Category Archives: death

Being Dead

It was a quiet week. I went to Sheffield on Wednesday and saw the house I’ll be moving into. I went to a barbecue on Sunday and brought the hosts a potted succulent as a housewarming gift. We talked about how difficult it is an artist to make time, to use time. Is it pretentious of me to call myself an artist? It feels like a form of self-protection. But I also agree with it. Also at the BBQ, I met someone who’d traveled to Colombia, and when I said I’d grown up in Cali, his face changed and he said, “Oh. I felt really unsafe there.” (This happens, often.) N. and I watched a Japanese film, The Great Passage, about the editors of a dictionary. Life is very quiet and slow and still. September lurks like a beast on the horizon. I am trying to keep my head down and my nose clean. But time passes, constantly, and I fret and worry.

Being Dead (Jim Crace)

There was a book I read earlier this summer that’s been on my mind: Being Dead by Jim Crace. I’ve read one other Crace novel (Quarantine – apparently I read it both in Colombia and Ecuador). Being Dead is very much a book about time – namely, the end of it. I don’t remember how I first came across it – maybe in my research about 2666. Because there are passages through Being Dead that very clearly parallel Bolaño’s famous style:

Their bodies were discovered straight away. A beetle first. Claudaus maximi. A male. Then the raiding parties arrived, drawn by the summons of fresh wounds and the smell of urine: swag flies and crabs, which normally would have to make do with rat dung and the carcasses of fish for their carrion. Then a gull.” (36)

The plot follows a married couple, Joseph and Celice, two zoologists. In the opening chapters, they are brutally murdered in a random, senseless act, by a madman carrying a hunk of granite (the chapter narrated from his perspective is not one I’m going to forget anytime soon). Their bodies lie on the beach for six days. And so death – and the beetles, and the gulls, and the maggots most of all – sets in.

[The beetle] didn’t carry with him any of that burden which makes the human animal so cumbersome, the certainty that death was fast approaching and could arrive at any time. It’s only those who glimpse the awful, endless corridor of death, too gross to contemplate, that need to lose themselves in love or art. His species had no poets. He had not spent, like us, his lifetime concocting systems to deny mortality. Nor had he passed his days in melancholic fear of death, the hollow and the avalanche. Nor was he burdened with the compensating marvels of human, mortal life. He had no schemes, no memories, no guilt or aspirations, no appetite for love, and no delusions. He wanted to escape, and to feed. That was his long-term plan, and his hereafter.” (37)

(After rereading the passage above, part of me is kind of like… but AREN’T beetles afraid of death, in the sense that they want to instinctively avoid it? Lol what do I know)

In college and high school I flirted briefly with the idea of becoming a biologist. My grades were never good enough (despite taking the class, I didn’t dare take the AP Biology exam), but I’ve always loved the subject. For “Career Week” (a week we had to spend working somewhere), I even interned with my dad’s friend Tony, an entomologist. Though I think I mainly chose to do that because I didn’t know how to do an internship with a fiction writer, which deep down inside is what I wanted to be. But whatever, as if the busybody Career Counselor was going to let me get away with that! Rest in peace, Tony! You were the best!

“Zoologists have mantras of their own: change is the only constant; nothing in the universe is stable or inert; decay and growth are synonyms; a grain of sand is stronger and more durable than rock.” (81)

During and post-college I mainly dated scientists (both medical, social, and biological – LOL “scientists” is really stretching it, let’s be real – most of them were BUMS and ABUSIVE LOSERS. BUMS, I tell you). I think I’ve channeled that love of biology mainly into listening to Radiolab, for now. But! I love being outside. I vaguely flirt with notions of “learning about the local plant and wildlife” (though after living here for six years, I am moving, again). I do feel, though, akin to Tori Amos and the film Mother!, that it is within the natural world where our salvation (and our destruction) lies. Maybe this is just the result of getting older, of seriously asking myself questions like do I WANT to bring a child into this world, like that poor guy at the beginning of First Reformed.

In this sense, this was a worldview that Being Dead very much champions. That this world is what IS – it’s what we have and it’s what we are. That’s it. There is nothing else. Nothing.

‘Anyone who studies nature must get used to violence. You’ll have to make yourselves companionable with death if any of you want to flourish as zoologists.’ She meant that fear of death is fear of life, a cliché among scientists, and preachers too. Both knew that life and death are inextricably entwined, the double helix of existence. Both want to give life meaning only because it clearly has none, other than to replicate and decompose. Hard truths.” (40)

I did find this interview with the author extremely interesting, especially in his discussion that the book was a response to his father’s death – specifically, his atheist father’s insistance that there be no ritual after his death whatsoever. The Crace family just got on with their lives. Which was deeply unsatisfying to little Jim Crace. And so (as he says in the interview), Being Dead was his attempt at creating a sort of response, a non-religious ritual for facing death. And consequently that ritual is… accepting that decay, and change, and death is inevitable, and constant, I suppose. You’d think this realisation would make me get off my butt and, like, go RUN THROUGH A FIELD, but whatever.

Whatever philosophical claims we might make for ourselves, human kind is only marginal. We hardly count in the natural orders of zoology. We’ll not be missed. [Insects] might not have a sense of self, like us. Or memory. Or hope. Or consciences. Or fear of death. They might not know how strong and wonderful they are. But when every human being in the world has perished, and all our sewerage pipes and gas cookers and diesel engines have fossilised, there will still be insects. Take my word. Flourishing, evolving, specialising insects.” (86)

I won’t say too much more about the book, except that even though it’s a bit slow in parts (I liked the corpse chapters way more than the ones focused on the daughter, because I am morbid), it is an extremely impressive achievement, in terms of structure and theme. Some people might find it a bit cold, icy, distant, but this kind of style is what I just plain ate up. I plan on reading more of him.

Zoology was a far kinder companion that cosmology. How much more heartening it was to contemplate and bring about the capture of a bladder fly, like some great god, than to view the huge and distant streakings of the sky. How greater than the death of stars was this wet universe, its grains of sand and liquid films, its mites and worms too small to see but swimming, feeding, dying, breathing in massive miniature. These tide pools were a meditation, too.” (75)

Leave a comment

Filed under books, British, death, review

Now and At the Hour of Our Death

Now and At the Hour of Our Death (Susana Moreira Marques; translated by Julia Sanches)

Death begins long before we fall ill, with neither suffering, nor drama, nor a single memorable occurrence. (23)

Another book about death. Is this my theme for the year?! I read this in the waiting room of a medical clinic (don’t worry, I’m fine) – maybe not the best place for this sort of reading :/ Considering the topic, it’s delicately, sensitively written.

The book is divided into two sections: the first very poetic and abstract, the second more akin to testimony. I enjoyed both very much and would probably choose the first one as my favorite – I really admire fragmented works in this style, a lá Barbara Comyns’ Sisters by a River. Part One follows the author as she accompanies a palliative care team, as they work in extremely rural Portuguese villages, the kind with a chapel, communal oven, eight lived-in houses, and no café, grocery, post office, town hall, or bus stop.

And yet, the surest metaphor for death is war: a person struggling in bed for years and years until their breathing is finally mistaken for moaning. (25)

In this section the author meets with various families, with various family members in varying stages of death. The section is narrated in fragments, breaking off abruptly, sometimes never longer than a sentence or two:

In the cemetery: a photograph and at times no more than a name. Names may survive, but they were never what made us unique. (33)

It becomes quite affecting, especially when the author notes that “death is chiefly a physical process” – beds, diapers, morphine, gauze, tubes, needles. “There is little that is literary about death.” How, then, to reconcile “literary” stories about death like the famous Ivan Ilych? How to write about death when there are no dramatic moments, just the sick suffering until they have no strength left? Her response seems to have been via the form of this book, via these poetic reflections and then the next section, which is built primarily on testimonies. I found the married couple who’d lived in Angola as farmers the most interesting. And then you have a daughter agonizing over her father: “What was going through his head? What does someone who’s dying think about? Does he believe he’s going to die? Does he belive it all the time? Is it a constant thought? Isn’t it? Does he try to kid himself? Does he try picturing what everyone else’s life will be like? Does he think about what he’s going to lose?” (107) Super fuerte … you really feel for her.

Overall, this was an intense read. It made me want to get in touch with my Portuguese heritage.

 

1 Comment

Filed under books, death, non-fiction, review, translation

Dying: A Memoir

Gosh. What a painfully simple yet intense book. Death. UGH. Written when the author was in the advanced stages of melanoma cancer, Dying is a memoir divided into three parts. The first is arguably lo más fuerte, with her reflections on the questions she most often gets re: dying (does she have a bucket list? Has she considered suicide? Has she discovered religion? Does she have regrets?). The first part examines her parents’ lives, and deaths. And the third focuses on the earliest memories of her childhood. At 150-odd pages, it is not very long, yet does a lot.

I wanted to read this book as… a sort of self-help manual, maybe? Does that make sense? Does thinking about dying help us figure out how to live? It meant a lot to read that she found writing to be so valuable. As Cat Marnell said recently on le Twitter, your (creative) work is the only thing you have any control over! Yay for work!

I also liked the parts where she quoted T.S. Eliot, and mused about the strangeness of time, of how life can be simultaneous, in the sense that she could be both a young girl and a dying woman at the same time (reminding me of this Mary Ruefle poem).

Oh, it’s so hard to live meaningfully and attentively, isn’t it? The days I feel I’ve frittered away! Fritter, fritter, fritter. Hours and minutes wasted away like corn fritters, zucchini fritters… IDK what other kind of fritters there are for this senseless metaphor. What does a time fritter taste like? Can you hold time in your mouth? What does it feel like? Is it ever too late for any of us?

Basically, this book made me feel sad but also moved. A necessary and powerful read.

Leave a comment

Filed under books, death, non-fiction, review

“nobody knows what the future holds, it’s bad enough just getting old”

I read this column by Oliver Sacks recently and can’t stop thinking about it. It pretty much broke my heart. I can’t get the last paragraph out of my head: “what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life — achieving a sense of peace within oneself.” It’s the kind of Big Question that tons of thinkin’ and contemplatin’ will do pretty much nothing to solve.

Today’s gray rainy sky isn’t doing much either for my general Abraham Lincoln-esque melancholy and moodiness–God, does it ever make the humidity of the East Coast seem like a far and distant memory! This was a VERY emotional and intense summer for me (high school friends from Colombia getting married! Going back to Mexico! A very intense six weeks of summer school work!) and it has frankly been a relief to slip back into the habits and routines of England, even when it’s all tinged with the nostalgic, sehnsucht, saudade knowledge that I will (probably; most likely) be leaving again soon. For good? Who knows. Who knows anything? If you know something about anything could you please tell me? ;D

I’ve enjoyed my time here in England very much, but all things must end. I’m feeling pretty ready to leave but obviously have a few things to take care of first before that can happen (like, oh, IDK, submitting my PhD, DUHHHHR). In the meantime I’m glad to see that the library has gotten their purchasing act on over the summer and has some books in stock that I’ve been looking forward to reading for a long time. God, reading!! What would I do without you?!

All My Puny Sorrows (Miriam Toews)

I don’t know if I’m going to do a good job at explaining the effect that this book had on me…maybe it’s the main reason I feel so moody and emotional this morning. Or maybe it’s the fact that I was up until midnight last night finishing it because I couldn’t put it down. Reading this book made me feel like I couldn’t breath. I actually read some parts out loud incredulously to myself because I couldn’t believe the cathartic rawness of the dialogue, while my cat blinked at me incredulously. It’s turned me into a shitty movie critic, wanting to exclaim stuff like “I laughed! I cried!!” It’s hard to articulate the urgent pain of this book, the black anguish that is only made palatable by the Lorrie Moore-like humor. This is the kind of book where I think it’s absolutely essential to know the autobiographical underpinnings of it… I don’t know if I would have maybe read it quite the same way if I’d taken it as “pure” fiction. The only other book I can think of that came close to having a similar effect on me was the equally brilliant Legend of a Suicide by David Vann.

I don’t know. I guess what I find most powerful about books like this one or Legend of a Suicide is that I feel like they’re “teaching” me how to live in face of one of the most spectacularly awful scenarios I can imagine…. and the “lesson” that this book seems to be teaching (or at least what I got out of it) is that humor, writing and reading can be an absolute lifeboat in face of all the dukkha that Buddhists like to rant about. After the narrator’s father steps in front of a train (and this is not even a spoiler considering the rest of the book, believe me,) “he had seventy-seven dollars on him at the time and we used the money for Thai takeout because, as my friend Julie says about times like this: You still have to eat.” (48) You still have to eat, indeed: talk about taking Raymond Carver’s “A Small, Good Thing” to the ultimate level!

The voice of the narrator is above and beyond what makes this book worth reading. Listen to her response to a therapist’s advice: “When my father killed himself I went to see one and he suggested I write my father a letter… I thanked the therapist and left thinking but my father is dead now. He won’t receive this letter. What’s the point? Can I just have my one hundred and fifty-five dollars back to buy some Chardonnay and a bag of weed?” (115) Or her reaction to her mother’s question: “How are you, sweetheart? she asked. What have you been up to? Having unprotected sex with your mechanic and researching ways to kill your daughter. Not much, I said. Doing some work.” (203) I kept laughing out loud SO many times while reading this book, and considering the subject matter, that’s really saying something.

The other commendable aspect about this book is the pace. As the narrator herself reflects, “Now I’m learning something. Go into hard things quickly, eagerly, then retreat. It’s the same thing for thinking, writing and life. It’s true what Jason said about cleaning a septic tank.” (243) The attitude of going into hard things “quickly” and “eagerly” is a fair assessment of the book itself: it comes off like the ultimate cleaning of the dirtiest septic tank ever. The pace helps with the intense subject matter: the book moves fast, speckled with believable moments and memorable supporting characters. Even though the setting is fairly limited (the majority of the scenes take place in a hospital, and by far most of the conversations in the novel take place between just two characters), this book still reads very quickly, never dragging or feeling stagnant.

Even the narrator’s mother comments reflexively on the challenge of writing a book about “sad” topics: “Okay, she’s sad!” she says at one point about a book. “We get it, we know what sad is, and then the whole book is basically a description of the million and one ways in which our protagonist is sad. Gimme a break! Get on with it!” This book definitely focuses more on the “getting on with it” then the million-and-one descriptions. Ultimately, the biggest question of this book (why does the sister want to die?) is ultimately never answered. Is it a suicide gene? Genetic? A historical burden from their grandparents being massacred in Russia during the revolution; a sort of hereditary violence that cannot be cast off? The pressure from being “perfect”? Self-absorption? The narrator doesn’t know. Nobody knows anything, except that “she wanted to die and I wanted to live and we were enemies who loved each other.”

“If you have to end up in the hospital, try to focus all your pain in your heart rather than your head.” (219)

This book made me rethink about how I want to live my life. That’s really all I’ve been trying to say.

The Buried Giant (Kazuo Ishiguro)

This was another great book to read, albeit not as intense for me as All My Puny Sorrows. I know a few people (okay, two) who didn’t like this book because “it wasn’t as good as Never Let Me Go” or “I don’t like fantasy” or “it was sooo flatly written.” To each her/his own, of course, but fie on all that, I say. Fie on it! Because BOY, can Ishiguro write killer devastating endings that make you feel like you’ve been kicked in the teeth!!

All in all, even though I know (two) people who ho-hummed at this book or even downright sniffed at it–I loved it. I totally respect that Ishiguro has written a follow-up to Never Let Me Go that is completely, radically different (as are all of his books from each other, I suppose)–in terms of voice, subject matter, tone and even genre. Do you know how hard that is to do?! To write so many books that are SO different from each other?? Not that I know what I’m talking about, but still…

All in all, I didn’t love this book as much as Never Let Me Go, but its message still hit me pretty hard. The dialogue is a bit stilted at times (how many times can the main character Axl use the word ‘princess‘ in reference to his wife?) but I eventually figured it was intentional. Some people have said that this is the most ‘Japanese’ of Ishiguro’s books and I’m thinking maybe it kind of is? Again… not like I know what I’m talking about… but maybe people are saying that because of the detached language? IDK, I’m basing this comment off a wikipedia entry for The Tale of Genji so don’t take me too seriously.

What you SHOULD take seriously is that the message of this book is pretty heartbreaking, if you let it hit you the right way, if you let it get under you skin. And yeah, thin-skinned person that I am, this book hit me hard. You gotta let it in.

Is this a story about religious fundamentalism? The chapters narrated by the young Saxon boy most emphasized this for me, especially in this killer final sentence in his section: “His mother was gone, most likely gone beyond all retrieving, but the warrior was well and waiting for him.” Yup, the figure of the mother (compassion and fertility and empathy) is dead; long live the warrior who tells him to hate all Britons for the rest of his life and basically be a mindless killing machine. “The giant, once well buried, now stirs. When soon he rises, as surely he will, the friendly bonds between us will prove as knots young girls make with the stems of small flowers.” So is the buried giant the inescapable cycle of violence? The forces of history that crush ordinary people like Axl and Beatrice underfoot so that their moving love stories are forever lost in the shadow of legends like Arthur & Merlin & dragon slaying?

Or is this a story about old age and forgetting? (I read a review somewhere that claimed it was a parable to Alzeheimer’s, which I can kind of see.) In Never Let Me Go the narrator relished her memories and spent the entire novel remembering/reliving her past. In The Buried Giant, characters can’t help but forget due to an eerie mist that has settled over the land, and at times find themselves wondering “is it not better some things remain hidden from our minds?” Is it not better, indeed.

I also love how the legacy of Gaiwan, Arthur and Merlin are played with in this novel–maybe I’m crazy, but it made me think of the Iraq War and ISIS. “How can old wounds heal while maggots linger so richly? Or a peace hold forever built on slaughter and a magician’s trickery?” Rather than a “fantasy” novel I would call this a “mythological” one… or even allegorical… It was really hard not to read this and interpret everything as a parable, even though I was never quite sure it what it was a parable of. I was okay with that uncertainty, though.

I just hope that if they make this into a movie, they don’t change that final scene. Thank God for books and reading and funky Vampire Weekend songs to help fight off the ravages and brutality of time and life and saudade and dukkha and everything!!

2 Comments

Filed under books, death, review, women writers

“All of my being is now in pining”: More Tolstoy

 I STILL haven’t finished “War and Peace”!! I have about 155 pages left to read and a long 4-hour layover in Bogota tomorrow, so hopefully I can triumphantly mark it as “read” on Goodreads by the end of the day.

War and Peace is a REALLY good (dare I say great?) book, so I don’t know why the last 300 pages have been such a slog for me. Maybe it’s a syndrome of “too much of a good thing”, as it’s the only book I’ve been reading for the past month (no, Judy Blume and Lois Duncan don’t count). As a way to “reward” myself in between chapters, I’ve been picking up Natasha’s Dance: A Cultural History of Russia, a relic from my sister’s freshman year at Wesleyan (the title even refers to War & Peace! How perfect is that?). I remember e-mailing passages from this book about the brutality of drunk Russian men and the woe-is-me folk songs that their abused wives would sing to an ex-friend of mine who was really into Russian culture. Now after reading it in more depth, I’m pleased to say that it really is a most enjoyable, highly recommendable book. The map in the front page was also extraordinarily helpful, as it helped me make more sense of Tolstoy’s historically-based passages (“The French are heading back to Mozhaisk via Smolensk? OMG!”).

I still have a hundred-ish pages to go, but I don’t think I’m being presumptuous by stating that one of the major themes (if not THE major theme) of War and Peace is the Search For Truth. This Search is embodied by the main characters, the dashing Prince Andrei Volkonsky (apparently based on Tolstoy’s grandfather, whom he greatly admired and sought to emulate) and the dour, chubby Pierre (whose life is similar to Tolstoy’s to the point of eeriness). Pierre, in all his clumsiness and WTF-are-you-thinking moments (kind of like a female, Russian, 19th-century Sophie from The Wonder Spot), was definitely the one I related to the most. Pierre is very much a a character who is constantly on a quest throughout the book, in search of something to give his life meaning and purpose:

Whatever he started thinking about, he came back to the same questions, which he could not resolve and could not stop asking himself. It was as if the main screw in his head, which held his whole life together, had become stripped. The screw would not go in, would not come out, but turned in the same groove without catching hold, and it was impossible to stop turning it. (347)

What is bad? What is good? What should one love, what hate? Why live, and what am I? What is life, what is death? What power rules over everything?… And there was no answer to any of these questions except one, which was not logical and was not at all an answer to these questions. This answer was: ‘You will die—and everything will end. You will die and learn everything—or stop asking.’ But to die was also frightening. (348)

(Here’s another great passage involving Pierre that my sister e-mailed me waaaay back in senior year of college, when she first read it.)

Now I haven’t finished the book yet, but so far it seems that one solution to this problem of meaning that Tolstoy proposes is Love and Compassion, which would definitely get the Pema Chodron stamp of approval. There’s a very moving scene in which one of the main characters (not Pierre!) is on his deathbed, and he forgives his very worst enemy, a person who has committed a horrible betrayal against him, and becomes capable of feeling love and compassion for him. After this realization of the importance Love as “life”, (984) the character experiences “an awakening from life” (985)and begins to drift into death. It’s almost as if by approaching this truth–of loving completely and totally, without reservations–the character can no longer be expected to remain in this world, and instead has to pass on to the next one. In this way Love is presented as the key to meaning, as the way of making sense of one’s life, but it’s as though it’s a meaning you cannot adopt without completely renouncing all earthly things, including the world itself.

(Renunciation is also an interesting theme in Tolstoy, if you consider “Tolstoyism” and his radical anarchist Christian socialism that he adopted later in life and yes, his Into the Wild fanboydom. But that’s a theme for another day.)

It’s interesting to me that Tolstoy uses the deathbed as the ideal moment (indeed, the only moment) in which Truth and Meaning can be revealed to the protagonist.  (Not just in War & Peace, but in Ivan Ilych, the only other work of his that I’ve read, way back in 10th-grade Spanish class.) These kind of death scenes are a far cry from the more “modern” kinds of death that take place in Onetti, or the inexplicable, horrifying ones caused by modern warfare in World War I, II or even the Civil War. It’s especially interesting if you keep in mind that according to Natasha’s Dance, apparently Tolstoy himself was both terrified and fascinated by death, in the best Woody Allen sense:

Tolstoy desperately tried to rationalize death as a part of life. ‘People who fear death, fear it because it appears to them as emptiness and blackness,’ he wrote in ‘One Life’ (1887), ‘but they see emptiness and blackness because they do not see life.’ Then, under Schopenhauer’s influence perhaps, he came to regard death as the dissolution of one’s personality in some abstract essence of the universe. But none of it was convincing to those who knew him well. As Chekhov put it in a letter…, Tolstoy was terrified of his own death, but did not want to admit it.” (345)

 Contrasting Chekhov’s attitude towards death with Tolstoy is also an interesting exercise, as apparently Chekhov had a much more relaxed, down-to-earth attitude. With the moment of his tuberculosis-induced deathbed rapidly encroaching, Chekhov dealt with it by checking into a hotel with his wife and drinking a glass of champagne before expiring. Talk about “a good death,” the proper way to approach your momento moris! We should all be so lucky (the soldiers getting blown to bits in Iraq and Afghanistan are definitely not afforded such a luxury). According to Natasha’s Dance, Chekhov’s understanding of death was closer to the peasant’s understanding: “Chekhov understood that people die in a very ordinary way—for the most part they die thinking about life. He saw that death is simply part of the natural process.” (348) Tolstoy himself  “long believed that the peasants died in a different way from the educated classes, a way that showed they knew the meaning of their lives. The peasants died accepting death.” (353) This reminds me of the people I met and worked with during my oh so brief foray into microfinance, who would definitely be considered peasants on the social-economic scale of things in 19th-century Russia. I’m reminded in the sense that they were accepting of their fates and always spoke of a higher power that guided them (I always wanted to tell them to give themselves more credit!). Death is a firmly established, indisputable ritual, and that’s why there’s no fear or uncertainty: they know how to die. Death is a moment when you need to get your affairs in order, so you don’t leave things in a big mess for your family to deal with after you go. It’s a very simple, practical attitude, as though you’re just walking through an open door to go on a trip somewhere.

Chekhov's calm, appropriately doctorly, all-accepting countenance inspires reassurance

I have to go to bed soon (7AM flight…woooo!) so I’ll keep this brief, but let me just say that if I had to write a college paper about Tolstoy (Ha Ha Ha!) or War and Peace, I’d probably want to write about his attitude towards the peasants. There’s several interesting scenes in War & Peace that could be used for this purpose. The best one is when Pierre meets a peasant who seems to be the embodiment of the simple living and acceptance of meaning that he’s been desperately searching for throughout these 900+ pages:

Karataev had no attachments, friendships or love, as Pierre understood them, but he loved and lived affectionately with everything that life brought him in contact with, particularly man—not any particular man, but those with whom he happened to be… To Pierre he always remained… an unfathomable, rounded, eternal personification of the spirit of simplicity and truth.” (lost page number, sorry!)

Karataev appears to Pierre as the embodiment of simplicity and truth because he seems to be very certain of his place in his life, of his membership to a particular community. So in addition to LOVE being one of the key solutions to the Search for Truth, Tolstoy also seems to be saying that COMMUNITY is equally important. As Natasha’s Dance puts it:

“Tolstoy thought of God in terms of love and unity. He wanted to belong, to feel himself a part of a community. This was the ideal he sought in marriage and in his communion with the peasantry… All Tolstoy’s characters are searching for a form of Christian love, a sense of relatedness to other human beings that alone can give a meaning and a purpose to their lives.” (341)

(I would just substitute the word “truth” for “God” here… aren’t they basically the same thing? IDK)

 I guess I’d like to end this entry with a question about the Eternal, Ever-Present Search for Meaning (LOL) inspired by Chekhov:

Modern culture is but the beginning of a work for a great future, a work which will go on, perhaps, for ten thousand years, in order that mankind may, even in the remote future, come to know the truth of a real God—that is, not by guessing, not by seeking in Dostoevsky, but by perceiving clearly, as one perceives that twice two is four. (Chekhov)

Are we getting closer to that moment, in which we’ll be able to find the Truth by “perceiving clearly,” as clearly as we perceive 2+2 = 4? Is living the simple life, toiling in the soil like a farmer key to this (Tolstoy seemed to think so, with his live-like-a-peasant-and-renounce-everything-Into-the-Wild-style at the end of his life) Or are we still stuck in the guessing and searching stage? Take a wild guess…

(The title for this entry comes from the PJ Harvey song “The Devil,” apparently based on the Tolstoy novella by the same name, which I haven’t read but will have to as Natasha’s Dance refers to it constantly. Polly seems to be quite the Tolstoy fan; the lyrics to “Before Departure” also appear to be based on a kind of Ivan Ilych deathbed realization.)

Leave a comment

Filed under books, colombia, death, poverty, truth

maps and lessons

phantommap

Am I basking in the Sea of Knowledge? Or lost in the Foothills of Confusion?

Last Saturday in Estacion Palabra I re-read The Phantom Tolbooth and most of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. I literally gasped when I saw “Tolbooth” on the shelf. This was one of my absolute favorite books growing up, the rare children’s fantasy world novel that stands alone and isn’t part of a trilogy. I love any book that has a map in the opening pages, period. “Tolbooth” really does a wonderful job of capturing what it feels like to be a kid whose childhood is defined by books. The movie critic in Salon sums up this feeling very nicely in a recent review:

I’m not talking about the overrated notion of “being returned to a sense of childlike wonder,” or anything like that. I’m talking about a movie that captures something even more intangible than that, the very texture of an experience… the quiet, intense joy I felt as a kid, first poring over illustrated details in picture books (the nooks and crannies of Beatrix Potter’s rabbit warrens and mouse houses, for example) and later in the semi-fanciful, semi-naturalistic details to be found in Kenneth Grahame and A.A. Milne and Dahl.

“The Phantom Tolbooth” is just so unique is so many ways: how can you not love Subtraction Stew? Or jumping to the Island of Conclusions? When Milo was lost, winding his way through the Doldrums, and managed to escape by thinking hard (i.e. putting his brain to good use) all I could think was God, what a valuable lesson for me at this point in my life. This past week has been a little difficult for me because so much of it has been pure office work. I mean, I managed to get a lot of work done on projects on my workplan, all with fancy, scary sounding titles like “Operational Cost Analysis” and “Interest Rate Calculation/Verification.” Next week I’ll definitely be out in the field meeting clients again (I’ll probably end up missing the office!). But humans were truly not made to be shut up in offices, hunched in front of little computers all day. Thank god I enjoy my co-workers and feel like the work I’m doing is actually important and has a point to it; otherwise, I can see why office jobs could be a slow, droning form of suicide for many people.

It was fun to re-read the Eggers book too, which I hadn’t touched since 2000, the first time I read it. I was in summer camp at CTY at Skidmore College in New York. I remember feeling very impressed that my creative writing teacher knew Dave Eggers. Anyway, I LOVED the book. I was convinced it was completely and utter genius. I carried it around with me everywhere. I read it lying on my stomach in the grass, hanging out with the goth kids as they talked about Smashing Pumpkins and drew things on their shoes with black marker. I think I may have even cursed myself a couple of times and my apparent lack of talent: “why can’t I write like Dave Eggers?!”

Well… I’m really glad now that I *don’t* write like the Dave Eggers in AHWOSG. (I don’t mean this as a diss!) Now that some time has passed, this book stands out in stark contrast to everything he’s written afterwards (“Velocity”, “What is the What,” the Katrina book that looks really interesting). So much of it takes place inside twentysomething-year-old Dave’s head, which can be an intense place at times.

I was really afraid upon picking up the book that I was going to absolutely HATE it, kind of like the people who watch The Graduate thirty years later and realize that Benjamin Braddock is an absolute dud and that Mrs. Robinson is truly the only likeable character. However, my fears were rapidly assuaged once I read the description of how Dave’s younger brother used steak knives to cut open bags of pretzels, or the classic MTV Real World application interview. The “Dave” character is just intensely trapped in his head, painfully so at some points. However, although it can get a little claustrophobic at times, I think it’s wonderful and incredibly honest. It feels extremely 90’s. The 90’s was a very “Me” decade, wasn’t it? Everyone wanted to be introspective and painfully honest, Little Earthquakes-style.All those female-singer songwriters, Kurt Cobain strumming his acoustic guitar and singing about his pain. (My sister writes more about the theme of exposure in AHWOSG here.) What do we have now? A global melting pot, I guess, with M.I.A. and people wanting to get back to their gardens.

There is a ton of death and decay in this book. This is not a fun-hearted, haha, fun and games book with ironic slackers cracking witty comments (though there is some of that). I thought this book was hilarious when I first read it; this time, I found it incredibly sad (maybe this is just a sign of how I’ve gotten older. This book is filled with death and injuries: friends, parents, family members. More than anything else, the main message that stuck with me after re-reading this was how Eggers seems to be saying Life is crazy, and it’s really hard to make it out alive and unscathed.

It was a good reading choice at this point my life, in a week where two girls from my college were hit by a car in Portland, on a street that I myself have biked past many a time, almost every morning in fact from January to May on my way to work at the elementary school. One of them was killed and the other is in a coma and apparently it’s increasingly unlikely she will wake up. I didn’t know either of them, we were nevertheless connected through friends-of-friends the way that everyone is in a small school at Reed. One of them was friends with my older brother; I had a class my senior year with the other girl. She was actually one of the first people I ever talked to at Reed, shortly after some kind of assembly had finished and we were all filing into the cafeteria and I was freaking about not knowing anyone so I just started talking to the girl in line ahead of me about our outdoor wilderness orientation trips. I don’t think we talked ever again after that. And now she’s dead. That… that makes me sad.

Isn’t that crazy how people can just DIE, just disappear completely off the earth?? Think about it: you’re crossing the street to go to Fred Myer, and then in the next ten seconds you no longer exist. The Internet especially makes things weird, because you’re leaving behind an online record of yourself. Your Twitter, facebook, livejournal account will suddenly become like these untouched statues, your last footprint on earth. It’s terrifying, though maybe you could also think of it as reassuring… maybe. I’m not sure what lesson I’m supposed to end with this. Try to live in the moment, I guess. Or as I said on the phone with my dad, “you gotta enjoy your steak tacos when you have them.”

Leave a comment

Filed under death, Mexico, non-fiction, Nuevo Laredo, Uncategorized

life, London, this moment in June


I just got back last Wednesday from a two week trip to England and Paris to visit friends and family. While walking through the streets of London, through Trafalgar Sqaure and down Tottenham Court Road (how grandiose and epic and historical those names sound!), I loved reciting fragments from Mrs. Dalloway to myself, muttering these precious sounding phrases under my breath: what she loved, life, London, this moment in June. What a lark! What a plunge! Feeling as she did, that something awful was about to happen. For Heaven only knows why one loves it so. (3-4) I felt secretive and powerful, walking around and muttering these phrases absentmindedly to myself, as though I was one of those ancient pagan female magicians mentioned in the footnotes of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, casting a spell of protection, or maybe just chanting a mantra.

She always had the feeling that it was very, very dangerous to live even one day. (8)

This is such a beautifully written book that no matter how many times I reread it, it never fails to shock me that Virginia Woolf killed herself. This is the number one book that I think of when I think of joyful writing, of writing that hums and writhes and wriggles in ecstasy from sheer joy and lust for life. It seems so puzzling that someone who could have written this also simultaneously decided that life, this life, was not worth living.

This book reminds me of something Tori Amos said about her most recent album: she said that she wanted it to be like a snapshot of time of what it was like to be a woman in this day and age. In Amos’ case, she’s chronicling the economic recession; in Woolf’s case, her focus is on Victorian society of post World War I. I’ll never really “know” what it was like to be a woman in that time and age (let’s stay away from the giant can of metaphysical worms). But Mrs. Dalloway is as engaging of a snapshot of a very specific historical period as they come. There’s tons of stuff to unpack here about post World War I society trauma and repression–you can easily make a parallel to the Iraq War, too (that’s another thing about this book that really got me: how easily you can apply it to life today, how contemporary it feels). “It was over; thank Heaven–over,” (5) Mrs. Dalloway thinks of the War, but of course it’s not (it never is), not for anybody.

No character better embodies the sense of the war not being over than the interestingly named Septimus Smith (his name is reminiscent of numbers, which feels important in a novel where the passage of time, the constant ebb and flow of “the hour, irrevocable” (117) and the ringing of the clocks is constantly emphasized). Septimus seems to suffer from such an excess of feeling that at times it sounds like an extremely bad acid trip: leaves were alive; trees were alive. And the leaves being connected by millions of fibres with his own body; … the spaces between them were as significant as the sounds. This problem of “over-feeling” seems to emerge as a reaction to his initial condition following the death of his friend Evans in the war, in which he “could not feel.” And then, with such hyper awareness and overdose of sensory input, it’s little wonder that Septimus found it difficult to get through the day.

Septimus’ plight made me think of Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception,: “If the doors of perception were cleansed every thing would appear to man as it is, infinite.” That seems to be Septimus’ problem; the infinity and deeper meaning of everything appears as too glaringly apparent to him, to the point where he can’t condense his experiences or make any sense of them anymore and they just become overwhelming. Upon viewing a motor car that contains someone in the Royal Family (perhaps the Queen? It’s never made clear), for Septimus it appears to him as “this gradual drawing together of everything to one centre before his eyes, as if some horror had almost come to the surface and was about to burst into flames, terrified him. The world wavered and quivered and threatened to burst into flames. It is I who am blocking the way, he thought.” (15) He almost sees the centre, but not quite. At the moment when Septimus throws himself off the balcony, he cries out “I’ll give it to you!” (149) Is he referring to this ungraspable center, always out of his reach?

In the end, death seems to be the only way of bringing it all together, as Peter Walsh muses while the ambulance carrying Septimus’ dead body whirs by: “a moment in which things came together; this ambulance; and life and death.” (152) Mrs. Dalloway discovers this for herself as well, upon hearing of Septimus’ death of her party: “Death was defiance. Death was an attempt to communicate; people feeling the impossibility of reaching the centre which, mystically, evaded them; closeness drew apart; rapture faded, one was alone. There was an embrace in death.” (184) In the end, Mrs. Dalloway “felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away… He made her feel the beauty, made her feel the fun.”(186) With this sentence, I feel like Woolf herself is saying that she’s glad that it is Smith who is doomed, the artist, madman and poet, as opposed to Mrs. Dalloway, the socialite everywoman, the woman of the earth. In Mrs. Dalloway, death emerges as a moment with a potential for understanding and knowledge, however brief. As Muriel Spark wrote, “Remember you must die,” and as Ali Smith writes (in her Mrs. Dalloway rewrite of sorts Hotel World, a highly recommended book), “Remember you must live, remember you most leave, remainder you mist leaf.”

This is a good book to read every other year or so, especially around the time when you grow a year older. (I just celebrated my birthday a few days ago.) There’s a lot of juicy “what-have-you-done-with-your-life? times-a-passin’!” passages. “How remorseless life is! A little job at Court!” (74) Remorseless indeed. It’s scary, overcoming so-called banality. I think that’s Woolf’s main point by making the titular character someone who could easily be mistaken for someone shallow and lacking depth: a housewife who likes to give parties, “the perfect hostess,” who at the same time is capable of these most incredibly poetic reveries:

“a grown woman coming to her parents who stood by the lake, holding her life in her arms which, as she neared them, grew large and larger in her arms, until it became a whole life, a complete life, which she put down by them and said, ‘This is what I have made of it! This!’ And what had she made of it? What, indeed?” (43)

What, indeed. How do you define what makes a meaningful or non-banal life? To whose judgement do you need to subject it to? How do you know that you’re making the right decisions, that you’re taking your life in the direction it needs to go in?

Then (she had felt it only this monring) there was the terror; the overwhelming incapacity, one’s parents giving it into one’s hands, this life, to be lived to the end, to be walked with serenely; there was in the depths of her heart an awful fear. (185)

I dunno. It may sound cliched and silly, but lately I’m really digging the mindset that it is REALLY not about the destination at all, it’s gotta be about the path. It sounds so mundane and banal when you put it like that. What I mean is that we really don’t get anywhere. We’re just on the road. You can get some things, some goals, some destinations you’d like to arrive at in your life–but you will never get it all. There is no idealized plateau where everything is suddenly going to click into place for you, click, and all of a sudden everything makes sense and you wake up every morning feeling content and fufilled and satisfied and you never have to worry about feeling otherwise. I mean, c’mon–that is NEVER going to happen (as this excellent clip discusses). That is as utopian of a vision of humanity as you’re going to get.

But I like what Richard Dalloway thinks about his days as an idealistic youth:

“He had been a Socialist, in some sense a failure–true. Still, the future of civlisation lies, he thought, in the hands of young men like that; of young men such as he was, thirty years ago; with their love of abstract principals; getting books sent out to them all the way from London to a peak in the Himalayas; reading science; reading philosophy. The future lies in the hands of young men like that, he thought.” (50)

I couldn’t agree with him more.

Still, the sun was hot. Still, one got over things. Still, life had a way of adding day to day. (64)

During this particular reread, another theme that stood out for me was the idea of simultaneous connection and isolation between people. I especially like the part where Richard Dalloway visualizes his connection to his wife as a “spider’s thread of attachment.” (115) It feels important when Richard buys Clarissa flowers instead of jewelry for a present and embarks on a grandiose mission, “walking across London to say to Clarissa in so many words that he loved her.” (115) Richard confronts the problem of how difficult it is to say exactly what you mean: “The time comes when it can’t be said; one’s too sigh to say it.” He thus comes to embody a very modern problem concerning language, that “it is a thousand pities never to say what one feels.” (116) Or more specifically, to be unable as weel ignorant as to how to say what you feel. How do you give words to a feeling like “I love you” in face of a dilemma such as Richard’s: “thousands of poor chaps, with all their lives before them, shovelled together, already half forgotten; it was a miracle. Here he walking across London to say to Clarissa in so many words that he loved her.” Needless to say, when the moment comes, he fails at his mission. But it feels somewhat redemptive that on the last page, Richard becomes capable of telling his daughter that he is proud of her: “He had not meant to tell her, but he could not help telling her.” (194) So there’s some hope there, at the end, of being capable of speaking, of putting feelings into words.

2 Comments

Filed under death, future, travel, Woolf

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.

FOR THE ANNIVERSARY OF MY DEATH by W.S. Merwin
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

2 Comments

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

Thank god I checked my e-mail to see that my next thesis meeting is scheduled for TUESDAY at 9:30, as opposed to forty-five minutes from now. Thank god, thank god.

It’s not that I need to work harder on my thesis; it’s just that I need to work on it more. Probably faster would be more accurate. I am consistently underestimating the amount of time it takes me to complete sections.

My biggest accomplishment yesterday was making two CDs for my sister. One is a surprise, the other is Senior Year!-themed (it’s called “I’m Going To Make It Through This Year If It Kills Me”). There’s something about making themed CDs for people that makes me feel very accomplished. It’s like trying to tell a story through songs. I know it would be faster and more efficent to just e-mail mp3s, but where’s the beauty and and joy of creation in that?

It was also a very weird and sad day yesterday. I heard the news that a professor I had lost her baby. As with the case of the freshman heroin overdose death, I was more upset than I expected to be. Someone sent out an e-mail to the rest of the class, suggesting that we compile different pieces of paper, letters, drawings, poetry, and so on, and send it to her. Part of me thinks this is a great way to show how much we care about and are thinking of her; another part of me feels that anything we have to say could only be trite, or worse, upsetting. I feel like that’s an inevitable consequence of the situation, that nothing anyone can say or do will provide significant comfort or respite from the terrible grief.

I flipped through my poetry anthologies, trying to find something that could possibly be comforting. I (re)found some poems I really liked, the kind that I’ve muttered under my breath and have quoted to friends without knowing I’m doing so. I’m not going to use them for this particular situation because I don’t consider them appropriate, but I will post them here to share. Er, hopefully posting them here isn’t a violation of copyright. I’ll even cite my source (always incorrectly–never learned proper MLA format. Literature major what?): Staying Alive. ed. Neil Astley. Bloodaxe Books : New York, 2003. pg. 375, 382, 396.

‘DEATH DOES NOT COME FROM OUTSIDE…’
Death does not come from outside. Death is within.
Born-grows together with us.
Goes with us to kindergarten and school.
Learns with us to read and count.
Goes sledging with us, and to the pictures.
Seeks with us the menaing of life.
Tries to make sense with us of Einstein and Wiener.
Makes with us our first sexual contacts.
Marries, bears children, quarrels, makes up.
Separates, or perhaps not, with us.
Goes to work, goes to the doctor, goes camping,
ot the convalescent home and the sanatorium. Grows old,
sees children married, retired,
looks after grandchildren, grows ill, dies
with us. Let us not fear, then. Our death
will not outlive us.
Jann Kaplinski
translated from the Estonian by Hildi Hawkins

DEATH’S SECRET
It is not true
that death begins after life.
When life stops
death also stops.
Gosta Agren
translated from the Finland Swedish by David McDuff

INSCRIPTION
When I die I will return to seek
The moments I did not live by the sea
Sophia de mello Breyner
translated from the Portuguese by Richard Zenith

Oh, so many good poems! I had to force myself to put the book down before I pulled a “Limited Inc” (oh snap, Derrida in-joke! LOL ACADEMIA).

1 Comment

Filed under Dear Diary, death, poetry, stress, thesis

Faces of Life and Death

“In the course of the nineteenth-century bourgeois society has, by means of hygienic and social, private and public institutions, realized a secondary effect which may have been its subconscious main purpose: to make it possible for people to avoid the sight of the dying. Dying was once a public process in the life of the individual and a most exemplary one… In the course of modern times dying has been pushed further and further out of the perceptual world of the living… Today people live in rooms that have never been touched by death, dry dwellers of eternity, and when their end approaches they are stowed away in a sanatoria or hospitals by their heirs.” (Benjamin)

I’m afraid of death. I don’t think my brain can fully comprehend it. I have never had to fully confront or face it. There are people close to me who’ve had people close to them die. My grandfather died a few years ago and I saw the profound affect it had on my mother. The closest I’ve been to death, I guess, is when my nanny died of a heart attack at a bus station. It still upsets me to this day, thinking about that.

There seem to be two ways of understanding death: death as the simple end of life, in a biological return to nature; and death as a disappearance that is also a step towards of gaining something new. This latter concept of death can be seen in Christianity and many other religions, where the idea of death is seen as a step towards ‘direct contact’ with the truth, or death as a means to achieve a closer approximation to truth.

Even if we may not think about death every day, our whole existence is marked and characterized by our relation to death. This connection with death, therefore, determines the existence and the essence of knowledge. If we do not make sense of the time that is given to us as one limited by our own death, if we assume that we’re immortal and that our actions have no meaning, then we are existing in a meaningless coming and going of day after day, where our life cannot form itself into one whole and meaningful existence.

According to Hegel (ooh, philsophy so exciting!) human beings are defined by their ability to make choices; it’s what differs them from stones. ‘Being’ vs. ‘being able to’. Our choices for action always have something to do with knowledge. To choose to take action thus calls for an examination of your knowledge of your own life. And yet, I can never look at my life as a whole, since it has not yet come to an end, and is therefore still incomplete.

Therefore one can only ‘know’ the meaning of one’s life after death. It is a knowledge that remains completely unavailable and unattainable to me throughout my lifetime, since when it does become available, I will be dead. My life as a whole and its meaning will exist in the eyes of those that survive me. Only they will be able to judge whether my life has been truly worth living or not. Consequently, as long as I am alive, I cannot know myself, and when I am dead, I will not know myself either. Bummer. Instead, we have to settle for understanding our life from the viewpoint of others, and it is for this reason that we understand death as well as something that happens to others, which is to say to ‘everybody else, but not me.’ It is for this reason that we become habituated to mistake death for an abstract fact of life, rather than a concrete part of our existence. How often do you really think to yourself, “I could be dead right now. What if?”

In regards to using knowledge in order make choices which eventually lead to action: how does my life become something that I choose, rather than something that others choose for me? How do I live an authentic, individual life (and thus die an authentic, rather than mechanical, death?)? The whole of my life is still not a given; its meaning stretches out before me like an empty meadow. The way that this meadow will be filled is only in my control up to a certain point, because I have no way of knowing when and where and how I will die. Such thoughts brings all of us anguish and insecurity in us all (not just Woody Allen), the basic concept of not knowing what the future has in store. Ironically enough, only thing that any of us can know as a 100% given in our future, out of all the different possibilities and paths our lives may take, is that we will die. It sounds self-evident and kind of “duh” to say so… but in order to exist authentically, I must understand first that I am a temporal being. Easy say–hard do!! The meaning of my existence cannot be granted in terms of looking at it in terms of minutes, seconds, days, or years, but rather that the ‘meaning of my life’ can only be understood as a whole, as a concrete temporal span, as opposed to a series of moments.

If it were not for the presence of death, we would remain in the illusion that things could go on as they are and therefore we would not have to do anything about our lives. It is our knowledge of our deaths, then, that makes us make the choices to act. Death, while limiting the possibilities of what I can do with my life, is also simultaneously the source of all the possibilities of what I may or may not do with my life. It’s a negative that is also a positive. Moreover, it is only in death that I am truly unique. In everything else that I am, I can be substituted by another—Reed student, Corey’s girlfriend, etc. (not for biological sister though…hmm).

Where does this leave me? I’ve never been able to live according to the creed “Live each day as though it were your last.” Obviously if we all really lived by that creed, people would be rolling around in fields and jumping into oceans as opposed to going to class or work, I think the sentiment behind that expression is more in terms of “Make the most of your time each day, because it’s limited; be constantly asking yourself, ‘is my behavior right now truly getting me what I want?'”

I remember at my nanny’s funeral, somebody in her family gave me the candy and hair barettes she’d been carrying in her pockets, little gifts she often got for me and my sister. I remember how my sister and I just looked at each other wordlessly: I wouldn’t know how to explain in words even if I knew what it was, but we were definitely feeling the same thing. I also remember, at the wake, my mother asking me if I wanted to see the body in the coffin. I shook my ‘no.’ I remember feeling that very strongly, of emphatically not wanting to see the body (even typing “the body” feels strange… as though it wasn’t Angela, my nanny, who was dead and in the coffin, but rather “it”, the body, something separate, something different, a horrible mistake, a mix-up of the universe). I guess I felt like “it” would ruin my memories of HER as alive; I didn’t want them stamped out by the face of a gray corpse instead. The funny thing though, is I still try to picture and imagine what she would have looked like, anyway. That’s what I kept thinking about, looking at the link in the first sentence. The way everyone’s lips are droopy, the way the skin of everyone’s faces seems to be close to sliding off. I feel unnerved and disoriented right now, sitting in the living room with my computer warming my lap, a lukewarm espresso at my side. I don’t really know what to do next.

“The words outlive me, because in a certain sense I am irrelevant to them.” (Blanchot)

Leave a comment

Filed under death, truth, Walter Benjamin