Mortality Contemporary Lit

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Mortality Contemporary Lit

By | November 2008
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Mortality in Contemporary Literature
Rejoice: we who were born congenitally deaf are able to listen now to rank outsiders . . . since this morning it is with a vocabulary made wholesomely profane . . . that we endeavour each in his idiom to express the true magnalia. W. H. Auden

If we speak here of contemporary literature, let us nevertheless recall that in all ages men have recorded certain common re- sponses to death and mortality that vary little. The universal themes of dread and stupor, of grief and compunction, of tran- sience and corruptibility - such poignancies of our finite condi- tion underlie whatever special cultural or even religious influences come into play, or whatever particular hopes are projected. It is for this reason that elegies for fallen heroes and laments for toppled cities and broken hopes, in Job or Homer, are still moving, or the heartbreak in a papyrus letter, or the plangent grief of Catullus as he comes across many seas to his brother's grave, ut te postremo donarem munere mortis et mutam nequiquam adloquerer cinerem.2 Indeed, we must say that it is only in total openness to such common experience of grief and trepidation that other more positive overtones of death can make themselves felt and justify themselves. *The Ingersoll Lecture on the Immortality of Man for 1963-64, delivered at the Harvard Divinity School, June Io, 1964. '"Whitsunday in Kirchstetten," The Listener 70, no. I8o6 (Nov. 7, 1963), 73I. 2 Carmen 1oI. Transcendence over our mortal condition comes to frequent expression in contemporary letters. This is all the more signifi- cant when the exploration is carried out apart from the formal religious traditions, and I shall confine myself for the most part to such work. Even so my treatment must be highly selective. The following thesis will give a certain unity to the analysis. I am convinced that even aesthetic and Romantic experience can afford valid testimony to transcendent dimensions of our being. The enigma...

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