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Cheating death even before birth


Contemplating death and the afterlife
Desmond Morris Writer
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If you, if you contemplate death, you... if... in my case what happens is that I make jolly sure that every day I have a full... as full a day as I can manage. And I also tailor my life, I don't...  for example, a few years ago, I gave up lecturing and public events. I won't do public events anymore. I made this decision and stuck to it. People get very cross. Oh, you must come and give a talk, you must... you know, and so on. I won't do it.

I decided that the things I really loved doing are painting pictures and writing books, apart from just enjoying myself in other ways. But, I mean, those are the two activities that I care about and that's what I've limited myself to. And people say, oh, fancy you writing books at your age. But I don't do the other things, you see. I don't do... I don't go to social events the way that so many people do, and I don't belong to... well, I may be a member of societies but I don't... I'm not active. I keep away from public events and keep away from things where I have to lecture to a large audience. I don't mind sitting here in my library, talking, because this is... this is where I feel relaxed, at home. But I think when you reach my age, you have to, you have to restrict things a little bit and then... and do the things you really love doing, but going on doing them at full tilt. I work every night until about 4:00am. I rise... I get my sleep, I rise late, but I like working late at night because it's completely peaceful and I can paint or write then without any interruption.

And my own attitude towards death is that when it happens, everything just stops. I don't... I wish I could believe in... it would be nice to believe in an afterlife, but I find it hard to conceive of one. And I can quite see how people of religious faith find it comforting to think of an afterlife. In fact, it was one of the earliest inventions of the human imagination, was to create an afterlife thousands of years ago and it has been a comfort ever since. But it's also been a curse because people now are being told that if they will blow themselves up and take a lot of unbelievers with them, they'll have a lovely time in the afterlife. So by being promised – what is it? – 15 virgins or something, I can't remember what it is now, but you're promised all sorts of goodies in the afterlife if you'll blow yourself up. This is... this is a terrible distortion of that. And... but on the other hand, just a gentle belief in an afterlife is something that I'm sure brings comfort to people. It's a comfort I don't have because I can't conceive of another existence of that sort. So I'm sad that I shan't be around, but equally I'm very glad that I've had a full life because I haven't held back in my life, I haven't been cautious – I've taken risks and enjoyed a very varied and active life and one that I've enjoyed enormously. And there are so many questions about this little planet I'd still like to ask and try to answer which I won't get a chance to do which is sad. But there you go.

Born in Wiltshire, UK in 1928, Desmond Morris had a strong interest in natural history from his boyhood. Later, as an undergraduate, he studied zoology, and after obtaining a First Class Honours Degree from the University of Birmingham, he moved to the Oxford University Zoology Department where he began his research into animal behaviour for his doctorate thesis. In 1957, having moved to London, Morris famously organised an exhibition at the ICA of art work created by Congo the chimpanzee. Morris's engagement with the visual arts remains strong and he has often exhibited many of his own paintings since 1950 when his paintings went on show alongside those of the surrealist painter, Jean MirĂ³. 1950 was also the year when Morris began his career in TV creating and presenting Zootime and Life in the Animal World. Soon after this, he began work on a book that has proved a huge best-seller, The Naked Ape. Focusing on human behaviour, it was the first in a series of books in which the author observes humans primarily as a species of animal. Today, Desmond Morris has lost none of his inquisitiveness and continues to observe and write about what he sees in the world around him.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: death, writing, painting, afterlife, religious faith

Duration: 3 minutes, 49 seconds

Date story recorded: June 2014

Date story went live: 06 November 2014