Saturday, April 8, 2017

My Fondness for Death, Sickness, Grief and Melancholy

I'm a disgustingly healthy person. Other than a perpetually overactive sinus, I don't really have any ailments. I sleep like a log every night. I've never had a headache-- not one. Until I had a quite straightforward operation last year, I'd never been in hospital as a patient. I have two or three bad colds a year, and that's pretty much the extent of my sickness. It's terrible.


In all seriousness, I realize how lucky I am. And readers are warned (if it wasn't telegraphed already) that I'm being very flippant in this post. I'm really not trying to trivialize death, sickness, grief and other suffering. I'm only talking about their cartoon versions, as it were.

And I mean "cartoon" almost literally, in the case of death. One of my favourite cartoons of all time (in fact, it made its way into my fabled purple notebook) shows a man on his deathbed surrounded by his love ones, to whom he is saying: "Tell them I never bought a personal computer. Tell them I died unrepentant."

I can't find this cartoon on the internet, by the way. If anyone wants to try, they're welcome...

I like cartoons about deathbeds. Maybe it's because they domesticate the ultimate terror. (Ultimate in the order of time, if not necessarily in the order of magnitude.) I've thought a lot about that cartoon and why it's in my purple notebook. Part of it is it because it expresses, in a humorous form, the idea of fidelity unto death that I find inspiring in so many regards. But partly it's because it makes death seem cosy and straightforward, just part of the parade of life.

I'm interested in the story of Sigmund Freud having a fainting fit in the arms of Jung, the favourite son who he would ultimately excommunicate, and muttering the words: "How sweet it must be to die!" when he regained consciousness.

What strange beings are we, that we can conceptualise our own deaths, our own mortality-- that something in us remains intact even in the face our utter dissolution? Even from a non-religious point of view, this seems to be the case. When we respect somebody's wishes regarding their remains or their estate, for instance, we grant them a continued existence, a continued stake in the game.

Maybe I sometimes like to think of death-- this cartoon version of death-- because it heightens the immense poignancy of every human being, what one poet has described as:

A very obvious thing: the immense
Thereness of someone else: a man
Once only, since the world began.
Never before, and never again.


How this gives a tragic dignity to every human being, to every group, to every moment....

In the same way, I am also fascinated by illness-- though once again, it's not so much the actual messy, ugly, painful reality of illness as the very idea of the thing.

There's a scene in one of my favourite movies, You've Got Mail, where Tom Hanks's character pays a surprise call on his adversary/romantic interest, played by Meg Ryan. She is at a low ebb, having lost her job (although she has money saved and has offers, so you know she won't be out on the street). She also has a bad cold, or flu, or something, and she's sneezing and bedridden. He brings her flowers and talks to her, ignoring her sass. It's a very sweet scene and she's adorable.

I like reading about long convalescences, fever dreams, somebody sleeping for days after an ordeal, sanatorium stays....the idea of somebody being allowed, nay, instructed, to lie down and take it easy for a protracted amount of time is pleasing. There is something sweetly vulnerable and child-like about it.

In the Clive Barker novel Sacrament. the protagonist is mauled by a bear in an early chapter and spends about a third of the book in a coma, dreaming of his life up to that point. I found that impossibly cosy and insulated. My favourite part of Sherlock Holmes stories is always the briefing in 221B Baker Street, when we know the characters are in no immediate danger, and no immediate exertion is demanded of them.

I must admit I also like accounts of melancholy, soul-searching, even depression-- although I hesitate to admit that, since I know depression is terrible and can lead to suicide and worse. I'm not really talking about that kind of depression, though. I'm talking about ordinary depression.

Why would I have such a bizarre taste? Believe me, I've thought about it, and I think I know the answer.

It's reassuring to know that the human organism is so complicated, even so fragile. We are not just factors of production, or human resources, or consumers, or citizens, or punters, or utility-maximizers, or featherless bipeds. 

Things matter to us, and things matter to us in all kinds of complicated and individual ways. We get homesick. We crave adventure. We want "closure". We want simplicity. We visit the birthplaces of our heroes. We crave a stake in the future. We want to cut loose, for once in a while. We want a new challenge. We suffer survivor's guilt. We take up causes in which we have no personal stake whatsoever. We seek exonerations for long-dead relatives. We want to express ourselves. We want to re-invent ourselves. We want to revisit our childhoods.

The clich├ęd image of the lone figure on the seashore, the solitary walker, pleases me immensely. So does the image of the guy at the bar staring into his drink. Or the woman staring into the fire listening to the same song over and over.

The reason I'm a traditionalist conservative, rather than a libertarian or a liberal or any other political persuasion, is because I think traditionalist conservatism respects the complexity of human beings. A simple value like "freedom to do what you want as long as you don't hurt others", "the greatest happiness of the greatest number", "equality", or "progress" seems glaringly insufficient to me. Human beings value intangibles such as tradition, community, identity, continuity, and so many others....and very often, these can't be pursued on a purely individual basis, they need to be pursued collectively, even on a societal level.

Perhaps the impulses of artists are the most interesting example of the complicated human psyche. I'm always fascinated when an artist walks away from success, even immense success, from a sense of integrity, or of completion, or some other mysterious sense. Or when an artist alienates all the critics and all the fans, from a mysterious imperative to do something different.

How could J.K. Rowling resist the temptation to write more Harry Potter novels, for instance? How could J.D. Salinger stop publishing entirely?

I had my own (very minor) example of this sensation. It's hardly Harry Potter, but for two years I wrote a column for The Catholic Voice newspaper. I wasn't paid, but it was nice to go into a newsagent, find a copy of the paper, and see a two-page spread of my ideas. Furthermore, I wrote about whatever I wanted.

But after two years....I felt I had written that column as long as I could, and that it was time to give it up. And I don't regret it. I just knew it was the right time to stop.

So my fascination with human melancholy, grief, depression etc. has to be seen in this light. It's not some kind of sick enjoyment of other peoples' pain. It's a fascination with the mysterious processes that go on in the human soul. The dark side of the moon (another purple notebook phrase).

Having made all the above disclaimers, I am human and I have indeed had darkness in my own life. For instance, before my acceptance of the truth of the Catholic faith, I had a kind of spiritual crisis which lasted for several months, perhaps more than a year, and which was extremely harrowing. Recently, I saw a video on Youtube where a vlogger was describing a similar experience-- and, although he hadn't found God (he hoped he would some day), and his crisis was more existential than spiritual, I found it extremely compelling. So I don't think my fascination with this kind of subject matter is purely vicarious and voyeuristic. Even when it relates to something I have experienced myself, I find something strangely comforting and affirming in it.

Update, written a few hours later: I'm particularly pleased with this post, which was (in my view) a successful attempt to catch a thought that's been buzzing around my consciousness for months. I'll even suggest that posts like this are a good argument for the existence of blogs-- for the author, if not the reader!

I wanted to include another example. In the New Year of 2010 I spent a few days in London. Although they were very happy in themselves, I was overwhelmed by the scale of the city and the sheer number of people-- I had been there before, but never for quite as long. When I came back to Dublin, I felt a profound sense of disorientation-- my head was swimming (so to speak) for days. I suddenly saw my home city as one place in a much bigger world-- of course, I'd always known this, but now I really felt it. I almost had a bizarre fear that Dublin was going to slide off the face of the earth, it was so insubstantial. That's not quite how I felt, but it's the best way I can express it.  It was a very unpleasant sensation, and difficult to describe. And yet, remembering it is strangely pleasant-- the after-effects are pleasant. I could give many other examples.

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