On Speaking Ill of the Dead

Illustration by John Collier: From a review of the Who's album Who Are You, Rolling Stone, 19 October 1978. Drummer Keith Moon (upper left) died shortly after the album's release.

One owes respect to the living: To the Dead one owes only the truth.


Illustration by John Collier: Portraits of members of The Who, for a review of their album Who Are You, Rolling Stone, 19 October 1978. Drummer Keith Moon (upper left) had died two months earlier; his portrait was complete.

On Guilt and Absolution

Photo by Sally Mann: Holding Virginia (1989)

I reviewed my case. With the utmost simplicity and clarity I now saw myself and my love. Previous attempts seemed out of focus in comparison. A couple of years before, under the guidance of an intelligent French-speaking confessor, to whom, in a moment of metaphysical curiosity, I had turned over a Protestant’s drab atheism for an old-fashioned popish cure, I had hoped to deduce from my sense of sin the existence of a Supreme Being. On those frosty mornings in rime-laced Quebec, the good priest worked on me with the finest tenderness and understanding. I am infinitely obliged to him and the great Institution he represented. Alas, I was unable to transcend the simple human fact that whatever spiritual solace I might find, whatever lithophanic eternities might be provided for me, nothing could make my Lolita forget the foul lust I had inflicted upon her. Unless it can be proven to me – to me as I am now, today, with my heart and my beard, and my putrefaction – that in the infinite run it does not matter a jot that a North American girl-child named Dolores Haze had been deprived of her childhood by a maniac, unless this can be proven (and if it can, then life is a joke), I see nothing for the treatment of my misery but the melancholy and very local palliative of articulate art. To quote an old poet:

The moral sense in mortals is the duty
We have to pay on mortal sense of beauty

“Humbert Humbert” in Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita (1955)

Photo by Sally Mann: Holding Virginia (1989)

On the Moral Superiority of the Poor

Painting by Titian: Danae, Mother of Perseus (c. 1554)

To suppose, as we all suppose, that we could be rich and not behave as the rich behave, is like supposing that we could drink all day and keep absolutely sober.

Logan Pearsall Smith
Afterthoughts (1931)

Painting by Titian: Danae and the Shower of Gold (c. 1554)

Related: On the Moral Superiority of the Rich

Heaven and Hell

No, no, that's not a sin, either. My goodness, you must have worried yourself to death.

Heaven and hell suppose two distinct species of men, the good and the bad. But the greatest part of mankind float betwixt vice and virtue. Were one to go round the world with an intention of giving a good supper to the righteous and a sound drubbing to the wicked, he would frequently be embarrassed in his choice, and would find, that the merits and demerits of most men and women scarcely amount to the value of either…The chief source of moral ideas is the reflection on the interests of human society. Ought these interests, so short, so frivolous, to be guarded by punishments, eternal and infinite? The damnation of one man is an infinitely greater evil in the universe, than the subversion of a thousand millions of kingdoms.

David Hume
Of the Immortality of the Soul (1752)
Essays, Moral, Political, and Literary 

Cartoon by Charles Barsotti
The New Yorker, 13 September 1993