Monday, July 28, 2014

My Corpse

An industry of sorts has grown up around the memory of David Foster Wallace. There are the books of interviews, of B-side essays, the (rather dull) biography, the (repugnant and cloying) blank-page art book version of his Kenyon College commencement speech, the hundreds of thousands of views of his Youtube interviews, the accompanying comment threads.

Of course, I'm guilty of having consumed a great deal of it. As for so many of my generation, he has become transfigured as Saint David of Illinois, the secular beacon for the mopey and literary, someone we can project our angst and desire for sincerity onto, a figure-- as with all secular saints-- we can use to embody our perceptions of certain elements of ourselves.

However, he is by no means alone. All of us, anyone who makes some kind of impact on the world through having children, through art, etc., has to face the reality that, ultimately, other people will invest our death and a full-scope view of our life as a metaphor, and for all intents and purposes, use our corpses as puppets for their own egos.

A nightmare: from above, I see an open-casket funeral. I cannot see a face on the body, but I'm certain that it's me, embalmed and half-transformed into plastic, my body cavity stuffed with cotton, fluids replaced with formaldehyde and methanol, a doll version of myself. Some people look sad, most look bored. People who brought their kids who'd rather be at home playing Xbox.

Of course, there are also the more modern traditions. The modern funeral is supposed to be about life and the all-pervasive word “dignity,” not about death per se, I'm told, which strikes me as truly gruesome. In logical extension of the Protestant work ethic, my countrymen have turned catharsis into productivity.

The violation of one's own body and memory are, for oneself, completely hypothetical circumstances. By definition, you will never consciously experience either. And yet they produce this deep-seated primal nausea, something ancient and atavistic.

Much is made of the human desire for immortality, and this feeling seems to be a sort of variation on that. The notion of immortality, exclusively through the terms of others, seems like a long-term postmortem slavery. So we try, in life, to align how we will be remembered with the value systems we hold dear, whether that's through religious ritual, organ donation, or leaving one's assets to beloved children or worthy charities or what have you.

But why should I expect anything more from death than I have in life? It's not like I live my life on my terms and mine alone, or that anyone does. If none of us have a monopoly on how we are perceived in our lives-- try as we might-- why can we expect the same in death?

Alternatively, we can take the opposite route, to try to be forgotten-- common courtesy in certain Amazonian societies which forbid even saying the names of the dead, but harder in the contemporary Western world. A less extreme example is found in the funeral practice of Mongolian lamas, who, in a final act of compassion, have their corpses dragged to mountaintops to feed the birds of the steppe.

All of this being said, death is by its very nature an abstraction, something we can come close to, but never touch until the absolute moment. Try as we might, we can never control it-- even suicides rarely go as planned. And the people who have the healthiest relationships to death probably recognize this, whether consciously or not, and accept its abstract nature.

And so my line of analysis leaves me back where I started, with a void. Which, in turn, is all I can ask for. An emptiness that I have to learn to be comfortable with.

Monday, July 14, 2014


There has been barely a day in the past few months that I haven't, for some brief moment, thought of the Japanese novelist Junichiro Tanizaki's foray into nonfiction, In Praise of Shadows, a 50-page meditation on aesthetics written in Japan's dark days of the early 1930s, as the nation stood on the verge of political and economic collapse. It haunts me especially in the early evening, as I walk home to my empty apartment and I can see the fading light of the sun through my grimy window, the tired, red sun of East Asia that bears so little in common with the sun I grew up with, regardless of whether it's the same star.

If I was to reduce Tanizaki's essay, I would say it is an ode to a traditional aesthetic system full of darkness and shade, and against the neon-ization of the country already well underfoot by then. But to say that is to suggest that it's a coherent and ascertainable aesthetic system. Rather, it's everything that Tanizaki conceived of as associated with shadows and candlelight, from gold-flecked cups in the half-light to old styles of sushi made with persimmon leaves to the blackened teeth of Meiji concubines to his own skin tone.

And while there's nothing to pinpoint-- cultures always change, old nations die as new nations are born, traditions are little more than ideological expressions-- I can see how his analogies hang together, difficult to perceive but not impossible, like a massive spiderweb in the dark. His perceptions come to the surface as I lie in bed in the summer heat, with the air conditioning off, a thin layer of sweat on my brow, as I press the fruit as I'm making a thick liqueur from ripe lychees, as indirect sun hits my writing paper, as I make a pot of black tea, thick and dark, the leaves blended with smoked camphor.

Two or three weeks ago, my power went out at about 9:00, and I lit a couple of candles. Reflected in my bedroom mirror, they produced much more light than I would have expected, and yet it was of a totally different character. The veneer on my wooden bedframe. The green bottle on my desk. It extended beyond light into all senses. The air took on a new warmth and velvety thickness, and my apartment was as still and silent as the first snowfall of the winter.

And it occurred to me that the same sensibility Tanizaki described was equally present in Flemish still lives. Never mind that the symbolism was different-- Calvinism instead of Shinto, splayed rabbits and peeled lemons instead of tea bowls and sakuras. It is the interplay of light and dark that is the same, the same focus on the odd little artifacts.

 The unnameable aesthetic forces that dance around the edges of our consciousness are by no means spiritual or universal, as a Jung would have it, but the effect of countless images, compositions, natural patterns. What I see and feel in the writings of Junichiro Tanizaki, in these paintings of the breakfast tables of long-dead Dutchmen, in the taste of the camphorous tea, is the residue of old perceptions.

It's like this. You come to an unfamiliar place, and you don't know why, but it reminds you of someplace else, someplace familiar. What is it that ties you back to your reference point? Is it the way the leaves shine silvery in the afternoon light? The leap of a cat from a roof onto a garbage heap?