Friday, March 27, 2015

Playwright William Wycherley dead at 75, eleven days after marrying 16-year-old

In addition to being one of the leading comic playwrights of the English Restoration, William Wycherley was a lascivious rogue whose lust, plus a touch of avarice, helped bring about his death. Noted for several witty comedies that satirized the high society of which he was a part—Love In A Wood, The Gentleman Dancing Master, The Country Wife, and The Plain Dealer (in which he coined the word “nincompoop”)he produced them all between the ages of thirty and thirty-seven, and never wrote another play, although he lived almost forty more years.

Wycherley, who was born in 1640 in Shrewsbury, was educated mostly in France, where he converted from Protestantism to Catholicism, presumably because it was more acceptable in French society. On his return to England, he became a Protestant again—until the accession of the Catholic King James II, when Wycherley reverted to Catholicism once more.  

His main goal seems to have been to latch on to a rich widow and spend her money on drink and other women. He finally succeeded to some extent when he married the Dowager Countess Drogheda—secretly, so that he could maintain his supposed bachelor status as a favorite of King Charles II. The King found out about the marriage anyway, and Wycherley was dumped as tutor to his illegitimate son. 

The Countess was a shrewd cookie who knew about Wycherley’s roving eye, and she kept her husband on a short leash.  She insisted on accompanying him almost everywhere, allowing him to meet his friends without her only at the unfortunately named Cock Tavern directly across from their home in Bow Street—and only if he was seated next to an open window, so that she could see that he was not in the company of any loose women.

No doubt to Wycherley’s relief, the Countess died a few years after their marriage, leaving Wycherley her fortune—which he promptly squandered before falling heavily into debt.  He was sent to debtor’s prison for seven years until King James II freed him and even gave him a pension of £200 per year.

In his sixties, Wycherley suffered from chronic illnesses and constant financial difficulty. He idled away most of his time at Will’s Coffee House, where he met a young Alexander Pope. Pope befriended him and helped him publish some poems, which were ill received and derided by some as obscene.

When Wycherley was seventy-five, his friend Captain Thomas Shrimpton tried to help him by arranging for him to marry a sixteen-year-old girl named Elizabeth Jackson, who had a considerable dowry. Once again the idea of a rich wife—and a young and sexually appealing one, at that—motivated Wycherley, along with a desire to keep his nephew from inheriting any of his paltry estate. Wycherley and Elizabeth were married on December 20, 1715, and during the ten days after the wedding, Wycherley managed to go through most of the dowry to pay his debts. On December 31, Wycherley died suddenly at his home in Covent Garden, probably of a heart attack. His friend Captain Shrimpton married Elizabeth three months later.

Wycherley is buried in St. Paul’s Churchyard, Covent Garden.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Mt. Vesuvius eruption fatal for philosopher Pliny the Elder, 56,

When Mount Vesuvius erupted at Pompeii in 79 A.D., most people understandably tried to flee the path of the molten lava, crushed rocks, pulverized pumice, and sheets of flame that spewed from the volcano. Pliny the Elder, however, headed straight for the inferno. Exactly how he died in this cataclysm that killed more than two thousand residents remains unclear.

Pliny, a philosopher and naturalist noted especially for his Natural History, was also a prominent military commander, which is how he came to be in the vicinity of Pompeii on that fateful August day. Born in Como, Italy, in 23 A.D., Pliny, born Gaius Plinius Secundus, was the son of Gaius Plinius Celer, a Roman equestrian knight, and his wife, Marcella. He studied law in Rome, then entered the army, after which he settled in Rome practicing law and writing. When his friend Vespasian became emperor in 69 A.D., he appointed Pliny to a series of positions as procurator, or governor, of various Roman provinces, in Africa, Spain, and Gaul.

A philosophical Stoic, Pliny believed that virtue, based on knowledge, was its own reward, and the highest good was to live in harmony with cosmic reason, which governs the universe. “The only certainty,” he said, “is that nothing is certain.” Like most Stoics, he paid scant attention to the possibility of a personal afterlife. “It is ridiculous,” he wrote, “to suppose that the great head of things, whatever it may be, pays any attention to human affairs….The world, and whatever we call the heavens, we must think of as a deity, eternal and without limit, neither created nor subject to destruction. To inquire what may be beyond that is no concern of ours, nor is the human mind capable of drawing any conclusions about it.”

Pliny never married or had children, but a favorite nephew, Pliny the Younger, is the source of most of our knowledge of his death. Two months before the events at Pompeii, Pliny the Elder had been appointed commander of the Roman navy. On August 24, 79 A.D., he was stationed at Misenium across the Bay of Naples from Vesuvius, when it began to erupt. Pliny had a cold bath and a light lunch, according to his nephew, and then went up on a hill to get a better view of the volcanic action. Presumably to observe it more closely, he decided to sail toward Pompeii, when he received a message from a woman he knew named Rectina, who was stranded near the foot of the volcano, along with her friend Pomponianus, with no means of escape except by sea. She begged Pliny to come to her rescue, and what began as a voyage of scientific observation suddenly turned into a mission of mercy.

Pliny set out in a light, fast cutter, and as it approached the shore near Pompeii, lava, burning cinders, and crushed rock began to fall on him and his men. When they reached land, Pliny thought they ought to turn back, but his pilot insisted on forging ahead, saying “Fortune favors the brave.” At the town of Stabiae they found Pomponianus, but not Rectina, and then prepared to return to safety across the bay. But there was no wind, and so Pliny thought it would safe enough to wait inside a building until they could sail. Minimizing the danger of the continuing eruption, he and his men ate and drank heartily, and Pliny fell asleep, snoring loudly, according to witnesses.

Fearing the collapse of the building they were in, his men woke Pliny and urged him to get out. They headed for the shore, with pillows tied to their heads to protect them from falling rocks, but on the way Pliny sat down to rest and was unable to get up. Believing him dead, his men left him there, and when they returned three days later after the eruption was over, they found his body intact.

How he died has been widely debated. Overweight and suffering from asthma, he must have perished, say some, from inhaling the volcano’s sulphurous fumes into his weak lungs. The historian Suetonius, basing his account on hearsay, says that Pliny was overcome by unbearable heat and asked a servant to kill him—although his body was found with no apparent injuries. He may, of course, have keeled over from a heart attack or a stroke. However he met his fate, Pliny the Elder was dead at the age of fifty-six.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Philosopher David Hume, 65, faced his death cheerfully

Scottish philosopher David Hume, famous for his Treatise of Human Nature, knew he was dying for several months and faced the inevitability with placid cheerfulness. 

Born in Edinburgh April 26, 1711, Hume enrolled at the University of Edinburgh at the age ten or eleven and immersed himself in philosophical studies so wholeheartedly that he suffered a nervous breakdown. In his late teens Hume began to suffer what one physician diagnosed as a “disease of the learned.” It manifested itself with a coldness all over his body and an attack of scurvy causing a rash on his hands. He was treated with bitters and “anti-hysteric” pills, and ordered to drink a pint of claret every day, which seemed to make him feel much better.

With little money, he moved to a small French village in Anjou, where he could live cheaply, and where he took delight in mocking the beliefs of the Jesuits at the college. When he returned to Scotland, he worked as a tutor until he discovered the young man in his charge was insane, then as a secretary, a librarian, and finally as private secretary of the British ambassador in Paris. Eventually he became chargé d’affaires and lived in high style, developing a great fondness for food, wine, and women. By this time he was well-to-do from the sales of s best-selling history of England. Never married, he built a home in Edinburgh and returned there in 1769 to write, study, and lead an active social life.

Known as “The Great Infidel,” Hume is also the author of An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, An Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, and The Natural History of Religion. He was a champion of empirical reasoning and a purely psychological explanation of human nature. Rejecting his early Calvinist training, he became a skeptic and critic of organized religion, although he stopped short of atheism. One biographer called his beliefs “weakly deistic.”

In 1775 Hume was diagnosed with colon cancer and told he had only a few months to live. He accepted the news calmly and with good cheer. The biographer James Boswell visited him a few weeks before his death and reported that Hume had told him that he regarded the possibility of an afterlife as “a most unreasonable fancy.”

Hume’s friend, the economist Adam Smith, gave this account of his final weeks in a long letter to a mutual friend:
            He was advised to go to Bath to drink the waters, 
       which appeared for some time to have so good an effect 
       upon him, that even he himself began to entertain, what 
       he was not apt to do, a better opinion of his own health.  
       His symptoms, however, soon returned with their usual 
       violence, and from that moment he gave up all thoughts 
       of recovery, but submitted with the utmost cheerfulness, 
       and the most perfect complacency and resignation.
            Upon his return to Edinburgh, though he found 
       himself much weaker, yet his cheerfulness never abated, 
       and he continued to divert himself, as usual, with 
       correcting his own works for a new edition, with reading 
       books of amusement, with the conversation of his 
       friends; and, sometimes in the evening, with a party at his
       favorite game of whist. His cheerfulness was so               
       great, and his conversation and amusements run so     
       much in their usual strain, that, notwithstanding all bad 
       symptoms, many people could not believe he was dying.
Hume invented various scenarios in which he might try to persuade Charon, the boatman who carries dead souls across the River Styx, to let him live a little longer. Invariably these stories would end with Charon’s rough admonition to Hume: “Get into the boat this instant, you lazy loitering rogue."

On the August 23, 1776, Hume wrote to Smith, “I go very fast to decline, and last night had a small fever, which I hoped might put a quicker period to this tedious illness, but unluckily it has, in a great measure, gone off.”

Two days later Hume was dead at the age of sixty-five. His physician wrote this account to Smith: “Yesterday, about four o'clock, afternoon, Mr. Hume expired. The near approach of his death became evident in the night between Thursday and Friday, when his disease became excessive, and soon weakened him so much that he could no longer rise out of his bed. He continued to the last perfectly sensible, and free from much pain or feelings of distress. He never dropped the smallest expression of impatience; but when he had occasion to speak to the people about him, always did it with affection and tenderness. When he became very weak, it cost him an effort to speak, and he died in such a happy composure of mind, that nothing could exceed it."

Hume is buried in the Old Calton Burial Ground, Waterloo Place, Edinburgh beneath a "simple Roman tomb," as he requested in his will. He further stipulated that it be inscribed only with his name and the year of his birth and death, "leaving it to Posterity to add the Rest."

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Stendhal, 59, done in by the medicines that he took for syphilis

Stendhal, author of the much acclaimed novels The Red and the Black (Le Rouge et le Noir) and The Charterhouse of Parma, collapsed and died on a street in Paris, the victim of side effects from his syphilis medicine.

Born Marie-Henri Beyle on January 23, 1783, in Grenoble, he served in Napoleon’s army and was a government official before turning to writing under the pen name Stendhal—a nom de plume taken from the German town of Stendal in tribute to the writer Johann Joachim Winckelmann, who was born there. The first syllable of the name Stendhal is usually pronounced in the German fashion, to rhyme with “end.” 

Educated by Jesuit priests, whom he hated, he grew to despise the Catholic Church, which he chided in The Red and the Black for hypocrisy and materialism. A foe of organized religion, Stendhal said, “All religions are founded on the fear of the many and the cleverness of the few.” 

Known as a dandified man-about-town in Parisian literary circles, Stendhal gave his name to an unusual medical condition that he described in an account of his first visit to Florence: “As I emerged from the porch of Santa Croce, I was seized with a fierce palpitation of the heart; the well-spring of life was dried up within me, and I walked in constant fear of falling to the ground.” The condition was named the “Stendhal Syndrome” in 1979 by Italian psychiatrist Graziella Magherini, who observed similar psychosomatic symptoms—racing heart, nausea, panic, dizziness, paranoia—in numerous first-time visitors to Florence who were overwhelmed by the city’s profusion of cultural riches. (A similar affliction has been identified as “Jerusalem Syndrome.”)

In 1830 Stendhal was named to a minor diplomatic post as French consul in the Papal States, and he spent most of the rest of his life in Italy, largely forgotten as a writer.

Womanizing was one of Stendhal’s chief pastimes, and as often happened in pre-antibiotic days, a severe attack of syphilis was the result. Stendhal attempted to treat his symptoms with potassium and quicksilver, popular over-the-counter remedies. Unfortunately, repeated dosing brought severe side effects that included insomnia, dizziness, tremors, difficulty swallowing, swollen armpits, and shrunken testicles.

On March 22, 1842, while on leave in Paris from his consular post, Stendhal was on his way home from an official dinner at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He collapsed on the Boulevard des Capucines with an apoplectic stroke brought on by his worsening physical disabilities. He was taken to his home and twenty hours later died without regaining consciousness at the age of fifty-nine.

Stendhal’s pious cousin ordered a religious funeral at the Church of the Assumption, but Stendhal himself wanted no prayers said over him, and his burial in the Cimetière de Montmartre was conducted without any clergy or religious ceremony. The news of his death rated a paltry three lines in two Paris newspapers.