Friday, August 12, 2011

The morality of mortality

English poet and novelist Stephen Spender was staying with fellow poet W.H. Auden when the latter received an invitation from the Times (London) asking him to write Spender's obituary. He told him as much at the breakfast table, asking roguishly, "Should you like anything said?"

Spender judged that this would not be the moment to tell Auden that he had already written his obituary for the same editor at the same paper.

— This little gem is from Hitch-22: A Memoir, by Christopher Hitchens, who writes in the book that he himself has never written an obituary of a still-living person because "I cannot, not even for ready money, write about the demise of a friend or colleague until Minerva's owl has taken wing, and I know that the darkness has actually come. I dare say that somebody, somewhere has already written my provisional death-notice".

(What a striking phrase that is about Minerva's owl taking wing, a reference to the philosopher Hegel's oft-quoted line: "Only when the dusk starts to fall does the owl of Minerva spread its wings and fly.")
  • Another must-read: Oriana Fallaci and the Art of the Interview: In a eulogy written for Vanity Fair, Christopher Hitchens recounts "his last visit with the tempestuous Italian journalist, and her last — never published — scoop, a sit-down with the Pope".

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