Wednesday, July 31, 2013

In Articulo Mortis—Some Options

If you are nearly dead, and would like to animate your mortal remains at least for a short while afterwards, there are a number of options.  Everyone is unique, and situations will vary.   There may need to be a customization of technique.  Though dead, you still have choices.  Two of the many possibilities are familiar to readers of H.P. Lovecraft, and his mentor from beyond the grave, Edgar Allen Poe. 

These methods are described in the respective authors’ stories:  Cool Air, by Lovecraft, and The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar, by Poe. 

Cool Air, (and some of its movie and television adaptations), was reviewed in an earlier post last May.  In H.P. Lovecraft’s short story, a frustrated writer has a heart attack and immediately seeks the aid of his mysterious upstairs neighbor, Dr. Muñoz.  After the doctor revives him, he becomes a devotee and disciple.  There is mention of mediaevalist incantations, ancient volumes and unorthodox treatments, but it is his cold, refrigerated apartment that is most striking and most necessary.  Dr. Muñoz half jokingly suggests that he can teach the narrator to live, or at least have some conscious existence, without any heart at all.  In fact, this is what he has been doing himself for many years.  Inevitably, the doctor’s hubris cannot save him from decay and death; even his precious, life prolonging willpower falters at the end. 

A successful mesmerist wants to set the record straight in The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar, which Poe originally published in 1845.  He has been able to carry out a scientific experiment—on his friend Valdemar—to determine the answers to three questions.  Can a person close to the point of death be hypnotized?  Are the effects of hypnotism weakened or strengthened by the nearness of death?  Finally, and most importantly, can the process of death be arrested by a hypnotic trance?   (The answer is ‘yes’ to all three.)

M. Valdemar is dying of “phthisis”, a condition which allows a relatively accurate prediction of the time of death.  (Phthisis is an older term for pulmonary tuberculosis or “consumption”.)  Valdemar consents to be mesmerized by the narrator just as he is about to die.  The mesmerization process is successful.  Valdemar’s awful death is described clinically—this story is essentially a case study—and so are his responses to the doctor’s probes after death.  The narrator’s tone throughout the story is cold and analytical.  It is the doctor, not so much the undead corpse of Valdemar, that makes this tale creepy and disturbing.  Valdemar has our sympathy, but the doctor is fearfully lacking in compassion or empathy.  Eventually the mesmeric trance is broken and Valdemar’s remains abruptly dissolve.

Refrigeration or mesmerism?  Which is best for you?  Lovecraft’s method requires great strength of will and is essentially an active process.  Poe’s technique is much more passive, and depends on the power of the mesmerist’s will over the deceased subject.  There are several other considerations; these are summarized in a helpful chart provided below.

Corpse Re-animation Techniques Compared*

H.P. Lovecraft
Edger Allen Poe
Preferred Method
Willpower with refrigeration.
Fictional Resource
Cool Air
The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar
Strong will, (reading Nietzsche helps).
Qualified hypnotist.

Reliable refrigeration technology.
Excellent rapport with patient.
Equipment and power bill can be high.
Relatively inexpensive.
About 18 years.
About 7 months.
Less dangerous than zombification.
Less dangerous than zombification.

Mobility is still possible at home.
Effective at typical room temperature.

Food can be left out with less spoilage.
Mesmeric rapport can be shared.
Must stay indoors in frigid apartment.
Stuck in bed or on examining table.

Hoarse voice.
Hoarse voice.  Oral or dental problems.

Visiting with guests is awkward.
Not much to talk about.

Power outage, equipment breakdown.
Tedium due to inactivity.

Confusion over burial arrangements.
Confusion over burial arrangements.

One can ask whether Dr. Muñoz or the unnamed mesmerist in Poe’s story were really successful in prolonging life.  It seems they were more successful in prolonging death.  Nowadays, it is our unwholesome pre-occupation with exercise, diet and healthy habits, along with the obsession to extend life through extraordinary means that seems to accomplish the same gruesome end.   Is it our agnosticism that drives us to deny and delay what cannot be avoided by anything containing the breath of life?

Whether to animate your remains beyond their appointed time is an important decision.  Consider that you may have more meaningful pursuits in the afterlife—if you are a believer—than inhabiting a corpse, or the ground, for that matter.  Despite the relative effectiveness of both approaches, when the final end comes know that there will be a rapid dissolution of the body into “a nearly liquid mass of loathsome—of detestable putridity.” 

So be thoughtful of others.

*The method described in Lovecraft’s Herbert West—Reanimator is, strictly speaking, more akin to zombification, and is not considered here.

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