So, I toted home a new book from the library. It actually isn’t very new and happens to smell a little, the pages are muted yellow and are rather stiff to the touch- stiff from a galaxy of germs, most likely. Although, I doubt many people have stormed their local library in search of this book, aching to read it. It was originally published in 1895, but this paper backed copy, the one I hold in my hands- wondering why on earth I ever wanted to read it- is obviously a little newer than that. The only reason I can remember for wanting to read it in the first place is because it is dramatically titled. It's known as, The Altar of the Dead, written by James Henry. It is one of his most famous works, labeled by critics as a “gloriously written” short story. I wonder if those critics ever read the whole thing, because if they did, I know they would have agreed with me that it is a long story, and it’s dull, and boring and confusing and rather, for lack of a more glamorous adjective- weird.
The story is a fable. It explores the protagonist’s treatment of morality and transcendence and love, by examining his unusual remembrance of “his dead,” as his deceased young fiancée and friends are called. And so he lives and breathes their deaths, memorializing their lives, eventually making the pursuit of their memory his sacred purpose and religion. The protagonist dies at the end, prostrate before the altar of his dead, and the story closes with his face showing “the whiteness of death.” He had, in the end, become one of his own dead. It is an empty story. If the secular Mr. Henry had hoped in illustrating deep spirituality and unselfish love, he wrote the wrong words. For in the end, what he successfully and even beautifully illustrated was humanity's degeneration and essential need for life- life that surpasses this tilting world.