Some last words on last words

Like pudge halter,I am fascinated by last words. For me, it began when I was twelve years old. Reading a history textbook, I came across the dying words of President John Adams: “Thomas Jefferson still survives.”

(Incidentally, he didn’t. Jefferson had died earlier that same day, July 4, 1826; Jefferson’s last words were “This is the Fourth?”)

I can’t say for sure why I remain interested in last words or why I’ve never stopped looking for them. It is true that I really loved John Adams’s last words when I was twelve. But I also really loved this girl named Whitney.

Most loves don’t last. (Whitney sure didn’t. I can’t even remember her last name.) But some do.


Another thing that I can’t say for sure is that all of the last words quoted in this book are definitive. Almost by definition, last words are difficult to verify. Witnesses are emotional, time gets conflated, and the speaker isn’t around to clear up any controversy. I have tried to be accurate, but it is not surprising that there is debate over the two central quotes in Looking for Alaska.

SIMON BOLIVAR “How will I ever get out of this labyrinth!”

In reality, “How will I ever get out of this labyrinth!” were probably not Simon Bolivar’s last words (although he did, historically, say them). His last words may have been “Jose! Bring the luggage. They do not want us here.”

The significant source for “How will I ever get out of this labyrinth!” is also Alaska’s source, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s The General in His Labyrinth.

FRANCOIS RABELAIS “I go to seek a Great Perhaps.”

Frangois Rabelais is credited with four alternate sets of last words. The Oxford Book of Death cites his last words as: (a) “I go to seek a Great Perhaps”; (b) (after receiving extreme unction) “I am greasing my boots for the last journey”; (c) “Ring down the curtain; the farce is played out”; (d) (wrapping himself in his domino, or hooded cloak) “Beat/ qui in Domino moriuntur.” The last one, incidentally, is a pun,* but because the pun is in Latin, it is now rarely quoted. Anyway, I dismiss (d) because it’s hard to imagine a dying Frangois Rabelais having the energy to make a physically demanding pun, in Latin, (c) is the most common citation, because it’s funny, and everyone’s a sucker for funny last words.

I still maintain that Rabelais’ last words were “I go to seek a Great Perhaps,” partly because Laura Ward’s nearly authoritative book Famous Last Words agrees with me, and partly because I believe in them. I was born into Bolivar’s labyrinth, and so I must believe in the hope of Rabelais’ Great Perhaps.


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