Daily Archives: March 1, 2009

Bowing, Not Knowing to What

I like thinking (and reading) about death. Maybe that makes me sound a little too much like Woody Allen. I’ve kind of been feeling like Woody Allen lately, specifically like the scenes in Annie Hall where he buys her all the books on death theory, and then at the end of the movie when she packs them all up to return to him. It used to scare me a lot: the idea of not existing anymore, of simply not-being. “What about me!” the little voice inside my brain squeaks out. “What about all the things I have built and constituted and gathered over the years? All the books I have read, the songs I have listened to?” There’s something very freaky about all that just being wiped out—erased, vanished, like a poor dead computer. There’s a really great part in David Lodge’s Thinks…:

” ‘So you think that when we die we just cease to exist?’ she says, when the waitress has gone.
‘Not in an absolute sense. The atoms of my body are indestructible.’
‘But your self, your spirit, your soul…?’
‘As far as I’m concerned those are just ways of talking about certain kinds of brain activity. When the brain ceases to function, they necessarrily cease too.’
‘And that doesn’t fill you with despair?’
‘No,’ he says cheerfully, twisting creamy ribbons of tagliatelle on his fork. ‘Why should it?’ He thrusts the steaming pasta into his mouth and munches vigorously.
‘Well, it seems pointles to spend years and years acquiring knowledge, accumulating experience, trying to be good, struggling to make something of yourself, as the saying goes, if nothing of that self survives deat. It’s like building a beautiful sandcastle below the tideline.’
‘That’s the only part of the beach you can build a sandcastle…'”

This is a pretty good representation of the internal dialogue in my head re: death (spaghetti-twirling and all). Mine is a little more hippy dippy, lately. I can’t find the quote right now, but Tori Amos said something about her album from the choirgirl hotel once, written in the aftermath of several miscarriages, that it was her attempt to hold hands with death, to laugh and play with it a little. This is something I can relate to, in regards to trying to do concrete, day-to-day little changes and efforts in my everyday life… just hold hands with death a little, from time to time, not let it drag me around, but be aware. Not deny it, not run from it, not let it make me panicky and small-feeling and frenzied. Come to terms with it, that it’s there. Death does not come from the outside, it comes from within.

Thinking about death has been my strategy as of late to put things in perspective. Over sushi last night with Corey, he asked what I thought of the first 2 months-ish of Barry O’s presidency, specifically regarding his escalation of the conflict in Afghanistan. Maybe it was the terrible ginger cocktail, but my response was “well, we’re all going to die anyway, aren’t we?” He said my comment wasn’t particularly helpful, and kind of a terrible perspective to live with. Agreed. I guess what would have been a better answer was that politicians will be politicians, you know, and in the end, we’re all just going to have to live our lives…

Faust writes a very interesting, readable history on the Civil War, using death as a jumping-off point in order to discuss the Confederate defeat and the Reconstruction in a new way. The emphasis in this review ought to be on “readable”; man, they sure teach them at Harvard to write those topic sentences! It’s so easy to follow Faust’s arguments in this book. I especially like the one-word gimmick for the chapter titles, making it easier to remember what they’re about: Dying. Killing. Burying. Naming. Accounting. Good stuff.

Basically, Faust discusses how the kind of death produced by the Civil War–specfically death on a massive, unprecedented scale, caused by technologies whose effect on battle strategies was not foreseen–affected a lot of different things: the desire for the Civil War to end and the formation of a strong federal state post-war, to give the two most-discussed examples.

My favorite parts of the book were Faust’s discussion of citizens’ understanding of waht constituted “a good death”: the proper way to die. Home, on your bed, surrounded by family and friends, able to give your last words in a clear and understandable fashion, make it clear that you’re happy about going off to hang with God, etc. The Civil War made this form of the hors mori a tad difficult. You could get blown to pieces on the battlefield, making the issue of resurrection on Judgement Day a very iffy question, if you had no body to be buried (and thus raised). You could get shot randomly by snipers while drinking your morning coffee. You could be one of so many dead that it was very unlikely that you would get a proper burial and would instead have to settle for a mass grave (probably after rotting for a while on the battlefield first). Faust’s chapter on bodies and burying is one of the most interesting of the book; she mentiones how Gettysburg citizens walked around for months afterwards pressing perfumed handkerchiefs to their faces because the smell of rot and decay just overwhelmed the town. The little mentioned facts of history.

Over that same sushi meal, I asked Corey what he wanted to do before he died. Mine are:
1- Go to India and Nepal
2- Write and publish a book
3- Travel through the rest of South America
4- Hold my child in my arms
If I can do these things, I think I will be a pretty happy camper come my own hors mori. Here’s to doing what little we can to prepare for the inevitable.

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveler
Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one women
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what


Filed under books, civil war, death, non-fiction