What follows is the third of four exclusive extracts from The Last Word by Quentin Crisp, the final installment of his autobiography, written in the last years of Crisp’s life, published in Europe and North America by MB Books and available to buy on Amazon.
Chapter 17: My Significant Death
A significant death is a death which somehow gets into everybody’s mind so that nobody says, “Isn’t he dead? I thought he was dead.” You want to die in such a way that everyone knows and remembers your death. This means you have to die by yourself.
You don’t want to die on the same day somebody of significance dies. Princess Diana died at the same moment that Mother Teresa died, and somehow it all got muddled up and they both became saints at the same moment. Had Diana died on a different day there might have been a more sensible assessment of her character.
I don’t mind what season I die in or what place. People don’t seem to like it when people die alone. I remember once praising Ms. Crawford and someone in the audience said, “You praise her, but she died alone and an alcoholic.” What’s wrong with dying alone? If you die in the presence of other people you have to be polite and die. That seems to me to add insult to injury.
I would like to die alone in my room. Somebody died in one of the other rooms of my building and they were found the very next day. I don’t know what caused anyone to look in their room and find them lying on the floor, but something did. I suppose if I didn’t answer the telephone people would eventually come knocking at my door and when I didn’t open it they might conclude that I was dead.
The other day I received a letter saying I was a fraud. That I longed for death but kept on living. I can see their point. It’s not that I’m a fraud however, it’s that I’m not capable of the suicide that would bring my life to a close. I couldn’t inflict violence upon myself or pain.
I used to know a lady who hanged herself. That must take hours to die. You tie something around your neck and then you hang it on a hook and you jump off a chair. But you don’t die for hours. It can’t be a pleasant way to go and yet that’s what she did. She was about forty, I suppose. I never dreamed she would do such a thing. I knew she was unhappy, but I didn’t know she was as desperate as that. Her suicide occurred over twenty years ago when I was living in England.
I had hoped Mr. Clinton would declare a limit on the number of days we are allowed to live, but he didn’t. It seems perfectly reasonable to me that, at the age of say, seventy-five, you would receive a telegram from the White House saying, “We congratulate you on reaching your seventy-fifth birthday and hope to see you in the Forgetting Chamber at 4:30 p.m.” Then an unmarked van would arrive, you would get into it and be taken to the town hall and put to sleep the way animals are.
Such certainty would enable planning. You would make arrangements regarding your possessions and money and would not have to leave anything to chance. As it is, you cling on to everything because you feel you will go on living indefinitely. I feel I’ve lived too long. I repeat myself incessantly and I take up time and space. One of the hate letters I received said I was a waste of space, and I am.
I don’t believe in life after death. The idea of once more falling out of your mother’s womb with the words, “Here again.” is too much for me to bear. I never understand why Ms. MacLaine espouses the notion of reincarnation. This life alone has left me weary enough that I would gladly forgo all my future lives. I hope that death is just nothing.
If we do reincarnate after this life, I want to come back as a woman. I feel I am suited to the life of a woman and have not been suited to the life of a man as I have said earlier in this book. That has been my trouble. I wouldn’t mind what sort of woman I came back as, the same class and the same nationality as I have now would do. I wouldn’t want to have a grand life. I wouldn’t want to find that I was a duchess or something. I wouldn’t want to be beautiful because I wouldn’t want to be sought after or anything weird like that, but I wouldn’t want to be hideous either. Preferably I would have a job that’s not too taxing which I could do satisfactorily while waiting for life to pass.
I don’t like the countryside now, but I might like it more if I were a woman and could live there in some kind of comfort. I don’t like nature, I like people, chiefly women. In this life I would like to have been a middle-class woman surrounded by more or less the same and to have played bridge well enough for people not to dread having me as a partner.
I don’t believe I have a soul. I would say the soul is a human invention inspired by fear. It protects people from the notion that they die when their body dies. When my body dies, I don’t visualize that my soul will take wing and fly out of the window toward the sky. I think I will stay here and I shall be dead.
Can one die stylishly? I think you can. You must die without trying to get the world’s pity. You mustn’t let any guilt fall on anybody. So, if you commit suicide, you must explain why you’ve done it so that nobody feels they should have stepped in or seen it coming. People are always saying, “I should have known, I should have seen the signs.” This is rubbish. People who commit suicide don’t want anyone to see the signs.
Anyway, you can’t win. If you fail to commit suicide people say, “Well it’s just a call for attention,” but it isn’t. Typically those who try unsuccessfully succeed in doing so at a later date. I remember there was an actress, I forget her name, who tried to kill herself and her husband found her at it and prevented it from happening. She tried again, successfully, twenty-five years later, so she was always thinking, “I can still do it.”
I would never kill myself, but I’ve thought about it. I was in touch with the Hemlock Society which sent me a book telling me everything I needed to know. It was so elaborate. I had to go to Mexico in order to buy a specific drug, then I had to get it past customs on the way back and drink it at once along with something, having taken my shoes off or something. I have never attempted suicide, so I don’t or can’t say how far I would go. When I hear of people who have however, I am filled with admiration that they managed to get away with it.
Suicide seems perfectly sensible to me, if one wants to avoid being a nuisance to those surrounding us. Otherwise our friends and family feel obliged to help us throughout terminal illnesses, saying things like, “You look better today,” and the other lies that accompany bunches of flowers and boxes of chocolates. You know you don’t look better and you want to die.
I don’t think it’s right to kill yourself to get out of a mess you yourself have created though. To my mind you can’t commit suicide so as not to pay your debts. I think you’re obliged to tidy everything up first before you pop your clogs. I’ve tidied up everything as far as I can. This has involved throwing away everything that’s useless in my apartment with the exception of me.
I think doctor-assisted suicide is perfectly acceptable. I don’t know why people are so cross with Dr. Kevorkian. He only kills people who long for death. Why should they be made to stay alive? Just because the idea of killing them is connected with the idea of murder? This is a nonsense spread by the same fundamentalists that equate masturbation with infanticide.
Of concern to me is whether or not I have a heart attack, something all too likely from what my doctors are telling me. I don’t know what that would be like, but my biggest fear is dying temporarily only to be brought back by some method of resuscitation. I would rather they leave me lying dead on the floor. I would not know any different, so a heart attack would do quite nicely. That would be dying in style.
Once dead, I want to be cremated because I don’t really want a funeral service. I don’t want anyone to have to stand in the pouring rain in a churchyard around an empty hole, while someone explains how wonderful I was. That would be respectively miserable, morbid and untrue. I’ve gone and that’s that. I don’t mind the idea of a memorial service though because that might be jolly. Then everyone who ever knew me can meet in some place and talk about how awful I was.
© 2017 Phillip Ward. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission.
About Quentin Crisp:
Quentin Crisp (Dec 25, 1908 - Nov 21, 1999) was an English-born writer, actor, eccentric and raconteur. He became famous from the publication of his 1968 autobiography The Naked Civil Servant, which chronicled the oppression he faced as a homosexual in England before, during and after World War II. Crisp performed a one-man show, An Evening With Quentin Crisp, which he toured nationally and internationally and which won an L.A. Drama Critic’s Circle award. He moved to New York at the age of 72 where he wrote books on style, culture and manners, appeared in numerous films, published a second autobiography, How To Become A Virgin, and became the inspiration for Sting’s hit song, An Englishman In New York. Dinner with Crisp, whose telephone number was listed in the local telephone directory and who never turned down an invitation to dine, was often called ‘The best show in New York’. The Last Word is the third and final installment of his autobiography.