From The Undying, which will be published this month by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
There is no more tragic piece of furniture than a bed, how it falls so quickly from the place we make love to the place we might die in. It is tragic, too, for how it falls so quickly from the place where we sleep to the place where we think ourselves mad. The bed where anyone makes love is also—too clearly for anyone stuck there because of illness—the grave, as John Donne described it, from which they might never rise.
In 1621, an anonymous Flemish painter painted Young Woman on Her Death Bed. It is rare in the tradition of European sick paintings in that it is, like actually dying young, actually terrifying. The young woman’s skin is waxen, her eyes unfocused, her posture cramped and scared, her hands inert and curled like claws. Her surroundings are fine—smooth linens and velvets, coordinated wallpaper too—but all the comfort in the world cannot be a comfort in the face of this.
The death of Cleopatra is a better look. She died, according to one blog, on “August 12, aged thirty-nine years, wearing her most beautiful garments, her body arrayed on a golden couch and the emblems of royalty in her hands.” In the paintings, Cleopatra is almost always draped over a bed or chaise, as if waiting for a lover. Her breast—usually the left one—is exposed, troubled by a slender asp her own hand has guided voluptuously toward her nipple. In Greek tragedy, too, women died only where they slept, made love, and gave birth. As the classicist Nicole Loraux writes about women’s tragic deaths, “Even when a woman kills herself like a man, she nevertheless dies in her bed, like a woman.”