Thursday, December 03, 2015

`Nothing Could Be Taken Seriously'

I’m nagged by the death of a man I never met and whose poems I don’t begin to understand. From experience I know such obsessive thoughts, when otherwise inexplicable, are rooted in fear or a guilty conscience. Christopher Middleton’s death earlier this week reminds us that even the most voluble voice will someday be stilled, and chief among the reasons we write is to postpone death, a noble superstition. Tristram Shandy is such a sprint. Sterne and his narrator are consumptives. Like a vigorous pulse, words signify life. At the close of Vol. 4, Chap. 32, Tristram makes a cliff-hanging pledge:   

“And so with this moral for the present, may it please your worships and your reverences, I take my leave of you till this time twelve-month, when, (unless this vile cough kills me in the mean time) I'll have another pluck at your beards, and lay open a story to the world you little dream of.”

Theodore Dalrymple this week published an essay at New English Review with a title borrowed from Dylan Thomas and modified for purposes of realism: “And Death Shall Have Its Dominion.” He has interesting things to say about mortality, the “oneiric state” and distraction. We’re compelled to fill our lives with something and, Dalrymple writes, “Drugs are the same as screens in this respect.” No matter the effort, we cannot vividly imagine our own nullity, but spend our lives denying it. He makes the writing/living linkage:

“I cannot imagine my permanent oblivion, but that does not mean to say that it is not coming. As to the process of dying, I admit to a rather strange attitude towards it: I look forward to it with a certain clinical interest. My only regret is that I shall not be able to make use of the experience or to describe it in writing, for death is the country from which no foreign correspondent files (unless you are Spiritualist). It is true that I have on more than one occasion been nigh unto death, but a miss is as good as a nigh. Where death is concerned, we must accept no substitutes as genuine or authentic. A near death experience is not the experience of actually dying.”

The ultimate writer’s lament: “death is the country from which no foreign correspondent files.” What a scoop that would make. After all, death is what makes life precious, or so they say. If we were immortal, we’d squander it anyway. Howard Nemerov writes in “Small Moments” (The Blue Swallows, 1967):

“Death is serious,
or else all things are serious
except death. A player who dies
automatically disqualifies
for the finals. If there were no death
nothing could be taken seriously,
not truth, not beauty, but that is not
a situation which we need to face.”

Nemerov appends to his poem “Isaiah 54:7,” which reads in the King James Bible: “For a small moment have I forsaken thee; but with great mercies will I gather thee.” Life, like faith, is frail, but we persevere.

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