Click amount to donate direct to CounterPunch
  • $25
  • $50
  • $100
  • $500
  • $other
  • use PayPal
Keep CounterPunch ad free. Support our annual fund drive today!

What Do You Want From Death?


Novels that teach history by telling the life story of an individual can be fascinating journeys into humanity’s misadventures.  Likewise, they can also be equally tragic and entertaining.  Two such books that fit all of these adjectives and more are Michael Moorcock’s Byzantium Endures and Marc Estrin’s Insect Dreams: The Half-Life of Gregor Samsa The stories of these two characters are wittily relayed and perceptive each in their own way.  Both are simultaneously stories of the century just past; that graveyard of millions via mustard gas and the atom bomb, revolution, counter-revolution and world wars.  Naturally, the main protagonists meet a number of captivating and unique characters as they stumble, forge, fly and otherwise do through time.

The reader meets Moorcock’s protagonist, Colonel Pyat, as an old man in one of London’s ethnic neighborhoods; a neighborhood changing ethnicities as he grows closer to death.  He is a cynical old man, albeit with a sense of humor that is occasionally wicked and often just appreciative of the absurdity of the human endeavor.   Estrin’s protagonist Gregor Samsa is also appreciative of that absurdity, especially given his removal from it.  He is, after all, that cockroach introduced to the world by Franz Kafka in his story “The Metamorphosis.”  At one time a human, Estrin’s Samsa spends the rest of his life as a cockroach, arguably trying that entire time to become human again.

There are substantial differences between the worldviews of these two characters, despite their similarities.  Moorcock’s Pyat finds humor in humanity’s folly but cannot help but to look for blame.  Like so many others throughout history, especially in that most recent of centuries, he places that blame on the same groups so many have found convenient: primarily Jews, Asians and Africans. In other words: The traditional Other in European history.  He has little concern for anyone that does not fit his chauvinist approach and prides himself on his Orthodox faith and his Slavic ethnicity.  On the other hand, Estrin’s Samsa is the essence of the other.  Clearly not human in appearance, his emotions and intellect are immediately suspect.  Upon his transformation from human to insect, his only recourse is death or life as a freak.  Indeed, his first job upon leaving the rooming house he once lived in is in a sideshow along with a number of other freaks.

Pyat is an arrogant egocentric protagonist full of prejudices and assumptions about humanity.  Some of those assumptions are based on his life experience.  Many more are based on the class he strives to become part of.  Despite his humble beginnings, those experiences provide him with a viewpoint of one who is in power.  He has no use for the Russian revolution and prefers the counterrevolution of the aristocracy and its foreign imperialist allies.  Gregor Samsa is his opposite. The fact of Samsa’s non-humanness makes him appreciate humanity more than most who have never known any other form. He is the Other in every sense of the word. Yet he is the other who transcends his otherness but does not forget it.  He is not the African American who mouths the words of the white man after gaining his favor. He is not the Jew who becomes like those who have burned millions of his predecessors.  No, his otherness provides him with a perspective that prevents his moving from victim to executioner.

Pyat’s escapades take him from his mother’s home in Kiev to the universities, bars and brothels of Petrograd and into the desolate death ridden countryside of the Russian civil war. As noted earlier, Samsa’s begin as part of a carnival freakshow in wartime Vienna. From there, he flies across the Atlantic, invents the concept of risk analysis for Charles Ives’ insurance firm, attempts to make love to Alice Paul, becomes a family friend and consultant to President Franklin Roosevelt and ultimately ends up working on the development of the first nuclear weapons at Los Alamos in New Mexico, which is where he takes his life.  Moorcock’s Pyat is surrounded by the hideousness of modern warfare at the century’s beginning in this first installment of the colonel Pyat quartet.  Estrin’s Samsa is literally in the center of an explosion that will make previous horrors of combat seem almost humane in contrast.

What with Pyat’s distaste for much of humanity and cynical disregard for their state of existence, one might think that his was the darker tale.  Samsa, while easily more likable and at first impression a more lighthearted soul, is actually the troubled representative and denizen of the century.  Upon further thought, it is exactly that which makes Pyat unattractive that ensures his durability in a century of hate, genocide and disaster.  Samsa’s irrepressible optimism and larval innocence render him dead almost as soon as his transformation is complete.

Unfortunately in terms of this review, Moorcock’s book is but the first of a quartet.  Meanwhile, Estrin’s narrative is complete.  This leaves the reader unsure where Pyat’s path of cynical self-assurance will take him as he travels into the century.   Estrin’s Samsa, on the other hand, by deciding his fate, ends the narrative and his existence, seeming to say that the only real liberation from the madness of the modern world lies in death.  Since this is so, it becomes important to Samsa that he determine how and when his death occurs instead of leaving it up to other human forces over which he has no control.  By doing so, his hope is that his death will have some meaning.

There is a poem by the US poet Randall Jarrell titled “The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner.”  In this poem, Jarrell defines the emptiness of death in modern warfare in a simple line: “When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.”  His compatriot, the Baltimore-born poet Karl Shapiro, goes even further on this theme in his poem “Auto Wreck;” placing the entire scale of our lives into the meaningless of that frequent event. This kind of death, he writes

spatters all we knew of denouement

Across the expedient and wicked stones.

In a contradiction that defies the miracles of modern technology and the possibilities for a long and meaningful life, it seems that the primary accomplishment of modern life is how meaningless it has made death.

Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way the Wind Blew: a History of the Weather Underground and Short Order Frame Up. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His collection of essays and other musings titled Tripping Through the American Night is now available and his new novel is The Co-Conspirator’s Tale. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press.  He can be reached at:



A Special Memorial Issue of CounterPunch

Featuring recollections of Alexander Cockburn from Jeffrey St. Clair, Peter Linebaugh, Paul Craig Roberts, Noam Chomsky, Mike Whitney, Doug Peacock, Perry Anderson, Becky Grant, Dennis Kucinich, Michael Neumann, Susannah Hecht, P. Sainath, Ben Tripp, Alison Weir, James Ridgeway, JoAnn Wypijewski, John Strausbaugh, Pierre Sprey, Carolyn Cooke, Conn Hallinan, James Wolcott, Laura Flanders, Ken Silverstein, Tariq Ali and many others …

Subscribe to CounterPunch Today to Reserve Your Copy

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at:

More articles by:

2016 Fund Drive
Smart. Fierce. Uncompromised. Support CounterPunch Now!

  • cp-store
  • donate paypal

CounterPunch Magazine


Weekend Edition
October 28, 2016
Friday - Sunday
Louis Yako
Remembering Rasul Gamzatov: The Poet of the People
Brian Cloughley
The US, NATO and the Pope
Louis Proyect
The Outsider-Insider: Isaac Babel’s Big Mistake
Martin Billheimer
Now and Then, Ancient Sorceries
October 27, 2016
Paul Street
An Identity-Politicized Election and World Series Lakefront Liberals Can Love
Matthew Stevenson
Sex and the Presidential City
Jim Kavanagh
Tom Hayden’s Haunting
CJ Hopkins
The Pathologization of Dissent
Mike Merryman-Lotze
The Inherent Violence of Israel’s Gaza Blockade
Robert Fisk
Is Yemen Too Much for the World to Take?
Shamus Cooke
Stopping Hillary’s Coming War on Syria
Jan Oberg
Security Politics and the Closing of the Open Society
Ramzy Baroud
The War on UNESCO: Al-Aqsa Mosque is Palestinian and East Jerusalem is Illegally Occupied
Colin Todhunter
Lower Yields and Agropoisons: What is the Point of GM Mustard in India?
Norman Pollack
The Election: Does It Matter Who Wins?
Nyla Ali Khan
The Political and Cultural Richness of Kashmiriyat
Barbara Nimri Aziz
“It’s Only a Car!”
October 26, 2016
John W. Whitehead
A Deep State of Mind: America’s Shadow Government and Its Silent Coup
Eric Draitser
Dear Liberals: Trump is Right
Anthony Tarrant
On the Unbearable Lightness of Whiteness
Mark Weisbrot
The Most Dangerous Place in the World: US Pours in Money, as Blood Flows in Honduras
Chris Welzenbach
The Establishment and the Chattering Hack: a Response to Nicholas Lemann
Luke O'Brien
The Churchill Thing: Some Big Words About Trump and Some Other Chap
Sabia Rigby
In the “Jungle:” Report from the Refugee Camp in Calais, France
Linn Washington Jr.
Pot Decriminalization Yields $9-million in Savings for Philadelphia
Pepe Escobar
“America has lost” in the Philippines
Pauline Murphy
Political Feminism: the Legacy of Victoria Woodhull
Lizzie Maldonado
The Burdens of World War III
David Swanson
Slavery Was Abolished
Thomas Mountain
Preventing Cultural Genocide with the Mother Tongue Policy in Eritrea
Colin Todhunter
Agrochemicals And The Cesspool Of Corruption: Dr. Mason Writes To The US EPA
October 25, 2016
David Swanson
Halloween Is Coming, Vladimir Putin Isn’t
Hiroyuki Hamada
Fear Laundering: an Elaborate Psychological Diversion and Bid for Power
Priti Gulati Cox
President Obama: Before the Empire Falls, Free Leonard Peltier and Mumia Abu-Jamal
Kathy Deacon
Plus ça Change: Regime Change 1917-1920
Robin Goodman
Appetite for Destruction: America’s War Against Itself
Richard Moser
On Power, Privilege, and Passage: a Letter to My Nephew
Rev. William Alberts
The Epicenter of the Moral Universe is Our Common Humanity, Not Religion
Dan Bacher
Inspector General says Reclamation Wasted $32.2 Million on Klamath irrigators
David Mattson
A Recipe for Killing: the “Trust Us” Argument of State Grizzly Bear Managers
Derek Royden
The Tragedy in Yemen
Ralph Nader
Breaking Through Power: It’s Easier Than We Think
Norman Pollack
Centrist Fascism: Lurching Forward
Guillermo R. Gil
Cell to Cell Communication: On How to Become Governor of Puerto Rico
Mateo Pimentel
You, Me, and the Trolley Make Three