I was going to write a post about Prince. I’m a big fan and his death bummed me out tremendously. But besides being a magnificent and unabashed weirdo, he didn’t have the profound impact on my life that he had on a lot of other peoples’. I think I was just a touch too young for an album like Purple Rain to rewire my brain, you know? At the time. I love it now, but not in the same way I love, say, The Downward Spiral or Houses of the Holy. It’s not an integral part of my personal architecture.
Anyway, that day, my roommate and I sat in the yard drinking beer, listening to Prince, feeling sad but incredibly, wonderfully, blissfully alive (also drunk and sunburned, which only added to the effect, I think). We ended up spending a number of hours just listing off people who are going to die sooner than later, people who we’ll miss when they go. It’s a very long list (and as far as I can recall, Stephen King, Stan Lee, and Bill Murray were at the top). But that led to us discussing books, music, movies, science, psychology, religion – the stuff of life, the universe, and everything. We felt inoculated against the sadness, against the inevitability of death. It doesn’t hurt that I’m a writer and he’s a philosopher and this is how we think anyway.
Cut to the next day, when I tried to sit down and write something, anything about Prince. I got as far as a title: “That purple velvet sex elf sure can play the guitar.” Then I got stumped. (But does anything else really need to be said? I think not.) As is my horrible habit when I get stuck, I started going through my notebook, the lists, notes, and half-formed thoughts that I keep carrying around like mental ballast. I found a piece about death that I started maybe a year ago. According to the bullet points in the margin, it was going to eventually be about the personification of death à la Gaiman, Anthony, Pratchett, et al, but apparently I never got that far. It’s a pretty alright piece and I like it even though it has no ending, so I’m putting it up here instead of trying to write something coherent about yet another lost artist. 2016 is kicking my ass, you guys. Death and fame and art and fame and death.
So here you go – some (slightly agro and, judging by my handwriting, maybe a little bit drunk) stuff about death. Enjoy? I guess?
It’s not a downer if you think about it hard enough.
This is going to suck. Not the writing (probably), but the subject matter. But it’s a thing, one of the capital-T important Things. It’s big and fat and juicy and real, so if you want to check out and go watch videos of puppies frolicking (or hippos! I recommend baby hippos), you should go now. Right now.
You are going to die.
No, for real.
I’m not always funny, you know. Although I do try.
One day, any day, your heart will stop and your brain will be starved of oxygen and you will cease according to every currently measurable standard. They’ll put you in a box and bury you or burn you to ashes or donate you to a cadaver lab or something. Your molecules, at some point, will return to their base elements through any number of processes. Entropy. It happens to the best of us.
We all know this. We learn it, at an early stage of our larval lives, but then there’s some primal developmental problem where we just stop thinking about it. We build up this protective layer of bullshit to not have to look at it, like watery paint over bad graffiti. What is that? Where does it come from? And I don’t mean to step on anybody’s dick here as far as the afterlife goes. Let’s go ahead and do the disclaimer thing at this point: I do not care what you think happens after we die. Not even a little. Not the point I’m trying to make right now. Clear? Good.
No! What I’m talking about is death itself as a fact of life. Why is it a problem? You’re born, you live, you die. Why is this difficult, not to comprehend, but to look at it directly? I’m not trying to be an ass – I’d really like to know. What makes this hard? Losing people is unimaginably hard and I’ve done it. That’s not what I mean. What makes it hard to talk about our own death? To see it as inevitable? Inescapable? Why do we say, so often, “if I die” rather than “when I die”? I don’t think it’s a strange question. Not as strange as the avoidance behavior, anyway. I’m not obsessive or morbid about it or anything, but it’s one of those quirky things we do that I often wonder about.
Look at our art, right? Love and death. That’s pretty much all we have to work with, that spectrum between those two things. Every verb. Every sin. Every poem. Every orgasm. Every sunset. Every breath. Every scar. Everything you’ve ever laid eyes on, on a path, on a continuum, a timeline. Death, death, death.
The problem with death is that it’s pervasive but ignored. Like air or water. You don’t think about it until there’s too much or too little of it. Like so:
A little death – a minor car crash (exhilarating), a starving person (sympathy, maybe a donation to some organization), a war (collateral damage, but we’re the good guys so it’s okay, right? Right? RIGHT?) – we need that shit. We love it.
Too much death – a fifty-car pileup (oh, such a tragedy), a famine (“my God, what a horrible situation they live in,” she says as she throws away those very slightly squishy tomatoes in the fridge), a war (collateral damage, etc, etc, etc – vote for the other guy and hope something different happens) – we need that shit too, and we still love it.
On a shallower level, there are always movies and tv to keep us happy. Death aplenty. Police procedurals and slasher films as far as the eye can see. There are reliable rom-coms that are either about young, beautiful people finding love (“’til death do us part”) or older (but also shockingly beautiful and probably still not much over forty) folks who are either divorced or have a dead former spouse because apparently the audience doesn’t require that these two types of baggage be different. And then there are all the different flavors of action movies. Somebody always dies, the only real threat being that it might be a character you like. Because explosions and whatnot. Even in a stupid caper (I love stupid capers) there’s always a moment when you think somebody dies and then they’re fine. The threat of death, the specter, is mere entertainment. It’s an accepted reality as a plot device. But in reality, it’s as invisible as we can possibly make it. We willfully ignore it.
Until, until, until.
Until you lose someone. Then that stuff hits close to home. Movies where the mom or brother or wife or child dies the same way as yours isn’t good anymore, you can’t watch it, can’t think about it. Or, contrarily, they become even more heart-wrenching, more touching, more meaningful. Because now you have some personal connection. I get it. I do. Believe me, I do it, too. I’ve never been able to watch the last twenty minutes of Armageddon again. Tore me all to pieces, that one. The suspension of disbelief required for entertainment necessitates a displacement of both grief and fear (those evil twins) by something else. What is that thing? Mass delusion? Group hysteria? Something in the popcorn? The idea that death is merely theoretical is why teenagers do the thousands of stupid things they do, or why folks pound cheeseburgers until their hearts explode, or why I drive too fast while smoking delicious, wonderful cigarettes. Fucking idiots, all of us. Just filling the time.
Killing the time, I suppose I should say. Slaughtering it. Slitting its throat while we look it in the eye.
That’s probably more accurate.
The fact remains that, while I am entertained by their fictionalization, I’m just not scared of serial killers. I’m not scared of random shootings, although they’re very real. I’m not scared of huge, ridiculous catastrophes involving earthquakes or aliens or asteroids. I am somehow removed from all of these. I used to be scared of ghosts. Embarrassing as it is, I was scared of ghosts way longer than I should have been. Well, okay, let’s be honest: I was scared of looking up and seeing someone there who wasn’t there a second before. But in my stupid stoner-from-a-small-town brain, ghosts were actually way scarier than serial killers. At the time. Seemed more likely. Not a lot of murder-crazed drifters or home invasions where I’m from. I was young and home alone a lot and I read tons of dopey horror novels, what can I say?
But now I’m scared of cancer. I’m scared of heart attacks. I’m scared of Alzheimer’s. The healthier I get, the more I think that something is wrong with me. Lost some weight? Freak out immediately. That pain finally went away? Must have nerve damage. Didn’t get a hangover when I earned one? Clearly a brain tumor. Obviously. Of course. Because I’ve seen some shit. And I’m not scared of death. I’m scared of all the ugly things that might come before.
What do we think of when we think of death? A light at the end of a tunnel? The grim reaper? Something like that? Some culturally specific signifier of transition? I think this is one of the most interesting things our little monkey brains have learned to do. Even more interesting because it’s a reaction to having an absolutely immovable wall between us and our knowing what happens next. Faced with the unknown, our instinct is to fill in the gap, to give the illusion of knowing so that we stay comfortable. So crazy, especially considering that we deal less and less with in-your-face death than we did in ye olde times when these stories and symbols were created. We’ve removed ourselves, largely, from the process of death here in America since around the Civil War. When not being used as a plot point in entertainment, death’s realities are treated coldly and clinically. Well, “detached,” I suppose is a better word. We don’t wash and dress and live for a couple of weeks with our dead loved ones in the house anymore. We don’t dig the holes or build the coffins, for the most part. We have the squishiest of sentimental funerals and memorials, but someone else does all the heavy lifting. We get to just get on with our grieving, which I guess I would call progress, but I also feel like all that caring work that we used to have to do for our dead was a first step toward healing and acceptance that we deny ourselves now.
Yeah, that thing has no ending. Weird that I have absolutely no idea where I was going with that train of thought. I guess sometimes you just have to put on your rantypants about the heavy shit. Meanwhile, my website’s been down so I couldn’t post this for a minute, and in the interim I found the perfect nibble of awesome to wrap up my intro about Prince. The brilliant and delightfully verbose Chuck Klosterman writes, in his book Eating the Dinosaur:
During most of the 1980s and much of the ’90s, Prince declined almost every interview request he received. On those rare occasions he granted an interview, he always made a curious demand: The reporter could not use a tape recorder or take written notes. The reporter just had to memorize whatever Prince happened to be saying that day. At the time, it was assumed that Prince did this because he was beavershit crazy and always wanted to be in a position to retract whatever was written about him. However, his real motive was more reasonable and (kind of) brilliant: He wanted to force the reporter to reflect only the sense of the conversation, as opposed to the specific phrases he elected to use. He was not concerned about being misquoted; he was concerned about being quoted accurately. Prince believed that he could represent himself better as an abstraction – his words could not be taken out of context if there was no context. He could only be presented as the sum total of whatever was said, devoid of specifics…[H]e would always come across as interesting (in that the reporter would be forced to essentially fictionalize a narrative from a conversation that was almost impossible to reference), but he’d still be presented in the way he wanted to be seen (which is to say, enigmatically). It was a good idea.
It was a good idea, Prince. Well played, sir.