“You don’t realize that you’re a big old bag of blood until you actually burst,” is not the start of a story I wanted to hear out, yet it was precisely this tale with which she introduced herself to me. “My grandfather was quite drunk and took me to the top of the Sears Tower in Chicago,” she continued. I tuned out. She went on, relating in comic detail how the old man first talked his way into complete access to the building, then fell to his death. She smiled when she remembered his face falling away and though she heard not a word was convinced the gentleman realized just before his death that he was nothing more than a bag of blood hurtling to the concrete below. She was certain that was the man’s last thought. “Splat,” she would finish the story, clapping one hand down on her upturned palm for emphasis.
I’ve been reading a lot of E.M. Cioran this past week. With some writers I discover and devour their work in a week or two, then they sit with me for years. Occasionally, sometimes frequently, I return to them. In Cioran’s case, he’s pessimistic, cynical and cutting to the quick, like this passage from The Heights of Despair:
Those who ask to be surrounded by friends when they die do so out of fear and inability to live their final moments alone. They want to forget death at the moment of death.
Of people who take this tack, avoiding the ultimate challenge of living one’s death, Cioran says they “lack infinite heroism.” In his book, The New Gods, our fallen nature, which he seizes on like a Manichean heresiarch, is our defining characteristic: “Who could help concluding that existence has been vitiated at its source, existence and the elements themselves? The man who fails to envisage this hypothesis at least once a day has gone through life as a sleepwalker.”
What would it be like to botch your death, I thought? And here is what I came up with:
I asked everyone to leave and, finally, my dear wife. we sat together a moment without words, gazing into one another’s eyes for the final time. alone, the door closed and room silent though I was fiercely aware of my breathe and pulse, I came face to face with oblivion and determined to speak the truth that it was living aligned with the moment, adrift in the sense that an Olympic kayaker is adroitly adrift on the rapids, at the collision of then, now and then again that makes existence bubble and foam on the edge of oblivion, but I only blurted out “Jesus,” an exclamation, and not the faithful cry it sounded like with my last breathe. crap, blew the line and came across as repentant at the end. I regret nothing but that last word, so I’ll have to come round again on a hook of cosmic recurrence until I can get off again. off? Godel always gives us an exit to the next frame of reference.
The problem with this story is that it is improbable: The last word will not necessarily be followed by a reflection, though it certainly could be commented upon silently as your brain flickers to off. It’s our desire for closure that makes the reflection necessary to the story, for the character to know the results of its error, when, in fact, things will simply shut down and silence will reign. Our story only ends with a conclusive thought if it is lived through heroically. For Cioran, that’s dying alone, undistracted. There are, however, many forms of heroics.
I suggest that a comprehensive analysis of the history of the CNN homepage (or of many news sites) would show that there is an surprising inverse relationship between the complexity of challenges faced by our country, or our species, and the incidence of celebrity news. Where one would expect that as challenges mounted, such as amid the U.S. government shutdown, there would be less celebrity news on the homepage and more coverage of issues, there is in fact more celebrity news in times of crisis.
The celebrity news is canned, something waiting for consumption at any time. It should fall off the homepage in favor of enterprise reporting about the actual facts, beyond simply reporting on the controversy over the facts. Celebrity news is the corn syrup of media. Like many food producers who bulk us up on sweeteners and fillers, much of the media is failing its customers. Note the much longer on-page life of the celebrity stories, as well.
With that, the communications professor tugged at his frayed left cuff and tucked his hand into his tweed jacket pocket, stalking from the room with a failed elegance.
I had my first referral of the semester today. It was a kid who’d never been sent to the office before. He didn’t know what to do.
“Go to the office,” I said.
“What do I do after that,” the kid asked.
“Go wherever people who disrupt class go.”
I think he got the message.
Alexander Pew Aberforth
Daniel Finnegan Ketchikan
Jane Dow Forsythe, she goes by “J.D.”
Bobby Dargan was eleven years old the first time he surprised God, who had not had that experience before. God was momentarily — an eternity for us — perplexed.
“I think you loosen your standards when it flatters you to do so,” she snapped off the last of her martini.
“Really?” Justice Thomas observed from the end of the bar. “Then I’ll have another, barkeep.”
Tweaker Reilly’s given name may as well as been “Tweaker,” because he recalled no other. He did have a physiological response to the name “Josh” when spoken the name made him start like an old dog on hearing its original name from a long-lost master. It was just as well he’d lost his name, as he’d forgotten all the habits that went with that life.
Walter Benjamin, in an essay called “Unpacking My Library,” writes that “Writers are really people who write books not because they are poor, but because they are dissatisfied with the books which they could buy but do not like.”
I spend a lot of time reading old books, and a few new ones. It seems to me that more books are like snack food than great meals, and it has always been so. But we live at a time when many great meals from the past are available to anyone who cares to read carefully and think. This, I think, bodes well for the future, when some of the great readers will get sick of the junk they are offered and reinvent the book, the magazine, fiction and non-fiction alike.
Call me an optimist, at last.