Tuesday, April 10, 2012

This Wretched Flesh

By Hilary Davidson

"What is one way you really wouldn't want to die?" Do I have to pick just one? All of the painful ways are definitely out, as is anything long and lingering. In fact, I think Dorothy Parker summed things up correctly in her poem "Resume":

Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren't lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

You don't really want me to tell you the one way I'd be truly terrified to die, do you? I've got some really dark ideas rattling around my head. Seriously, have you read any of my short fiction? (Speaking of which, I'm thrilled to say my story "The Other Man" is up for a Spinetingler Award for Best Short Story! Congrats to all of the nominees — you can read everyone's stories here, before you vote.)

Where was I? Right, warning you off reading my real answer to this question. You don't want to go there. How about looking at these sweet photos of baby animals instead? You'll sleep better. Trust me.

Are you still reading? You shouldn't be. Shoo!

You don't want to read about Ugolino della Gherardesca. If his name doesn't mean anything to you, consider yourself blessed. Because once the story of his death lodges itself in your head, it will be there forever. Just like it is in mine.

I discovered Ugolino at the Musee d'Orsay in Paris. I was nineteen and traveling by myself for the first time, wandering through a city famed for its beauty. The sight of this tremendous sculpture created by Rodin stopped me dead. In its center was a man on his hands and knees, with dead and dying bodies surrounding him. The expression on that man's face was unforgettable: it was a mask of torture, both agonized and completely without hope. At the time, I had no idea that it was based on the death of a real person; the same museum hall that features this sculpture boasts images of Greek and Roman legends, and I filed Ugolino away with Orpheus and Leda and others who came to sad, albeit mythical, ends.

It was only a few months later, while I was reading Dante's Inferno, that I discovered Ugolino had been a real person, not a fictional character. He was a count from Pisa who lived in the thirteenth century, when Italian city-states were hard at war with each other. He was a Machiavellian long before Machiavelli was actually born. He maneuvered himself into a position of great power within Pisa, but made some fierce enemies along the way. When he finally lost power, his enemies had a truly horrific revenge. They locked Ugolino up in a tower and threw the keys into the Arno river, leaving him to a slow death of starvation.

But it was actually worse than that. Because his enemies didn't lock Ugolino up alone.

Ugolino was left in that tower with his two sons and two grandsons.

Dante's rendering of the scene is particularly devastating. He imagined the children begging for death, and that they would even welcome being cannibalized:

'Father our pain', they said,
'Will lessen if you eat us you are the one
Who clothed us with this wretched flesh: we plead
For you to be the one who strips it away'

But even that isn't as awful as what came next. Dante put these words in Ugolino's mouth:

Already going blind, groped over my brood
Calling to them, though I had watched them die,
For two long days. And then the hunger had more
Power than even sorrow over me

The nightmare is so vast and so vivid, it's painful to contemplate. To be walled up in a prison and left to starve to death is a horrifying prospect, but imagine having the people you love best trapped along with you, without any chance of escape or release. Imagine watching them slowly suffer and die, knowing that there's nothing you can do to ease their pain. Then imagine being alone with their bodies as you're crushed under the weight of your own guilt — and your own unending hunger.

Is there any death more awful than that?


Chris said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chris said...

On the serious? I have to follow THAT? Uh, can I get a new question?

Couch it in fancy-pants literary quotes all you like (I've always been partial to Parker and Dante), that was messed up. So messed up, the cute animal pics only somehow served to make it worse. "Look at these! Now LOOK AT THIS." Like the reprogramming scene from A CLOCKWORK ORANGE, but in reverse.

(Oh, and that's right: I just deleted and reposted to fix an irksome typo. Can't have typos on the internet, now can we?)

Hilary Davidson said...

Um, thanks? I know it's messed up. Welcome to my diabolical brain. One minute, it's strung out on dopamine from scoping out cute animal pics (seriously, did you see those meerkats?), and then it spirals through labyrinths of Gothic terror.

Also, I love your CLOCKWORK ORANGE reference (Anthony Burgess is one of my writing heroes). Maybe I should work some of those baby animal pics into a story...

Rebecca Lenagh-Snow said...

Well, it's just a small twist on the original story but how about:
being locked up with your loved ones on the other side of an unbreakable glass wall. No food on their side, just enough food on yours to ensure you last long enough to see if they resort to cannibalism.

Hilary Davidson said...

Rebecca, that is a terrifying twist! See, Chris, I'm not the only one with a diabolical brain...

lil Gluckstern said...

I'm not sure I'm going to make it through the week with you guys. You're so well read-in terms of gruesome death. :) And it's only Tuesday! I have to re-read the baby animals. Just kidding. I like your books, but climbing around mountains is scary enough.

Hilary Davidson said...

Thanks for stopping by, Lil — and apologies for making this a rough week! I think, after this gruesome subject, we owe it to readers to answer some questions like, "What's your favorite type of puppy?"