Observations on death from Arthur Koestler’s Dialogue with Death

Arthur Koestler, the Hungarian-born British journalist and writer, was sentenced to death during the Spanish Civil War. He was imprisoned and expected to be shot at any moment; most nights he heard men being shot. He records his experiences in Dialogue With Death, and the main reason for reading what is a powerful book is to read the observations of a professional writer in full consciousness but inches from death. I’ve written a blog on the book, https://richardswsmith.wordpress.com/2018/09/08/a-professional-writer-observes-death-up-close/ but I’ve gathered below the quotes from the book that deal directly with death.


Death stalked the prison; we felt the beating of his wings, he buzzed round our faces like a tiresome fly. Wherever we went, wherever we stood, we could not get rid of that buzzing.

I have an uneasy feeling that he is acting a part, and that Alfredo and the Commandant of Vélez and the Anarchist and the Civil Guard and all the others, including myself, are children playing at being Walter Scott heroes and are unable to visualize the stark reality of death.

Danton’s reflections: “Even should we know in theory,’ is the substance of his reflections, “even should we know in theory of all the dangers that threaten us, deep down in us there is a smiling voice which tells us that the morrow will be just as yesterday.” The next morning he is arrested.

“Pray thou thy days be long before thy death,

And full of ease and kingdom; seeing in death

There is no comfort and none aftergrowth,

Nor shall one thence look up and see day’s dawn

Nor light upon the land whither I go.

Live thou and take thy fill of days and die

When thy day comes; and make not much of death

Lest ere thy day thou reap an evil thing.”



Whenever life is at its most dramatic, it is least able to escape the commonplace. At the so-called great moments of life, we all behave like characters in a penny novelette. The virtue of the word lies in the sphere of abstractions; before the concrete and tangible language pales. It becomes a completely useless instrument when it is a question of describing such horribly ordinary and naked facts as the fear of a human being in the face of death.


“. . . We’ve only got to die once. Personally speakin’ that never cheered me up. If you died more than once you’d get used to it, old Ham. Do you see my meanin’? That’s philosophy.” Edgar Wallace Sanders


The fact that I had made a decision [ to kill himself] which I regarded as final filled me with utter contentment. I became really cheerful, and the barometer rose at an astonishing rate. I was very proud of this Olympian frame of mind, and, true to the penny novelette, thought: nothing has power to move him who has done with life. It was not until much later, in Seville, when I and a fellow prisoner, also condemned to death, were discussing the various forms of fear, that I understood the secret of this magic metamorphosis: namely, that by coming to a sham decision to take my life I had simply snatched for myself twelve untroubled hours. My state of Olympian calm was not, as I thought, the result of the decision itself, but of my having set a time limit of twelve hours. Up till now I had counted hourly on hearing the oily voice calling out my name; now, by a wishful inference, I took it for granted that the twelve hours’ respite which I had given myself would be respected by the outside world. This was why I was so cheerful.


Only much later, in Seville, did I learn the simple fact that in such cases [talking to a man who has been badly beaten up and is about to be shot] the content of what one says matters little, and the tone and gesture everything; thus, in the prison in Seville three of us managed to lull to death in this way a little Militiaman who was more afraid even than most people of execution. He knew that we were lying, and we knew that he knew it; and yet he was comforted, and swallowed our words like a drug.


At this moment I was really convinced, that it was only out of laziness and apathy that I did not commit suicide. Of course I was deceiving myself again. The instinct of self-preservation, shrewd and indestructible as it is, assumes the most subtle masks. That morning it had presented itself in the toga of Socrates, who, calm and collected, reaches out for the draught of hemlock. The mask had served its purpose; it had helped the mind through a crucial moment. Now it appeared in a new garb; that of St. Simeon Stylites, who squats on his column and lets the worms devour him.


During these first few days I was continually being surprised by my own psychological reactions. The unusual conditions in which I was living produced unusual reactions; the whole machinery of my mind functioned according to new laws, completely strange to me. I felt like a driver who thinks he knows his car inside out and then suddenly realizes that it responds to pressure on the accelerator with a swerve and to the application of the brakes by looping the loop.


Doubt is a bacillus that eats slowly but surely into the brain; the patient positively feels the dirty little beast grazing on his grey matter. But in every long-drawn-out illness the patient eventually reaches a stage in which he has, although not reconciled himself to the pain, at least succeeded in arriving at a modus vivendi with it; he knows how to behave when the attack comes on. Mental misery likewise comes on in spasms; it is only in bad novels that people are in a permanent state of unhappiness for the whole twenty-four hours of the day. The daily routine of life, even of life in a condemned cell, cannot sustain for long the melodrama of despair; it banishes the agony to the dungeons of the consciousness. From there it makes itself heard only as a muffled bass in the symphony of the daily round and produces a vague feeling of uneasiness. Uneasiness and not unhappiness is the most common form of human suffering. Until an acute attack comes on. Then the lock-gates give way and the boiling torrent of despair invades the consciousness. You will have to kneel down before the wall, they will shoot darkness into thine eyes. Into the midst of thy thoughts, into the soft, warm cradle of thought they will send the annihilating lead.


…that dream-like feeling of having one’s consciousness split in two, so that with one half of it one observes oneself with comparative coolness and aloofness, as though observing a stranger. The consciousness sees to it that its complete annihilation is never experienced. It does not divulge the secret of its existence and its decay. No one is allowed to look into the darkness with his eyes open; he is blindfolded beforehand. This is why situations lived through are never so bad in reality as in imagination. Nature sees to it that trees do not grow beyond a certain height, not even the trees of suffering.


I fancy there must be some mathematic relationship; one’s disbelief in death grows in proportion to its approach. I don’t believe that since the world began a human being has ever died consciously. When Socrates, sitting in the midst of his pupils, reached out for the goblet of hemlock, he must have been at least half convinced that he was merely showing off. He must have seemed to himself to be rather bogus and have secretly wondered at his disciples’ taking him so seriously. Of course he knew theoretically that the draining of the goblet would prove fatal; but he must have had a feeling that the whole thing was quite different from what his per-fervid, humourless pupils imagined it; that there was some clever dodge behind it all known only to himself.

Of course everyone knows that he must die one day. But to know is one thing, to believe another…

True, at least once a day there is a short-circuit in my consciousness, and for minutes on end I behold the reality in a full blaze of light, as though illumined by some psychical explosion. Then no thoughts, no p ills avail; only brute fear remains.


The telephone [to dictate who would be shot that night] always rang at ten. Then until midnight or one o’clock there was time to lie on one’s bed and wait. Each night we weighed our lives in the balance and each night found them wanting.


Poor Carlos. His legs were cleverer than his head; when he thought he was about to go to his death they stiffened and refused to carry him.


Carlos has fairly got the wind up me. He paces about the cell and I realize that he already looks upon me as a dead man. He treats me with an exaggerated respect and consideration that get on my nerves. I have always preferred a harsh nurse to a sympathetic one. Pity is the echo of one’s own misery and increases that misery fourfold.


Often when I wake at night I am homesick for my cell in the death-house in Seville and, strangely enough, I feel that I have never been so free as I was then. This is a very strange feeling indeed. We lived an unusual life on that patio; the constant nearness of death weighed down and at the same time lightened our existence. Most of us were not afraid of death, only of the act of dying; and there were times when we overcame even this fear. At such moments we were free— men without shadows, dismissed from the ranks of the mortal; it was the most complete experience of freedom that can be granted a man.


We all asked ourselves, whilst we waited, trembling, for the audience,- to whose advantage and renown it was that we should be kept thus on the rack; what palpable or secret meaning there was behind it all? The peasants asked themselves in their way, the officer in his way, the man of facts in his. We plagued our brains with this question until the grey substance became inflamed and sweated forth blood and tears. Not one of us knew the answer, and least of all the man who rang the bell, the Señor’s greasy major-domo.




  1. Pingback: A professional writer observes death up close | Richard Smith’s non-medical blogs
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