Luigi Pirandello (1867-1936) is best known for his plays, in particular, Six Characters in Search of An Author and Henry IV. However, he also wrote novels and short stories. In his final year, he attempted to write one short story a day and he came close to achieving this aim. These short stories are collected in a volume, Tales of Suicide translated by Giovanni Bussini. In An Idea, first published in 1934, Pirandello anticipated Existentialism. The story can be seen as a precursor to Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea and Camus’ The Stranger.
The story is about an unnamed protagonist on his way to visit his lover, walking across a city and thinking of suicide. It is the description of what it feels like to be alienated from one’s surrounding and even from one’s body that presages Existentialism:
But the burden must not be coming from that idea. It comes from the time he wastes in watching others live. He can no longer understand the reasons why they are living or, better put, he tries to understand what else they are looking for if this is life, all of it made up of things one knows, the usual and the necessary, the same very day. We are all under the illusion that, perhaps, once in a while, there can be new things because events have taken a wider turn, with more unforeseen occurrences at first, an unexpected sensation, so as to seem that another world is opening up. But then either one gets used to them after a while or one suddenly feels again disappointed , into the usual apathy.
The cold is biting. Even the pavement seems livid. As he walks he notices that every single time he passes under one of the electric lights strung high above, in the middle of the avenue, his body’s shadow lengthens, growing strangely from each foot, and the more it lengthens, the more it fades until it disappears.
Time has stopped., and among the things which have remained transfixed round him, it seems there is a formidable secret in the fact that in so much immobility only the river water is moving.
Pirandello is, here, describing what technically might be termed depersonalization and derealisation- a detachment from the sensible world that renders sensory experience both opaque and transparent at once, much as a newborn might marvel at the materiality of a world that has yet to have meaning. Objects retain their resistance to our touch and also to our interpretation.
I am writing this blog in Vermont. I have just returned from Quechee gorge and bridge. To look at the gorge below the bridge is a dizzying experience. The river is rushing fast below. The evening sun is somber and gentle. On the railings are numerous messages to people who are thinking of suicide encouraging them to think again and dissuading them from the final act of leaping into the whirling waves below. But, the world is indifferent to the possibility of death; cars drive past, families walk along as do lovers and the river keeps flowing, interminably.
Another book that deals with this paradox of the possibility of death in the midst of life is Japanese Death Poems, compiled by Yoel Hoffmann. Here are Zen monks and Haiku poets writing, at the moment before death, something final, something that summarises what their lives have been like or in the case of Zen monks of the meaning of life. The title of this blog is taken from Tanko, one of Basho’s pupils, and I suppose that the moon in this poem is the poet’s life leaking out and “scattering shadows”.
For Zen monks, a good death was marked by dying in a seated or standing position. The seated position is best exemplified by Samurai death. Suketomo is said to have sat upright on an animal pelt calmly writing his death poem
All five manners of my fleeting formAnd its four elements return to naught-I put my neck to the unsheathed sword.Its cut is but a breath of wind
and signed his name. Then the executioner approached from behind and Suketomo’s head fell forward onto the animal pelt, his body still holding itself upright. Unrei, a haiku poet had a coffin built and when he decided that it was time to die, invited his friends and pupils to a feast and at the end stood up in the coffin, wrote his death poem and by noon stopped breathing. He had died leaning on a column, his face flushed with wine, in the attitude of sleep.
But, it is the Zen monks whose death poems speak to the transience of human life but also to the illusion that is the phenomenal experience. Shumpo Soki died in 1496 at the age of 88 years. He said the following to his disciples at his death
At times I supported the sky, at times the earth; at times I turned into a dragon, at times into a snake. I wondered at will through the cycles of life and of death. All the fathers of our faith I took into my mouth. I give as I will and I take as I will. I slash the leopard with my teeth; my spirit smashes mountains .
Soki is here referring to the transmutability of all that we regard as permanent and concrete. This is another way of talking about indifference to the sensible world, an aspect of detachment from the world, of the impulse to free oneself from possessions and passions. This kind of detachment and indifference is in stark contrast to the detachment and numbness described in Pirandello.
These death poems and I suppose all writing aims at immortality- a paradox given the degree to which Zen monks go to efface the self. To author something is to assert oneself, to strike one’s chest and affirm ‘I am”. This final point is made by Tomoda Kimpel
In life I never wasAmong the well-known flowersAnd yet, in witheringI am most certainlyTomoda Kimpel.
Photos by Femi Oyebode & Jan Oyebode