Death and the maiden

I wondered yesterday how many people’s last thoughts would have been “oh shit!”

There was a scene in that excellent and taboo challenging American TV series, Six Feet Under when one of the central characters was driving through town, on the phone to his wife and in the process of lighting up a cigarette, when a tram or a bus or something, crashes into him, killing him instantly. I imagine that that was an Oh Shit moment.

OK,loads of you will think, he shouldn’t have been on the phone when he was driving and he should have given up smoking but that, of course, is why Six Feet Under was taboo challenging. We don’t want to think about the D word – it is the only thing we can’t talk out of existence. Sex is the other one but it has long turned from being a taboo into an obsession. That is why it has been known as la petite morte, the little death, that other moment when humans totally lose control.

Here in the UK, the tabloid papers have been dominated by the recent death of a 27 year old reality TV star, Jade Goody, who had been diagnosed with cervical cancer and given a pretty accurate prediction of her life expectancy.

Famous for being nobody in particular in the manner of those television programmes, she demonstrated real guts in her final weeks which were at least in part acted out in front of the cameras.

One of the best known characters from the British version of that international franchise, Big Brother, television watchers grew to either love her or hate for her brashness, her lack of a middle class education and her openness.

She horrified, eventually, the television station responsible for the broadcast when she called one of her fellow guests, a glamourous and, maybe, rather too self-regarding, Indian starlet, a poppadom.

It was like calling me a biscuit or a fruitcake.

Using an Indian word to insult an Indian was considered racist mostly, I suspect, by people unconsciously insecure in their own attitudes to multiculturalism. It was an ugly scene, whatever your view, a brutally honest confrontation between the Beauty and the Beast with, dare I say it, a hint of poetry in the use of words.

Honesty and openness were, in the end, this woman’s most enduring qualities and her public confrontation with the Grim Reaper did us all a favour. Even those whose gentility was offended by her manner of death as much as her life.

I suspect “Oh Shit!” is exactly what she would have thought when she got the news of her condition.

I have been suffering from a life threatening condition too but I have been far luckier than Jane Goody so far.

Over the last five months, I have been suffering and, hopefully, recovering from a brain haemorrhage which could have taken me out quickly and silently without even the chance of a single expletive.

Since then I have done my share of moaning, had those moments of looking fate in the eye and then looking away with a laugh. Death is not a taboo when it is your constant companion and, since, I have been under its threat, I have learnt to acknowledge it and to live with it, only occasionally panicking in a quiet, private and very English way.

It is the nature of brain conditions that it is very difficult to get away from them. Cogito ergo sum, I think therefore I am, the philosopher Descartes wrote. So it is a real challenge not to obsess on the condition of your brain when it colours your very consciousness.

I had my weekly lesson with my kung fu instructor yesterday and I told him how I was fighting an involuntary impulse to stick my neck forward and my head to one side because I knew it was terrible posture.

I don’t know why I have felt like this especially as my fractured spine is now on its way back to health.

He said he thought I just might have been trying to escape from my head.

We went to the park for the lesson.

Beginning with our tai chi form, he emphasised, as always, what I was doing wrong. I needed to make a straight line from my back to the top of my head, I needed to adjust my stance and I had to stop focusing on my body.

I have been told many times before that one of the most important things is to open your eyes to your peripheral vision, to look at everything and nothing. I have often looked at what I was doing so much that I was not allowing myself to project.

It takes a long time, trying to correct these things and for ever to even think of perfecting them.

Yesterday morning though, I did manage to make, at least, a start on that approach to thought and to continue to do so when we moved on to the Kung Fu dog style pattern.

I don’t know how long we were there but whatever the period of time was, it was time when I stopped thinking about my brain.

I felt physically so much more relaxed that when my instructor showed me how he had been practising the full lotus position, something I had always considered impossible, I actually got into the position – not perfectly of course but the basic movement achieved.

Now that was fantastic, a new experience, an actual achievement and some hope for the future.

I now have something new to practise everyday when, until recently, my fractured spine prevented me from even sitting cross-legged.

So I learnt the value of leaving the brain behind even if it was only for a morning. By doing that, I stopped analyzing and mentally logging the state of my haemorrhage, maybe for the first time.

So it is not always a good thing to look your taboos in the face – sometimes it is wiser to turn away, if only for a while.

I am a much calmer person since I confronted the reality of my illness and I often think of a Schubert song that I have always sung and never quite got right.

Death and The Maiden is a setting of the poem by Mathias Claudius where the maiden, dying but terrified of death, cries out to the skeletal figure in front of her:

Voruber! Ach voruber!
Geh, wilder knochenmann!

Be gone! Ah be gone!
Go, wild skeleton man!

The skeleton, or Death, replies:

Gib deine Hand, du schon und zart Gebild!
Ich bin dein Freund und komme nicht zu strafen

Give me your hand, you fair and tender thing!
I am your friend and do not come to punish.

I hope death came as kindly and gently to Jade Goody.

But sometimes, when I get that build up of pressure in my cranium and I think that maybe this is the moment, I want to have an elevated thought but, I am afraid to confess, I usually say, under my breath, “Oh shit!”


  1. According to the lyric we never do find out if the maiden accepted death’s friendship or kept on fighting him. Instead I hope she had someone like your kung fu instructor to show her that the really great thing about letting go of one’s resistances is that it brings greater life.

    Wow, that was bombastic. I really like the Schubert…and Six Feet Under…my crocuses look nice…

  2. Hi Anatole,

    I am pleased you like Schubert, Six Feet Under and crocuses! A man of taste I see…it is strange how your garden is seasonally so behind mine though – does your Autumn end later than ours I wonder? I would be really interested if you sent in a few reports on your garden if you could be bothered.

    As for letting go of one’s resistances, not so much bombastic I think, as right on the nail. Every time I let a bit more resistance go, I feel happier, healthier and definitely more alive. In the end, I suppose it is the way to self discovery.

    As I said in the blog, that song has always been in my repertoire and, easy though it might sound, I have never felt I did it right.

    I have to say, after all this time, I had never thought that the maiden might actually fight back or that she had any choice in the matter.

    Schubert, I think, well in his best music anyway, has a death wish or at least he is drawn to the idea of death as if it is like a fatal seduction.

    Doesn’t mean he wanted to go all the way though and give up, there is a fight in there too, you are quite right.

    I think I would probably sing that song better now after what you have said!

    Yes, here’s to greater life indeed.

  3. I just gave the song another listen. It’s really marvelous the way death seems rather ominous at first and by the end seems so warmly consoling. But I’m not entirely convinced that the maiden buys it–Schubert just doesn’t give her a chance to respond. The listener buys it though.

    In ordinary moments the situation is mostly reversed: life is consoling and death is feared. The genius of the song is that it turns that around, which is death exactly: an utter reversal. But I think you said that. Is Schubert saying then that it’s all a consolation?

  4. I remember at music college always being told by my singing teacher to make Death in this song sound warmer than I did.

    I think my obsession with the song maybe came from those days when I always thought that we were being tricked by Death into thinking he was a friend.

    I tried to sing it as a threatening figure pretending to be warm-hearted.

    I was trying to say, I think that Schubert like the Maiden was really both terrified and seduced by the idea of death.

    Those deeply moving late piano sonatas, the String Quintet and, of course, the Death and the Maiden String Quartet, which uses this song as its basis, are all concerned with that deceptively consoling moment of the realization of our mortality.

    The poet is probably writing about consolation but Schubert, in his setting, is going somewhere much darker and more ambiguous.

    This glimpse of death is a moment of narcotic temptation which draws us beyond terror into a vertigo leap into the dark.

    It is, I think, a much more terrifying moment that the death that the maiden first sees at the beginning of the song.

  5. Anatole,
    I have just been re-reading these comments and have spotted a number of typos in my first reply. It is really annoying that there doesn’t seem to be an edit button.

    When I said I had never thought of the maiden fighting back before, I seem to have lost a sentence which said, I hadn’t realized this until you said it. Woops, that has kinda turned a compliment into a put-down. Sorry man.

    I would though really like it if you could give us some reports on your garden – it would be interesting to see how our different climates effect how we do things…I noted though that I said in my earlier reply that I would like such comments “if you could be bothered” – I didn’t mean it to sound like that! I meant if you had time.

    I think i was having a bad day when I wrote all that.

    Amazing that you have now got new crocuses whilst mine have all withered away – things dying and things new born!

    Back to Death and the Maiden, you have actually changed the way I see this song – and I thought I knew it so well.

    It is funny how one can go through life thinking something is clear and right but then someone will come along and change everything.

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