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Mortality's Muse

The Fine Art of Dying

D. T. Siebert

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The inevitability of death—that of others and our own—is surely among our greatest anxieties. Mortality’s Muse: The Fine Art of Dying explores how art, mainly literary art, addresses that troubling reality. While religion and philosophy offer important consolations for life’s end, art responds in ways that are perhaps more complete and certainly more deeply human. Among subjects treated: the ars moriendi or “art of dying” tradition; the contrast between past and more recent cultural values; the religious consolation’s value but shortcoming for some people; the role of art in offering a secular consolation; dying as a performing art; the philosophic ideal of good death; the lively appeal of carpe diem or living for the present moment; the elegiac sense of life; and the two opposite parts Mortality’s Muse has played in dealing with war, the most senseless and unnecessary cause of death.

The idea of an aesthetic sense of life forms the basis of these discussions. Human beings are makers in the largest sense of the word, and art represents everything they make—civilization itself with all its greatness and failings. Our civilization may ultimately be nothing but an evanescent blip in the cosmos. Even so, the creation of beauty, meaning, and purpose from disorder and suffering defines us as human beings. In the words of Robinson Jeffers, even if monuments eventually crumble and all art perish, yet for thousands of years carved stones have stood and “pained thoughts found the honey of peace in old poems.”
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University Press Copublishing Division / University of Delaware
Pages: 154Size: 6 1/4 x 9 1/2
978-1-61149-454-9 • Hardback • October 2013 • $65.00 • (£39.95)
978-1-61149-575-1 • Paperback • April 2015 • $34.99 • (£21.95)
978-1-61149-455-6 • eBook • October 2013 • $34.99 • (£21.95)
D. T. Siebert is Distinguished Professor Emeritus of English Literature at the University of South Carolina, Columbia.
To the Reader

Preface: The Burden of Mortality

Chapter One: Two Cultures: One of Death and One of Life
A Culture of Death: Flesh in Decay
A Culture of Life: Flesh Forever Young
Between Two Worlds

Chapter Two: A Mighty Fortress is Our God: The Religious Consolation
Religious Belief
Worship and Prayer
Hell and Damnation
Imagine a Heaven
The Here and Now

Chapter Three: The Role of Art: The Secular Consolation
Poetry: Deceiver or Redeemer?
Tragic Art: Noble Suffering in Defeat
Tragic Art: Noble Suffering in Triumph
The Jester’s Trump
A Muse of Many Faces
Art’s Role

Chapter Four: Dying as a Performing Art
La Belle Mort
The Death of Jesus
The Death of Socrates
The Death of Charles I: Royal Martyr
David Hume’s Own Death

Chapter Five: Partying Among the Tombs
Hedonism Among the Ancients
The Renaissance Flowering of Carpe Diem
The Genteel Carpe Diem of Victorian Britain
The Aging of Carpe Diem
Chapter Seven The Art of War
The Heroic Tradition
The Other Side of War
Choosing Sides

Conclusion: Last Words
Appendix: Recommended Reading
Bibliography
Mortality’s Muse: The Fine Art of Dying, D.T. Siebert, professor emeritus of English at the University of South Carolina, surveys Western attitudes toward death from ancient times to the present. ... The book is clearly addressed to the general reader: Siebert writes simply and eloquently, no chapter goes on too long, and the abundant quotations are well chosen. One can read Mortality’s Muse for pleasure, even though it addresses that most painful aspect of human existence: our dreadful knowledge that each of us must die. ... Siebert’s book is altogether excellent. … Mortality’s Muse deserves a wide audience.
The Washington Post


Siebert offers. . . the 'elegiac sense of life,' with its nostalgia and melancholy reminding of the precious to be cherished.
Key Reporter


Mortality’s Muse is a rare book: thoroughly researched, genially delivered. The best—or the most striking—of what has been thought, said, and represented by humans about the onset of death and the act of dying itself. On the one hand, it is what used to be called a commonplace book; on the other, the contextualizing and commenting by D. T. Siebert have the air of a good conversation. In chapter after chapter, one turns to this formidable subject with pleasure. . . .The clear, often-witty style, the sensible organization . . . and its very compactness make Mortality’s Muse a book . . . to return to regularly.
World Literature Today


Mortality’s Muse is a wise and deeply felt book, ranging very widely in time and place, from Homer and Virgil to Robert E. Lee and Philip Larkin. With generous skepticism, Siebert ponders the “good death” as a staged performance, shows that carpe diem insouciance is haunted by the awareness of mortality, and makes a strong case for art as an effective means of 'secular consolation.'
Leo Damrosch, Ernest Bernbaum Professor of Literature Emeritus, Harvard University


Siebert has written a compelling account of the many different ways that art has helped human beings to confront and come to terms with their mortality. The general reader as well as the scholar will find this wide-ranging study powerful and persuasive to the mind, the imagination, and the heart.
Martine W. Brownley, Goodrich C. White Professor of English at Emory University and Director of the Bill and Carol Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry


A very readable book, with an interesting approach to an obviously important subject.
Simon Critchley, Hans Jonas Professor, The New School for Social Research


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