What did this man see?

Miguel Torga in Portugal, April 1985
Photo: Georges DUSSAUD/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

Miguel Torga, born Adolfo Correia Rocha in 1907, was a giant of Portuguese literature whose first collection of poetry was self-published in 1928, when he was 21—one of more than 40 books that would ultimately bear his name. Throughout the subsequent decades of writing poetry, short stories, plays, and numerous remarkable volumes of diaries, Torga also worked as a doctor and surgeon in the city of Coimbra, a calling he considered too important and valuable to set aside, and it is in those diaries that we sometimes find him recalling and reacting to the inevitable difficulties of such a job. This entry came on 20th March 1971, another day on which Torga, then 63, had attempted to save a life.

The Diary Entry

Coimbra, 20 March 1971 

I shall never forget this wild cry of terror: 

“There it’s coming! It’s coming! There! Now!” 

I gave another injection of adrenalin to stimulate the heart, I did cardiac massage and mouth-to-mouth. In vain: the man was dead, irremediably. Now he was no more than a heavy cadaver, in the process of cooling, gradually stiffening, like so many others I’d not succeeded in keeping alive. All that was left was to forget this incident, to return to my papers; besides the patient was expecting another doctor and my intervention took place only by accident. But there was this disturbing fact: the vision and the panicky fear. The horror-stricken dread before a spectacle that no one could see. And that’s all I continue to think of, moved, disturbed, the words of the dying man furred up in my ear. What does the face of Death look like? What did this man see?

Further Reading

The first volume of Miguel Torga’s diaries, titled Diário I, was published in 1941 when he was in his thirties. Fifteen other volumes followed. As far as I am aware, they are yet to be fully translated into English; however, in 2003 a compelling selection of entries were included in The Body in the Library: A Literary Anthology of Modern Medicine, a book which, as the name suggests, brings together a fascinating selection of passages—from both fiction and non-fiction—relating to the body, medicine, illness, and doctors.

Diary entry excerpted from The Body in the Library, edited and translated by Iain Bamforth. Copyright © Verso 2003. Reproduced with permission of the Licensor through PLSclear.

One response to “What did this man see?”

  1. Nguyen Cong Kien Avatar
    Nguyen Cong Kien

    I really enjoy the fact that this project have revealed that something just always been on the mind of humanity, like what one see at the arms of Death.

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