Wednesday, December 21, 2005

"Death whispers in the blood"

Joseph Bottum, editor of First Things, would be one of my favorite writers even if I didn't agree with him as much as I do. He expresses his perspective, shared or not, more elegantly than I could ever dream to. Last weekend, he commented on a piece by David Rieff in the New York Times Magazine. Rieff's essay discussed his mother's death from cancer; his mother was Susan Sontag. Bottum offers his own thoughts, particularly that "death remains 'more than metaphor' -- the undeconstructible that waits at the end of illness, mocking language." He continues:

Mortality is an ache deep in the bone. Death whispers in the blood. Though personal death is not something any human being has ever actually experienced -- my completed death cannot be an event in my life, after all -- still, from the death of a childhood pet to the death of a parent, the black knowledge has been forced upon the brain. Every mother gives birth astride an open grave, as Samuel Beckett put it. That is perhaps the bleakest imaginable picture of human life, but at some other level or another, we all know it's true.

Inevitable death. Death the great leveler, felling the mighty and small alike. Wrote William Cullen Bryant in "Thanatopsis," a mediocre poem that has nevertheless remained with me ever since I read it in eleventh grade:

Yet not to thine eternal resting-place
Shalt thou retire alone, nor couldst thou wish
Couch more magnificent. Thou shalt lie down
With patriarchs of the infant world,--with kings,
The powerful of the earth,--the wise, the good,
fair forms, and hoary seers of ages past,
All in one mighty sepulchre. . . .

Another great line from Bottum: "Grief inverts the world, making ghosts of the living in the overwhelming reality of the dead." Which for me conjures the series Six Feet Under and puts to words a feeling heretofore inexpressible: that the world of the show, the world of the Fishers, is a world inhabited by ghosts, a world in which the only reality is death, the reality of the dead.

At the same time, I realize why the show, as a treatment of death, fails. As an exploration of the human condition, of fallen, broken, grieving people struggling to make sense of death and reality, it succeeds brilliantly. The series' first season is perhaps the most amazing season of any show I've ever seen, period. Yet it is ultimately unsatisfying -- because it never gets beyond death as metaphor. The central metaphor -- the "six feet under" of the title, the notion that something lurks beneath the surface of our workaday lives and superficial selves, that a sort of psychological and emotional death can occur long before the physical one -- is true enough. But the plots and characters never transcend this metaphorical realm to settle on something concrete, on the reality and finality of death. It doesn't get beyond postmodern tricks of language. As Bottum concludes,
The dying are special, because they are dying, and we are always guilty in the face of their deaths. If death is at last undeconstructible, then deconstruction is wrong. It's not all language games and power struggles. The real intrudes -- it radiates back from death, to dying, to life itself. And knowing that, perhaps we find relief from all the little envies, scraping at the heart.

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