In a letter to Francine du Plessix Gray dated Sept. 6, 2000, Anthony Hecht thanks her for sending him a “thoughtful and eloquent memoir-cum-meditation on mortality” she has written (ed. Jonathan F.S. Post, The Selected Letters of Anthony Hecht, 2012). He notes that it arrived in the same mail as a new biography of St. Augustine, whom Gray mentions in her essay. The coincidence prompts Hecht, then seventy-seven, to respond with his own meditation on mortality:
“It seems to me as I approach my seventh-eighth year that I have been acquainted with death from very early in my life; and by acquainted I mean intimately acquainted. I no longer have much fear as regards my own death, though I dread the possibility of preliminary pains that may precede it. I am much more distressed by the thought of the misery my death will give to family. . .”
I’ve never read anything by Gray and don’t know if she ever published her essay, but Hecht’s mention of Augustine reminds me of a passage in Book IV of the Confessions (trans. E.B. Pusey). In 376 A.D., when he was a young man and not yet a Christian, Augustine had a friend his age whom had he “warped” to “superstitious and pernicious fables.” In other words, he encouraged him to be a pagan. When the friend became ill and “lay senseless in a death-sweat,” he was baptized without his knowledge. When the friend regains consciousness, Augustine “jests” with him about the involuntary baptism. But the friend is angry with Augustine and pleased to have been baptized. Augustine says he “shrunk from me, as from an enemy; and with a wonderful and sudden freedom bade me, as I would continue his friend, forbear such language to him.” Soon the friend is dead. Augustine writes:
“At this grief my heart was utterly darkened; and whatever I beheld was death. My native country was a torment to me, and my father’s house a strange unhappiness; and whatever I had shared with him, wanting him, became a distracting torture. Mine eyes sought him every where, but he was not granted them; and I hated all places, for that they had not him; nor could they now tell me, `he is coming,’ as when he was alive and absent. I became a great riddle to myself, and I asked my soul, why she was so sad, and why she disquieted me sorely: but she knew not what to answer me.”
The language is plain and direct: “I became a great riddle to myself.” Augustine grieves more violently for his unnamed friend than for his father, and understands that his loss moved him closer to becoming a Christian.” It’s the complexity of the death, the guilt and shame Augustine associates with it, that make it so memorable, like a scene in Tolstoy (think of the monk in his cell, when visited by a woman, abruptly chopping off one of his fingers with an axe in “Father Sergius,” a story that shocked me when I first read it). Hecht concludes his letter to Gray: “No doubt after a certain age, the ambitions that sustain us in youth cease to play any role in our lives, and we have to fall back upon love. And when that is gone, we are truly bereft.” In “Death the Hypocrite” (Flight Among the Tombs, 1996), Hecht writes:
“You claim to loathe me, yet everything you prize
Brings you within the reach of my embrace.
I see right through you, though I have no eyes;
You fail to know me even face to face.
“Your kiss, your car, cocktail and cigarette,
Your lecheries in fancy and in fact,
Unkindnesses you manage to forget,
Are ritual prologue to the final act
“And certain curtain call.”
Hecht died on this date, Oct. 20, in 2004 at age eighty-one.