Death And Marriage by Israel Zangwill

Story type: Essay

It was with melancholy amusement that I read in the scientific journals that sewer-gas was comparatively innocuous. After the hundreds of sanitary tracts in which the deadliness of sewer-gas has been an axiom of faith, after the thousand-and-one deaths from it in the contemporary novel, it is grimly diverting to learn that sewer-gas may be welcomed without fear to our hearths and homes. The same process appears to be overtaking science with which we are familiar in the sphere of history–all the bad gases are getting purified and the good spirits vilified. The invincible solids are being liquefied, and the aery nothings are being given solid habitations. The Professor tells me that liquid oxygen is obtainable only under great pressure, and at a colossal cost. I beg respectfully to suggest to the millionaires the advisability of laying in quarts of it for their dinner-parties. This sparkling beverage–essence of oxygen, mark you–would not need to be iced, for the North Pole is as a red-hot poker compared with it. Such a beverage would make a sensation and provide paragraphs for the society journals and the “Times” obituary. It is true the guests would not like it, but they would be anxious to quaff it. Have you never noticed the innocent joy which the pop and froth of cheap champagne gives to suburban souls? There is a magic halo about champagne–an aroma of aristocracy–which sanctifies it for people who would be happier with lemonade. Wherefore I doubt not there would be a public to adventure on liquid oxygen, though it were congealed in the attempt. The imbibition thereof might indeed replace suicide and cremation–it would both kill and cure, and our frozen bodies might be preserved in family ice-safes for the edification of scientific posterity. I should not marvel if liquid air or oxygen became an article of the euthanasian creed. As for sewer-gas, we may yet live to see it manufactured artificially for the improvement of the public health, and conveyed to our overcrowded drawing-rooms with all the paraphernalia of pipes and the mendacious meter. Science has turned so many somersaults even in my short lifetime that I am prepared for anything. I have even serious doubts as to the stability of Darwinism, I have seen so many immortal truths die young. I verily believe that the cocksureness of our century is destined to be the amusement of the next, which may not impossibly believe that the ape is descended from man by retrogression.

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Our little systems have their day,
They have their day–and come again.

The science of medicine in particular seems to be always in a critical condition, and the bacillus bobs up and down in a manner that is “painful and free.” Like Hamlet’s father’s ghost, it eludes our question: we know not if it is “a spirit of health or goblin damned,” angel or demon or delusion. The microbe of to-day is the myth of to-morrow. Surgery is the only department of medicine which has made real advances in our century. The rest is guesswork and experiment on vile bodies. I do not know why the Peculiar People should be persecuted for refusing vivi-injection. Tolstoi, a friend of his told me, breathes fire and fury against the doctors, and will have none of their drugs or their doctrines, and he is not alone in believing that every tombstone is a monument to some doctor’s skill. “When doctors disagree,” says the proverb. But do they ever agree–unless they consult? I went to an eminent oculist once, who anointed my eyes with cocaine in order to make the pupils dilate. But my pupils refused to obey. He was dumfoundered, and said that such a refusal was unheard of: it contradicted all experience and all the books. I felt quite conscience-stricken. He tried again and again, but my pupils remained obdurately small. I apologised for my originality, and he peered at my eyes minutely, evidently expecting to find the new humour. So I suggested he might try Horror, which I understood from the novelists made the pupils dilate; but he replied that that would not be professional. He told me, however, a fact which I thought well worth his fee. An erudite scientist had devoted a monograph to cocaine, but failed to discover the one fact about it which was worth knowing, and which had raised cocaine to the first rank–to wit, that applied externally it was an anaesthetic, so that if you put a drop on your tongue you might bite your tongue without hurting yourself. Doubtless the poor man was ready enough to bite his tongue when his book was spoilt by the discovery. But I cannot help thinking that his case was typical of science–which is appallingly exhaustive and self-satisfied, but seems just to miss the one essential thing.

Have you heard the legend of the Marriage of the Angel of Death with a mortal woman? He was aweary of his cheerless professional round, and longed for domestic joys to brighten his scanty leisure. It did not strike him to “domesticate the Recording Angel”; but one day, being sent to despatch a beautiful woman, he fell in love with her instead, and married her. But dire was the punishment of his disobedience. The beautiful woman turned out a shrew, who made Death’s life not worth living, and as he had refused to kill her when her hour sounded, she was now immortal. In despair he deserted her and her child, and would never go near her, so that her neighbourhood was always healthy, and she unconsciously made the fortune of several insanitary watering-places. In course of time Death’s son grew up, and with that curious filial perversity (which has been especially remarked in the children of clergymen) he became a physician. And his fame as a physician spread far and wide, inasmuch as he knew the secret of Death, that uxorious and henpecked Angel having revealed it to his wife in a weak moment. If the Angel stood at the foot of the bed, he was only terrifying the patient; if, however, he took up his position at the head of the bed, he was in deadly earnest, and hope was vain. Inheriting sufficient of his father’s nature to see him when he was invisible to others, the physician was naturally able to prophesy with undeviating accuracy, though the cunning rascal made great play with stethoscopes and syringes and what not, and felt pulses and thumped chests before he gave judgment, and was solicitous in administering drugs when he foresaw the patient was destined to recover. Now, it befell one day that the Princess of Paphlagonia (of whom I have told elsewhere) fell grievously sick, and none of the physicians could do aught to relieve her. So the king issued a proclamation that whosoever could cure her could have her to wife. Now, the fame of the beauty of the princess had travelled as far as the renown of the mighty physician, so that desire was kindled in his heart to try for the grand prize. And so Death’s son set out and travelled over land and sea, comforting the sick everywhere as he passed by, and curing all those that were fated not to die. And at last he arrived in the capital of Paphlagonia, and was received with great joy by the king and all his court, and ushered into the sick-chamber. A great warmth gathered at his heart as his eyes fell upon the marvellous fairness of the princess; but the next moment his heart was turned to ice, for lo! he perceived the Angel of Death standing at the head of the bed. After a moment of agony the physician commanded all present to leave the chamber; then for the first time he broke the silence his mother had imposed upon him. “Father,” he said, “have you no pity upon me–you who once loved a woman yourself?” Then Death answered, in a hollow voice: “I must do my duty. I disobeyed once, and my punishment was greater than I could bear.” “Father,” pleaded the physician again, “will you not move to the foot of the bed?” “Nay, I cannot,” answered Death harshly: “I was commanded to stay here, and here I must stay.” “And thou wilt stay there whatever I say or do?” asked the physician plaintively. “Yea,” answered Death stoutly. Then, wrought up to desperation, the physician called the attendants in again and bade them turn the bed round, so that Death was left standing at the foot. But the Angel, seeing himself outwitted, rushed back to the head. The physician thereupon dismissed the attendants and upbraided him with his broken promise, but Death stood firm. At last the physician lost his temper and all his good bedside manner, and cried furiously: “If you’re not gone instantly, I’ll send for mother!” And the Angel of Death vanished in the twinkling of the bedpost.

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Till we can marry off Azrael to a termagant, I do not believe we shall ever really turn the tables upon him. Nothing is more surprising to a reader of advertisement columns than that people still continue to die. An army of alchemists has discovered the Elixir of Life, and retails it at one-and-three-halfpence a phial. Paracelsus has turned pill-maker, and prospers exceedingly, and sells out to a joint-stock company. But the great procession gravewards goes on, the “thin black lines” creeping along all day long, and there is no falling off in the consumption of sherry and biscuits. The scythe of the Black Angel shines–opus fervet–and it is always the mowing season. Sometimes he stands at the foot of the bed, and then there is triumph for the pharmacopoeia; sometimes he stands at the head, and then the bed becomes a grave and he a tombstone. Alas! his marriage is but a pleasant myth, and his infallible son a dream. Azrael is still a bachelor, and science is not shrew enough to drive him away. Perhaps ‘t is as well the leeches cannot avert him; perhaps ‘t is a blessing that they blunder, and the kindly grass grows over their mistakes. As it is, too many people are an unconscionable long time in dying. Their habit of procrastination is with them to the last. They linger on–a misery to themselves, and a thorn to those anxious to mourn their loss. They do not know how to retire gracefully. The art of leaving a world should be taught as a branch of deportment.

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An American philanthropist who died recently was in the habit of girding at the arrangements of the universe, which did not seem to him organised after the fashion of a bureau of beneficence. He was wont to regret that he had not been present at the creation, so as to give a few hints. “Well, what would you have advised?” a friend once challenged him to say. “I would have advised,” he retorted, “that health be made catching instead of disease.” At first hearing, this sounds taking, but its plausibility diminishes under investigation. Health is the normal state of an organism, the perfect working of its parts,–it is not something superadded, as disease is. You might as well expect one watch to catch the right time from another. The philanthropist would have been more within the bounds of the reasonable if he had demanded that disease should be more egotistic and less epidemic. Every organism ought to consume its own smoke, and not communicate its misfortunes to its neighbours. And this it does satisfactorily enough in organic disease; it is only when those impish germs, microbes and bacilli, mix themselves up with the matter that we get pathological socialism. I confess that the whole germ business seems to me an illogical element in the scheme of destruction, though ‘t is of a piece with the structure of things. And yet there is a sense in which health is catching. There is a contagion of confidence as well as of panic, and the surest way to escape epidemics is to disbelieve them. Radiant people radiate health. The mind is a big factor in things hygienic. ‘T is a poor medicine that takes no account of the soul. We are not earthen receptacles for drugs, but breathing clay vivified by thoughts and passions. And in the universe of morals, at any rate, health is catching just as much as disease. We are ennobled by noble souls, and uplifted by righteousness. We pattern ourselves unconsciously upon our friends. Character is contagious, and emotion epidemic, and good-humour has its germs; copy-book maxims are null and void: packets of propositions leave us cold. Morality can only be taught by object-lessons; they err egregiously who would teach it by the card. A fine character in a play or a novel outweighs a sermon; and in real life the preacher pales before the practiser. It is a great day when a man discovers for himself that honesty is the best policy. Morality is a matter of feeling and will, not of intellect. Handbooks of ethics may edify the intellect, and “Cicero de Officiis” be the favourite reading of rogues. I knew a university student who at his examination cribbed Kant’s panegyric of the moral law from a concealed text-book.

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The legend of Death’s marriage recalls to me that of John L. Sullivan’s. It is said that the famous bruiser was in like grievous plight. His wife beat him, and he had to sue for a divorce on the ground of cruelty! There is something deliciously pathetic about the insignificance of a great man to his wife–his valet feels small at least on pay-day. “The Schoolmaster Abroad” is a rampant divinity with a ferocious ferule; at home he is a meek person in slippers. The policeman who stands majestically at the cross-roads, waving the white glove of authority, nods in the chimney-corner without a helmet. Bishop Proudie was not much of a hero to Mrs. Proudie, and even a beadle is, I fear, but moderately imposing in the domestic sanctum. That a prophet is not without honour save in his own country, we know; but even if he travel abroad, he must leave his wife behind him,–else will he never continuously contemplate his own greatness. This is why so many great men remain bachelors. It perhaps also explains why the others are so unhappy in their marriages. Perhaps there ought to be a training-school for the supply of great men’s wives.

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