Sunday, June 29, 2008
Dead to the World
It was not only the thought that other people were moving on in their lives while I, at age fifty-two, remained stuck in a farce of human existence--though that appalled me and wakened in me a primitive insanity: a man with a hatchet gets to his feet and begins to dance in my mind whenever I have these thoughts. There is something worse. The fact that I had never lived, that I had thrown away my entire life, or had lost any meaningfully-lived experience in the chaos of mental illness. In many ways my travels through life had been a dangerous trip. I remember the bad episodes, speaking metaphorically, the rickety buses on mountain roads; the poisonous encounters with so many people; the opportunities that turned out to be dead-end traps; the abusive and crazy people I had met. My early childhood. Had I ever been happy?
I might have died, I think, in consolation. Surely it is better to be alive than dead. At least I am alive.
In adolescence it had always been a persistent worry of mine that I was doomed to die in a nuclear attack in a dismal place, where I had no business to be. I often dreamed of horrific explosions and blinding flashes of light, of my arms being hacked off by an angry mob, of catching fire. I always traveled as a stranger, alone. But I reassured myself with the sentiment that my family was waiting. It was a methodical superstition, like singing to keep my spirits up, and as long as they were thinking of me I would be safe--they were keeping me alive; and if I died they would be brokenhearted.
Now I knew better. I know that if I had died it would have made little difference. They would have been sorry in the guilty way that people are when some awful thing they desire deep down actually occurs. It might have been convenient, my death.
And now my death would mean nothing to anyone. The person I am now is not even the person I was twenty years ago. I am estranged from myself and my origins. It's as if someone else has taken over and totally displaced me. He -- the alter ego that has assumed my identity -- sits in my chair, writes at my desk, uses my books. He puts his feet on my stool. He sleeps on my side of the bed and dreams the dreams that I should be dreaming. I imagine the loss of my self, my sanity in this way. My vision is of the dining table, and a pen sitting atop a tablet of paper, the visible page smeared with ink. It was there when I left; and then I died, and someone else was at the table. But the pen and paper hadn't moved. It remained, with the smeared ink on it. The pronouncement It doesn't matter if you die is devastating. No one says that, but that is what everyone thinks. All my acquaintances or barely acquainted strangers who know of me think this, I'm sure.
I see now that my death does not matter. I was a fool for ever believing in my importance. I feel now that I don't count. Knowing all this is like dying; not cut down with one swipe of a blade, but going slowly as the truth sinks in and spreads like an infection.
I had always thought the most cynical lines in literature were in the Jacobean play The White Devil, by John Webster, and went something like: Before your corpse is cold you will already be forgotten:
That lie upon your death-bed and are haunted
with howling memories of the people you have known! Ne'er trust them; they'll forget you
Ere the worm pierce your winding sheet,
Ere the spider make a thin curtain for your epitaph.
It had seemed too cruel and taunting to be true.
It was true. I believe my case is worse, for I have not died but only gone away. I am lost and alone.