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A daily record of what I'm thinking about what I'm reading

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Monday, March 21, 2016

Minding Death: Great conversation about Memento Mori

One of our best book-group discussions in many years last night as we wrestled with Muriel Sparks's 1957 novel, Memento Mori. Interestingly, nobody was particularly enthusiastic about the novel itself, which we felt generally was hard to follow with so many characters introduced and little distinguish among them; also I think most agreed w/ me that Spark played a cheap trick by setting up a mystery and never even attempting to resolve it. That said, we took to heart the message of the novel - as I outlined it, the novel shows many different ways in which the many characters, all of them 70+, deal with remembering or minding death, and that led is far into a discussion about death and how our knowledge of death determines and defines our lives. Without trying to sound too pretentious, I opened by saying that in a sense death is what makes us human; we are the only living creatures not only aware of death but aware that all living things must die - including ourselves. It's virtually impossible to imagine life without the foreknowledge one's own death - we would live our lives differently if we did not know that we were mortal, but the knowledge of our mortality in a sense keeps us focused on that which is important - which will differ among us. We talked about what it is that death makes us focus on, or what we would do if we knew we were soon to die: some talked of focus on family, some on posterity (a book, a work of art). I brought up the question: when is it that we first learned or understood that we would die? It's obvious that we learn that shocking fact at some point in childhood: not that death happens, but that it will happen to you! - yet no one can seem to recall the moment when that terrifying knowledge dawns. Then I talked about immortality (sorry to focus on what I said, but these thoughts are very much in my mind): that we know we will die but we desire to live on - whether that's through children, though passing on wealth or property (huge theme in this novel), through art and ideas (another theme in the novel), or through influence on the lives of others (we have 3 psychotherapists in the group; they can relate to this, as can teachers). Sometimes even a mediocre book can lead to great conversation, just as sometimes a great book can leave us speechless.

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