05 January 2005

Recent Deaths

Another life to celebrate. Guy Davenport has died.

Regarding the recent death of Will Eisner, Matt Peckham said, "Mourners, omit mourning -- celebrate Eisner's work and all that he did to legitimize 'sequential art' as a groundbreaking and illimitable cultural activity." Matt suggests melancholy is a more accurate and appropriate emotion when learning of the death of someone who has lived a long, full life. I agree. But there has been an awful lot of death recently -- the deaths of so many people because of the tsunami and earthquake, deaths because of war and conflict, along with the deaths of individuals whose words we know, whose ideas have shaped our own, whose images have accompanied us in our imaginings. Our mourning, of course, should be for the tens and hundreds of thousands of people whose names and faces we do not know, the children, the young people just beginning their lives, the families shattered or destroyed, the incomprehensible ache that accompanies sudden tragedy.

That people like Davenport, Eisner, Kelly Freas, and Susan Sontag lived as long as they did is wonderful. They had careers, a certain amount of fame, tremendous respect. They participated in conversations, discussions, arguments. They made us angry, perhaps, or even envious, but they thrilled us, too, and they kept us humble by inspiring awe. It is sad that they will not create another book, that we will no longer have their lives to look to for inspiration, but the work remains, and the inspiration stays alive in our memories. And they had good lives, and good lives should be celebrated.

But I wanted them to live forever. Or, at least, I wanted some time between deaths, some time to get used to the idea that the work of these writers, these artists, can now be quantified, archived, indexed from beginning to end like any finite amount.

Meanwhile, I can't stop thinking about places I have never been to -- Sri Lanka, Indonesia, India, Thailand, Burma, and, yes, Iraq -- because all those faces and names I do not know, those human beings: what work did they do, what might they have done?

In one of my favorite of his essays, Guy Davenport asks of the ending of Kafka's story "The Hunter Gracchus", "Is it that we are never wholly alive, if life is an engagement with the world as far as our talents go? Or does Kafka mean that we can exist but not be?"

Being never wholly alive seems a preoccupation of the living. Death reveals how much living was done. Even in the quiet moments, even by the anonymous people, the ones who die in disasters and war, the ones caught in midst of life. Sometimes it's tempting to do nothing but cry, or to see our own lives as trivial, inconsequential, silly. A petulant, immature question nags at me: What right do I have to joy when so many other people can imagine no joy at all?

Still, though, some of us go on reading and writing, or doing whatever seemingly trivial and inconsequential activities fulfill us, because why not? What good does anyone gain from our moping? Because people have died, should we let ourselves become less wholly alive and give up our talents and joys because we haven't yet figured out how best to engage with a world that hurts us?

And activities are only trivial when looked at from a certain perspective. Counting by geologic time, everything we do is trivial. That's not much comfort. I want my life to have meaning, as Davenport's or Sontag's or Eisner's lives seemed, from the outside, to have meaning. Long lives lived, to some extent or another, in public. Lives to be celebrated.

Yet life doesn't depend on meaning. Psychological health might, but not life. Life feeds on itself blindly, stubbornly, regardless of what meaning individuals ascribe to it. I wish there were a way to celebrate every life lived and mourn every death in an appropriate way. I wish there were a way to say goodbye to people I never knew and who never knew me. A selfish or sappy wish, I suppose, but all wishes should be one or the other, don't you think, or else what's the point of wishing?

I can't bring these ideas to a satisfying conclusion, because such a conclusion would be dishonest. Many lives are lost every day. There's no way to pay respect to them all, but we can pause for a moment now and then to say, "This person did something, said something, wrote something -- lived in some way -- that touched me."

Today, then, I will simply say that Guy Davenport wrote elegant essays and challenging fiction, works that brought me wonder, and I am certainly not alone.

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