Greg Baxter’s top 10 memento mori

From St Augustine to Nietzche, the author chooses the fearless autobiographical writers who taught him how to write his own, A Preparation for Death

A Damien Hirst print is added to Michael Landy’s Art Bin, is a giant container for disposing of ‘failed’ works of art at the South London Gallery in 2010.

Greg Baxter was born in Texas in 1974, and has lived in Dublin for the past 10 years where he works as a journalist, and runs the Some Blind Alleys creative writing courses. His memoir A Preparation for Death is an unflinchingly honest account of his self-destructive personal decay in his early 30s, and his redemption through writing.

“My interest in autobiography began quite late, relative to my interest in books. I had always assumed heavy lifting in literature could only be accomplished by novels, and I very much wanted to be a heavy lifter. Also, I felt and still feel a natural revulsion toward memoir. Nothing that had ever happened in my life was worth, in itself, a page of published text. But I was sick of my own fiction, and sick of the tired and relentless procession of award-winning novels that all looked the same, and became, through their success, the primary influences of a new generation of fiction writers. The bitterness I felt at not being recognised as a figure in literature almost destroyed me as a writer: I only wrote to be praised, or to avenge, or to insult.

“It was through an intense study of autobiography – beginning with The Art of the Personal Essay, edited by Philip Lopate – that I learned how to write without ambition, and for myself. Every great autobiographical work is a private preparation for death: an author hunts down his weaknesses, his delusions, his inherited values, his everyday enslavements, and murders them in plain sight. Below are some of the works – books and essays – that inspired this sort of ruthlessness in me.”

Death of Death: “Asthma” by Seneca

All the best autobiographical writers – those who teach us how to live well and how to die well – are to varying degrees stoics. Fear of death expresses itself most commonly as self-pity, and self-pity does not lead to illuminating or fierce autobiography; it leads to therapy. What is the point, Seneca asks, of fearing death when death is all you knew before you were alive?

Death of Style: The Confessions by St Augustine

A man’s desire to be cherished, to be measured by the standards of other men, leads to the corruption of his understanding of beauty, Augustine writes, speaking of his own early works. Once this corruption takes place, that man no longer wants to tell the truth: he wants to tell lies that please and awe. He has charisma but no character.

Death of Wisdom: Essays by Michel de Montaigne

If aliens ever attack earth, and we have one opportunity to prove that the human species deserves a second chance, we must give them Montaigne, the humblest and most noble thinker and writer who ever lived. His incomparable exploration of the human condition begins with one fearless question: What do I know?

Death of Embarrassment: Ecce Homo by Friedrich Nietzsche

When your books are misunderstood and dismissed as the desperate and nonsensical ramblings of a lunatic, you can attempt to change your ways, become more acceptable, and please the greatest number of people. Or you can plunge yourself deeper into lunacy, write for the future, and call yourself a destiny. Who but a lunatic allows himself to say: “I am not a man. I am dynamite”?

Death of Forgiveness: “Death” by Lu Xun

What shall we do about our enemies? How can we die without closure? Contemplating, on his deathbed, what to do about all the people who hate him, and whom he hates, the most well-known author in the world – Lu Xun – tells us: “Let them go on hating me. I shall not forgive a single one of them either.”

Death of Power: “Street Haunting: A London Adventure” by Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf is a writer of unsurpassed beauty and eloquence. Yet beneath the exterior of her text is a violent struggle against an understanding of knowledge and power constructed by men who want to utilise and commandeer the world. To properly observe the world, we must give up our desire for ownership, our desire to seek the usefulness in things, she tells us. “Street Haunting” is not one of her most famous works, but it is among her finest.

Death of Literature: Tropic of Cancer by Henry Miller

Tropic of Cancer is not so much a book as an all-out assault against literature. One does not so much read it as watch it explode. The writers I admire most are not those who seek to publish and please, but who set out to commit an act of heresy towards fine taste. Miller sees literature dying, and stomps on its head to finish the job.

Death of an Elephant: “Shooting an Elephant” by George Orwell

Orwell, working as police officer in Burma, discovers that “when the white man turns tyrant, it is his own freedom he destroys” – when he is forced to shoot an elephant for no reason other than to avoid looking like a fool. He is inexperienced, unqualified, and records the slow death of the elephant with horrifying precision.

Death of the Epigone: “Some Blind Alleys: A Letter” by EM Cioran

In this amazing and unrelenting epistolary essay, the Romanian philosopher EM Cioran urges a young, aspiring author to give up his ambition to write so that he may protect his sicknesses and sins from the healing power of the word. To write is to destroy the grace bestowed upon us by misery and disease and failure. And to become a literary man is to join the age of the epigone – the copycat.

Death of Manipulation: “Equal in Paris” by James Baldwin

Baldwin, a young poor American living in Paris, spends his time sitting in cafés, unable to write. He then spends eight days in a French prison for a minor offence. His whole life, he has used people’s expectations of him as a black man to solve every crisis. He has never had an identity – he has only used the identity society created for him. But this identity is useless in France. He must stop asking himself what he is and start asking himself who he is.


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