‘My Last Breath’
Luis Bunuel - Biography Excerpts
(Ch. 1 Memory) During the last ten years of her life, my mother gradually lost her memory. When I went to see her in Saragossa, where she lived with my brothers, I watched the way she read magazines, turning the pages carefully, one by one, from the first to the last. When she finished, I’d take the magazine from her, then give it back, only to see her leaf through it again, slowly, page by page.
She was in perfect physical health and remarkably agile for her age, but in the end she no longer recognized her children. She didn’t know who we were, or who she was. I’d walk into her room, kiss her, sit with her awhile. Sometimes, I’d leave, then turn around and walk back in again. She greeted me with the same smile and invited me to sit down—as if she were seeing me for the first time. She didn’t remember my name.
…As time goes by, we don’t give a second thought to all the memories we so unconsciously accumulate, until suddenly, one day, we can’t think of the name of a good friend or relative. It’s simply gone; we’ve forgotten…I search and search, but it’s futile, and I can only wait for the final amnesia, the one that can erase an entire life, as it did my mothers’.
So far I’ve managed to keep this final darkness at bay. From my distant past, I can still conjure up countless names and faces; and when I forget one, I remain calm. I know it’s sure to surface suddenly, via one of those accidents of the unconscious. On the other hand, I’m overwhelmed by anxiety when I can’t remember a recent event, or the name of someone I’ve meet during the last few months. Or the name of a familiar object. I feel as if my whole personality has suddenly disintegrated; I become obsessed; I can’t think about anything else; and yet all my efforts and my rage get my nowhere. Am I going to disappear all together? The obligation to find a metaphor to describe “table” is a monstrous feeling, but I console myself with the fact that there is something even worse—to be alive and yet not recognize yourself, not know anymore who you are.
You have to begin to lose your memory, if only in bits and pieces, to realize that memory is what makes our lives. Life without memory is no life at all…our memory is our coherence, our reason, our feeling, even our action. Without it, we are nothing. Memory can be omnipotent and indispensable, but it’s also terribly fragile. The menace is everywhere, not only from its traditional enemy, forgetfulness, but from false memories…our imagination, and our dreams, are forever invading our memories; we end up transforming our lies into truths. Of course, fantasy and reality are equally personal, and equally felt, so their confusion is a matter of only relative importance…I am the sum of my errors and doubts as well as my certainties…the portrait I’ve drawn is wholly mine—with my affirmations, my hesitations, my repetitions and lapses, my truths and my lies. Such is my memory.
(Ch. 9 Dreams and Reveries) If someone were to tell me I had twenty years left, and asked me how I’d like to spend them, I’d reply: “Give me two hours a day of activity, and I’ll take the other twenty-two in dreams, provided I can remember them”.
During sleep, the mind protects itself from the outside world; one is much less sensitive to noise, smell and light. One the other hand, the mind is bombarded by a veritable barrage of dreams that seem to burst upon it like waves. Billions of images surge up each night, then dissolve almost immediately, enveloping the earth in a blanket of lost dreams. Absolutely everything has been imagined during one night or another by one mind or another, and then forgotten. I have a list of about fifteen recurring dreams that have pursued me all my life like faithful traveling companions.
Sometimes, too, I dream that I’m back home in Calanda, and I know there’s a ghost in the house (undoubtedly prompted by my memory of my father’s spectral appearance the night of his death). I walk bravely into the room without a light and challenge the spirit to show himself. Sometime I swear at him. Suddenly there’s a noise behind me, a door slams, and I wake up terrified. I also dream often of my father, sitting at the dinner table with a serious expression on his face, eating very slowly and very little, scarcely speaking. I know he’s dead, and I murmur to my mother or sisters: “Whatever happens, we mustn’t tell him!”
I find it impossible to explain a life without talking about the part that’s underground—the imaginative, the unreal.
(Ch. 10 Surrealism (1929-1933)) I treasure the access to the depths of the self, which I so yearned for, that call to the irrational, to the impulses that spring from the dark inside the soul. It was the surrealists who first launched this appeal with a sustained force and courage, with insolence and playfulness and an obstinate dedication to fight everything repressive in the conventional wisdom.
As a footnote to surrealism, let me add that I remained a close friend to Charles de Noailles until the end. Whenever I went to Paris, we had lunch or dinner together. On my last visit, he invited me to the home where he’d first welcomed me fifty years before. This time, however, everything had changed. Marie-Laure was dead, the walls and the shelves stripped of their treasures. Like me Charles had become deaf. The two of us ate along and spoke very little.
(Ch. 21 Swan Song) I was born at the dawn of the century, and my lifetime often seems to me like an instant. Events in my childhood sometimes seem so recent that I have to make an effort to remember that they happened fifty or sixty years ago. And yet at other times life seems to me very long. The child, or the young man, who did this or that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with me anymore. Until I turned seventy-five, I found old age rather agreeable. It was a tremendous relief to be rid at last of nagging desires; I no longer wanted anything—no more houses by the sea or fancy cars or works of art. I no longer showed myself in bathing suits in public swimming pools, and I traveled less and less. But my life remained active and well balanced; I made my last movie at seventy-seven.
I am an old man, and that’s all there is to it. I’m only happy at home following my daily routine: wake up, have a cup of coffee, exercise for half an hour, wash, have a second cup of coffee, eat something, walk around the block, wait until noon. My eyes are weak, and I need a magnifying glass and a special light in order to read. My deafness keeps me from listening to music, so I wait, I think, I remember, filled with a desperate impatience and constantly looking at my watch.
Noon’s the sacred moment of the aperitif, which I drink very slowly in my study. After lunch, I doze in my chair until mid-afternoon, and then, from three to five, I read a bit and look at my watch, waiting for six o’clock and my pre-dinner aperitif. Sometimes, I cheat, but only by fifteen minutes or so. Sometimes, too, friends come by to chat. Dinners at seven, with my wife, and then I go to bed.
It’s been four years now since I’ve been to the movies, because of my eyesight, my hearing, and my horror of traffic and crowds. I never watch television. Sometimes an entire week goes by without a visitor, and I feel abandoned.
…For a long time now, I’ve written the names of friends who’ve died in a special book I call The Book of the Dead. I leaf through it from time to time, one name beside the other, in alphabetical order. There are red crosses next to the surrealists, whose most fatal year was 1977-78 when Man Ray, Calder, Max Ernst and Prevert all died within a few months of one another.
Some of my friends are upset about this book—dreading, no doubt, the day they will be in it. I try to tell them if helps me remember certain people who’d otherwise cease to exist.
The thought of death has been familiar to me for a long time. From the time that skeletons were carried through the streets of Calanda during Holy Week procession, death had been an integral part of my life. I’ve never wished to forget or deny it, but there’s not much to say about it when you’re an atheist. When all is said and done, there’s nothing, nothing but decay and the sweetish smell of eternity. (Perhaps I’ll be cremated so I can skip all that) Yet I can’t help wonder how death will come, when it does.
..Sometimes I think, the quicker, the better—like the death of my friend Max Aub, who died all of a sudden during a card game. But most of the time I prefer a slower death, one that’s expected, that will let me revisit my life for a last goodbye. Whenever I leave a place now, a place where I’ve lived and worked, which has become a part of me—I stop for a moment to say adieu. I say aloud. “I’ve had so many happy moments here, and without you my life would’ve been so different. Now I’m going away and I’ll never see you again, but you’ll go on without me.” I say goodbye to everything—to the mountains, the streams, the trees, even the frogs. And, of course, irony would have it that I often return to a place I’ve already bid goodbye, but it doesn’t matter. When I leave, I just say goodbye once again.
I’d like to die knowing that this time I’m not going to come back. When people ask me why I don’t travel more, I tell them: Because I’m afraid of death. Of course, they all hasten to assure me that there’s no more chance of my dying abroad then at home, so I explain that it’s not a fear of death in general. Dying itself doesn’t matter to me, but not while I’m on the road. I don’t want to die in a hotel room with my bags open and papers lying all over the place.
On the other hand, an even more horrible death is one that’s kept at bay by the miracles of modern medicine, a death that never ends. In the name of Hippocrates, doctors have invented the most exquisite form of torture ever known to man: survival. If they would only let us die when the moments comes, and help us to go more easily! Respect for human life becomes absurd when it leads to unlimited suffering, not only for the one who’s dying but for those he leaves behind
As I drift towards my last sigh I often imagine a final joke. I convoke around my deathbed my friends who are confirmed atheists, as am I. Then a priest, whom I have summoned, arrives; and to the horror of my friends I make a confession, ask for absolution for my sins, and receive unction. After which I turn over on my side and expire.
But will I have the strength to joke at that moment?
Only one regret. I hate to leave while there’s so much going on. It’s like quitting in the middle of a serial. I doubt there was so much curiosity about the world after death in the past, since in those days the world didn’t change quite so rapidly or so much. Frankly, despite my horror of the press, I’d live to rise from the grave every ten years or so and go buy a few newspapers. Ghostly pale, sliding silently along the walls, my papers under my arm, I’d return to the cemetery and read all about the disasters in the world before falling back to sleep, safe and secure in my tomb.