The physiology of taste, by Brillat-Savarin

Meditation XXVI


Omnia mors poscit; lex est, non poena, perire.

God has subjected man to six great necessities: birth, action, eating, sleep, reproduction and death.

Death is the absolute interruption of the sensual relations, and the absolute annihilation of the vital powers, which abandons the body to the laws of decomposition.

These necessities are all accompanied and softened by a sensation of pleasure, and even death, when j natural, is not without charms. We mean when a man has passed through the different phases of growth, virility, old age, and decrepitude.

Had I not determined to make this chapter very short, I would invoke the assistance of the physicians, who have observed every shade of the transition of a living to an inert body. I would quote philosophers, kings, men of letters, men, who while on the verge of eternity, had pleasant thoughts they decked in the graces; I would recall the dying answer of Fontinelle, who being asked what he felt, said, “nothing but the pain of life;” I prefer, however, merely to express my opinion, founded on analogy as sustained by many instances, of which the following is the last:

I had a great aunt, aged eighty-three when she died. Though she had long been confined to her bed, she preserved all her faculties, and the approach of death was perceived by the feebleness of her voice and the failing of her appetite.

She had always exhibited great devotion to me, and I sat by her bed-side anxious to attend on her. This, however, did not prevent my observing her with most philosophic attention.

“Are you there, nephew?” said she in an almost inaudible voice. “Yes, aunt! I think you would be better if you would take a little old wine.” “Give it to me, liquids always run down.” I hastened to lift her up and gave her half a glass of my best and oldest wine. She revived for a moment and said, “I thank you. If you live as long as I have lived, you will find that death like sleep is a necessity.”

These were her last words, and in half an hour she had sank to sleep forever.

Richerand has described with so much truth the gradations of the human body, and the last moments of the individual that my readers will be obliged to me for this passage.

“Thus the intellectual faculties are decomposed and pass away. Reason the attribute of which man pretends to be the exclusive possessor, first deserts him. He then loses the power of combining his judgment, and soon after that of comparing, assembling, combining, and joining together many ideas. They say then that the invalid loses his mind, that he is delirious. All this usually rests on ideas familiar to the individual. The dominant passion is easily recognized. The miser talks most wildly about his treasures, and another person is besieged by religious terrors.

“After reasoning and judgment, the faculty of association becomes lost. This takes place in the cases known as defaillances, to which I have myself been liable. I was once talking with a friend and met with an insurmountable difficulty in combining two ideas from which I wished to make up an opinion. The syncopy was not, however, complete, for memory and sensation remained. I heard the persons around me say distinctly he is fainting, and sought to arouse me from this condition, which was not without pleasure.

“Memory then becomes extinct. The patient, who in his delirium, recognized his friends, now fails even to know those with whom he had been on terms of the greatest intimacy. He then loses sensation, but the senses go out in a successive and determinate order. Taste and smell give no evidence of their existence, the eyes become covered with a mistful veil and the ear ceases to execute its functions. For that reason, the ancients to be sure of the reality of death, used to utter loud cries in the ears of the dying. He neither tastes, sees, nor hears. He yet retains the sense of touch, moves in his bed, changes the position of the arms and body every moment, and has motions analogous to those of the foetus in the womb. Death affects him with no terror, for he has no ideas, and he ends as he begun life, unconsciously. “(Richerand’s Elements on Physiology, vol. ii. p. 600.)

Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31