Thursday, 14 December 2017
Confessional - How Can Artists Confront Death in their Work?
I have two great passions in my life; being a parent and writing fiction. And I will have both snatched away from me at some point in the future (or sooner if Alzheimer's strikes at the core of me). So my passions, my loves, as with anybody's, has death and cessation at the other end of its lens.
We all die, hardly a blinding insight Marc. While that is of course true, I have been stricken with that awareness for virtually all of my life. Most people function fully because they never think of death in their daily lives, until maybe they start approaching it in their old age. Me, I think of it almost every day.
We are all exposed to death, introduced in childhood through the death of pets and grandparents. Me, I had a cat who lived until he was 23 and the first of my grandparents didn't pass until I was 18. So I wasn't prematurely exposed through the customary course of events.
Young children with plastic imaginations are very suggestible to terrors and assaults on their body's integrity, even if they don't fully understand the ramifications. My own young son given a lesson at school on food health, including dangerous levels of salt intake, consequently went on to develop an eating disorder since he shunned food on the basis of its salt content or sell-by date under his own investigations, as his fearful imagination ran wild. I had a similar experience that instilled in me the awareness of my death and cessation at the age of 6.
My bedroom abutted my parents' and my Dad always liked to listen to BBC Radio 4 at such a volume I could hear the BBC enunciation clearly through the bedroom walls. At about 10pm the programme he was listening too announced that some people would not be waking up from their night's sleep next morning and - here it gets a bit hazy, I think somehow the actual words got conflated with my own childish imagination - this was because they would have turned into dragons. Terrified of the possibility of never waking up again, I kept myself awake through the rest of the night. Thereby not only catalysing a preternatural awareness of death, but also laying the seeds for a lifetime of insomnia. After all, if you're terrified of surrendering to the great unconsciousness that is death, that also may make it a might trickier to surrender to it even on a temporary basis in the form of the unconsciousness of sleep.
So I was, and have always been terrified of death. Just to be clear, not the act of passing itself which to me is a minor detail no matter how agonising or supported by loved ones gathered around. (Both of which were the case with the death of my beloved grandmother, as the congestion in her lungs led her to two hours of agitated motion around her hospital bed trying to free up her breathing, wrenching her hands from ours in her distress). No, I'm talking about the eternal cessation, unconsciousness and dreamless sleep that is death's annihilation of the self. *
So how does this black hole awaiting me and all of us actually manifest itself in my daily life? Well it's not every minute of every day as that would clearly reduce me to a gibbering wreck. But I would say the awareness strikes me at least once a day, sometimes more. It can be simply looking at my son and feeling crushed that we will be parted permanently, or something on TV, or even no particularly conscious prompt at all, it just comes upon me. And such an awareness drags you out of your immediate state of consciousness and into another, overwhelming one that blots out all other thought and offers only a single emotion - terror.
The only way to combat it for me, is to counter blot it out. Not by thinking nice things like flowers or gambolling lambs since they too will inevitably succumb to death, but by sort of overloading my brain with an internally generated white noise. I say white noise because it is not constructed of any rational thoughts, but literally a buzzing interference (are these brainwaves I have no idea?). There is no telling how long these are required to go on for in order to tamp back down the mortal thoughts, but somehow the terror subsides. Using one void to efface another. In such a state, I am fit for nothing else.
So much for the distinct incidences of mortal awareness. It also pervades so much (if not everything) about my life as a whole. On a mundane level, I don't fly, am not particularly drawn to speed or other activities where your feet leave the ground. Yes I know you can get hit by a car when crossing the road, but then my optician died in a skiing accident... Though I have always written about death a lot in my work, yet as I wax on into my 50's I have found this year to be dominated by writing stories about ageing, infirmity and death. If Picasso had blue and red periods, I seem to be in a literary equivalent, my death period. (It is only interrupted by a body of stories about the wider politics of the world, which the way things are heading represents a global scale of extinction, so form a parallel version in many ways).
So far so depressing right? I may even be a depressive (there is a family history of quite a spectrum of mental illness and mental conditions). We'll get to the contrary in a moment and even throw in a bit of fun. But if I am a depressive, I must be a reasonably high functioning one, almost never missing a day's work through sickness and having turned out 10 books and been the main child rearer to my twins, including coaching their youth football team for 3 years. Suicide is not an option for me, because I am so terrified of death I could never hasten my appointment with it. I don't mean this flippantly, I cleaned my father's blood off the kitchen floor after his serious suicide attempt that left him hospitalised and strapped to his bed to prevent him repeating the act...
How do I cope with my own internal terror? Largely through comedy and a sense of the absurd. When the terror of death is your ultimate emotional scalar, most other anxieties abounding in life seem insignificant and indeed I remain imperturbable in the face of most of life's foibles & travails. I can go a stage further, I can derive the absurd about them. I am not ashamed to say that most things we human beings get aerated about I find amusing, including those of my own doing. I can defang most things in life and derive a measure of mental calm accordingly. It is the counterbalance to the deep core of terror that lies just beneath.
However there is also a serious side to absurdity. As stated above, the human condition is absurd: whatever relationships you form and whatever you build or achieve materially, will be sundered from you. Maybe that's more tragic than absurd, but Samuel Beckett seemed to find it the latter. (Indeed tragedy derives from hubris, that is human beings daring to get above themselves and approach the semi-divine, destined to failure because humans can never aspire to the immortal).
I also find it absurd that more people are not as terrified of death on a daily basis as I am. It should pervade each of us as per our human condition. Now I understand fully why this isn't the case, because it would utterly impair daily functioning. Not to do so is actually a pretty good coping mechanism. But the downside of this is that we are largely left both unprepared and unreconciled (except for the fortunate few of deep faith or those blessed by a 'happy death') for our own demise (or the death of a close loved one). And also we don't necessarily work back from the end point to consider what the purpose/meaning (if any) of life is. Death really ought to preface and put all the rest of life into context.
So I in addition to the outburst of white noise moments, I have also erected a system of mirrors that keep conceptualisation of death reasonably remote; I write about it and I derive humour around the margins of what it leaves us in life. And contrary to the idea of possibly being depressive, I actually enjoy life and am amused by it. But as I grow old, I seem to have reached a stage where these refractions are unravelling. As you notice slight changes in the body's elasticity, it's harder to keep awareness of sometime impending death at bay. Will my sense of humour continue to immure me against a slowly failing body? I doubt it. You realise it is just a form of misdirection, of your own conscious thought.
I am proud of everything I've written, but literature while it can move us, always retains an intellectual element; that of the material having to be ordered into a narrative, word choice, the rules of grammar, editing etc. And such an intellectual element necessarily introduces a distance no matter how slight. I've written about death a lot so far, but I can't help feeling that the intellectual part of the approach leaves me falling short of really getting to grips with Death. All art metaphoricalises its material, and metaphor is just another refracting mirror so that you're not directly confronting Death, just as we cannot stare directly at the sun.
And yet to go deeper invites the phenomenon that requires my white noise response to be ongoing throughout the duration of any such writing project. That way lies only madness. Probably. Do I undertake such an endeavour, with the potential risks to mental health attached? I don't feel I have any choice, not that I have a project currently in mind to broach this with. I don't have a choice because the physical process is clearly in motion anyway (I say this as someone who in my 54 years to date has had the incredible fortune/ genes to have never had to spend a single night in a hospital. But the markers of decline, however slow, are evident to me.
Watch this space...
* Does perhaps technology offer us modes of cheating death? It's a possibility, but uploading one's entire stock of memories to some sort of smart interface does not preserve life. It would solely be an existence as newsreel, that is unreflexive and static; the essential 'you' would have no real relationship to the memories, unable to add to them. I imagine it would be like a form of Alzheimer's, where the active relationship to your memories is split asunder, so that you are cast adrift from them; the memories are preserved, they still exist, but they no longer are 'your' memories, because that 'you' has ceased to exist in any meaningful way.