A Renewed Sense Of Identity
One of the most inspiring and uplifting literary texts about dying I’ve ever read is John Williams’ novel Stoner, published in 1965 and forgotten for almost 40 years, which I discovered almost by accident in a bookshop in New York few years ago, just before it unexpectedly became a best-seller.
It is a story where God seems completely absent. The main character is a plain and inconspicuous professor who entered the University of Missouri in 1910 and taught there until his death in 1956. The author unemotionally informs us that today
"to the older ones, his [Stoner’s] name is a reminder of the end that awaits them all, and to the younger ones it is merely a sound which evokes no sense of the past and no identity with which they can associate themselves or their careers".
It is a story of endless failures: in friendship, in marriage, in the relation to his beloved daughter, in his love affair with one of his students, in his dealings with the inevitable and poisoning politics of academic life, in his research, in his teaching - ending with death by cancer. Stoner's taciturn stoicism through such a flood of misfortunes does not confer dignity on his character but strikes us as pathetic, as a sign of weakness or of lack of imagination. The reader, who cannot help but hope for an awakening at each turn of the story - and on a couple of occasions is even led to believe that this might happen - is increasingly frustrated with the mournful resignation of this character. For most of the book the only interest of the story lies in the dispassionate lucidity of Williams' description.
All this changes however at the end of the novel with Stoner's death. The style reaches a degree of purity that transfigures this character and his life. This death casts a retrospective light on the whole book. While not pretending to render Stoner’s life meaningful, this death illustrates that however long a journey towards true feeling might be and even if this awakening occurs only at the very end, for a passing second, it can still redeem a whole life.
We do not know what death is. However many people we might have seen dying, we ignore what dying is from the inside. John Williams' novel offers a moving description of death from the viewpoint of the person dying:
"He breathed again, deeply; he heard the rasping of his breath and felt the sweetness of the summer gathering in his lungs. And he felt also, with that breath he took, a shifting somewhere deep inside him, a shifting that stopped something and fixed his head so that it would not move. Then it passed, and he thought, So this is what it is like".
John Williams' novel and especially what happens with Stoner’s death is significant for us precisely because it contains no reference whatsoever to belief in God or prayer. It is entirely secular and we might think that God is absent from it. This does not prevent us, however, from being struck and inspired by its serenity: the joy that pervades it and Stoner’s reconciliation with the whole of his life.
“A kind of joy came upon him, as if borne in on a summer breeze. He dimly recalled that he had been thinking of failure - as if it mattered. It seemed to him now that such thoughts were mean, unworthy of what his life had been. [...] A sense of his own identity came upon him with a sudden force, and he felt the power of it. He was himself, and he knew what he had been."
What more can we wish for our life and our prayer than what we find in this sentence: a serene perception of the continuity of our life and of the mysterious meaningfulness of all its aspects, failures included; a resilience coming from nowhere, an unending capacity to be born again from our ashes, a renewed sense of identity that does not rely on external validation but on a joy welling up from within.
At the same time, deaths – and there are many deaths in our life – are the dreaded moments when we can no longer avoid facing the deep questions that we carry within us – these questions that lurk under the surface of all our endeavours and which life can brutally unleash at us – the questions that suck at our consciousness.
This aspect too is present in William’s description of Stoner’s death, which is accompanied by a nagging question: "What did you expect?".
We might be tempted to be disappointed at our life, worried about whether we leave anything really meaningful to those whom we love, end our days in sadness… Or, like Stoner, we can have access to a deeper acceptance of ourselves which gives a renewed “sense of our own identity" to us too (as with Stoner) and produces in us the same "kind of joy" he experienced on his deathbed.
Legacy in the novel is evoked at the very end, with reference to the only -mediocre- book Stoner had written many years earlier.
He reaches out to his bedside table and pulls the book from the jumble on the tabletop:
"It hardly mattered to him that the book was forgotten and that it served no use; and the question of its worth at any time seemed almost trivial. He did not have the illusion that he would find himself there, in that fading print; and yet, he knew, a small part of him that he could not deny was there, and would be there".
But as he opens the book "it became not his own", "he could not see what was written there". And this is the moment he dies: "The fingers loosened, and the book they had held moved slowly and then swiftly across the still body and fell into the silence of the room".
We are given no justification for such remarkable freedom in death, but we might venture an explanation. At this time of truth, Stoner perceives that life is worth more than what we are aware of, with its miseries, failures and the precariousness epitomized by the fleeting achievement of his book. If his legacy was confined only to this book, if life was only what we are aware of, then death would indeed correspond to the deeply frustrating question "Was it worth it?".
But if this is not the case, if we realize that our identity (or, if we prefer, our “style” or what gives us “character”) goes much deeper than our achievements and our limitations, then we are no longer troubled by the realization that fulfilment does not belong to this life - and we can thus face the question "What did you expect?" in all peace.