Breathless

Jay Thompson
November 2, 2010
Comments 1

All my life I’ve loved anticipation. Kafka, writing as a rodent in his last story, “The Burrow”: ““All my surroundings seem filled with agitation, seem to be looking at me, and then look away again so as not to disturb me, yet cannot refrain the very next moment from trying to read the saving solution from my expression.”

The dried-out flower at my desk, the floorplan-look of a spread bird’s wing, the Facebook pages of the dead: none of these, in themselves, can tell us how to live, or die. Reminders of being are not theories of being.

I can tell myself that everybody not alive right now as of this writing, has died, any number of times“ If I left this office without washing the crumbs off my peanut butter toast plate, I imagine mice coming to eat them off (we have a mouse problem), on their way, too, to death! As Shostakovich was, whose G-minor piano quintet’s on right now.

All my life I’ve loved the shape of anticipation and arrival–dawning insight, absorption, terror; stepping from my apartment into literal sun–more than I’ve loved rest, or understanding. William T. Vollman writes in “A Good Death” (an essay in this month’s Harper’s, his questions after his father succumbs to T-cell lymphoma) that we may even be comforted by our ignorance of dying itself. We can always choose to die, but “even if we are so lucky as to own a choice, that choice consists of too soon or too late.”

So, we ask literature or ourselves: can we simply anticipate our own dying in the meantime? As we’ve anticipated anything else whose shape we’ve had no idea about? I’ve never lost a sibling or parent or close friend: I’m in that time of life. I don’t know. Vollman at one point interviews Padre L??pez Cessa: how can we make death not ugly? How can the end of life be about something other than suffering?

The Padre offers, beyond his faith-specific “good news” of Christ, this: practice mortifying yourself in life. “Sacrifice is a death; to pardon someone else who has offended [you]“ is to die to your own pride. These are all mortifications that may teach us how to die.”

Proust, having arrived

So do I believe that self-mortification is a way of practicing for my own death? Or is it just a keen kind of pleasure, a withholding defined by anticipation? Like stepping out coatless, I forgive and am felt as virtuous, a warmth I step back inside to.

Am I just learning, by self-denial, a kind of exquisite enjoyment that will be (in the end) its own sort of pained attachment? Kafka the mammal again (as Kafka the man died of tuberculosis), speaking of guarding his burrow’s central keep: ““To be able to stand guard over it, and in that way to be completely compensated for renouncing the actual sight of it.”

Proust, having exited

It might be hopeless. All the selflessness (whether self-mortifying or simply appetite-whetting) and sensual specifics (that flower, those crumbs) of life might still be unable to make death bearable. So is this failure, this lingering not-rightness, at the very least a lesson in committing to any hopeless cause? The cause of fighting injustice (finding, as Paul Farmer calls it, “common cause” with the losers of life) or creating beauty or easing pain? I don’t know.

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