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Last Words: Last Lies May 14, 2011

Author: Beach Combing | in : Modern , trackback

Beachcombing has wasted literally days of his life looking at last words of the famous, the infamous and the simply anonymous. There is something so fascinating about utterances from the edge of the cliff. But how many of these gilded sentences are genuine? And how many simply the blather of post-mortem spin?

Take Voltaire (obit 1778) – who spouted Beachcombing’s favourite last words. When the priest giving Voltaire last rites asked the philosopher whether he renounced Satan and all his works Voltaire replied: ‘this is no time to be making enemies!’

It is a brilliant and gutsy gag, one of Vol’s best. But did Voltaire in his dotage, aged 83, exhausted from too much gadding around and about to go sledding into the undiscovered country really summon up this kind of wit?

So very few dying people have the energy even to complain as they pass under the waves of pain and obliteration, something made even more difficult with the increased use of opiates in modern times.

But with Voltaire there is another problem. Voltaire is credited with seven sets of ‘final’ words in all!

(i) ‘This is no time to be making enemies’.

(ii) ‘I believe that people should be allowed to die in peace’. (‘Je crois… qu’il faut laisser mourir les gens en paix.’)

(iii) ‘I am abandoned by God and man! I will give you half of what I am worth if you will give me six months’ life. Then I shall go to hell; and you will go with me. O Christ! O Jesus Christ!’

(iv) On seeing a bedside lamp flare: ‘What the flames already?’

(v) ‘I die adoring God, loving my friends, not hating my enemies, and detesting superstition’.

(vi) ‘Adieu, my dear Morand I am dying’.

(vii) Some indecipherable mutterings about Mme Denis, his niece/lover.

Are six of the seven invented then: and if six why not seven? Or are they rather comments from along the track of death? Some last words, some penultimate words, some anti-penultimate…?

Well, the lapidary (v) ‘I die adoring God…’ was not spoken but written by Voltaire three months before he actually died, though with his end quickly approaching.

(ii) ‘I believe…’ was said in reaction to a priest fussing around the dying Voltaire trying to have him accept Christ as saviour.  (i) ‘this is no time to be making enemies’, is surely a ‘cleaned up’ version of the same.

(iii) First appeared in, of all places, an American preacher’s writing in 1822. Could it be a ‘worked up version’ of the flaring lamp (iv) which hides a similar sentiment? Note too that Voltaire’s comment here echoes Elizabeth I’s last words: ‘All my possessions for a moment of time’, though presumably these are sentiments that assault the dying.

(vi) ‘Adieu, my dear Morand…’ Can be demonstrated to be Voltaire’s last proper words (Pearson 387) though they are (understandably) never included in collections.

And (vii) were the last sounds to come from Voltaire’s mouth though no one was able to decipher them.

Beachcombing will end by noting that there are many other cases of multiple last words: Heine has three sentences commonly ascribed to him; Rabelais four; George V three…

If you want carefully recorded last words, thought out, not dulled by opiates or misunderstood by hospital staff visit the Texas Department of Criminal Justice who do this for a living.

Any others dodgy last words? Drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com


8 July 2011: Maxim Gun writes on the falsification of last words: ‘It is not strictly speaking ‘last words’ because the sentence in question was uttered by Stanton not Lincoln. But Stanton did not say, at Lincoln’s death bed, ‘Now he belongs to the ages’ but the less impressive ‘now he belongs to the angels’! It was later that day that he edited out the unhappy first version and replaced it with the second, the version all texts, of course, carry.’ Thanks MG!