Brooding on Death
The remains of my dear friend Ella the dog arrived from the crematorium in a nice fabric-covered box. The ashes themselves were in a plastic freezer bag, which was probably a good thing, since in addition to a fine grey powder there were many pinky-nail-size bone fragments and flakes from the few teeth Ella retained at age 109. (I hypothesized that her acute arthritis might have had something to do with the surfeit of calcite clusters.) How strange and puzzling to be confronted with a couple of double-handfuls of carbon dust and realize it is a version of your great pal, reduced to her essentials. Or inessentials.
We spread Ella’s ashes in Runyon Canyon, the nature preserve and dog park where I found Ella as a 3-month old, and where she spent many happy hours bounding and hiking and sniffing interesting aromas. I don’t know if she’ll be happy there in perpetuity, or if it even matters. But I’m happy to know she’s fertilizing a hillside that looks directly down on the spot where I first gazed into her brown eyes.
Losing a loved one, whether human or canine, encourages thoughts on death: what it all means, what happens after your last breath, how it can be simultaneously sad and happy, predictable and unbearable. It’s not like I need a catalyst to brood. Death is always on my mind, particularly since one of my favorite writers killed himself recently.
At first, I could make no sense of David Foster Wallace’s suicide, at age 46. To be so gifted, so accomplished, so smart, and to have your work recognized by both the marketplace and the critics as worthy and necessary and something to be taken seriously. It’s a rare and glorious state that few artists ever experience. But apparently it’s not nirvana. At least it wasn’t for DFW. I asked a former student of his if he could explain why such a great writer, at the height of his powers, would kill himself. He said, “I don’t think there’s any explanation, except, maybe, the general plight of the artist.”
Initially, this irked me. What a grand plight it is to be paid money for exercising your imagination and saying whatever it is you’re trying to say, and to have thousands, tens-of-thousands of people paying attention to your pronouncements. In place of a fat bank account, DFW also had Respect and Admiration, two life assets that are difficult to earn and easy to lose. How upsetting to me, who longs for one-quarter of his reading audience and critical acclaim, to witness one so fortunate squandering his achievement.|
But then I realized what might have been going through DFW’s clinically depressed mind: “Nothing I write, nothing I do, really matters. Nothing I write, nothing I do, is going to make a real difference in this toxic world, where greed, cruelty, prejudice, and injustice pervade the bulk of our human interactions.” So some curious folks ten or 20 or 100 years from now might read the work; some might even like it, or feel that they were slightly better for having spent the time with a book. But is that adequate consolation when you know in your heart that nothing you create really matters to anyone except the people who are in the business of selling books?
DFW could have written more astonishing books. He probably had one in progress when he decided to check out. But why bother? Fewer and fewer people would have the time or interest to read him — not when there are dancing shows on TV and a new comic book sequel in the multiplex and some fresh playa on the radio boasting about having plenty of fine bitches to keep him company. When you feel as though your life’s work is irrelevant, your life begins to feel irrelevant. And if you have been brooding on death, whether or not your pet dog has recently died, you increasingly conclude that there’s not much point in propagating irrelevancy.
I myself am feeling this way more and more. The books I am writing are of little interest to the marketplace, and, by extension, the readers who complete the cycle of creation and consumption. My work is exponentially more irrelevant than DFW’s. And, therefore, in the peculiar sweepstakes of culture-as-commodity, so am I.
For those who measure their personal worth by the size of their net worth, these have been terrible times. The pyramid scheme that is the stock market — and Wall Street in general — has come crashing down, as it does occasionally. In concert with the erasure of fortunes we’re seeing an increase in suicides committed by folks who can’t envision a future without a giant 401K. My dear Ella never cared about such things, nor, one imagines, did Mr. Wallace.
But all of us require a motivation to live other than the usual “nature’s imperative.” Whether it’s acquiring buckets of money and property, making immortal art, leaving the world an infinitesimally better place than we found it, we each make a daily choice to embrace Life over Death. We all have a compelling reason (or reasons) to slog on until we no longer can.
What, I wonder, is yours?