Nicolas Diat’s A Time to Die

With reluctance a monk opens this new book, a sleek, slim paperback having the appearance of appealing to the sepia-toned spirituality of people who see monks and nuns as living Hummels.  “In this desolate world,” writes Nicolas Diat, a French journalist, “I had the idea to take the path of the great monasteries in order to discover what the monks might have to teach us about death.”  Fortunately, despite eye-rolling sentences that might come from French 101 (“The streets are calm and wise.”), Diat’s study, A Time to Die:  Monks on the Threshold of Eternal Life, starkly considers the reality of death in eight modern French monasteries.

This English translation of Un temps pour mourir appears the same summer that saw a French court of law determine that medical doctors in Reims could remove food and water from Vincent Lambert, a forty-two year-old married quadriplegic.  In the utilitarian logic of socialism, he served no useful function to the state and was using valuable resources.  It took doctors nine days to kill Vincent Lambert, who was informed of the court’s decision and wept.  One would call such sanitized barbarity medieval, were it not an insult to the Middle Ages.

With French monks, the situation is reversed.  Monks are open to passing away into the next life, while doctors want to try their best to prolong this life.  “Shouldn’t a ninety year-old brother,” asked one Benedictine abbot, “who suffers from terrible pneumonia return to God?”  He added, “I can hardly oppose a medical decision,” but for him the problem is “the moment we call emergency services or the ambulance, we lose control over the patient.”

Along with control over the patient and benignly letting a sick old man slip away, abbots must count the cost of medical care.  “How should I react,” asked that same Benedictine abbot, “when a ninety year-old monk asks for a hearing aid?”  He explained, to some ears echoing Judas, “this investment of three thousand euros could help twenty people in an African village.”  The cloister and the world seem not too far apart when Malthusian bookkeeping determines whether a ninety-something monk gets his hearing back or whether a forty-something quadriplegic gets a death sentence.

Augustinian, Benedictine, Carthusian, Cistercian:  Diat recounts stories of deaths in these monasteries, deaths of monks old and young, deaths long and lingering, deaths sudden or by the monk’s own hand.  Stories of those deaths necessarily include the effect on those left behind.  Monks seek God in community, they do not seek community in itself; otherwise, they would simply join an Elks club or hang out nightly in a sports bar.  Still, especially in small monastic communities such as Diat visited, one death can have reverberations wide and deep.

In a larger monastic community the ripples soon diminish.  Sometimes lay people attending a monastic funeral observe that the monks rarely cry.  Oftentimes in a large monastery it is because the deceased was essentially a stranger.  It would be like going to the funeral of an elderly long-term neighbor; for a man with whom one occasionally exchanged greetings, only dangerous emotional fragility would make one weep.

Mention of emotional instability recalls Diat’s most significant chapter, “The Shadow of the Black Mountain.”  In his Holy Rule, Saint Benedict refers to a monastery’s “variety of characters,” and he tells the monks to bear with one another’s mental and physical limitations.  An American monk, exasperated with millennials, jokes about wanting to make a recruiting poster saying, “Are you:  Autistic?  Bipolar?  Recovering from substance abuse?  Sexually repressed?  If you answered Yes to any or all of the above, you may have what it takes to discern a monastic vocation!  Special consideration will be given to men between the ages of twenty-two and twenty-four who balance zero life experience with overwhelming self-confidence.”

That monk’s drollery aside, Diat asks an astute question:  “Where is God in the life of monks suffering from a psychological illness?”  For example, self-absorption usually goes hand in hand with insanity, and sometimes there is a monk with an immature need for attention, often taking the form of hypochondria.  Of course, with a man craving attention at every turn, one must engage in tough love and ignore him, starving his bratty beast.

However, the bleak shadows Diat reports are more ominous.  Here Diat means mental illness along a broad spectrum, including Alzheimer’s disease and crippling depression.  As troubling as it can be to see a monk over time become ever more fogged, more disturbing is the monk for whom all he used to believe has gone blank.  He seems to have lost sight of the Carthusian pattern Diat describes:  “A beginning full of enthusiasm, a middle of difficult and contrasted experiences, then a peace that announces eternity.”  For him, God seems long absent and prayer seems like talking into starless space.

A barren life, one some men can muddle through, but for others, the ringing emptiness and soul-draining drudgery of going through the motions becomes too much.  Diat sketches the case of one such monk, who left painful notes tersely saying he could no longer go on.  His abbot especially remains haunted by that trauma.

A contemporary atheist might declare that such an end comes when gullible fools are duped by a fairy tale.  A secular materialist would tell Diat and his monks that death is simply the end, merely bringing molecular decomposition.  For an unbeliever, any talk of life after death is metaphorical, a literary motif about collective memory pathetically misunderstood by the simple and literal-minded.

What makes believers skeptical of such skepticism is what they have seen of others, like Diat’s monks, at the end.  Skeptics must account for perfectly lucid people who see with clarity that they are about to step through something—a portal, a gate, a door—into William Shakespeare’s “undiscovered country.”  Skeptics must further account for the amazing serenity with which those people accept the imminent prospect of that new step.

Here a recent scene from an American monastery may supplement Diat’s worthy little volume.  A nurse’s aide was wheeling a lay brother in his nineties to his infirmary room.  The old brother was often silent, a man of very few words, and he suddenly said, “Well, I’m goin’.”

“Yep,” said the aide, “you’re going to your room.”

“No,” he corrected her, “I’m goin’.”

He then slumped over and died.

Philip Marlowe and Nero Wolfe


Sixty years after the death of Raymond Chandler, and eighty years after the publication of his first novel, we mark the first anniversary of a brilliant achievement, The Annotated Big Sleep.  In 1939, Chandler (1888-1959) published The Big Sleep, introducing a fictional Los Angeles private investigator, Philip Marlowe, and in 2018, Owen Hill, Pamela Jackson, and Anthony Dean Rizzuto produced an edition with Chandler’s text on the left-hand pages and their explanatory notes on the right-hand pages.  Also illustrating this volume are maps, photographs, and excerpts from other stories by Chandler.

Unlike a biblical commentary, where obvious passages can get lengthy deciphering and obscure lines get passed over, The Annotated Big Sleep tackles it all.  It is amusing that some readers, apparently, will need to have defined for them slang such as “swell’ and “jalopy,” or standard words such as “bookplate” and “davenport.”  Most captivating is information about firearms and newspapers, about bygone fashions and obsolete automobiles, as well as the vanished landscape of 1930’s Los Angeles.

Moreover, our annotators identify in The Big Sleep allusions to Arthurian legend.  In The Big Sleep and subsequent novels, Marlowe casts himself as a latter-day knight errant, with his own code of chivalrous integrity, righting wrongs and rescuing damsels in distress, even if the distress is of the damsel’s own making.  In The High Window (1942), a medical doctor admiringly calls Marlowe “the shop-soiled Galahad.”  Marlowe is unmarried, and in The Big Sleep, set in 1938, he is thirty-three.  With Marlowe, Chandler tapped into an archetype in Western literature, the solitary young hero, embodying virtue and virility.

Early in the novel Marlowe meets his new client, General Guy Sternwood.  Marlowe arrives in a blue suit, and as narrator, he says, “I was neat, clean, shaved, and sober.”  A note explains that phrase as an Army expression meaning “ready for inspection.”  Much of Sternwood’s military career would have been in the late 1800s, when American soldiers wore blue uniforms.

The general is around eighty, and declining health has him soaking up the tropical heat and humidity inside a greenhouse on his vast estate.  Surrounding him is a veritable jungle of orchids, and our annotators provide a note about early twentieth-century orchid collecting and orchids as “symbols of wealth and decadence.”  What Hill, Jackson, and Rizzuto seem to miss is Chandler’s Baroque critique of one of his great contemporaries in crime fiction.

In 1934, Rex Stout published Fer-de-Lance, the first of seventy-four tales featuring a fictional private detective, Nero Wolfe.  Wolfe is a native of Montenegro, in his fifties, and a wealthy eccentric:  an arrogant misogynist gourmet, he lives in a nineteenth-century brownstone townhouse in New York City; on its roof are greenhouses for his 10,000 orchids.  Wolfe almost never leaves his house on business, his investigating being done by a trusty young assistant, Archie Goodwin.  Goodwin reports his findings to Wolfe, who then mulls them over and thus identifies the guilty party.

Sternwood hiring Marlowe parallels Wolfe sending Goodwin out to gather evidence and question witnesses or suspects.  Nevertheless, Sternwood is the inverse of Wolfe:  Whereas Wolfe weighs in at 300 pounds, Sternwood is thin and frail as a mummy.  A retired Army officer, Sternwood could take on his blackmailer himself, if only age and health permitted; Wolfe, once a spy for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, chooses to stay home and eat and read and tend his orchids.

Wolfe, Goodwin, and Marlowe are in a long tradition of bachelor detectives, and nosy neighbors and literary critics spend valuable time speculating about any bachelor’s sexuality.  Probably for that reason, Stout made a point of depicting Goodwin as a ladies’ man.  Dutifully The Annotated Big Sleep addresses recurring musings and guesses about Marlowe’s sexuality, maybe unrequited bisexuality, while touching lightly on the general’s mention of his own “gaudy life,” one he indulged in before marrying at age fifty-four.

In a line that could merely be an opening gambit in an awkward interview, but one that reads all too much like part of a secret password, Sternwood asks Marlowe, “Do you like orchids?”  When Marlowe answers, “Not particularly,” Sternwood obliquely agrees and condemns his myriad expensive flowers.  “They are nasty things,” Sternwood replies, adding, “Their flesh is too much like the flesh of men.  And their perfume has the rotten sweetness of a prostitute.”

Prostitutes do not feature in The Big Sleep, unless one counts a homicidal rent boy, but in Fer-de-Lance, Wolfe refers to them.  In Chapter 17, Goodwin, impetuous in his arrested adolescence, decides against going to a movie, and Wolfe declares, “Then try a harlot’s den.”  In the entire Wolfe series, it appears to be the only hint at Wolfe possibly having an illicit sexual outlet, while the simmering sensuality of the tropics always looms above him on his rooftop.

People of Victorian or Edwardian sensibilities would have regarded orchids not only as exotic, but often as obscene.  One variety in particular, Cypripedium, sometimes called slipper orchids, can raise eyebrows, their lurid pink and purple “slipper” resembling, shall we say, “the flesh of men.”  Cypripedia occur in Stout’s novels Black Orchids (1942) and Murder by the Book (1951), and an even more noticeably male anatomical subspecies, Paphiopedilum, occurs in Some Buried Caesar (1939).

Of course, sometimes an orchid is just an orchid, and Stout’s stories are rattling fun, the resourceful Goodwin sauntering forth into the big wicked city, while Wolfe presides over the mayhem like a wise, if irascible, hermit.  Chandler, though, was no fan, writing to a friend in April, 1949, not “to lump me in . . . with the smooth and shallow operators like [Ngaio] Marsh and [Rex] Stout and [Agatha] Christie.”  In June, 1957, he wrote to another correspondent that “I count myself far above” Erle Stanley Gardner and Rex Stout.  In The Big Sleep, with any tropical plant possible for Sternwood’s greenhouse, Chandler is all but saying, “Here is how you launch a mystery story, a knight’s quest, from a bower of orchids.”

Chandler’s writings show his detailed fascination with the fragility of polite society, the thin veneer of respectability covering tawdriness and corruption.  His novels are notorious for convoluted plots and complex characters, and in 1995, his works joined the prestigious Library of America, acknowledging his place in the pantheon of American literature.  Like a guidebook to a national monument, further affirming that reputation is The Annotated Big Sleep.