Sunday, November 03, 2013

What Changes

Brought to you in GLORIOUS

The utterly inexplicable Stand by Me opens with gang #2 mesmerized and propelled into action by the question, "Hey! Want to see a dead body?" Gang #1 has claimed the corpse, they discover after their Odyssey. I would like to reiterate, here and now, my initial reaction to the movie, since no amount of pay could have moved me to read the book: Who the hell would want to go see a corpse?

Oh, sure, might as well ask, "Who the Hell would read a Stephen King novel," since the questions are equivalent. After all, what is the question except a promise that, some pages ahead, King is going to describe a corpse? In that regard, he is providing pornography for virgins. If he gets it right, the readers who know he did will not get any reward except a trip to a place in memory that cannot bring any joy, and, if he gets it wrong, his readers by and large will be none the wiser. He is not, generally speaking, describing a corpse as much as he is describing what pathology photos look like or what a corpse feels like to an objectifying gaze. Thus, the virgin gets the joy of self-fulfillment or self-abhorrence, but no real experience has changed hands.

The little blighters of the story are supposed to Change and Learn, and the experience Refines the character from the dross, revealing, like Buonarroti's marble chips, the prisoner within. The thing is, King missed everything. I know, or suspect (I cannot really speak to the man's state of mind, only the narrative), because of what has changed in me.

You see, we think of the dead and living, and we fear thinking of dying, but Death. . . death the thing, the moment, the extinguishing, is something we cannot think of. For centuries, poetry has spoken of the pale rider, the midnight visitor, the hungry stranger, the guttering wind, and we have mistaken these as parables. They are not. They are as literal as our minds can accept of death itself.

At the time of her death, my mother and I had nothing unsaid. We were sympathetic to an enviable degree. There were still times, of course, when she would refuse to say and I could not intuit, but our feelings were open, and I had no apologies to give or accept. This does not, of course, take even an atom off of the scales (on my eyes or that I eye) whereby guilt is measured. It was my job to keep her alive, to swat away medical mistakes, to hear all the doctors and translate into English, to call in the family when deathly ill turned to moribund but then to be wrong. I knew that I couldn't win, but I also knew that losing, as I had to, was going to be bad -- very bad. When, therefore, my mother's death did not cripple me, I knew that this was just a sign that what was coming was going to be a wave spawned from a deeper shock -- slower to arrive and higher when it arrived. 

I tread water furiously as she died. I fairly ran from the deathbed. I told myself a true lie -- that I was giving up my place to her sister and to the rest of the family. I had nothing to say to her, nothing to hear, for we had spoken often of our love, and my own prickliness was something she was finally understanding. (I confess: she still could not tell my "exasperated" and "sad" faces from "angry" faces. When your own Mama thinks you're pissed off all the time, the problem might be in the face. (Then again, I've never been too in love with this one. (A very short line of ex-girlfriends can endorse the sentiment, by the way.)))

In truth, more was happening. (I cannot, by Goggle, find the true source of the definition of a swan as "Grace and calm above; furious paddling below." I was told it by an absent friend.) I was trying to avoid the evidence. If my mother was going to die, I didn't want to see it. I simply didn't need to, I thought. Let it be a fact, as abstract as my own death. Let it be a case of here and then gone. Let me drive in to the funeral and comment on the coffin. That's the modern thing, after all.

As I'm sure you know, I was there at the death. I arrived fifteen minutes after the actual death, but it's not long enough that the stranger was not still in the air. The skin's color changes in a flash, and the full relaxation of the face into a droop did not suggest rest, to me. My mother's life force was five times that of anyone else I've known. It was furious, and she barely had any flesh. Without animation, the corpse was and is a negative affirmed. It wasn't loss: it was lostness.

Prior to my mother's death, I had put two dogs to sleep in my arms, and the swooping in of death in those circumstances was frighteningly sad. This is similar, because now there is a body that bears only a resemblance to a being whom you love passionately and fully, but this is worse, because the body fights. Even as the hospice personnel were making it "easy," there was nothing easy at all. If I were to have an angelus that said, "All was well at all that time," it would not change the effect on me, because what struck deeply was the core of the core -- life itself versus ceasing. 

Prior to this grief, I would sing odes to death (mine only) daily. I considered it rather normal. After all, I knew that I was praising rest, not death, really, and, when I last came near to genuineness, I had shuffled away from suicide as being an insufficient improvement over living. Nevertheless, I had, and still actually have, little relish for the days. I have a mighty slate board in my mind of wins and losses, and the latter have been etched, while the former keep getting erased or forgotten. Every month, my poverty runs me against abject failure as an adult, and without feeling qualified as an adult, asserting my skills as anything else are unlikely.

That has stopped now. Now, I think that I want to live. I don't have a good reason for it. I won't even say, "I'll quit when the stupid people do." After all, they replace themselves, and more. I can only say that we should know Death. We should know the unreasoning enemy who bears us no malice. Death is behovely. We are the ones who fight it with more than just our will.

Tolstoy wondered what value any of his work had, in the face of death. The Death of Ivan Ilych is one explanation, but it's not Tolstoy's own. No, that story is not about meaning, but about meaningfulness during life. It is about one very, very narrow question: "What are you living for?" The contemporary Kierkegaard would say,
"And when the hourglass has run out, the hourglass of temporality, when the noise of secular life has grown silent and its restless or ineffectual activism has come to an end, when everything around you is still, as it is in eternity, then eternity asks you and every individual in these millions and millions about only one thing: whether you have lived in despair or not." -- The Sickness Unto Death
Despair is any state wherein the infinite (soul) and finite (mind and body) and the barrier between them (self) are unaware of their own heterogeneity. (It works out much more simply and profoundly than it seems, but you can do that on your own.) Tolstoy was right, though, that we will never get out of despair if we never see death.

I am miserable (sum quod eris) (non posse non peccare) ("I am a man -- reason enough to be miserable" (Menander's Epitrepontes, I think, because it isn't Dyskolos), but to even feel that requires the flame. I have changed from my experience with dying, but not heroically. I am grieving, and not myself. Instead, I am, I think, far, far sadder than I was, because I have seen the inescapability of the flesh, the way that the rock refuses to let go of its figure, and I have heard the groans that must accompany the liberation.