It's All In The Game
by A. Charles Corotis


It's All In The Game: A selected Collection of Gay Essays
on Life, Love, and the Pursuit of Mnemosyne,
Assayed from the Provocative Pages of
New Jersey's Literate Review Weekly, The Argus

By A. Charles Corotis



My frequent references to death have piqued the interest of a lady named Ruth Ostermyer, or at least aroused her curiosity, for she writes to ask if I regard death as the end or the beginning of things vital.

I presume she means whether I subscribe to the theological concept of life after death or the cynical theory of the final, irrevocable curtain; or perhaps to a confessed uncertainty, like Henley's "horror of the shade." 

Now this is a subject that has fascinated and intrigued mankind from the beginning of time, and has engaged the attention of all philosophers. I suppose a man becomes a philosopher in the first place by reason of a certain perplexity from which he seeks to free himself, and what question is more perplexing than this, with its conclusions rooted in faith? Emerson says the faith that stands on authority is not faith. So men believe or disbelieve, and rarely do they cast about for proofs and supporting evidence—unless they are philosophers or scientists.

"There is no death," said Longfellow unequivocally, "what seems so is transition; this life of mortal breath is but a suburb of the life elysian, whose portal we call death."

There is indeed a great deal of learned support for the conviction that death is, in the words of Milton, "the golden key that opens the palace of eternity."

"Is death the last sleep?" asked Scott, and proceeded to answer himself firmly: "No, it is the last and final awakening."

This belief has been accepted by many profound thinkers. The ancient Hindus admonished all to grieve neither for the living nor the dead . . . "Never did we not exist, nor will any of us ever hereafter cease to be."

Wrote Pindar: "All human bodies yield to Death's decree; the soul survives to all eternity."

But there is a whole history of scientific and intellectual literature on the other side of the question; there are, too, diversions and tangents which serve to obscure and confuse.

For example, devachan cannot be squared with faith-rooted acceptance of the soul's immortality, although it em­braces the philosophy of spiritistic phenomena. The devachanee professes to know; he is a devotee of occultism whose pretensions to divine wisdom, based on a theosophic concept of extraordinary illumination, lead him to certain, assured enjoyment of life after death.

Even farther removed from pure belief is metamorphosis, although this materialistic approach has persisted in varying degrees for centuries.

Metempsychosis' original exponent, Pythagoras the Samian, preached the doctrine of the transmigration of souls. He insisted that he himself at the time of the Trojan Wars was Euphorbus, son of Panthus, who fell by the spear of Menelaus, cuckolded spouse of Helen, daughter of Jupiter and paramour of Paris of Troy.

So widespread was the influence of the theosophist of Crotona that his disciples held no regard at all for life, considering it merely a transitory state in present form.

Philosophy through the ages has been inclined to scoff at death; whether its practitioners believed in reincarnation, or accepted unending existence as a fact in faith, or felt death was truly the end of the road, they yet held it lightly.

"The only dreadful thing about death is man's judgment that it is dreadful," said Epictetus nineteen hundred years ago. Even earlier, Epicurus deprecated worry on so uncontrollable a subject: "The draught swallowed by all of us at birth is a draught of death . . . against all else it is possible to provide security, but as against death all of us mortals alike dwell in an unfortified city." And long before that, Sangaya recorded in the Epic Phagavadgita: "To one that is born, death is certain; to one that dies, birth is certain. Grieve not about this unavoidable thing .... what occasion is there for lamentation?"

Yes, the old boys took a dim view of life. The difficulty, said Socrates, is not to avoid death but to avoid unrighteousness, "for that runs faster than death," and the great Athenian translated his words into action when he drank the poison potion after spurning proffers of release. Plato, his pupil and chronicler, added: "Think not of life first, and of jus­tice afterward, but of justice first."

Nor was this strictly a Grecian approach, this disregard for earthly existence. The Romans waged war, as they said, to reduce the over-vehement heat of youth: "to lop off sprigs and thin the branches of the over-spreading tree, growing too rapidly in the foliage."

The ancients actually embraced death, accepted it eagerly as something to be desired, just as the Kamikaze of Japan were taught to do during the war by alluring portraits of the life to come.

Cicero tells us that Agamedes and Trophonius, the architects who built the temple Apollo at Delphi, begged the sun god to give them "that which is best for men." Cynthius promised their wish should be fulfilled on a stipulated day. When the day came, both died.

Mythology cites the case of Bitone and Cleobis, devoted sons of the priestess Cydippe, who prayed to Hera to grant them what was best of all gifts for mortals. During the night both died in their sleep.

To some extent this disdain for materialism has come down through the ages. Schopenhauer, the philosopher of disillusion and doom, held a scant century ago that the world is only object in relation to subject, anyway; perception of a perceiver— an ideal. "Man knows not a sun and earth but only an eye that sees a sun, a hand that feels an earth," he taught, and as the world exists only through the understand­ing, it exists only for the understanding. To Schopenhauer, death was preferable to ignorance and error: "Nothing-serves as a mode of escape from suffering except death."

Colton, too, found death "the liberator of him whom freedom cannot release; the physician of him whom medicine cannot cure; the comforter of him whom time cannot console." Hawthorne saw death as surcease: "We sometimes congratulate ourselves at the moment of waking from a troubled dream; it may be so the moment after death."

A more fanciful poet, Swinburne, put it this bluntly realistic way in The Triumph of Time: "At the door of life, by the gate of breath, there are worse things waiting for men than death."

"The gods," old Lucan wrote, "conceal from men the happiness of death, that they may endure life."

Shakespeare looked long and quizzically upon the subject of life and death, found the former scarce worth the candle, the latter so desirable that he felt it incumbent to warn against seeking it prematurely. Thus the dying Hamlet, imploring Horatio against draining the poisoned cup: "Absent thee from felicity awhile, and in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain to tell my story."

"Those wounds heal ill," Patroclus warns in Troilus and Cresside, "that men do give themselves." And Edgar in King Lear: "World, world, O world! But that thy strange mutations make us hate thee, life would not yield to age."

The Bard could deal flippantly with death. Antony's and Cleopatra's Order of the Inimitable Livers is supplanted, after his defeat at Augustus Caesar's hand, by the Order of the Diers Together, not one whit inferior to the other in splendor, luxury, and sumptuosity. "The stroke of death," Cleopatra vouchsafes, "is as a lover's pinch, which hurts, and is desir'd."

In his calm acceptance of death's inevitability, Shake­speare echoed the philosophers of old. Thus the Queen in Hamlet: "All that lives must die, passing through nature to eternity."

Pericles, noble Prince of Tyre, knew the key to the boundless abyss of the past and future into which all things disappear: "Time's the king of men; he's both their parent and their grave, and gives them what he will, not what they crave."

Both Julius Caesar and Brutus philosophized upon death in Shakespeare's gifted hands. Said Pompey's conqueror: "Cowards die many times before their deaths; the valiant never taste of death but once. Of all the wonders that I yet have heard, it seems to me most strange that man should fear, seeing that death, a necessary end, will come when it will come." And the noblest Roman of them all: "That we shall die, we know; 'tis but the time and drawing days out, that men stand upon."

Caius Marcius in Coriolanus spelled out the type of men he wanted around him: "If any fear lesser his person than an ill report; if any think brave death outweighs bad life, and that his country's dearer than himself."

The English general Siward, told of his young son's death at the hands of Macbeth, reacted with Stoic indifference, with Buddhist calm: "Had I as many sons as I have hairs, I would not wish them to a fairer death: and so, his knell is knoll'd."

Shakespeare could be unfeeling, as witness the prologue to Comedy of Errors: "Hopeless and helpless doth Aegon wend, but to procrastinate his lifeless end." But he also has Capulet say of Juliet: "Death lies on her like an untimely frost upon the sweetest flower of all the field." And in Love's Labor Lost, Berowne protests: "To move wild laughter in the throat of death? It cannot be; it is impossible; mirth can­not move a soul in agony."

Best known, of course, of Shakespeare's penetrating poetic analyses of life and death is the melancholy passage by the disillusioned Macbeth:

Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, Creeps in this petty pace from day to day, To the last syllable of recorded time; And all our yesterdays have lighted fools The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, And then is heard no more; it is a tale Told by an idiot, full o-f sound and fury, Signifying nothing.

Nearly two thousand years before the Bard fingered his first quill, Aristotle took cognizance of the appeal in death, and found it advisable to warn against self-destruction. "To die to escape from poverty or love or anything painful," he wrote in his Nicomachean Ethics, "is not the mark of a brave man, but rather of a coward, for it is softness to fly from what is troublesome."

It would indeed appear that death held no terrors in those days of antiquity. When the temple of life no longer afforded a santuary, many took refuge at a mightier altar, freeing themselves from travail and laughing to scorn the cruelty of fate.

And the feeling that death is release, escape, has to some extent persisted; at least, placid acceptance. Thus Edwards observes that one of the great lessons of the fall of the leaf teaches us this: "Do your work well, and then be ready to depart when God shall call."

Webster applied the force of his intellect to this subject and reasoned: "One may live as a conqueror, a king, or a magistrate, but he must die a man. The bed of death brings every human being to his pure individuality, to the intense contemplation of that deepest and most solemn of all relations— the relation between the creature and his Creator."

The most pithy and succinct apothegm on death, perhaps, was uttered eighteen hundred years ago by the great Roman emperor, Antoninus: "Thou hast embarked, thou hast made the voyage, thou art come to shore: get out."

As for me, I have no profound observations, certainly nothing to add to the writings on this fundamental subject through the years. I don't suppose the prospect or sight of death ever is pleasant, except perhaps when it involves a mosquito that has just nipped you. Timorous as I am, I'm not overly squeamish in death's presence, for I was subjected to an early baptism.

I wasn't seventeen yet, covering the old Pyne Poynt beat in North Camden for the Courier, when I ran up against death in perhaps its most revolting aspects. The old city morgue was on my beat, at 5th and Arch, and part of my job was to view the remains of derelicts, accident victims, murderees and others, unidentified, waiting on a cold slab for a possible claimant. My first case was a girl who had been pulled out of the Delaware some three weeks after plunging into it.

Water is not a preservative.

It also was my unpleasant duty to be present when relatives or friends looked upon a once smiling face and provided identification.

Death can be horrible.

Without being fanatical about it, I can say firmly, with certainty, that I am a believer, and my belief is based not so much on blind, unquestioning faith as on commonsense appraisal. Notwithstanding Einstein's equations, the splitting of the atom, the harnessing of hydrogen, there are too many unexplained mysteries to say of our amazingly complete, complex, comprehension-defying world: "This is man's work."

It is not man's work—it cannot be. It is too vast, too intricate, too old, too everything to brook mortal explanation; the perfection of its operation too astounding for frail, error-fraught human achievement. This paltry little dog-cage of an earth that waited thousands of years to uncover the secrets of aerodynamics and aerostatics, of electrokinetics and electrolysis, of radio and radiography, cinematography and cinerama could no more have conceived and executed our habitable and habilable globe than Gorgidas' Sacred Band of three hundred Thebans could have withstood a modern army.

Antiquity marveled at the Colossus of Rhodes, a mere 126-feet-high brass statue; paid homage to Mnesicles, the architect who designed the Acropolis. Hannibal, wily, crafty leader of the Carthaginians, master of traps and ambuscades, won the battle of Casilinum by lighting fagots on the heads of two thousand oxen! Great Marcellus was confounded by the geometrical engines of Archimedes the Syracusan. It was out of such crude Teufelschmiele, such a devil's smithy of a world that Man, as in Prospero's island wonderlighted, wonderbodied himself forth, scarcely knowing the difference between darkness and light, between Nifl and Muspel. The wonder is that any survived those unenlightened days of in­credible cruelty, of human sacrifice when the so-called higher animals knew no more about the systole and diastole of the heart than of centrifugal and centripetal gravity.

And how far have we progressed? We still are, in the bit­ing words of Carlyle, "little visual spectra of men, hovering with insecure enough cohesion in the midst of the unfathom­able, to dissolve therein, at any rate, very soon," and yet rarely content to wait, intermittently exploding one another into dissolution. "What with the labors and ardent genius of our scientists," the satirist tells us with tongue-in-cheek irony in Sartor Resartus, "it has come about that now the Creation of a World is little more mysterious than the cooking of a dumpling!"

"God must needs laugh outright," said von Trimberg, scornfully, "to see his wondrous manikins here below."

Truly, all our progress has brought us no closer to a solution of the Great Mystery than Newton's vague wave of the hand toward Fortune's wheel in the expositive delineation of his corpuscular theory of light— his corpuscles, he said, were subject to alternate fits of easy transmission and easy reflection. "We are like children playing with pebbles on the seashore while the great ocean of truth rolls, unexplored, beyond our reach," admitted the mathematician in his Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica— even after the apple hit him on the head.

It hasn't been a hundred years since Comte, the French sociologist who founded positivism, conceded that "our intellectual resources are too narrow, and the universe is too complex, to leave any hope that it will ever be within our power to carry scientific perfection to its last degree of simplicity."

Even Darwin the evolutionist, with his theory of gradual development of plants and animals—"species are produced and exterminated by slowly acting and still existing causes, and not by miraculous acts of creation"—acknowledged the existence of God and saw nothing inconsistent between his doctrine and his early religious training. To him it was sim­ply inconceivable that the busy Lord should have bothered himself with each of the multitudinous forms and varieties of life: "From the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of receiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved."

In our own day, the brilliant astronomer Eddington, he who coined such terms as mind-stuff reality (loud cheers), hero now, took a typically discerning look at the whole matter. Here is his conclusion: "Descriptions of the phenomena of atomic physics have an extraordinary vividness. We see the atoms with their girdles of circulating electrons darting hither and thither, colliding and rebounding. Free electrons torn from the girdle hurry away a hundred times faster, curv­ing sharply round the atoms with side slips and hairbreadth escapes. The truants are caught and attached to the girdles and the escaping energy shakes the aether into vibration.

X-rays impinge on the atoms and toss the electrons into higher orbits. We see these electrons falling back again, sometimes by steps, sometimes with a rush, caught in a cul-de-sac of metastability, hesitating before forbidden passages.

Behind it all the quantum h regulates each change with mathematical precision. This is the sort of picture that appeals to our understanding—no insubstantial pageant to fade like a dream. The spectacle is so fascinating that we have perhaps forgotten that there was a time when we wanted to be told what an electron is. The question was never an­swered. No familiar conceptions can be woven round the electron; it belongs to the waiting list. Similarly the description of the processes must be taken with a grain of salt. The tossing up of the electron is a conventional way of depicting a particular change of state of the atom which cannot really be associated with movements in space as macroscopically conceived.

"Something unknown is doing we don't know what—that is what our theory amounts to."

Cynics and scoffers may liken our reliance on a Supreme Being to the heathen's belief in idols, to the ancient's worship of mythological gods— and call it all superstition, self-delusion.

But when I behold the mighty firmament and consider the precision with which it all functions; when I think of the study and work that goes into the manufacture of a mere motor and then place it in my mind's eye against the incomprehensible, awesome machine that is the universe; when I marvel at the process of reproduction, and see something as minutely perfect as a child shaped from nothing— from less than nothing; when I grope for some realization of the enormity of existence and the way factors of space, time, gravity, solar attraction, symbiosis, isostacy complement one another in orderly teamwork; when I strive to understand how I can be always moving in three directions at unbelievable speed and yet am seemingly motionless: (1) the earth is rotating on its axis, (2) it is racing on its orbit around the sun, (3) the sun is carrying the earth and me with it through space, all simultaneously and all without mishap— and without disturbing my equilibrium and equanimity— I know such omnipresent, omniscient and omnipotent, albeit commonplace miracles cannot be explained by any scientific formula or theory.

I agree with the scholars that death is nothing to be feared, for what can we gain by fearing it? Fear is a useless flagellant, anyway. But that is not to say that I wouldn't dislike dying, and wouldn't fight against the sweet light of ebbing life with all the strength at my command. I enjoy living too much to surrender easily to death. Maybe, as Plutarch said, in ceasing to be numbered with mortals we enter upon the heritage of a diviner life; "the briefer life, the earlier immortality," as Millman put it— but I can wait. I'm in no hurry.

Think what I'd have missed if I had died yesterday; and what I'll miss if I die today! But if I do, grieve not for me: I'm away ahead of the game. I've lived.

It has been my credo that insofar as life is concerned, it's not length that counts so much as breadth. I realize that I've roamed and rambled all over the center spread and still haven't answered the question. The truth is that I don't know the answer, nor have I any really well-considered convictions on the subject. But come what may, I can face up to it and accept the inevitable. I think, when the time comes, I will be able to embrace death without cringing. Emerson didn't mean me when he wrote: "The sinews and heart of man seems to be drawn out, and we are become timorous, desponding whimperers. We are afraid of truth, afraid of fortune, afraid of death, and afraid of each other .... We shun the rugged battle of fate, where strength is born. We are parlor soldiers."

I would rather say with Epicurus: "I have anticipated thee, Fortune, and entrenched myself against all thy secret attacks. And we will not give ourselves up as captives to thee or to any other circumstance; but when it is time for us to go, spitting contempt on life and on those who here vainly cling to it, we will leave life crying aloud in a glorious triumph-song that we have lived well." Dum vivimus, vivamus. So be it..