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Eagle Minds

Eagle Minds

Selected Correspondence of Istvan Anhalt and George Rochberg (1961-2005)
edited by Alan M. Gillmor
edition:Paperback
also available: eBook Hardcover
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Stories about Life in Plus-Sized Bodies
edited by Christina Myers
edition:Paperback
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How to Die: A Book About Being Alive
Excerpt

No one forgets their first time. It’s the other first time, the one that darkens the mind rather than delights the body, that isn’t always as instantly memorable. But it’s there—somewhere—along with the initial recognition that our parents aren’t the wisest, most powerful people in the world who will always be there to protect us, and that people don’t have to love us back just because we want them to, and that the game of life doesn’t come with a set of inviolable rules that everyone is obliged to follow in the interest of fair play. Not that it’s difficult to understand why we don’t always remember the precise time and place when we first became aware, however dimly, of death. That everyone is going to die. That I’m going to die. Human beings tend to hide from what hurts. Or at least attempt to. But Grandma’s funeral or the family pet’s last visit to the veterinarian or a flattened frog in the middle of the street remind us of what we try to forget but never entirely can.

Novelists aren’t good at much. Busy describing how the world lives, there isn’t much time or inclination left over to do much worldly living oneself. But remembering things—in particular, the seemingly inconsequential but singularly significant minutiae of daily existence—is an occupational necessity. I remember my first whiff of nothingness. Wrote about it in my novel What Happened Later:

Let’s go around, I said.

An August afternoon Sunday when I was six, an idling '69 Buick Skylark with power windows but no air conditioning, a train that wouldn’t end like Christmas will never come and summer vacation will go on forever. I was hot and bored and thirsty and there was cold pop at home on the bottom shelf of the bar fridge in the basement.

We can’t go around, my dad said.

Why not?

Because they’ll put you in a box and put you in the ground and they won’t let you out.

I thought about what he said. It didn’t make sense. I said the only sensible thing I could think of.

But you’d let me out, I said.

My father leaned against the steering wheel and craned his neck left, looked as far down the railroad track as he could. Sweat rivered down the back of his neck. He looked in the rear-view mirror to make sure there was no one behind us; put the car in reverse and gave the steering wheel a sharp tug to the right. We weren’t going to wait around anymore. Finally, we were moving. Looking in the mirror again, this time at me in the back seat:

I don’t want to see you fooling around when there’s a train coming, he said.

I won’t.

You either stand back and wait for it to go by, or you walk around to where it isn’t, you hear me?

I know.

Hey?

I’ll wait for it or walk around.

My mother sucked a last suck from her Player’s Light and pulled the ashtray out of the dash, crushed out her cigarette on the metal lip. It was full of mashed cigarette butts crowned with red lipstick kisses.

Because when they put you in that box in the ground, boy, that’s it, nobody can help you.

But, I wanted to say. But . . .

But I didn’t say anything. And my dad, I waited, but he didn’t say anything either.

Not that I consider myself as having been particularly thantosophically precocious; death-consciousness simply comes to some early, while others don’t attend their first class in Introduction to Eventual Personal Extinction (a.k.a, Death 101) until they’re well on their way to graduating from life. When I asked a friend of mine from high-school, now a successful dentist in his mid-fifties with a much younger wife and three small children and a vacation home in Arizona neighbouring a private golf course, if he ever thought about his eventual non-existence, he answered, “I’m too busy to think about death.” His response might seem glib, even for a dentist with a three handicap, but is typical of most people’s attitude if asked the same question.

And why shouldn’t it be? Not just because there are other things more pleasant to contemplate or because considered rumination isn’t as common a human activity as, say, envying, lying, or over-eating, but because, as Freud argued, it’s virtually impossible for human beings to imagine their own deaths. “Whenever we attempt to do so,” he claimed, “we can perceive that we are in fact still present as spectators . . . At bottom no one believes in his own death. . . [I]n the unconscious every one of us is convinced of his own immortality.” And not just when we’re young and ontologically unsophisticated. Consider the seventy two year old writer William Saroyan’s last public words (in a phone call to the Associated Press announcing his terminal cancer): “Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case.” (Perhaps understanding that we must die yet not really believing it is merely a helpful evolutionary trick, a pre-programmed delusion that allows us to live more secure, hence more adventurous lives—and therefore be happier, more aggressive procreators. It wouldn’t be the first time biology got caught calling the shots.)

But even if we’re simply not psychologically capable of fully comprehending death (ours or anyone else’s we care about), we are able to feel its presence, however dimly sensed or no matter how imperfectly we might be able to articulate it. Even without staring directly at the sun it’s possible to point to its place in the sky. Literature is humankind’s best record of who it is—most everything else is, at best, either reality-corroding clichés or, at worst, egocentric self-advertising—and the most compelling evocations of death in literature (whether in the form of novels, short stories, poems, memoirs, essays, et cetera) approximate Mallarme’s Symbolist poetic dictum: “Paint, not the object, but the effect it produces.” We might not possess the psychological equipment to take a clear and definitive photograph of death, but, by snapping away at its varied effects, we can, by implication, know the unknowable a little bit better, just as the mystic doesn’t speak directly of “God” but, instead, of God’s manifestation in nature, music, or the experience of love.

It’s because impression, metaphor, and inference (and their employment in literature) are superior to purely conceptual thinking in disclosing some of death’s mystery that philosophers tend to obfuscate more often than illuminate. Art is empirical—what we see, hear, touch, taste, smell—and therefore the ideal tool for handling something that is understood, to whatever degree, on a primarily experiential level. “No reader who doesn’t actually experience, who isn’t made to feel . . . is going to believe anything the . . . writer merely tells him,” Flannery O’Connor counseled. “The first and most obvious characteristic of [good writing] is that it deals with reality through what can be seen, heard, smelt, tasted, and touched.”

Even philosophers who make a point of differentiating themselves from other thinkers deemed cripplingly logocentric tend to double death’s riddle by obscuring it in a mess of twisted syntax and near-meaningless nouns and verbs. Here’s Martin Heidegger taking a crack at the subject with characteristic Heideggerian clarity and linguistic grace: “The existential project of an authentic being-toward-death must thus set forth the factors of such a being which are constitutive for it as an understanding of death—in the sense of being toward this possibility without fleeing it or covering it over.” And, yes, many German thinkers do seem to believe that it’s an intellectual virtue to construct prose that goes down about as well as a tinfoil sandwich, but here’s a sample sentence from Being and Nothingness, France’s most well-known twentieth-century philosopher’s, Jean Paul Sartre’s, magnum opus: “Death is not my possibility of no longer realizing a presence in the world but rather an always possible nihilation of my possibles which is outside my possibilities.” Got that? Have the scales begun to fall from your eyes? One immediately thinks of Friedrich Nietzsche, one German philosopher who did write with lucidity, elegance, and even (rare for his profession) wit: “They all muddy their waters to make them appear deep.” No matter how seemingly impressive their academic credentials or how long their list of prized publications, as the nineteenth-century man of letters Jules Renard avowed, “So long as thinkers cannot tell me what life and death are, I shall not give a good goddamn for their thoughts.”

More than our opposable thumbs and consequent ability to create such contemporary wonders as microwave ovens, shoot-and-splatter video games, and reality television, foreknowledge of our own mortality is humankind’s defining characteristic. We may not know when we’ll die or how or why or what happens afterward, but we do know we are going to die. It’s ironic, then, that many individual’s first encounter with death is achieved through the loss of the family pet, who, lacking our gift (curse?) of self-consciousness, is denied this bitter wisdom. Our beloved cats and dogs may have felt pain and loss of vitality preceding their expiration, but not anxiety or sadness or fear at their impending annihilation. Those feelings are left for us to experience, often for the first time.

My first pet was a bushy-tailed grey Persian cat named Pepe, as in Pepe Le Pew (she came with the name—we inherited her from an elderly neighbour who couldn’t care for her any longer), who died when I was nine years old. Unlike children who are raised on farms and see the life cycle up close on a daily basis (“Don’t get attached to the animals, they’re not your friends, they’re food”), those of us who grew up in suburbia or in the city tended to be shielded from death’s glare. One day Pepe seemed to be lying around more than usual and wasn’t interested in her toy mouse as much, and the next day, when I came from school, she was gone. My mother told me that she and my father had taken Pepe to the vet because she hadn’t been feeling well, and the vet said she was very, very sick, and it would be cruel to let her suffer, so they’d had her put to sleep. It was then that I noticed that her food and water bowls were gone from their usual place on the kitchen floor and that the living room wasn’t littered with her balls, toys, and the long piece of silver tinsel she’d claimed as hers from the Christmas tree a couple of months previous. My mother then told me that dinner would be in about half an hour. We were having pork chops and canned green beans and boiled potatoes.

I’d heard the expression “put to sleep” before, when our next door neighbour’s beagle had been euthanized. I was friends with the family’s younger brother, who was my age, but it was his older brother by a year who I overheard saying, “I wonder what Molly is dreaming about today” when the subject of their recently deceased dog somehow came up. My friend smiled and said, “Squirrels, probably,” and his brother smiled too. “Yeah, probably,” he said. I didn’t know what happened to Pepe or Molly or anyone else’s pets once they made their only one-way trip to the veterinarian, but I knew they weren’t sleeping. Not what we called sleeping, anyway. People who said that their pet “had to be put down” seemed closer to the truth. Put down wasn’t much more helpful in aiding my understanding of what actually occurred behind the veterinarian’s walls, but the polite violence of the phrase felt right, if uncomfortably right. Poor Pepe: she’d been put down.

I felt sorry for her, that she wouldn’t get to slap at her piece of tinsel again. I felt sorry for me because I wouldn’t get to tease her with it again, holding it in front of her face then pulling it away, the way she liked. I missed her because other people’s cats weren’t her, were different colours and different sizes and didn’t like to play the same way—weren’t my cat. I felt funny because someone who was here all the time suddenly wasn’t here anymore. She was just a cat, I knew, but she was Pepe, and now there wasn’t a cat called Pepe anymore. It didn’t make sense. It didn’t seem fair.

Still, it’s not in old age, but in our youth that death is most common as a voluntary topic of conversation. A pet’s loss excepted, because death is usually so far removed from childhood or adolescent experience, it’s easy to talk about. (Why would a senior citizen want to be reminded of death when one goes to bed at night wondering whether or not one will wake up in the morning?) Further, because it’s, if not forbidden, at least discouraged as a topic of conversation (like sex), it’s even fun, feels slightly scandalous, to talk about. Who didn’t toy around with the “Would you rather be shot or stabbed?” question, the “If it had to be one or the other, would you rather drown or suffocate” game? It’s easy to whistle past the graveyard when it’s difficult to believe that such a place really exits.

The desire to be scared in the form of watching horror movies is another one of youth’s ways of flirting with the enticingly unfathomable. In my case, “watch” isn’t the appropriate verb. “Gorge” would be more apposite. Not just because it’s quantifiably more accurate, but because it better captures the tang of my cinematic gluttony. I couldn’t get enough of vampires who bit, mummies who choked, werewolves who clawed and tore, prehistoric monsters risen from their frozen tombs by hydrogen bombs (and man’s nefarious hubris) and driven to stomp, smash, and skewer. Granted, the thrill of the fright was often diluted by the implausibility of the plots or the wooden acting or the dead (and not in a good way) dialogue—or, frequently, all three—but underneath all of the amateurishness there was still the tingle of good old terror. In retrospect, this more than occasional improbability likely aided in maximizing the films’ fright values. If I hadn’t been intermittently reminded that the werewolf looked more like a college football team’s overly furry, frowning mascot than a half-man, half-wolf killing machine or been made suspicious of those flying saucers that resembled the tinfoil pie plates my mother used for her baking, I might not have been able to stay plunked in front of the television until movie’s end. A little bit of laughter—especially derisive laughter—help makes the terror go down.

With films that featured ghosts, exorcisms, or the occult, however, things could be more complicated. There was still a fair share of cinematic clunkers, spirits that went boo-boo instead of Boo! in the night, but there were also movies like The Changeling, The Exorcist, and The Haunting, films where the production values were high, the acting was professional, and, most importantly, the writing was generally first-rate. (First-rate for a horror film—any genre film or book is necessarily limited by existing within a genre, with all of its stylistically restrictive conventions.) Because the movies seemed real, so did the terror. In addition, the fright value of a satanically possessed child or a haunted house wasn’t generated by “look-out-behind-you!” suspense or blood-and-guts shock and gore, but by things, for the most part, unseen. Unseen and therefore impossible to unequivocally deny. Dracula and zombies and pissed-off mummies were fun to pretend to believe in, were the paranormal price one paid for a ticket on a day-trip aboard the supernatural express, with stops along the way at Death, Decay, and Dread, but no one believed in vampires and the resurrected recently deceased. Not really. But demons and lost souls . . .

Aside from absorbing the usual amount of Christian conditioning that goes with growing up in North American society, religion-wise, I was raised working-class, small-town Canada circa the 1970s: God means Love and be nice to other people and they’ll (probably) be nice to you and beware of all those spouting Holy Joe hocus-pocus. For the most part, I was a contented believer in non-belief. But one couldn’t really know for sure, could one? Not 100%. That just because we don’t see something—particularly something chill-inducing—it wasn’t real. That the fear brought on by a dark room at the top of the stairs, a strange sound in the middle of the night, a well-told ghost story that someone claimed actually happened, wasn’t rooted in a strange, inexplicable, but bona-fide reality. Hamlet wasn’t on my reading list until Mr. Rose’s Grade Thirteen English class, but “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy” could have appeared on the television screen prior to the start of every Saturday night horror film and I would have nodded away in at least partial understanding.

Later on, as one gradually grows more cognizant of death and the genuinely frightening, as opposed to cinematically-fabricated, consequences of mortality (that’s it, that’s all, there ain’t any more), there’s even an appealing logic to the likely illogicality of ghosts and demons and three-day exorcisms. On the one hand, a gleefully sadistic, projectile-vomiting, profanity-spewing possessed person can ruin your entire day (my parents saw The Exorcist when it was released over forty years ago and remember one viewer vomiting in disgust in the aisle and two couples having to flee the theatre out of fright). On the other hand, if the devil exists, ergo, God (however defined) does too. If there’s evil on the other side, that means there is another side. Monsters make metaphysics possible. Because there’s something even more terrifying than heads spinning around on their owner’s necks and houses that want you to vacate them strongly enough that blood flows from the shower faucet and the walls whisper your name: nothingness. Confronted with death’s promise of never-ending nothing, the devil can be a comforting thought.

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