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No one forgets their first time. It’s the other first time – the one that darkens the mind rather than delights the body – that isn’t always as instantly memorable. But it’s there – somewhere – along with the initial recognition that our parents aren’t the wisest, most powerful people in the world who will always be there to protect us, that people don’t have to love us back just because we want them to, and that the game of life doesn’t come with a set of inviolable rules that everyone is obliged to follow in the interest of fair play. Not that it’s difficult to understand why we don’t always remember the precise time and place when we first became aware, however dimly, of death. That everyone is going to die. That I’m going to die. Human beings tend to hide from what hurts. Or at least attempt to. But Grandma’s funeral or the family pet’s last visit to the veterinarian or a flattened frog in the middle of the street remind us of what we try to forget but never entirely can.

Novelists aren’t good at much. Busy describing how the world lives, there isn’t much time or inclination left over to do much worldly living oneself. But remembering things – in particular, the seemingly inconsequential but singularly significant minutiae of daily existence – is an occupational necessity. I remember my first whiff of nothingness. Wrote about it in my novel What Happened Later:

Let’s go around, I said.

An August afternoon Sunday when I was five, an idling ’69 Buick Skylark with power windows but no air conditioning, a train that wouldn’t end like Christmas will never come and summer vacation will go on forever. I was hot and bored and thirsty and there was cold pop at home on the bottom shelf of the bar fridge in the basement.

We can’t go around, my dad said.

Why not?

Because they’ll put you in a box and put you in the ground and they won’t let you out.

I thought about what he said. It didn’t make sense. I said the only sensible thing I could think of.

But you’d let me out, I said.

My father leaned against the steering wheel and craned his neck left, looked as far down the railroad track as he could. Sweat rivered down the back of his neck. He looked in the rear-view mirror to make sure there was no one behind us; put the car in reverse and gave the steering wheel a sharp tug to the right. We weren’t going to wait around anymore. Finally, we were moving. Looking in the mirror again, this time at me in the back seat:

I don’t want to see you fooling around when there’s a train coming, he said.

I won’t.

You either stand back and wait for it to go by, or you walk around to where it isn’t, you hear me?

I know.


I’ll wait for it or walk around.

My mother sucked a last suck from her Player’s Light and pulled the ashtray out of the dash, crushed out her cigarette on the metal lip. It was full of mashed cigarette butts crowned with red lipstick kisses.

Because when they put you in that box in the ground, boy, that’s it, nobody can help you.

But, I wanted to say.

But I didn’t say anything. And my dad – I waited – he didn’t say anything either.

Not that I consider myself as having been particularly thanatosophically precocious; death-consciousness simply comes to some early, while others don’t attend their first class in Introduction to Eventual Personal Extinction (a.k.a. Death 101) until they’re well on their way to graduating from life. When I asked a friend of mine from high school, now a successful dentist in his mid-fifties with a much younger wife and three small children and a vacation home in Arizona neighbouring a private golf course, if he ever thought about his eventual non-existence, he answered, “I’m too busy to think about death.” His response might seem glib, even for a dentist with a three handicap, but it’s typical of most people’s attitude if asked the same question.

And why shouldn’t it be? Not just because there are other things more pleasant to contemplate or because considered rumination isn’t as common a human activity as, say, envying, lying, or over-eating, but because, as Freud argued, it’s virtually impossible for human beings to imagine their own deaths. “Whenever we attempt to do so,” he claimed, “we can perceive that we are in fact still present as spectators . . . At bottom no one believes in his own death . . . [I]n the unconscious every one of us is convinced of his own immortality.” And not just when we’re young and ontologically unsophisticated. Consider the seventy-two-year-old writer William Saroyan’s last public words (in a phone call to the Associated Press announcing his terminal cancer): “Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case.” (Perhaps understanding that we must die, yet not really believing it, is merely a helpful evolutionary trick, a pre-programmed delusion that allows us to live more secure, hence more adventurous lives – and therefore be happier, more aggressive procreators. It wouldn’t be the first time biology got caught calling the shots.)

But even if we’re not psychologically capable of fully comprehending our own death, we are able to feel its presence, however dimly sensed or no matter how imperfectly we might be able to articulate it. Even without staring directly at the sun, it’s possible to point to its place in the sky. Literature is humankind’s best record of who it is – most everything else is, at best, either reality-corroding clichés or, at worst, egocentric self-advertising – and the most compelling evocations of death in literature (whether in the form of novels, short stories, poems, memoirs, or essays) approximate Mallarme’s Symbolist poetic dictum: “Paint, not the object, but the effect it produces.” We might not have the psychological equipment to take a clear and definitive photograph of death, but, by snapping away at its varied effects, we can know the unknowable a little bit better, just as the mystic doesn’t speak directly of “God” but, instead, of God’s manifestation in nature, music, or the experience of love.

It’s because impression, metaphor, and inference (and their employment in literature) are superior to purely conceptual thinking in disclosing some of death’s mystery that philosophers tend to obfuscate more often than illuminate. Art is empirical and therefore the ideal tool for handling something that is understood, to whatever degree, on a primarily experiential level. “No reader who doesn’t actually experience, who isn’t made to feel . . . is going to believe anything the . . .writer merely tells him,” Flannery O’Connor counselled. “The first and most obvious characteristic of [good writing] is that it deals with reality through what can be seen, heard, smelt, tasted, and touched.”

Even philosophers who make a point of differentiating themselves from other thinkers deemed cripplingly logocentric tend to double death’s riddle by obscuring it in a mess of twisted syntax and near-meaningless nouns and verbs. Here’s Martin Heidegger taking a crack at the subject with characteristic Heideggerian clarity and linguistic grace: “The existential project of an authentic being-toward-death must thus set forth the factors of such a being which are constitutive for it as an understanding of death – in the sense of being toward this possibility without fleeing it or covering it over.” And, yes, many German philosophers do seem to believe that it’s a virtue to construct prose that goes down about as well as a tinfoil sandwich, but here’s a sample sentence from Being and Nothingness, France’s most well-known twentieth-century philosopher’s, Jean Paul Sartre’s, magnum opus: “Death is not my possibility of no longer realizing a presence in the world but rather an always possible nihilation of my possibles which is outside my possibilities.” Got that? Have the scales begun to fall from your eyes? One immediately thinks of Friedrich Nietzsche, one German philosopher who did write with perspicuity, elegance, and even (rare for his profession) wit: “They all muddy their waters to make them appear deep.” No matter how impressive their academic credentials or how long their list of prized publications, as the nineteenth-century man of letters Jules Renard avowed, “So long as thinkers cannot tell me what life and death are, I shall not give a good goddamn for their thoughts.”

Excerpted from How to Die: A Book About Being Alive by Ray Robertson. Copyright © 2020 Ray Robertson. Published by Biblioasis. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

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