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. 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?”
“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.”


Musical Tears

I’d often find myself moved to tears not, as one might expect, as a result of the lachrymose divinity of the music’s sound, nor its almost certain ability to conjure the fluttering images from my abyssal past.  I’d come to believe that the only person worthy enough to perform such beauty was myself. Only me, I thought. I’m the only person that appreciates the otherworldly brilliance and love found within a musical composition.  Therefore, I could only identify myself in the performance and I cried, as a result, because I felt slighted by Life. Why couldn’t I create something worthy to be performed and worshipped? Was I so undeserving as to receive what I thought was an unjustified omission of compositional genius? What did life want in exchange? The giant thought of me sitting before a collection of eager worshippers awaiting their nutritional illusion and playing divinely, pounding on the magical keys and provoking mass hysteria…rattle your keys! Fall to your knees and cry in a fist fucking rage! Stare blankly! Walk away in disgust! But, by all means, react! Let me see you poor. Can I see you drenched in tears fighting uncontrollably the demons that so fiendishly possess you? Can I conquer your illusions? And, what would I offer? More illusions? I don’t know, really. But, I’d give you passion. I’d give you tears. I’d give you sweat and movement. And, there’s nothing illusory about these. But, they wouldn’t accept such a gift. How could they? It was too real. Too wrenching. It played like a horror scene, a scene where you’ve realized minutes later that, in fact, your jaw has dropped…and you’re surprised by the reality of this. Strange, isn’t it? The authenticity you acknowledge upon realizing you didn’t decide to do something. This often conflicted with my thinking. I’d often assumed that the most authentic act had to be the one in which I imposed my will unto the fabric of our world, not, God forbid, one so overtaken by the winds of life as to sputter along mindlessly. No, not any more. I’d found the most authentic act not the forced dropping or the conscious, individual reaction to some event. But, the retro-gaze. The recognition that my jaw had dropped. I’d often felt embarrassed that such an authentic act had escaped me. Anatomical sleight of hand. Is it more beautiful if we don’t recognize something? Is this misanthropic?, I wondered. Is it? I was asked shortly thereafter with the most genuine intent, “Do you cry?” Tristan. What would make you cry?” Who knew that nearly every moment both of my waking and sleeping life was spent on the verge of tears? Did anyone know this? Is it noticeable? Should it be? Is crying akin to writing? For we never write for ourselves? But, do we cry for ourselves? Is crying communal? It must be, right? For the only mammal capable of moistening its eyes is the human.
I tried to answer in a way that didn’t puff the pity cigar, but I don’t think I succeeded. In fact, I choked. It was too strong, as was the urge. So, something reasonable came to mind; something that, to this point, I’d honestly never thought. “I only cry in the presence of people”, I said. “There’s something pathetic about humanity. I feel so terribly about their misery, discomfort, and vertigo. And, it’s disheartening to know with such certitude that every illusion they adhere to, even the dirty penny they find on the ground now shining brightly with meaning, will only worsen our condition.” I told her bluntly: “I cry at our lack. I’d think of Hopper’s paintings. While they’re most certainly illustrations, is there something missing? And, if so, how do we respond? How do we respond to lack? Can we only fill it in? Is this what my tears do? Do I seek to create more oceans? Is that what we need? Does the world need better swimmers?” Solitude is something for which I developed a preference; but, even in this bliss, I was prone to tears. Still verging.

John Gray on Canetti

Here’s a nice piece from the otherwise avoidable John Gray.

“As a child, Elias Canetti treasured Robinson Crusoe. The author of Auto da Fé (1935), the nightmarish story of a self-absorbed sinologist who is tricked into marriage by his illiterate housekeeper and who sinks first into the lower depths of society and then into madness, seems to have had the lifelong feeling of being solitary, separate from the rest of humankind. According to his later study in mass psychology Crowds and Power, crowds form in an effort to shake off the burden of individuality. Perhaps surprisingly – as he always claimed to value the individual human being above all else – the impression the reader takes from the book is that, for Canetti, this process of self-obliteration held a powerful attraction.

Born into a Sephardic Jewish family in a small port city on the Ottoman Danube and growing up amid the festering anti-Semitism of interwar Europe, Canetti had no illusions about the wisdom of crowds. Yet he seems to have been drawn by suddenly formed masses of humanity, finding a sense of elation in being swept up as a student by a flood of people marching on the Palace of Justice in Vienna in 1927. The crowd was a threat, but also a way out from painful self-consciousness.”

Opening to Denis Johnson’s new Novella

The opening paragraphs of Denis Johnson’s forthcoming novella Train Dreams

In the summer of 1917 Robert Grainier took part in an attempt on the life of a Chinese laborer caught, or anyway accused of, stealing from the company stores of the Spokane International Railway in the Idaho Panhandle.

Three of the railroad gang put the thief under restraint and dragged him up the long bank toward the bridge under construction fifty feet above the MoyeaRiver. A rapid singsong streamed from the Chinaman voluminously. He shipped and twisted like a weasel in a sack, lashing backward with his one free fist at the man lugging him by the neck. As this group passed him, Grainier, seeing them in some distress, lent assistance and found himself holding one of the culprit’s bare feet. The man facing him, Mr. Sears, of Spokane International’smanagement, held the prisoner almost uselessly by the armpit and was the only one of them, besides the incomprehensible Chinaman, to talk during the hardest part of their labors: “Boys, I’m damned if we ever see the top of this heap!” Then we’re hauling him all the way? was the question Grainier wished to ask, but he thought it better to save his breath for the struggle. Sears laughed once, his face pale with fatigue and horror. They all went down in the dust and got righted, went down again, the Chinaman speaking in tongues and terrifying the four of them to the point that whatever they may have had in mind at the outset, he was a deader now. Nothing would do but to toss him off the trestle.

They came abreast of the others, a gang of a dozen men pausing in the sun to lean on their tools and wipe at sweat and watch this thing. Grainier held on convulsively to the Chinaman’s horny foot, wondering at himself, and the man with the other foot let loose and sat down gasping in the dirt and got himself kicked in the eye before Grainier took charge of the free-flailing limb. “It was just for fun. For fun,” the man sitting in the dirt said, and to his confederate there he said, “Come on, Jel Toomis, let’s give it up.” “I can’t let loose,” this Mr. Toomis said, “I’m the one’s got him by the neck!” and laughed with a gust of confusion passing across his features. “Well, I’ve got him!” Grainier said, catching both the little demon’s feet tighter in his embrace. “I’ve got the bastard, and I’m your man!”

The party of executioners got to the midst of the last completed span, sixty feet above the rapids, and made every effort to toss the Chinaman over. But he bested them by clinging to their arms and legs, weeping his gibberish, until suddenly he let go and grabbed the beam beneath him with one hand. He kicked free of his captors easily, as they were trying to shed themselves of him anyway, and went over the side, dangling over the gorge and making hand-over-hand out over the river on the skeleton form of the next span. Mr. Toomis’s companion rushed over now, balancing on a beam, kicking at the fellow’s fingers. The Chinaman dropped from beam to beam like a circus artist downward along the crosshatch structure. A couple of the work gang cheered his escape, while others, though not quite certain why he was being chased, shouted that the villain ought to be stopped. Mr. Sears removed from the holster on his belt a large old four-shot black-powder revolver and took his four, to no effect. By then the Chinaman had vanished.