I Am Become Death
Yesterday I dreamt about Manueli Koro, my class mate from Fiji who attended high school with me in Canada. At the end of our exams in the last year, among the various graduating rituals we had invented (or was it passed down from our seniors, I cannot remember) to consecrate the end of our two year long stint was a singularly foolish act: jumping into the Peddar Bay, an inlet of the Pacific Ocean that dragooned Vancouver Island into a watery submission. Through out the year, the waters of Peddar Bay are cold, some times chilly enough to still the swimmer into a shock. Worse yet, few amateurs (like myself) can anticipate the sinking feeling that burbles within when the assurance of land is suddenly abandoned for the bottomlessness of waters. Yet, on that late spring day, egged on by my fellow classmates in good spirits and amidst great cheer, I jumped into those waters along with an handful of others who had just finished their exams too, What followed next in the waters is unclear to me and to this day, all I remember is the scramble and anxiety within. What I do remember is the force of sudden recognition while under water, even as I was breathless and flailing my arms helplessly, that Oh God! I don't know how to swim. How could I be so stupid. What would my mother say?. It was a strange concatenation of feelings that rose upwards, but most importantly, the failure to recognize the obvious importance of that one skill - swimming - that had never occurred to me till I jumped. Before long, by when I had swallowed enough of the salty brine of the Pacific and had begun to gasp for my life, Manueli's hand came from nowhere, pulled me out, laid me on his muscular back and then pressed me onto a wooden embankment nearby. Then, even as we were both safely dangling in the water, with our arms holding onto safety, he laughed freely. That easy, unthinking, guffaw at how silly I had been, how close to death I had come and escaped thanks to his improbable presence. It was as if he had come from Fiji to Canada, only to save my life. Less than two years later, I learnt that Manueli had himself been killed in an accident while at his college in New Zealand. In the years that followed, I had forgotten about him. Till yesterday morning when his face came to me in my early morning sleep. Unbeknownst to me, some how, my eyes opened and I turned around to make sense of the image that had frothed out from the antechambers of my past into that dream. All I could see however then was the faint and the fluorescent emanations from a clock that embroidered the dark of room. I heard my wife breathing, lost in her own dreams at the hour of dawn.
Every so often, the idea of one’s own mortality comes flashing by, like some New York City cop car in haste - all consuming in its imperious presence, brooking no resistance, granting no relief, pressing into the mind’s otherwise mute frenzies with the relentless cacophony of an earnest high school band. At that moment of singularity, of unthinkingness, there isn’t much to do, except let this idea wash in like a high tide, cleanse the remnants of thoughts that stick around on the beach head of everyday living. Then, when this momentous but fleeting idea has receded — to where exactly, who knows — the mind is then a curious place to observe. No different than a city after a heavy rain. Everything is still in its place, but there is a wetness to the world, objects reveal themselves with that extra sliver of realism like some Instagram filter, pressed harder into the grounds, the world and its sounds dissolve into a cave. None of this, of course, means that one walks around in a daze, but there is a distance between the self that interacts with the world and the one that watches that very exterior self play act as if nothing has changed. The idea of one's own death, a cessation of this all that throbs and moves, that imagines and conspires, brings on a certain remove, a certain witlessness to all that one can see. From within, life, its vanities and idylls, seem absurd in face of that immersive thought wave that briefly swallowed all thinking. What remains then, after that wave has receded, is a mind pregnant with an exile’s sense of non-belonging.
But all this that I write about is merely the after effects of that original thought. I describe the wet grounds under my feet, not the waters themselves that inundated. Can one describe one's own death except in an hackneyed, cliche ridden sense? How does one describe that sense of immersion, if in deed watery end is the right metaphor. What however is interesting is how we think about speaking about one's own death. Marguerite Yourcenar gives voice to her memorable Hadrian, when he says: “I begin to discern the profile of my death” before that magnificent book sprawls outward, like some vast rain cloud over the Roman consciousness during the interstitial period when, as Flaubert noted, the Gods were dead, Christ was yet to be born and man was alone. Death then comes without the succor of a son of God on a cross or the more diverse panoply of Gods who await in the underworld. For Hadrian, Death is a co-conspirator who eggs him to reminisce about his days as Emperor Trajan's understudy on the brutalities of power and the loneliness of the powerful. That this narrative is addressed to a young Marcus Aurelius, who later pens his own 'Meditations', grants Hadrian's voice the legitimacy of an ancestral insight. That an ancestor was spurred to reflect thanks to his own imminent Death makes the latter not just a witness, but a perpetual presence unto which every generation must return. For Yourcenar’s Hadrian then, it is from the shores of Death, a scintilla before the infinite begins that one looks back at the the finiteness of life. Death becomes a pretext to opine on the living. Death in the ancient world was a fountainhead of possibilities about how to extract meaning from the quotidian.
But in our times, to think about one’s own mortality is more difficult. We live in worlds when death is common place (how could it not be, we are 6 billion and more), but public grief is rare. Any articulation of grief in the Western world is accompanied by an aestheticization of sorrow. Newspapers -- subject to that final arbiter, the marketplace -- don't like the images of wailing mothers and fathers maddened-by-grief unless it has a political point to make or the photograph offers up a provocative visual. More deliberate cultural products undergo a different metamorphosis. Novels about the death of husband and children to a tsunami, the passing away of a child to a disease -- these are now minor genres in book stores, with writers on repeated occasion speaking to eager audiences about how they came to this mountain of sorrow only to cross and write about it. All this may indeed be possible, in due course. But the idiot desperations provoked by helplessness and heart plunging sorrows is only deemed useful, or marketable, to our society in so far as there is an angle of self-help, a germ of communicable optimism in its literary ectoplasm. This reflects less on the author but the infrastructure of commerce into which death and grief must find a way to smuggle itself as a genre. In our TV shows and everyday life, we rely on euphemisms like 'celebrate life' when the occasion is the extinguishing of a life, the wandering away of a life, like some cattle head in the evening, into that irretrievable cave of being which lives are lost, never to be touched, felt, or kissed.
Beyond this world of feeling, to interrogate Death itself in our times, we are limited by an epistemological self-awareness that is often indistinguishable from abnegation itself. The New Yorker writer Kathryn Schulz, while talking about how her essay-pieces grow from the particular (say, an earthquake in the Pacific Northwest) to the infinite (the fleeting life span of humans compared to geological time), says in an interview that before writing about such matters in an essay, “one must earn [this] expansiveness”. One must pay dues to the observation of life before the overdraft on Death can be cashed in. To speak of Death, or the immense nothingness of what is to follow, our present day temperament deems that it is something we must work for. Only by accreting life experiences, sharpening our instincts on the stone of Life, honing our intellectual faculties first can we engage, far less yield to, our metaphysical suspicions about what comes hereafter. It is only by accreting life’s experiences, by making the very act of living into something concrete, can we speak about Death. Hard not wonder if this inversion on who can speak about Death — with authority, with legitimacy — has come about because we have become a culture that privileges thinking over feeling. We have become like those in the audience who on the passing away of the protagonist, instead of crying, keep an eye out for the strings that pull the curtains down. We have become critics, not devotees, of our own greatest creation: our lives.