It’s certainly just coincidence that as I was reading through Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing last night and considered her ideas about writing being about facing one’s own mortality, I realized that the books on my nightstand all seemed clustered around the theme of death. On top was the Atwood, and underneath was Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, my bookmark showing me about one-third of the way through the tome, and below that is Simon Schama’s Dead Certainties: Unwarranted Speculations. Extending the theme even further might be the book in my handbag, Muriel Spark’s Memento Mori, a novel revolving around the mystery of anonymous phone calls to the main characters, each saying “Remember you must die.”
Perhaps the death-thread among these books is coincidence. Or perhaps it’s the logical happenstance of a historian’s life, especially of a historian like myself who studies medical history and the effects of infectious diseases (I have, of course, already gone “on the record” about my own preoccupation with death, religion, and writing). However, I suspect that Atwood might not see this is merely coincidence. She writes:
Why should it be writing, over and beyond any other art or medium, that should be linked so closely with anxiety about one’s own personal extinction?
Surely that’s partly because of the nature of writing–its apparent permanence, and the fact that it survives its own performance–unlike, for instance, a dance recital. If the act of writing charts the process of thought, it’s a process that leaves a trail, like a series of fossilized footprints. Other art forms can last and last–painting, sculpture, music–but they do not survive as voice. ..and what that voice most often does…is tell a story, even a mini-story.
Essentially Atwood argues, and artfully so, that our own fear of death is what inspires writing, and she also likens the author’s process to that of an underworldly journey, as a process of facing the possibilities of one’s own mortality.
As a historian, however, I suspect that much of my writing is also motivated by a desire to memorialize the lives of others, rather than to immortalize myself. I crave knowing that others have felt passions, joys, and heartaches that are similar to my own. I find their stories are so worth the telling, and there is pleasure in knowing the intimacies of their individual lives. In my writing about the past, I cement my own place on the present. As Atwood says, “the dead may guard the treasure [of the past], but it’s a useless treasure unless it can be brought back into the land of the living and allowed to enter time once more–which means to enter the realm of the audience, the realm of the readers, the realm of change.”
As I am currently in the midst of dissertation writing–a process which can feel, at times, like an underworldly experience (especially on the days when self-doubt triumphs over efficiency), perhaps it’s not a complete coincidence that such morbid reading materials landed on my nightstand. A fellow PhD student loaned me the Atwood, knowing of my interest in writing and my recent read of Alias Grace. The Magic Mountain seemed a must-read after I saw so many references to it in other academic writing about nineteenth-century medicine, and Schama’s writing is repeatedly recommended by the historians that I’ve interviewed on the MHpodcast
What about you, do you find curious–or disturbing–themes among the books on your nightstand? Do you agree with Atwood’s assertion about the permanence of authorial voice and/or the role of the historian as someone who can bring stories “back into the land of the living” and the “realm of change?”