Dealing with death, Miguel Torga
Coimbra, 10 December 1958
Twenty-five years now that I’ve been battling death professionally, and I feel more incapable than ever of understanding and accepting it. Halfway between the peasant in the pure state and pure intellect, when death comes calling I find neither the peace of the credulous person who regards the slow decline of his existence as a natural cycle nor that of the intellectual who interprets life in terms of mental categories.
Whenever I spy death at a patient’s bedside, I always react in an instinctive and precipitous way. Without waiting to hear more, I set about combating it tooth and nail, with all the means at my disposal. I exhaust the arsenal of the pharmacopoeia and of hope. And in putting myself almost physiologically in the patient’s skin, and in making use of all the treatments science puts in my hands, I fight until I’m exhausted. And when it’s death that triumphs, I accept my defeat — but only pragmatically. Conquered but not convinced, I steady my knowledge and my resolve, and prepare myself for the next combat. And that’ll be the end of me, saying no to death.
Extract from Miguel Torga’s diary – pages 18-22 of the pdf, translated from Portuguese by Iain Bamforth
What can be considered a healthy way to deal with death? Although, it’s a very popular topic of discussion by writers, it remains as unsolvable as a Rubik’s cube, whose pieces were scrambled to an impossible configuration.
A relatable piece of writing to many, Torga describes in detail from the perspective of a physician- his attitude towards death and how he dealt with it. Torga’s fight against death was a passionate one that transcended limits that would have been in place in an easily defeated mind. His thoughts put onto paper may prove to be more valuable when we read them now, than he would’ve thought.
Miguel Torga (pseudonym of of Adolfo Correia da Rocha) was a 20th century Portuguese writer famously known for his 16 volume diary. His writings are mainly autobiographical. They tend to hold some wisdom, a lot of truth and several moments of epiphany. As a doctor, he was observant, and those patients whose lives touched him in some way, he learnt about them and wrote, reflectively. Despite his low-resource setting, he made sure that patients were seen, heard and treated with dignity.
Being an atheist and taking a bold stance against many political issues concerning the authoritarian ruler of his nation at that time, Torga’s writings can seem slightly unorthodox for his time. However, they provide an interesting insight into the lives of the commoners and medical practice in his country, Portugal.
- Miguel Torga – A brief biography
- Medicine in Torga’s literary work – Abstract on PubMed highlighting some medical elements in Torga’s work
- Image: Der Artz (ca. 1920–1925) – by Ivo Saliger (Austrian, 1894–1987)