Sunday, February 02, 2014

`If They Are to Live Their Lives'

As a newspaper features writer I thought it my implicit duty to give voice to people who might otherwise be ignored in life and forgotten in death. I never alerted my editors to this mildly eccentric sense of obligation, though some had their suspicions. The politicians and captains of industry, the celebrated and infamous, always manage to get noticed, though their memory too will evaporate in time. My interest was in those who had done nothing to merit attention, and never sought it. Call them humble, anonymous or inconsequential, they were people too busy with life to waste time bluffing death -- the woman who collected sand and had amassed thousands of uniformly labeled vials of it, the police detective who trained at night to be a hypnotist, the musician who played the saw professionally, the numismatist who made a small fortune dealing in the coins and currency issued by leper colonies. I remember them from twenty or thirty years ago, and many, I know, must already be dead and otherwise forgotten. Whatever documentation I gave their lives, if not digitalized, is turning brittle and brown in libraries and newspaper morgues, and in my file cabinets. They will pass, as will the newspaper stories and their author. Selah. 

Theodore Dalrymple is probably known best for his more contentious essays, those indicting the idiocies of contemporary politics, government and medicine, but the Dalrymple I prize is meditative and Johnsonian, the mournful moralist. “Give Death Its Due” in the New English Review is an essay devoted not to death but to the evolving accommodations we make for it in life. Like most of us, he thought himself immune to mortality when young. Death was something that happened to others: 

“Ever since I was born about half a million people a year have died in Britain alone, making more than thirty million of them in my lifetime; yet until quite recently I hardly noticed this holocaust around me. Death played no more than a very minor part in the jejune drama of my life; I lived as if exclusively among immortals, where death, if it occurred at all, seemed almost a moral judgment on the lives of the departed rather than a purely natural event in those lives. They must have done something wrong to die.” 

Until Dalrymple mentioned it, it hadn’t occurred to me that I too once judged the dead. Even the best of them were weak, culled from the herd with Darwinian justice. What could be more blindly arrogant than such thinking? To be human sometimes is to think inhumanely. Dalrymple is three years my senior and seems to me a representative man. His fears and vanities often are mine. Some are perfectly irrational and all are probably inevitable because we are human. I think of John Laskell, in the first chapter of Lionel Trilling’s The Middle of the Journey (1947), when no one comes to meet him at the train station: 

“He did not know what he was afraid of. He was not terrified by anything, he was just in terror. It had the aspect of movement, of something rushing at him, like a brown wind.” 

It’s a novel I reread every few years, and not as a political roman à clef. It’s the improbably right image of the brown wind I always remember. Confronting such fears is the business of life and, I suppose, of philosophy and religion.  Dalrymple, not a religious man and not a philosopher, writes: 

Why was it granted to me to live so many years more than they, without having done anything at all to deserve it? Why do I not thank my lucky stars (if that is what they are)? Why, instead, do I complain all the time, of such matters as that the internet connection is a bit slow today? I suppose the answer is that it is because what human beings are like, and must be like if they are to live their lives.”

1 comment:

Buce said...

Patrick, have you seen the LA Times Homicide Report blog?