LAST WORDS by Karl S. Guthke

LAST WORDS

Variations on a Theme in Cultural History
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KIRKUS REVIEW

 The history and significance of deathbed words, by Guthke (German Art and Culture/Harvard; B. Traven, 1991). Guthke tries to unravel the puzzle of why people say what they do at death, and why other people take these words so much to heart. Tradition holds that last words reveal the real self (thus their honored status in courts of law). Guthke cites several instances in which last words epitomize the speaker (``Franz Kafka's last coherent remark was...`Kill me, or else you are a murderer.' Could anything be more typical of the master and victim of paradox?'')--but often, the author notes, last words are invented or rephrased by others for literary or social purposes (e.g., Goethe's ``More light!''). Deathbed testaments, then, are most significant as ``artifacts'' expressing ``the mystique of the final moment.'' As for the motives of the speakers, Guthke speculates that they often boil down to a desire for ``secular immortality.'' The author demonstrates that final utterances, while not an infallible guide to cultural norms, do change over time--the medieval idea that one died damned or blessed (with the latter often signaled by the dying repeating Jesus' last words with their final breath) making way for the Enlightenment's worldly and witty last mots. Anthologies of last words; last words' uses in film (Citizen Kane's ``Rosebud''), literature (Kurtz's ``The horror, the horror''), and Shakespeare's plays; and the improbable last words of Poe, Wilde, Thomas More, and Walter Scott receive in-depth analysis. Otherwise, this is a bit of a magpie's nest, crammed with examples, in which, despite Guthke's impressive industry, the brightest baubles remain the last words themselves (Brendan Behan, speaking to the nun who was wiping his brow: ``Thank you, Sister! May all your sons be bishops''). The last word on last words, for now. (Two halftones.)

Pub Date: Dec. 1st, 1992
ISBN: 0-691-05688-9
Page count: 224pp
Publisher: Princeton Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15th, 1992