Mistaken Identity

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Is immortality really so attractive? Even the most pleasant activities would begin to pall with repetition, so the only way to avoid an endlessly boring existence would be to undergo continual changes in personality, taking on different interests and values from those we have today. But such a person would be very different from our present self — so different, argues Cambridge philosopher Bernard Williams, that we could not judge her life to be good from our own present point of view. We would have no reason to hope to become that person. Thus immortality must be either endlessly boring or an existence with which we cannot identify. On balance, then, it’s worse than the mortal existence we know.

“Immortality, or a state without death, would be meaningless,” writes Williams, “so, in a sense, death gives the meaning to life.”

(Bernard Williams, “The Makropulos Case,” in Problems of the Self, 1973.)

The Dark Side

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Epicurus suggested that death is nothing to fear, since we never quite encounter it: “So death, the most terrifying of ills, is nothing to us, since so long as we exist, death is not with us; but when death comes, then we do not exist. It does not then concern either the living or the dead, since for the former it is not, and the latter are no more.”

These words are often taken to be consoling, but University of California philosopher John Martin Fischer finds them worrisome:

I do not see how the Epicurean could say that it is morally wrong to commit murder in certain circumstances. That is, if you were convinced that one could instantaneously and painlessly kill a hermit, with no one ever finding out about this act, why exactly would you have any reason not to do this, on an Epicurean approach? It seems to me that an Epicurean would say that you ought to murder the hermit under such circumstances, if it would give you pleasure to do so.

Indeed, what reason would Epicurus give me for preventing my own death? “Suppose one is standing on a railroad track and sees a train coming very fast; what reason does one have (according to the Epicurean) to step aside? Assuming that one could know that the train would kill one instantaneously (with no pain involved), why exactly should one step aside, if one is an Epicurean about death? It is a bit awkward for an Epicurean to say that one has reason to take actions to secure one’s continued life, since he does not think that death is a bad thing in virtue of depriving an individual of continued life.”

(John Martin Fischer, “Death,” in Hugh LaFollette, ed., The International Encyclopedia of Ethics, 2013.)

Loss

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From C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed, a collection of reflections on the loss of his wife, Joy, in 1960:

It is hard to have patience with people who say ‘There is no death’ or ‘Death doesn’t matter.’ There is death. And whatever is matters. And whatever happens has consequences, and it and they are irrevocable and irreversible. You might as well say that birth doesn’t matter. I look up at the night sky. Is anything more certain that in all those vast times and spaces, if I were allowed to search them, I should nowhere find her face, her voice, her touch? She died. She is dead. Is the word so difficult to learn? …

Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll listen gladly. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.

He published it originally under the pseudonym N.W. Clerk, a pun on the Old English for “I know not what scholar.”

Condolence

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A letter from Abraham Lincoln to Fanny McCullough of Bloomington, Ill., whose father had died leading a charge in Mississippi, Dec. 23, 1862:

Dear Fanny: It is with deep regret that I learn of the death of your brave and kind father, and especially that it is affecting your young heart beyond what is common in such cases. In this sad world of ours sorrow comes to all, and to the young it comes with bitterer agony because it takes them unawares. The older have learned ever to expect it. I am anxious to afford some alleviation of your present distress. Perfect relief is not possible, except with time. You cannot now realize that you will ever feel better. Is not this so? And yet it is a mistake. You are sure to be happy again. To know this, which is certainly true, will make you some less miserable now. I have had experience enough to know what I say, and you need only to believe it to feel better at once. The memory of your dear father, instead of an agony, will yet be a sad, sweet feeling in your heart of a purer and holier sort than you have known before.

Please present my kind regards to your afflicted mother.

Your sincere friend,

A. Lincoln

Breaking the News

In the December 2012 issue of 1 Across magazine, longtime crossword composer John Graham included a special instruction above one of his puzzles:

“I have 18dn of the 19; no 27, just 13 15; no 2 or 6 or 1dn 26 yet — plenty of 10, though I wouldn’t have chosen the timing.”

Solvers discovered that 18 down was CANCER and 19 across was OESOPHAGUS. The full message read:

“I have CANCER of the OESOPHAGUS; no CHEMOTHERAPY, just PALLIATIVE CARE; no NARCOTIC or STENT or MACMILLAN NURSE yet — plenty of MERRIMENT, though I wouldn’t have chosen the timing.”

The puzzle was reprinted as cryptic crossword No. 25,842 in the Guardian the following month.

“It seemed the natural thing to do somehow,” Graham said. “It just seemed right.” He died in November 2013, and the Guardian published a tribute crossword to remember him.

(Thanks, Anthony.)

A Last Look

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On Sept. 26, 1901, 13-year-old Fleetwood Lindley was attending school in Springfield, Ill., when his teacher handed him a note: His father wanted him urgently. He rode his bicycle to the Oak Ridge cemetery two miles out of town and found his father, Joseph, in the memorial hall of Abraham Lincoln’s tomb. The assassinated president, now 36 years dead, was being transferred to a new resting place, and a small group of caretakers had decided to open his coffin to confirm his identity.

The casket had been laid across a pair of sawhorses. A pair of workmen used a blowtorch to unseal the lead panel that covered Lincoln’s upper body, and the small group peered in.

Afterward the coffin was lowered into a hole 10 feet deep, encased in a cage of steel bars, and buried under tons of concrete. Over the years, as the other witnesses passed away, Lindley became the last living person to have looked on Lincoln’s body.

“His face was chalky white,” he remembered for a Life reporter in 1963, three days before his own death. “His clothes were mildewed. And I was allowed to hold one of the leather straps as we lowered the casket for the concrete to be poured.”

“I was not scared at the time, but I slept with Lincoln for the next six months.”

Podcast Episode 82: Stealing Abe Lincoln

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In 1876, a gang of inept Chicago counterfeiters launched an absurd plot to steal the body of Abraham Lincoln and hold it for ransom. In today’s episode of the Futility Closet podcast, we’ll follow their comical attempts to carry out the bizarre scheme, and uncover the secret society that was formed afterward to protect Lincoln’s corpse.

We’ll also puzzle over an overlooked way to reduce the odds of dying of a heart attack.

Sources for our feature on Lincoln’s bodysnatchers:

Thomas J. Craughwell, Stealing Lincoln’s Body, 2007.

Bonnie Stahlman Speer, The Great Abraham Lincoln Hijack, 1997.

John Carroll Power, History of an Attempt to Steal the Body of Abraham Lincoln, 1890.

Thomas J. Craughwell, “A Plot to Steal Lincoln’s Body,” U.S. News, June 24, 2007.

David B. Williams, “The Odd Reburials of Abraham Lincoln,” Seattle Times, April 13, 2007.

Ray Bendici, “Thomas J. Craughwell Discusses the Odd Plot to Steal Lincoln’s Body,” Connecticut Magazine, Nov. 12, 2013.

Don Babwin, “Presidential Heist,” Associated Press, May 13, 2007.

This week’s lateral thinking puzzle is adapted from a puzzle in Edward J. Harshman’s 1996 book Fantastic Lateral Thinking Puzzles.

You can listen using the player above, download this episode directly, or subscribe on iTunes or via the RSS feed at http://feedpress.me/futilitycloset.

Please consider becoming a patron of Futility Closet — on our Patreon page you can pledge any amount per episode, and all contributions are greatly appreciated. You can change or cancel your pledge at any time, and we’ve set up some rewards to help thank you for your support.

You can also make a one-time donation via the Donate button in the sidebar of the Futility Closet website.

Many thanks to Doug Ross for the music in this episode.

If you have any questions or comments you can reach us at podcast@futilitycloset.com. Thanks for listening!

Last Words

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A letter from Arthur Conan Doyle to Light, April 5, 1930:

SIR, — It might interest your readers to know that some weeks ago I had a communication which professed to come from Thomas Hardy. It came through an amateur Medium from whom I had only once before had a message, which was most veridical. Therefore, I was inclined to take Hardy’s message seriously, the more so as intrinsically it was worthy of him. I should place it on the same level of internal evidence as the Oscar Wilde and the Jack London scripts. Hardy gave a posthumous review of his own work, some aspects of which he now desired to revise and modify. The level of his criticism was a very high and just one. He then, as a sign of identity, sent a poem, which seems to me to be a remarkable one. It describes evening in a Dorsetshire village. Without quoting it all I will give here the second verse which runs thus:

Full well we know the shadow o’er the green,
When Westering sun reclines behind the trees,
The little hours of evening, when the scene
Is faintly fashioned, fading by degrees.

The third and fourth lines are in my opinion exquisite. I do not know if they were memories of something written in life. I should be glad to know if anyone recognises them.

Arthur Conan Doyle

Last Thoughts

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Belgian painter Antoine Wiertz unveiled a gruesome triptych in 1853: Thoughts and Visions of a Severed Head depicts a guillotined head’s impressions of its final three minutes of awareness.

Wietz added a verbal description of each of the panels. Here’s an excerpt from the second minute, “Under the Scaffold”:

For the first time the executed prisoner is conscious of his position.

He measures with his fiery eyes the distance that separates his head from his body and tells himself, ‘My head really is cut off.’

Now the frenzy redoubles in force and energy.

The executed prisoner imagines that his head is burning and turning on itself, that the universe is collapsing and turning with it, that a phosphorescent fluid is whirling around his skull as it melts down.

In this midst of this horrible fever, a mad, incredible, unheard of idea takes possession of the dying brain.

Would you believe it? This man whose head has been chopped off still conceives of a hope. All the blood that remains bubbles, gushes, and courses with fury through all the canals of life to grasp at this hope.

At this moment the executed prisoner is convinced that he is stretching out his convulsive and rage-filled hands toward his expiring head.

I don’t know what this imaginary movement means. Wait … I understand … It’s horrible!

Oh! My God, what is life that it continues the struggle to the very last drop of blood?

In the same year, American author Theodore Witmer had recorded his own impressions of seeing an execution in the 1840s. “Why don’t somebody give us ‘The Reflections of a Decapitated Man?'” he asked. “If it turned out stupid, he might excuse himself for want of a head.”