While rereading Under Western Eyes (1911), I realized Joseph Conrad had formulated one of the guiding principles of Anecdotal Evidence. He writes of his morally compromised antihero Razumov: “The dead can live only with the exact intensity and quality of the life imparted to them by the living.”
Beyond its context in the novel, this sentence reads like a statement of moral obligation. The worthy dead are to be remembered. I take that to mean the personal dead – family, friends – and those we know only second-hand, perhaps through books or history. Memory grants a post-mortem immortality. Only when the last to remember the dead person is gone is he truly dead. Memory reanimates. The Jewish practice of observing the Yahrtzeit only makes sense. Forgetting kills. Every March 28 I remember my maternal grandmother, the kindest of my relatives, who died in 1972 at age eighty-four and whom I never saw angry. While she was alive I would never have thought to tell her that. And I remember Thelonious Monk, who died forty-one years ago today. In his Rambler essay published on February 17, 1751, Dr. Johnson writes:
“[F]ew can review the time past without heaviness of heart. He remembers many calamities incurred by folly, many opportunities lost by negligence. The shades of the dead rise up before him; and he laments the companions of his youth, the partners of his amusements, the assistants of his labours, whom the hand of death has snatched away.”
The hymn “Abide with Me” was written by the Scottish Anglican cleric Henry Francis Lyte (1793-1847). It’s a prayer imploring God to stay with the speaker throughout life and in death, and was written by Lyte as he was dying from tuberculosis. It is most often sung to the tune “Eventide” by the English organist William Henry Monk. The other Monk, Thelonious, made it the opening track on his 1957 album Monk’s Music. I’ve always assumed it was bit of whimsy, with Monk reveling in the surname he shared with the composer. Even better, on an album titled Monk's Music, Monk doesn’t perform on the track. His biographer, Robin D.G. Kelley, tells us “Abide with Me,” along with “Blessed Assurance” and “We’ll Understand It Better, By and By,” had been a favorite hymn of Monk’s since he was a boy in North Carolina. In Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original (2009), Kelley writes:
“He had arranged it for horns only, and the result was fifty-five seconds of pure majesty.”
I've often thought of this. After one's death, once enough time has passed and enough other people have died, it'll be as if you'd never lived at all. You'll just be a name and two dates on a grave marker - if that.
"Only when the last to remember the dead person is gone is he truly dead."
Please don't say that. As my older relatives died, I became the repository of thousands of family photographs, Daguerreotypes, tintypes, letters, stories, yearbook, etc., going back to the 19th century. I am completely overwhelmed by this material. It includes intimate communications and photos from people I knew and loved, as well as from distant relation about whom I am curious and could spend the rest of my life investigating.
But I have my own work to do, and no one in my family who has any interest in the stories these materials tell. Every time I look at those boxes piled up in my office, my heart sinks, especially as I know that when I die, they'll be thrown into the dumpster, along with all my books, to feed the landfill. All will be forgotten. (Love Monk's "Abide with Me". I'm sure I'm not the first to say it, but: "The world's hippest Salvation Army Band".)
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