The Last Wonder: D.H. Lawrence on Death and the Best Lifelong Preparation for It
By Maria Popova
“To study philosophy is to learn to die,” Montaigne wrote in his most famous essay as he reckoned with how to live. Indeed, we spend our lives learning to die while trying to bear our mortality, using our religions and our materialism to look away from the great unknown, to fill with myths and negations what is undeniably the supreme mystery on the other edge of existence. We may know what happens to our physical being when we die, but what happens to consciousness at the boundary of life remains the ultimate enigma.
A revelatory new study has found, through electrogram recordings, heightened brain activity and connectivity at the transition to death: Upon being taken off life-support equipment, patients exhibit a surge of gamma waves — an indication of amplified rather than diminished consciousness. This finding, refuting the classic conception of death as a fade-out of consciousness, calls to mind a lovely line from a D.H. Lawrence poem composed at the end of his life, depicting death as “the last wonder.”
In a different poem from his final years, Lawrence examines the uneasy relationship between our self-knowledge as creatures capable of infinite emotional experience and our knowledge of our creaturely finitude:
Know thyself, and that thou art mortal.
But know thyself, denying that thou art mortal:
a thing of kisses and strife
a lit-up shaft of rain
a calling column of blood
a rose tree bronzey with thorns
a mixture of yea and nay
a rainbow of love and hate
a wind that blows back and forth
a creature of beautiful peace, like a river
and a creature of conflict, like a cataract:
know thyself, in denial of all these things —
In consonance with Montaigne, Lawrence picks up the urgency of befriending our mortality in the poem I thought of upon encountering these new findings about the dying-living brain:
THE SHIP OF DEATH
by D.H. Lawrence
Have you built your ship of death, or have you?
Oh build your ship of death, for you will need it.
Now in the twilight, sit by the invisible sea
Of peace, and build your little ship
Of death, that will carry the soul
On its last journey, on and on, so still
So beautiful, over the last of seas.
When the day comes, that will come.
Oh think of it in the twilight peacefully!
The last day, and the setting forth
On the longest journey, over the hidden sea
To the last wonder of oblivion.
Oblivion, the last wonder!
When we have trusted ourselves entirely
To the unknown, and are taken up
Out of our little ships of death
Into pure oblivion.
Oh build your ship of death, be building it now
With dim, calm thoughts and quiet hands
Putting its timbers together in the dusk,
Rigging its mast with the silent, invisible sail
That will spread in death to the breeze
Of the kindness of the cosmos, that will waft
The little ship with its soul to the wonder-goal.
Ah, if you want to live in peace on the face of the earth
Then build your ship of death, in readiness
For the longest journey, over the last of seas.
Published May 9, 2023