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The Book of Endings
The oldest suicide note was written in ancient Egypt about four thousand years ago. Its original translator titled it “Dispute with the Soul of One Who Is Tired of Life.” The first line reads, “I opened my mouth to my soul, that I might answer what it said.” Careening between prose, dialogue, and poetry, what follows is a person’s effort to persuade his soul to consent to suicide.
I learned about that note from The Book of Endings, a compilation of facts and anecdotes that also includes the dying wishes of Virgil and Houdini; elegies to the dodo and the eunuch; and explanations of the fossil record, the electric chair, and man-made obsolescence. I wasn’t a particularly morbid child, but for years I carried that morbid paperback around with me.
The Book of Endings also taught me that my every inhalation includes molecules from Julius Caesar’s final exhalation. The fact thrilled me—the magical compression of time and space, the bridging of what felt like myth and my life of autumn raking and primitive video games in Washington, D.C.
The implications were almost unbelievable. If I had just inhaled Caesar’s last breath (Et tu, Brute?), then I also must have inhaled Beethoven’s (I will hear in heaven), and Darwin’s (I am not the least afraid to die). And that of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and Rosa Parks, and Elvis, and the Pilgrims and Native Americans who attended the first Thanksgiving, and the author of the first suicide note, and even the grandfather I had never met. Ever the descendant of survivors, I imagined Hitler’s final breath rising through ten feet of the Führerbunker’s concrete roof, thirty feet of German earth, and the trampled roses of the Reich Chancellery, then breaching the Western Front and crossing the Atlantic Ocean and forty years on its way to the second-floor window of my childhood bedroom, where it would inflate me like a deathday balloon.
And if I had swallowed their last gasps, I must also have swallowed their first, and every breath between. And every breath of everyone. And not only of humans, but all other animals, too: the class gerbil that had died in my family’s care, the still-warm chickens my grandmother had plucked in Poland, the final breath of the final passenger pigeon. With each inhale, I absorbed the story of life and death on Earth. The thought granted me an aerial view of history: a vast web woven from one strand. When Neil Armstrong touched boot to lunar surface and said “One small step for man…,” he sent out, through the polycarbonate of his visor, into a world without sound, molecules of Archimedes hollering “Eureka!” as he ran naked through the streets of ancient Syracuse, having just discovered that the bathwater displaced by his body was equal to the weight of his body. (Armstrong would leave that boot on the moon, to compensate for the weight of the moon rocks he would bring back.) When Alex, the African grey parrot who was trained to converse at the level of a five-year-old human, uttered his final words—“You be good, see you tomorrow. I love you.”—he also exhaled the panting of sled dogs who pulled Roald Amundsen across ice sheets that have since melted and released the cries of exotic beasts brought to the Colosseum to be slaughtered by gladiators. That I had a place in all of that—that I could not escape my place in all of that—was what I found most astonishing.
Caesar’s ending was also a beginning: his was among the first recorded autopsies, which is how we know that he was stabbed twenty-three times. The iron daggers are gone. His blood-soaked toga is gone. The Curia of Pompey, in which he was killed, is gone, and the metropolis in which it stood exists only as ruins. The Roman Empire, which once covered two million square miles and encompassed more than 20 percent of the world’s population, and whose disappearance was as unimaginable as that of the planet itself, is gone.
It’s hard to think of a more ephemeral artifact of a civilization than a breath. But it’s impossible to think of a more enduring one.
Despite my recalling so much about it, there was no Book of Endings. When I tried to confirm its existence, I found instead Panati’s Extraordinary Endings of Practically Everything and Everybody, published when I was twelve. It contains Houdini, the fossil record, and many other things that I remembered, but not Caesar’s final breath, and not the “Dispute with the Soul,” which I must have learned about elsewhere. Those small corrections troubled me—not because they were themselves important, but because my recollections were so clear.
I was further unsettled when I researched the first suicide note and reflected on its title—on the fact that it was titled at all. That we misremember is disturbing enough, but the prospect of being misremembered by those who come after us is deeply upsetting. It remains unknown whether the author of the first suicide note even killed himself. “I opened my mouth to my soul,” he writes in the beginning. But the soul has the last word, urging the man to “cling to life.” We don’t know how the man responded. It is entirely possible that the dispute with the soul resolved with the choice of life, postponing the author’s last breath. Perhaps a confrontation with death revealed the most compelling case for survival. A suicide note resembles nothing more closely than its opposite.
During World War II, Americans in cities along the East Coast turned off their lights at dusk. They weren’t, themselves, in imminent danger; the purpose of the blackout was to prevent German U-boats from using urban backlighting to spot and destroy ships exiting harbor.
As the war progressed, blackouts were practiced in cities across the country, even those far from the coast, to immerse civilians in a conflict whose horrors were out of sight but whose victory would require collective action. On the home front, Americans needed a reminder that life as they knew it could be destroyed, and darkness was one way to illuminate the threat. Civil Air Patrol pilots were encouraged to comb the skies above the Midwest for enemy aircraft, despite the fact that no German fighter plane of the era was capable of flying that far. Solidarity was an important asset, even if such gestures would have been foolish—would have been suicidal—if they were the only efforts made.
World War II would not have been won without home-front actions that had both psychological and tangible impacts: ordinary people joining together to support the greater cause. During the war, industrial productivity rose by 96 percent. Liberty ships that took eight months to construct at the start of the war were completed in weeks. The SS Robert E. Peary—a Liberty ship composed of 250,000 parts weighing fourteen million pounds—was assembled in four and a half days. By 1942, companies that had once manufactured cars, refrigerators, metal office furniture, and washing machines now produced military products. Lingerie factories began making camouflage netting, adding machines were reborn as pistols, and the lung-like bags of vacuum cleaners were transplanted into the bodies of gas masks. Retirees, women, and students entered the workforce—many states changed their labor laws to allow teenagers to work. Everyday commodities like rubber, tin cans, aluminum foil, and lumber were collected for reuse in the war effort. Hollywood studios contributed by producing newsreels, anti-fascist features, and patriotic animated films. Celebrities encouraged the purchase of war bonds, and a few, like Julia Child, became spies.
Congress enlarged the tax base by lowering the minimum taxable income and reducing personal exemptions and deductions. In 1940, 10 percent of American workers paid federal income tax. By 1944, the number approached 100 percent. Top marginal tax rates were raised to 94 percent, while the income that qualified for that rate was reduced by twenty-five-fold.
The government enacted—and Americans accepted—price controls on nylon, bicycles, shoes, firewood, silk, and coal. Gasoline was severely regulated, and a speed limit of thirty-five miles per hour was imposed nationally to reduce gas and rubber consumption. U.S. government posters advocating carpooling declared, “When you ride ALONE you ride with Hitler!”
Farmers—in greatly reduced numbers, and with less equipment—multiplied their output, and nonfarmers planted “victory gardens,” micro-farms in backyards and empty lots. Food was rationed, especially staples like sugar, coffee, and butter. In 1942, the government launched a “Share the Meat” campaign, urging each American adult to limit their weekly meat intake to two and a half pounds. In the U.K., people were eating about half that. (This collective act of belt-tightening led to a general uptick in health.) In July 1942, Disney produced an animated short for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Food Will Win the War, which touted farming as a matter of national security. America had twice as many farmers as the Axis had soldiers. “Their weapons are the panzer forces of food’s battle line, farm machinery: battalions of combines; regiments of trucks; divisions of corn pickers, potato diggers, planting machines; columns of milking machines.”
On the evening of April 28, 1942, five months after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and well into the war effort in Europe, millions of Americans gathered around their radios to listen to President Roosevelt’s fireside chat, in which he gave an update on the state of the war and spoke about the challenges ahead, including what would be asked of citizens:
Not all of us can have the privilege of fighting our enemies in distant parts of the world. Not all of us can have the privilege of working in a munitions factory or a shipyard, or on the farms or in oil fields or mines, producing the weapons or the raw materials that are needed by our armed forces. But there is one front and one battle where everyone in the United States—every man, woman, and child—is in action, and will be privileged to remain in action throughout this war. That front is right here at home, in our daily lives, and in our daily tasks. Here at home everyone will have the privilege of making whatever self-denial is necessary, not only to supply our fighting men, but to keep the economic structure of our country fortified and secure during the war and after the war. This will require, of course, the abandonment not only of luxuries, but of many other creature comforts. Every loyal American is aware of his individual responsibility … As I told the Congress yesterday, “sacrifice” is not exactly the proper word with which to describe this program of self-denial. When, at the end of this great struggle, we shall have saved our free way of life, we shall have made no “sacrifice.”
It is an extreme burden to be required to give the government 94 percent of your income. It is a significant challenge to have one’s food staples rationed. It is a frustrating inconvenience to be able to drive no faster than thirty-five miles per hour. It is slightly annoying to turn off your lights at night.
Despite many Americans’ perception of the war as over there, a little darkness seems reasonable to ask of citizens who were, after all, largely safe and secure over here. How would we regard someone who, in the middle of a great struggle to save not only millions of lives but “our free way of life,” deemed turning off his lights too much of a sacrifice?
Of course, the war couldn’t have been won only with that collective act—victory required sixteen million Americans to serve in the military, more than four trillion dollars, and the armed forces of more than a dozen other countries. But imagine if the war couldn’t have been won without it. Imagine if preventing Nazi flags from flying in London, Moscow, and Washington, D.C., required the nightly flipping of switches. Imagine if the remaining 10.5 million Jews of the world could not have been saved without those hours of darkness. How, then, would we regard the self-denial of citizens?
We shall have made no “sacrifice.”
Copyright © 2019 by Jonathan Safran Foer