Once the biological necessities have been taken care of, what a human wants most is to be remembered. Memories are proof that we more than existed; we mattered. The urge is pure vanity, of course, but likewise a metaphysical imperative. It ought to mean that we wish to be remembered for our good deeds, but being human, we’ll settle for the less than good, the mediocre and trivial, even the evil. The dead – our personal dead and the notable public dead – deserve remembrance, and that’s the motive for much of what writers do.
I’m reading the late William F. Buckley’s A Torch Kept Lit: Great Lives of the Twentieth Century (ed. James Rosen, Crown Forum, 2016), a selection from the hundreds of eulogies he wrote. Among the friends he remembers are Vladimir Nabokov and Whittaker Chambers, veterans of Communism and authors of the two greatest American autobiographies. Buckley writes of William F. Buckley Sr., his father, that he “worshipped three earthly things: learning, beauty, and his family.” His friend Hugh Kenner he calls "a singular phenomenon." Buckley says of his favorite pianist, Rosalyn Tureck: "She and Bach devoted their lives to each other." He lauds Vladimir Horowitz’s “considerable polemical shrewdness” and packs enormous political insight into a brief assessment of President Truman: "Harry Truman made many grievous mistakes, but it is not his mistakes that are singled out for criticism, but his triumphs.”
X.J. Kennedy, now eighty-seven, is dismissed by some readers and critics as a lightweight because he writes light verse. That’s like calling Henry James a dabbler in local color. In his first collection of poems, Nude Descending a Staircase (1961), Kennedy includes a eulogy of sorts, “On a Child Who Lived One Minute,” first published in The New Yorker in 1958:
“Into a world where children shriek like suns
Sundered from other suns on their arrival,
She stared, and saw the waiting shape of evil,
But couldn't take its meaning in at once,
So fresh her understanding, and so fragile.
“Her first breath drew a fragrance from the air
And put it back. However hard her agile
Heart danced, however full the surgeon’s satchel
Of healing stuff, a blackness tiptoed in her
And snuffed the only candle of her castle.
“Oh, let us do away with elegiac
Drivel! Who can restore a thing so brittle,
So new in any jingle? Still I marvel
That, making light of mountainloads of logic,
So much could stay a moment in so little.”
The final stanza poses the nagging doubts faced by a eulogist: Is what we write “elegiac / Drivel”? A “jingle”? Am I wasting my time? Who remembers anyway? Who cares?
“So much could stay a moment in so little.”