, violence, and revolution in the form of a conversation we should accept as properly committed. Here she elaborates on the most pressing themes to talk of the possibility for a new kind of politics. “And yet perhaps”, she writes facing the pessimism of her own doubts, “after-all – in the wake of the next revolution”[vii].
Finally, here in the case of Maurice Blanchot – the author who rejected fame and disappeared back into writing, we must really consider as the final word The Instant of my Death, which features an extended essay by Jacques Derrida, who also gave the eulogy at his funeral. The essay reveals Blanchot’s fascination with the story of a confused solider who is spared death in the very final moments by a firing squad. “As if the death outside of him could only henceforth collide with the death in him. ‘I am alive. No, you are dead,” Blanchot retells. But those were the words of another. There was more to be said in duress. So “All that remains”, Blanchot further narrates, “is the feeling of lightness that is death itself or, to put it more precisely, the instant of my death henceforth always in abeyance”[viii].
Turning to the poets of history, what have they said about the tragedy soon to befall their existence? The poetry that interests me is what I have elected to call “poetry from the void”. The greatest of poets, to my estimation, speak directly to us from this wound in time. They rip open a tear in the fabric of absence and question the nothingness of existence. What is poetry, after all, if not a sorrowful cut through the forces that continue to annihilate? But also, a symphony on the joy of being human, all too human, as Nietzsche might have said?
We might invariably speak here of Paul Celan, whose leap into the void left us to consider whether any meaning can be cultivated from the flight into the unknowing. As he tells in a single sentence: “Do not work ahead, do not stand abroad, stand, in here, deep grounded by nothingness, free of all, prayer, fine fitted to, the prescript, unoutstrippable, you I take up, in place of all, rest”[ix]. Echoing a similar sensibility, there is the final poetic sentence of the dying Samuel Beckett, who looking into the beyond leaves us to ponder, “glimpse, seem to glimpse, need to seem to glimpse, afaint afar away over there what, folly for to need to seem to glimpse, afaint afar away over there what, what, what is the word, what is the word”[x], without any final stop, question mark or point of exclamation! Death is ever-present. And so, the demand to poetically confront it remains impossible to ignore, as written in Emily Dickinson’s knowingly calm and defiant final tome: “So give me back to Death, The Death I never feared, Except that it deprived of thee— And now, by Life deprived, In my own Grave I breathe, And estimate its size— Its size is all that Hell can guess— And all that Heaven was—”[xi].
Concerned more with the death of another, Maya Angelou, in contrast, reserved her final poetic words for the passing of one of the most inspiring freedom fighters to have walked the planet, Nelson Mandela, in a sentence that echoed the feeling of so many when considering that His Day is Done, “We will not forget you, we will not dishonor you, we will remember and be glad that you lived among us, that you taught us, and that you loved us all”[xii]. Sylvia Plath’s lasting poetic testament, however, was of a darker and more tortured kind, speaking of a woman who could only imagine herself as perfected through the murder of her children and her own subsequent suicide. “Her blacks crackle and drag”[xiii]—she ends in The Edge stood gazing into the abyss shortly before taking her own life, having taken us on a journey through images of depression and a loss of hope that traverses the bleakness of all ages. Wallace Stevens contends with that bleakness as he imagines in Of Mere Being a confrontation at the edge of the void with the phoenix of resurrection. In the very last moment, one where we now exist in a state beyond thought itself, Stevens leaves us beholding the most radiant of creatures who is shown to be completely indifferent to our plight, writing “The bird’s fire-fangled feathers dangle down”[xiv]. But there are last warnings too from the sentencing of life, which is best left to the persecuted Oscar Wilde: “And all men kill the thing they love, By all let this be heard, Some do it with a bitter look, Some with a flattering word, The coward does it with a kiss, The brave man with a sword”![xv]
The world of literature opens so many fascinating final sentences from those who can captivate us into imagined worlds by ventriloquising and replenishing life through their conceptual personas. Kafka’s A Hunger Artist has us mediate properly on an audience that simply cannot comprehend what it sees and yet still refuses to turn: “But they braced themselves, crowded around the cage, and did not ever want to move away”[xvi]. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley provides a memoir of life caught in the seasonal time. “I shall have time for few”, she explains, “for many hours have been wasted this morning, but short space of daylight remains – adieu”[xvii]. While Herman Melville keeps us hanging within the anticipatory flaming atmosphere of a waning light, as The Confidence Man, enters the dark. “Something further may follow of this Masquerade”[xviii].
Certainly, more masterful and enduring was Fyodor Dostoyevsky, whose last sentence just happens to close arguably the most brilliant novel of the 19th or indeed any century, The Brothers Karamazov. A refutation of God in which the devil is given his dues as a philosopher of good reason, or more critically, as a salvation for faith in the face of the absurdity of life, either way, Dostoyevsky ends with a finale that effortlessly brings together in the face of exile, the joy of remembrance, love, and commitment: “And always so, all our lives hand in hand! Hurrah for Karamazov!” Kolya cried once more rapturously, and once more the boys took up his exclamation: “Hurrah for Karamazov”[xix]! With Prospero having delivered the fated lines, “Mercy itself and frees all faults”, Shakespeare in an Act many believe to have been planned as a lasting and final testament summons the curtain down with the disavowal of power, the inevitable coming together between comedy and the presence of death, which leads us into the necessity of forgiveness, “As you from crimes would pardon’d be, Let your indulgence set me free”[xx]. And finally, Lewis Carroll offers something far more precise, leaving us to simply observe with a depth of clarity on whatever absence awaits, “For I am sure it is nothing but love”.[xxi]
Visual artists can also leave us with sentences that breathe the air of freedom into the woven fabric of a fading existence. Eight days before she died (note how “8” is a number with an evident symbolic relationship to the infinite), Frida Kahlo painted the simple fruits of everyday existence marked by the words “Viva la Vida” (Live Life). Jean Michel Basquiat in contrast leaves no words on the work, but still leaves the title Riding With Death, which depicts an emaciated man, triangulated by a kind of ambivalent certainty, tragically foretold while looking into nothingness. Turning to the cinematic, arguably the most provocative of all last works belongs to Pier Paolo Pasolini, whose film Salo: 120 days of Sodom tackles in the most disturbing way the human desire for fascism, its masochistic drivers, and the savage and raw sexualisation of oppression that underwrites the will to such power over life. Brutally murdered himself, Pasolini leaves the final Canto, “The sharpness of winter, now flees defeated, In various apparel Flora reign, And in the euphony of the woods…she is hymned in song, Can you dance? Let’s try, What’s your girlfriend’s name? Margherita”.
To my estimation, the greatest film maker of all, Andrei Tarkovsky ended his career with a film, which ends at a point where many see meaningful life begin: The Sacrifice. Dealing with an impeding nuclear holocaust to offer a devasting critique of the power of technology and the animalistic fear of facing a knowable death, Tarkovsky imagines a covenant with oneself to bring about a new kind of spirituality. When commenting on the film, the director noted how he was deeply concerned by the fact the power of speech “has lost its value” and that “the world is jam packed with empty chatter. All that information of which we pretend to have such need – consider radio and television – all those permanent infinite debates to be found in newspapers, all that is empty and meaningless. We imagine that, to survive, man has to know all kinds of things which in fact he does not need in the slightest; it’s a strictly useless kind of knowledge. We shall all die beneath the weight of this garrulous information.”[xxii] It’s perhaps no surprise then Tarkovsky takes back to origins, to commit the final conversational words with devastating theological and human resonance, “In the beginning was the Word. Why is that, Papa?”. This is beautifully set by a truly masterful visual ending of a simple world burning with conflict and care, chaos and absurdity, madness and tranquillity, exhaustion and energy, capture and flight, imprisonment and freedom, tragedy and comedy, optimism and despair, which undoubtedly remains one of the most remarkable scenes ever brought to life in the history of cinema.
If the poets of history furnish our souls with the idea it is still possible to escape from the frozen depths of hell, even if only briefly, we owe it to the musicians for giving to us a veritable beat to dance while doing so. They soundtrack our lives, elate our tragedies, give our shadows the freedom to break free from us, harnessing the power of the poetic to blow the roof off Plato’s Cave, stylising the transgressive appeal of sound and its breaks and silences. Moreover, if philosophy is all about learning how to look upon life as if already dead, then one of the greatest challenges we face is to make death itself a work of art. David Bowie achieved such a feat. Speaking of freedom and knowing his poetic place in history, Bowie thus turns Lazarus around to ask us without any pretension, “Ain’t that just like me?” to which we could only answer, yes, of course Ziggy, yes of course! The star man returned.
Despite his continued concern with the state of global politics, John Lennon, in contrast, in the most tragically and untimely of ways, was left ruminating on the preciousness of life and of a rupture in a deeply personal love. His final track before being gunned down on the streets of New York City offered a very public appeal to Yoko Ono for a new future together, “Starting over (over and over and over)”, he asked. Knowing he was dying, it is perhaps with Bob Marley that we have the most triumphant and revolutionary of all lines. “Redemption Song” was the final track on his last album Uprising. Dealing with themes of persecution and the desire to free oneself from mental slavery (with an evident reference to Marcus Garvey), the track is arguably the most calming and yet explosive of all his wonderful Caribbean anthems. Indeed, by asking the listener explicitly to join in the chorus and sing into the future, he talks directly to the struggles ahead. “All I ever had”, Marley reminds and tells, “Redemption songs, These songs of freedom, Songs of freedom”. A revolutionary of a different kind, it now seems so perfectly apt that Jim Morrison’s last song would be the semi-autobiographical Riders on the Storm. Fittingly as the song ends with a storm fading into silence, Morrison’s can be heard faintly whispering as the title echoes quietly into the eternal abyss.
As I write this meditation, there is a sublime storm raging outside, while so many are disappearing into the simulacrum of digital worlds and the rightful concerns with writing machines replacing humans. I consider whether any of this has any meaning. Might the machines end up doing all the writing for us? Will they soon come to have the last word? I can’t help feeling we have lost the importance of death and in doing so the importance of language, as we are now all gazing into voids of a more artificial kind that surrenders these last words. I look outside. Trees are being shattered. There’s a ferocious energy that’s terrifying yet vital all the same. I am left to wonder: who are todays storm riders? Where are the students of Dionysus? Who are the ones who still dance when the lightening strikes? What words will they leave us? Does it matter anymore? Are we so consumed with the simulacrum of life that the language of death is permanently lost to us? Is there anything left to even be said? Anything original left to be uttered? Anything new in a world so oversaturated with throwaway words? Sometimes I wonder, maybe, this is not such a bad place to begin.
***This article was written during a visiting fellowship at The Käte Hamburger Center for Apocalyptic and Post-Apocalyptic Studies (CAPAS) at Heidelberg University.***
[i] Brad Evans, Ecce Humanitas: Beholding the Pain of Humanity (New York, Columbia University Press: 2022)
[ii] Fredrich Nietzsche, Ecce Homo: How One Becomes What One Is (T. N. Foulis, London: 1911) p. 143
[iii] Marcel Proust, Time Regained: In Search of Lost Time Vol. 7 (Chatto & Windus, London: 1931) p. 305
[iv] Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, in Illuminations: Essays and Reflections (New York, Schocken Books: 1968) p. 264
[v] Gilles Deleuze & Felix Guattari, What is Philosophy? (New York, Columbia University Press: 1994) p. 218
[vi] Michel Foucault, The Care for the Self: The History of Sexuality Vol. 3 (New York, Pantheon Books: 1986) p.240
[vii] Hannah Arendt, Crises of the Republic (New York, Harvest Books: 1972) p. 233
[viii] Maurice Blanchot, The Instant of My Death (Stanford, Stanford University Press: 2000) p. 12
[ix] Paul Celan “Do Not Work Ahead” in John Felsteiner, Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan (London, Norton & Co.: 200) p. 325
[x] Samuel Beckett, “What is the Word” (Grand Street, Vol. 9, No. 2, Winter: 1990) p. 18
[xi] It should be noted that since Dickinson didn’t date her poems, there remains some debate on whether this was the final one written. The poem is available online at: https://www.americanpoems.com/poets/emilydickinson/so-give-me-back-to-death/
[xii] Maya Angelou, His Day is Done: A Nelson Mandela Tribute (New York, Random House: 2014) p. 42
[xiii] Sylvia Plath “Edge” (Dated Feb 5th 1963). Online at: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/49009/edge-56d22ab50bbc1
[xiv] Wallace Stevens “Of Mere Being.” (1955). Online at: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/57671/of-mere-being
[xv] Oscar Wilde “The Ballard of Reading Gaol” (1898). Online at: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45495/the-ballad-of-reading-gaol
[xvi] Franz Kafka, A Hunger Artist & Other Stories (Oxford, Oxford University Press: 2012) p. 64
[xvii] Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Rambles in Germany and Italy, in 1840, 1842, and 1843 (London, E. Moxon: 1844) p. 280
[xviii] Herman Melville, The Confidence Man: His Masquerade (New York, Dix, Edwards & Co.: 1857) Online at: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/21816/21816-h/21816-h.htm
[xix] Fyodor Dostoyevsky, The Brothers Karamazov (London, Penguin Classics: 1992) p. 985
[xx] William Shakespeare, The Tempest (1611) Online at: https://www.folger.edu/explore/shakespeares-works/the-tempest/read/
[xxi] Lewis Carroll, “A Song of Love” in Three Sunsets & Other Poems (London, Macmillan: 1898). Online at: https://www.gutenberg.org/files/35497/35497-h/35497-h.htm
[xxii] The original French-language version, A propos du Sacrifice, appeared in Positif, May 1986, p. 3–5