Dialogue from White Noise

The long walk started at noon. I didn’t know it would turn into a long walk. I thought it would be a miscellaneous meditation, Murray and Jake, half an hour’s campus meander. But it became a major afternoon, a serious looping Socratic walk, with practical consequences.
I met Murray after his car crash seminar and we wandered along the fringes of the campus, past the cedar-shingled condominiums set in the trees in their familiar defensive posture — a cluster of dwellings blending so well with the environment that birds kept flying into the plate-glass windows.
[. . .]
“Why can’t we be intelligent about death?” I said.
“It’s obvious.”
“It is?”
“Ivan Ilyich screamed for three days. That’s about as intelligent as we get. Tolstoy himself struggled to understand. He feared it terribly.”
“It’s almost as though our fear is what brings it on. If we could learn not to be afraid, we could live forever.”
“We talk ourselves into it. Is that what you mean?”
“I don’t know what I mean, I only know I’m just going through the motions of living. I’m technically dead. My body is growing a nebulous mass. They track these things like satellites. All this is a result of a byproduct of insecticide. There’s something artificial about my death. It’s shallow, unfulfilling. I don’t belong to the earth or sky. They ought to carve an aerosol can on my tombstone.”
“Well said.”
What did he mean, well said? I wanted him to argue with me, raise my dying to a higher level, make me feel better.
“Do you think it’s unfair?” he said.
“Of course I do. Or is that a trite answer?”
He seemed to shrug.
[. . .]
“Your status as a doomed man lends your words a certain prestige and authority. I like that. As the time nears, I think you’ll find that people will be eager to hear what you have to say. They will seek you out.”
“Are you saying this is a wonderful opportunity for me to win friends?”
“I’m saying you can’t let down the living by slipping into self-pity and despair. People will depend on you to be brave. What people look for in a dying friend is a stubborn kind of gravel-voiced nobility, a refusal to give in, with moments of indomitable humor. You’re growing in prestige even as we speak. You’re creating a hazy light about your own body. I have to like it.”
We walked down the middle of a steep and winding street. There was no one around. The houses were old and looming, set above narrow stone stairways in partial disrepair.
“Do you believe love is stronger than death?”
“Not in a million years.”
“Good,” he said. “Nothing is stronger than death. Do you believe the only people who fear death are those who are afraid of life?”
“That’s crazy. Completely stupid.”
“Right. We all fear death to some extent. Those who claim otherwise are lying to themselves. Shallow people.”
“People with their nicknames on their license plates.”
“Excellent, Jack. Do you believe life without death is somehow incomplete?”
“How could it be incomplete? Death is what makes it incomplete.”
“Doesn’t our knowledge of death make life more precious?”
“What good is a preciousness based on fear and anxiety? It’s an axious quivering thing.”
“True. The most deeply precious things are those we feel secure about. A wife, a child. Does the specter of death make a child more precious?”
“No.”
“No. There is no reason to believe life is more precious because it is fleeting. Here is a statement. A person has to be told he is going to die before he can begin to live life to the fullest. True or false?”
“False. Once your death is established, it becomes impossible to live a satisfying life.”
“Would you prefer to know the exact date and time of your death?”
“Absolutely not. It’s bad enough to fear the unknown. Faced with the unknown, we can pretend it itsn’t there. Exact dates would drive many to suicide, if only to beat the system.”
We crossed an old highway bridge, screened in, littered with sad and faded objects. We followed a footpath along a creek, approached the edge of the high school playing field. Women brought small children here to play in the long-jump pits.
“How do I get around it?” I said.
“You could put your faith in technology. It got you here, it can get you out. This is the whole point of technology. It creates an appetite for immortality on the one hand. It threatens universal extinction on the other. Technology is lust removed from nature.”
“It is?”
“It’s what we invented to conceal the terrible secret of our decaying bodies. But it’s also lfie, isn’t it? It prolongs life, it provides new organs for those that wear out. New devices, ne techniques every day. Lasers, masers, ultrasound. Give yourself up to it, Jack. Believe in it. They’ll insert you in a gleaming tube, irradiate your body with the basic stuff of the universe. Light, energy, dreams. God’s own goodness.”
“I don’t think I want to see any doctors for a while, Murray, thanks.”
“In that case you can always get around death by concentrating on the life beyond.”
“How do I do that?”
“It’s obvious. Read up on reincarnation, transmigration, hyperspace, the resurrection of the dead and so on. Some gorgeous systems have evolved from these beliefs. Study them.”
“Do you believe in any of these things?”
“Millions of people have believed for thousands of years. Throw in with them. Belief in a second birth, a second life, is practically universal. This must mean something.”
“But these gorgeous systems are all so different.”
“Pick one you like.”
“But you make it sound like a convenient fantasy, the worst kind of self-delusion.”
Again he seemed to shrug. “Think of the great poetry, the music and dance and ritual that spring forth from our aspiring to a life beyond death. Maybe these things are justification enough for our hopes and dreams, although I wouldn’t say that to a dying man.”
[. . .]
“Why have I had this fear so long, so consistently?”
“It’s obvious. You don’t know how to repress. We’re all aware there’s no escape from death. How do we deal with this crushing knowledge? We repress, we disguise, we bury, we exclude. Some people do it better than others, that’s all.”
“How can I improve?”
“You can’t. Some people just don’t have the unconscious tools to perform the necessary disguising operations.”
“How do we know repression exists if the tools are unconscious and the thing we’re repressing is so cleverly disguised?”
“Freud said so. Speaking of looming figures.”
[. . .]
“Do you think I’m somehow healthier because I don’t know how to repress? Is it possible that constant fear is the natural state of man and that by living close to my fear I am actually doing something heroic, Murray?”
“Do you feel heroic?”
“No.”
“Then you probably aren’t.”
“But isn’t repression unnatural?”
“Fear is unnatural. Lightning and thunder are unnatural. Pain, death, reality, these are all unnnatural. We can’t bear these things as they are. We know too much. So we resort to repression, compromise and disguise. This is how we survive in the universe. This is the natural language of the species.”
[. . .]
“Why do I feel so good when I’m with Wilder? It’s not like being with the other kids?” I said.
“You sense his total ego, his freedom from limits.”
“In what way is he free from limits?”
“He doesn’t know he’s going to die. He doesn’t know death at all. You cherish this simpleton blessing of his, this exemption from harm. You want to get close to him, touch him, look at him, breathe him in. How lucky he is. A cloud of unknowing, an omnipotent little person. The child is everything, the adult nothing. Think about it. A person’s entire life is the unraveling of this conflict. No wonder we’re bewildered, staggered, shattered.”
“Aren’t you going too far?”
“I’m from New York.”
“We create beautiful and lasting things, build vast civilizations.”
“Gorgeous evasions,” he said. “Great escapes.”

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