Friday, December 16, 2005


Death in a Private Place

I once knew a librarian who kept a scrapbook of newspaper clippings about odd deaths, e.g. reports of people who died after shaking recalcitrant vending machines that toppled over on them and crushed them. This passage from Montaigne's Essays (1.31 = Qu'il faut sobrement se mesler de juger des ordonnances divines, tr. E.J. Trechmann) might have been grist for the librarian's mill:
And he that would take upon himself to give reasons for Arius and Leo his Pope, the principal leaders of that heresy, dying, at different times, so similar and strange a death (for they both, after withdrawing from the debate, with a pain in the bowels, to their closet [garderobe], suddenly gave up the ghost), and declare that the divine vengeance was aggravated by the circumstance of the place, might very well add the death of Heliogabalus, who was also killed in a privy [en un retraict]. But what about Irenaeus, who was involved in the same fate?
In our own time we could add the fate of Elvis Presley, who died of a heart attack on the toilet on August 16, 1977, after a meal of four scoops of ice cream and six chocolate-chip cookies.

Irenaeus was canonized, and there are those who regard Elvis as a saint. Dr. Gary Vikan is director of the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore. One of his scholarly sidelines is writing papers and delivering lectures about Elvis. Some representative titles are "Off the Wall, From the Heart: Votive Graffiti at Graceland," "Graceland as Locus Sanctus," and "Pilgrimage to Graceland: The Cult of St. Elvis." I've never heard any of Dr. Vikan's lectures or read any of his papers. But it's a little-known fact that there really is a Saint Elvis. An alternate form of the name of sixth-century Irish Saint Ailbhe is Ailbhis. Anglicized, Ailbhis is Elvis.

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