Mummies, Dutchmen, and Death, oh my! Leopardi on dying

One of the displays of the Dutch anatomist Frederik Ruysch (1638-1731), U.S. National Library of Medicine

[“Verily I am in a cold sweat!” …or in modern English, aghhh, sick again! And for what? The fourth time this year already? I’d grumble if it didn’t make my throat vibrate… a hazard of working with children, I suppose. So I’ll try something low effort this week: an annotated chapter summary. I feel like death, so let’s write about it.]

So, I finally sat down to read the 19th century Italian poet Giacomo Leopardi after spending too long picking out translations. For now, I’ve settled on the 1882 Edwardes English edition of the Operette Morali (Moral Essays) from Project Gutenberg because it’s free and online and I’m cheap and I’m lazy. They’re excellent! Despite the heavy subject matter in Leopardi’s pessimistic philosophy, the short dialogues in the Operette Morali make for some great light office reading since none of them go much beyond a couple thousand words each. But beyond the philosophy, they have some great gallows humor too, none more so than the dialogue between the Dutch anatomist Frederik Ruysch and his “mummies” on the nature of death (of course, not like… literal mummies from Egypt or wherever, but preserved cadavers used in Ruysch’s anatomical investigations!).

The dialogue starts with the mummies waking up to sing a “chorus of the dead” at the stroke of midnight. The song summarizes the main points of the dialogue, starting with the lack of sensation in death:

Our spirits now no more are torn
By racking thought, or earthly fears;
Hope and desire are now unknown,
Nor know we aught of sorrow’s tears.

And compares it to sleep:

Time flows in one unbroken stream,
As void of ennui as a dream.

Then closes by restating the neutrality of death, with one of Leopardi’s pessimistic refrains on the impossibility of happiness:

And as from death the living flee,
So from the vital flame flee we.
Our portion now is peaceful rest,
Joyless, painless. We are not blest
With happiness; that is forbid
Both to the living and the dead.

Despite the pessimism though, like with so many of the other pieces in the Operette Morali, Leopardi’s humor perhaps prevents “Ruysch and his Mummies” from becoming too depressing. The dialogue opens to the comic-horror scene of an old man (in, I assume, his pajamas) waving his fist at those damn kids …or I guess, minute-old mummies… because their loud music scares him:

Ruysch: Diamine! Who has been teaching these dead folks music, that they thus sing like cocks, at midnight? Verily I am in a cold sweat, and nearly as dead as themselves.

The untranslated Italian interjection “Diamine!” (My God!, The hell!?, What the-?) is pretty funny here because, as uttered by a mad scientist preserving corpses in his musty laboratory, it could just as well refer the chemical diamine, apparently used to create some embalming fluids. But maybe that’s just a coincidence… the scene only becomes more absurd. In a moment of supreme irony, Ruysch calls the dead children:

Ruysch: Children, children, what game are you playing at? Do you not remember that you are dead?

At first I took the “children” line as a Frankenstein-ish note on an arrogant scientist meddling in creation. But in historical context, the it feels a little more macabre: Ruysch won fame throughout Europe for his anatomical discoveries, yes, but also his displays of his anatomical discoveries in decorated embalming jars and as part of flower arrangements. Rusych collected his specimens in “The Cabinet,” an anatomical museum that became one of Amsterdam’s most popular tourist attractions. Czar Peter the Great even visited Ruysch twice and purchased the entire Cabinet collection in 1717. Today, it’s still on display at the Peter the Great Museum of Anthropology and Ethnography in Saint Petersburg. The creepy catch though? Ruysch often used the preserved fetuses or infant skeletons in his art, which he presented with moral messages like “no head, however strong, escapes cruel death.” In “Ruysch and His Mummies” then, the “children” line takes a new meaning: the mummies might not all be men — some could be real children!

But let’s return to the comedy ’cause that’s a little dark. In an effort to put on a brave face and keep his composure as a well-to-do home-owner, Ruysch tries to make excuses to be rid of the mummies by complaining that if they truly live again, he cannot afford to feed them (a moment I would call Kafkaesque if Leopardi did not predate Kafka by a century!):

Ruysch: I am presuming this commotion is simply a piece of pleasantry on your part, and that there is nothing serious about it. If, however, you are truly resuscitated, I congratulate you, although I must tell you that I cannot afford to keep you living as well as dead, and in that case you must leave my house at once.

But then he betrays his true motives when his mind jumps from his financial security to back his personal safety back to his financial security back to his personal safety:

Ruysch: Or if what they say about vampires be true, and you are some of them, be good enough to seek other blood to drink, for I am not disposed to let you suck mine … In short, if you will continue to be quiet and silent as before, we shall get on very well together, and you shall want for nothing in my house. Otherwise, I warn you that I will take hold of this iron bar, and kill you, one and all.

The mummies promise Ruysch that they will not trouble him for they will soon die again. They explain that they returned to life not by a miracle of Ruysch’s science but by a great cosmic coincidence born of the end of an ancient “mathematical epoch” at, of course, precisely midnight (a moment I would call Lovecraftian if Leopardi did not predate Lovecraft by a century!):

Mummy: A moment ago, precisely at midnight, was completed for the first time that great mathematical epoch referred to so often by the ancients. To-night also the dead have spoken for the first time. And all the dead in every cemetery and sepulchre, in the depths of the sea, beneath the snow and the sand, under the open sky, and wherever they are to be found, have like us chanted the song you have just heard.

The momentous epoch only grants the mummies 15 minutes to speak before they go silent again, until the end of the next epoch untold millennia in the future. That relieves grumpy old Ruysch, who drops another great comic line which I can only imagine spoken in a grimacing aside with a sarcastic ellipsis trailing off the end:

Ruysch: If this be true, I do not think you will disturb my sleep a second time[…] So talk away to your hearts’ content, and I will stand here on one side, and, from curiosity, gladly listen without interrupting you.

The mummies tell Ruysch that no, apart from their song, the dead will not speak unless addressed by the living because, as the song taught, they have no desire, no ennui to relieve with conversation. So, being an eminent man of science, Ruysch realizes his chance to interview the mummies regarding his infamous specialty: the anatomy of death.  

Ruysch first asks about the sensations the mummies felt at the exact moments they died. However, the mummies cannot reply because they cannot remember — just as no one can perceive the transition between conscious wakefulness and unconscious sleep, no one can feel the movement from conscious life into unconscious death:

Mummy: If man be unaware of the exact point of time when his vital functions are suspended … by sleep … why should he perceive the moment-when these same functions cease entirely; and not merely for a time, but for ever?

However, Ruysch perhaps misses their point and instead tries to clarify his question: “did you feel any pain at the point of death” The mummies answer with a question of their own: “how can there be pain at a time of unconsciousness?” They explain that death is not a sensation, but rather the absence of one:

Mummy: Is death itself a sensation? When the faculty of sense is not only weakened and restricted, but so minimised that it may be termed non-existent, how could any one experience a lively sensation? Perhaps you think this very extinction of sensibility ought also to be an acute sensation? But it is not so.

Ruysch concedes that the point might convince “the Epicureans,” referring to the classical philosophy that believed in a materialist basis for the soul. By Epicurean reasoning, if the body ceases the function, the soul will as well, meaning that the deceased will feel nothing as the soul drifts away. Or, in a pure materialist worldview that abandons the idea of the soul altogether, the simple failure of a dying body’s sensory organs will prevent it from perceiving the moment of its death.

However Ruysch declares himself a dualist that believes in the existence of a non-material soul connected to, but distinct from, the body. He reasons that the separation of the soul from the body must come as a great shock:

Ruysch: We consider death to be a separation of the soul and body, and to us it is incomprehensible how these two substances, so joined and agglutinated as to form one being, can be divided without great force and an inconceivable pang.

Even in dualism, the material body and immaterial soul must have some point of connection. Ruysch reasons that severing that connection causes pain. But the mummies spot a slight oddity in Ruysch’s premise. How could something material enclose something immaterial? What would break during death to cause pain? If a soul exists as an immaterial object, it would enter and leave a body without sensation or pain because the body can only perceive material things:

Mummy: Tell me: is the spirit joined to the body by some nerve, muscle, or membrane which must be broken to enable it to escape? Or is it a member which has to be severed or violently wrenched away? Do you not see that the soul necessarily leaves the body when the latter becomes uninhabitable, and not because of any internal violence? … Take my word for it, the departure of the soul is as quiet and imperceptible as its entrance.

Ruysch sees that the mummies have headed off his pain hypothesis from both a materialist and dualist perspective, so at last he changes his question: “Then what is death, if it be not pain?” The mummies give an unexpected answer: “It is rather pleasure than anything else.” However, they call it pleasure not because it feels good per se but because it frees them from pain. They make another analogy to sleep:

Mummy: Ultimately death comes like sleep, without either sense of pain or pleasure. … It were more rational to regard it as a pleasure; because most human joys, far from being of a lively nature, are made up of a sort of languor, in which pain has no part. … Hence the languor of death ought to be pleasing in proportion to the intensity of pain from which it frees the sufferer. … the sensation I experienced differed little from the feeling of satisfaction that steals over a man, as the languor of sleep pervades him.

Here, we maybe hit Leopardi’s famous pessimism. If we believe that all life promises suffering and that sustained, lively pleasure is either fleeting or just impossible, then it might reason that moments of release from suffering, even into unfeeling, ought to count as pleasure because well… I’m not sure, but again, Leopardi is the literary arch-pessimist (if this dialogue seems grim, go read the others!).

However, it’s also maybe the point where I become a little frustrated with the typical style of Leopardi’s dialogues. He will often seem to make an unsupported logical leap (the absence of feeling ought to count as pleasure) to make a sensational claim (death is pleasurable) when a less aggressive conclusion would suffice (death is neither painful nor pleasurable). He also perhaps has a bad habit of denying that anyone might experience substantial happiness because the existence of happiness would invalidate his entire “philosophy of despair.” In his most defensive moments, Leopardi can feel a bit hypocritical on that point: he attributes would-be criticism of his writing to “the cowardice of men” for refusing to abandon their delusional hopes, but then asks his readers “to burn my writings rather than attribute them to my sufferings.”* In other words, he psychologizes his critics but then asks that they not do the same to him. Despite his request though, I do have to wonder if he would have written such pessimistic dialogues if he had lived a less miserable personal life.

* [quoted from a 24th of May, 1832 letter of Leopardi’s, translated in the biographical forward of the Edwardes edition]

Anyway, Ruysch says that everyone he knows would disagree with the mummies, but concedes to the unknowable experience of the dead. He asks one more complete question: did the mummies ever expect their death before it came? They reply no, as long as they still lived, they hoped to live longer. Ruysch then throws out a couple more rapid questions about how the mummies knew of their deaths, but he receives no response. The fifteen minutes had expired; the mummies were dead.

Thankfully, to finish off the dialogue, Leopardi jumps back to some dark humor. Ruysch checks the bodies and, satisfied that the mummies will not bother him again, decides to just go back to bed:

Ruysch: Yes, they are quite dead again. There is no fear that they will give me such another shock. I will go to bed.

But ~ooOOoo~ with the strong analogies between sleep and death advanced by the mummies, will Ruysch go back to sleep… or die? *crash of lightning* ~ooOOoo~ *Crypt Keeper Cackle*

Despite his pessimism, Leopardi is fun to read to an almost ironic extent: the great enjoyment I get out of the Operette Morali maybe disproves the dialogues’ most persistent pessimistic points about the impossibility of happiness. Even with my stupid cold, I giggled a little too much during my office down-time reading “Ruysch and his Mummies,” perhaps showing that literature can provide an escape from monotony and suffering better than death can. But whatever, regardless of the philosophy, like Ruysch I should probably go to bed myself right about now to sleep off this cold sweat.

OH, and yeah! The absolute best word in the dialogue is “agglutinated,” as in “My soul is uh… glued-in… ta… ma body.” Sure, let’s go with that definition, even if I’m more of an Epicurean myself.

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