Outrun the Dog

I’ve been working on a post about death and appreciate that you’d let me put some ideas here.

We All End As Stories
Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
Everybody knows that the captain lied
Everybody got this broken feeling
Like their father or their dog just died.
-Leonard Cohen, Everybody Knows

I am hesitant to write about Death – especially with capital letters. To make matters worse, we can never hear the story of our own death, but are endlessly tortured with that of others’. There are other problems with Death as well. One major problem is Memory – other people’s. Accepting Death eases the living into a new story. We are all constructs informed by the memory of others. It is the stories we become that are irreplaceable, not our bodies. In the end, we all become stories.

The Path of Life, outer wings of a triptych – Hieronymous Bosch.


* * *
In Hieronymous Bosch’s, The Path of Life, c. 1500-02 a desperate old man beats away a hungry dog with a stick as he makes his way along a narrow dirt road. On a distant ridge behind him, a gallows emerges. These two images, and the thieves beating other travelers, demonstrate Bosch’s optimism. Everyone has a story that informs their life: think Rosa Luxembourg, Janis Joplin, JFK, Marx. Few of us know the story we become in death.
The stories we tell become very treacherous for the dead. Paul Valery suggests that recollection is actually strategic: it gives us time to recover from what has happened. Walter Benjamin is even more direct: Memory’s function is to protect our sensory impressions but when we tell the story of these impressions, they lose their power. “Memory is essentially conservative; reminiscence destructive.” Every actor or artist knows this. We do not talk about that seed of emotional power or understanding which offer cohesiveness, force and intention to their work. To do so is to destroy its power to inform. In Some Motifs in Baudelaire, completed shortly before he controlled the story he would become with an overdose of morphine, Benjamin wrote:
Story does not aim to convey an event per se, which is the purpose of information; rather, it embeds the event in the life of the storyteller in order to pass it on as experience to those listening. It thus bears the trace of the storyteller, much the way an earthen vessel bears the trace of the potter’s hand (316).
We tell stories to transform what has happened into our experience.

~ by Thom on November 2, 2009.

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