We, the Thanatonautes


Words | Rhys Cutler

“Le secret de la liberté, c’est la librairie.”

– Bernard Werber

This quote comes from a book I read so long ago I barely remember it, Les Thanatonautes, and it translates to “the secret of freedom, is the bookstore”. An interesting notion right? That freedom is obtained at the price of a paperback book that you found in a small second-hand bookstore hidden away down an alley. But the name of the book itself has always fascinated me, even captivated me in the way a beautiful person strikes an unending envy to be them. I wanted to understand how we could be Thanatonautes, the name itself functioning like an astronaut but rather than walking amongst the stars you’re dredging through death. Death has always been a part of this world for me, something just out of reach – hushed tones too quiet to hear – so that what we see is never what it means. It never quite makes sense.

As a child I wondered what death entailed, for the end is rarely the end and sometimes the beginning isn’t the beginning. If we die does it all cease to exist or does the world keep spinning? I’ve always craved to know death, like people wish to know a lover’s embrace or the gift of childbirth. I wanted the rules to be clear and I wanted them to be just, how naïve a child I was. It’s a pretty dark topic, one that most people shy away from. Maybe it’s too uncomfortable to admit that time is running out and one day we’ll be all out of time – can a person truly starve on time? It’s these sobering thoughts I think that people run from.

I guess recently I haven’t had that luxury. This year my Grandmother has been in and out of hospital numerous times and I can see my family living with the sobering reality of the inevitability of what comes next. But that isn’t why I’ve decided to talk about death. You see I had a dream recently – I was walking through a hospital, down a hallway with open doors, the staff were gliding around, entering and leaving rooms and talking in hushed tones. I made it to a room and entered. It was a room for my mother, and she was laid out on the bed – gaunt and tired, red of face and short of breath. She was dying.

The scene was horrific. Whilst it was a dream it still pervaded my every thought; I woke up startled and sweat stained in the middle of the night. The rest of those witching hours were spent in a fretful limbo unable to sleep but only half awake. I’ve had dreams and nightmares since I was a kid, and some of them have been far worse and others have been kinder – like feathers on the wind. This dream was different somehow. My mother was rushed to hospital a few days later.

I was afraid, I’ll be the first to admit it. I was scared. And here was my mother being rushed to the place I’d dreamt of – I’m ashamed to say I let my fear control me. I did not handle the situation very well, but I’m sure you can imagine why. I’m old enough to not let my dreams affect my reality but at that time my dreams and reality felt like one in the same. 

John Keats, one of my favourite poets, placed that version of myself into words within Ode to a Nightingale

“Was it a vision, or a waking dream? Fled is that music: — Do I wake or sleep?”

Sometimes it’s hard to separate our dreams from our realities. It’s nice knowing I’m not the only person plagued by this.

There’s another quote from Les Thanatonautes that made me question the function of death in all its form – “La mort était le meilleur remède contre tous les petits maux de l’existence”. Approximately meaning, ‘Death was the best remedy for all the little ailments of existence’. And I guess that’s true. Death ends the hunger of the starved, quenches the thirst of the parched, alleviates the burdens of pain from the suffering. In a way it is the panacea, the cure-all that humanity craves, and it is the philosophers’ stone, an elixir of life. It is the fountain of youth and we all drink from it eventually.

Whereas life is a constant vigil against torment, death seems to encompass a removal of the suffering. Maybe that thought is radical – but maybe, just maybe, it’s true. The fact is we don’t know. The dead so seldom deem to inform the living of anything.

Ashes to ashes and all that. I wonder, is that saying why some people choose to burn their dead?

When I die, I think I want them to grow flowers upon my grave. I don’t need a tombstone – those are never really for the dead anyways; they are for those of us that persevere. But I want flowers or a tree, something that marks that I’m nothing but nature now, that I am nothing but green. Small little daffodils upon a hilltop – that shall mark me. 

I don’t think I’ll get into heaven or any form of paradise. I’ve made so many mistakes and I’ve lived outside what is considered normal – and sometimes what is considered right. I don’t need a golden city in the sky, nor a vision of fire and brimstone beneath the earth. I’d like to stay here. Even if it’s not in a bodily form. Maybe I’ll cease to exist and only my spirit, that most primal form of me, will carry on – an echo of my memory.

But I guess we don’t know do we? And I don’t have any more answers than you do. But I guess we’ll find out when we die. All things must end, but as Keats said, “The poetry of the earth is never dead”. From our lives something else shall arise, we just don’t know what it will be.

I think what Werber is trying to say in the quote I used to open this piece is that freedom from the world and all its harshness begins with art in its purest form – the book, the stories we tell, the memories we hold. A way of exploring death by creating an alternate, by building something in its stead. There’s a reason people cling to the teachings of the Bible, of the Qur’an, of the Mysteries of Greek cults, of the Torah, of the Lun Yu, of the Adi Granth, of the nights my mother pushed the hair back from my brow and spoke wonders in hushed tones. Maybe that’s all we are. Thanatonautes finding some meaning in life through the worlds we create and through our explorations of death. Life is all that more beautiful because it’s finite and soon we’ll be nothing more than memories.