Last Words: Variations on a Theme in Cultural History by Karl S. Guthke
Whether Goethe actually cried "More light!"
on his deathbed, or whether Conrad Hilton checked out of this world
after uttering "Leave the shower curtain on the inside of the tub,"
last words, regardless of authenticity, have long captured the
imagination of Western society. In this playfully serious investigation
based on factual accounts, anecdotes, literary works, and films, Karl
Guthke explores the cultural importance of those words spoken at the
border between this world and the next. The exit lines of both famous
and ordinary people embody for us a sense of drama and truthfulness and
reveal much about our thoughts on living and dying. Why this interest
in last words? Presenting statements from such figures as Socrates,
Nathan Hale, Marie Antoinette, and Oscar Wilde ("I am dying as I have
lived, beyond my means"), Guthke examines our fascination in terms of
our need for closure, our desire for immortality, and our attraction to
the mystique of death scenes. The author considers both authentic and
invented final statements as he looks at the formation of symbols and
legends and their function in our culture. Last words, handed down from
generation to generation like cultural heirlooms, have a good chance of
surviving in our collective memory. They are shown to epitomize a life,
convey a sense of irony, or play to an audience, as in the case of the
assassinated Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa, who is said to have
died imploring journalists: "Don't let it end like this. Tell them I
said something." (press.princeton.edu).