Monday, February 20, 2017

Will Slattery: On Memorials

I fear I may here reveal myself as a uselessly young essayist, as the sort of person in possession of a great number of words but rather little wisdom. Still, I will make my case: it is sometime in one’s mid-twenties that the full weight of untimely deaths makes itself truly felt. This is not to say that such deaths are a novelty. One always knows, usually from a very young age, that not every death presents itself as a narrative act, as the culmination of some arc. One knows, quite simply, that these sorts of things happen, and that is that. But what changes is just the sheer regularity of it. One gets habituated to the rate at which these little skyborne darts of loss fall down, striking without particular rhyme or reason. Looking at my own life over the past few years I see, amongst others, the motorcycle accident, the brain aneurysm, the other brain aneurysm, the unspecified natural causes, and most recently an acquaintance who, quite stupidly, auto-erotically asphyxiated himself to death this past December. Given that I am a white dude living in the 21st Century, this catalog is relatively small and mostly mundane; I’m fairly well insulated from historical traumas and most forms of structural violence. Still, despite the ordinariness of it all, these deaths—these little sudden disappearances—have lingered with me in a way that most that events don’t. I’m not grieving them exactly, though each was undoubtedly a case for sadness. But after each my life resumed its normal pace quickly enough, sometimes with no real interruption beyond rumination.

And yet still I find my mind, and by extension my essays, returning to them again and again. What transfixes me so is, I think, the question of what precisely remains in death. There are emotions to be processed, families to be consoled, arrangements to be made, and yes, ultimately, graves and bodies which will persist in a literal manner. But I am never quite certain what to do—or even what could be done—with memory, both individual and collective.

At the opposite end of a human life from where I now reside, Roger Ebert (who is somewhat under discussed as an essayist, I think largely because he mostly confined his work to the format of reviews until he began blogging in the last act of his career) took a stab at dealing with the question of memory only about a year before he died. While viewing a slideshow of old family photos at a relative’s funeral he found himself confronted with a stark reminder of human impermanence. Ebert, who had at this point lost his ability to speak due to illness, realized that he was then the last human being able to identify the peripheral figures in the old photos, the ones the younger funeral attendees knew were dead relatives somehow, but couldn’t quite place. His unvoiced memories formed the very last bulwark shoring up whatever remained of those departed souls, and once he was gone—what then? An existence confined to census records, for as long as those might last? Like Ebert, I find myself continually turning round again to the question of what persists, and what remains.

These questions take on a different dimension, I know, for those who believe in an afterlife. There is elevation, or resurrection, or damnation, or transmigration, or purgation, or reincarnation, all of which provide some sort of answer. I am not one of those who believe in an afterlife, though I had the distinctive (mis)fortune of being born and raised Catholic, which is an indirect way of saying that I come from quite morbid stock. Taking into account ordinary Sundays, Holy Days of Obligation, and the odd extra service, in the first 20 years of my life I witnessed somewhere around 1000 times what they call the sacrifice of the Mass, the process by which Catholics ostensibly receive and consume the literal body, blood, soul, and divinity of Jesus the Nazarene. The Mass is a participatory testament to the death and resurrection of a god and (depending on where your metaphysical loyalties lie) it can be understood as a memorial that will continue either until the eschaton itself or until every Catholic in the world has perished. Given the stakes that were driven into my mind as a child, is it any wonder that I should find myself so skewered by questions of death and history?


He was a good person, and I am better for having known him, but it would be dishonest of me to say that I was especially close to my acquaintance who passed from auto-erotic asphyxiation this past December. We were very close once, when our lives aligned tightly for about 6 months, but our friendship gradually attenuated, largely due to the fact that we lived permanently on different continents. We settled into a comfortable pattern where we spoke once every three or four months, and slightly less than that the past few years. I suspect that if he had not died we would have quietly drifted out of each other’s lives, each becoming eventually the sort of person you think about once or twice a decade but no longer know how to get in touch with. But no: his death happened, and now I suspect I will bear him with me for a very long time.

The death of my acquaintance by auto-erotic asphyxiation was a shock to those who knew him, though not for the reasons one might expect. In all spheres of life he fashioned himself as something of a sexual bon vivant. It was no secret to any who knew him that he had a great deal of sex in a wide array of modes, that he would try more or less anything once, that he viewed sex as a canvas for any and all possibly pleasing sensations. And he made his erotic dimensions as literally visible as possible, in that he spent a huge amount of his free time producing amateur erotica for the benefit of, more or less, the entire internet. This was, again, no secret at all, and he felt no need to hide it from his friends and family because he did not feel that his homemade pornography was the sort of thing that should be hidden. He could have made a modest living from his erotic work, as many people do (usually on live webcam sites), but he had zero interest in monetizing his experiences, and distributed his pics and vids for free across a number of platforms. Nor was his work purely a self-gratifying vehicle for his own exhibitionism—though he was, undoubtedly, an exhibitionist of some sort. He enjoyed showing off, but he also treated his own sexual capacity as a sort of public good: if the sight of his dick or his ass or the curves of his arms or his whatever might give a moment of happiness to some far-flung viewer, so be it, for the human world needs as many moments of happiness as it can get. As with the rest of his being, his erotic life was consistently joyful, transparent, unashamed, expansive, optimistic, magnanimous even, often to the mild embarrassment of his boyfriend, who blushingly agreed with these values in principle but often approached their enactment in a somewhat more halting fashion.

His passing then was no sordid revelation of a hidden life. Rather, the shock came from the feeling that he, of all people should have known better than this. Even amongst the boldest of the world’s sex-positive explorers, those who navigate the obscurest regions of the sexual imaginary, it is a cardinal rule that one should never tie things around one’s neck while alone, for the obvious reason that one may not be able to get it off in case of emergency. My acquaintance knew this. He knew this very, very well. At one point he wrote and distributed to his local kinkster community a guide warning about this very possibility, imploring them that no matter how fascinating they might find asphyxiation, they should never try it alone. And yet this is how he passed—bound alone in his apartment, where he would be found some hours later by his boyfriend, who faced at the same time the gutting tragedy of this loss and the alienating indignity of explaining all this to the confused, suspicious police while under a 6-hour detainment.

As the eroding streams of time and forgetfulness wear away at those who once knew him, the memory of my acquaintance who died by auto-erotic asphyxiation may be outlived by the digital monument his internet erotica forms, and he may someday exist only in a vintage collection or an artsy porno remix, leaving the world with a record of his smiling face and smooth flesh but nothing else of his person. This is, I suppose, a very different sort of memorial, a new way of giving one’s body for others to eat and drink.


Now is as good a moment as any, I suppose, for the requisite metatextual interlude (and what is Essay Daily a home for, really, if not metatextual interludes?), if you will permit me a few such moments in this otherwise overbearingly bleak essay. This essay is now three or four times over last-minute delayed, and its most recent such delay was the source of an editorial lacuna in January that Ander seized on to talk about David LeGault’s forthcoming collection (you should read that piece, and read the collection too when it comes out). It’s good that such a delay became a space for Ander’s midnight oil creativity. And this essay is likely better off for it too, in that between then and now I purged from it a tiresome 1800-word tangent about Venetian monuments and reliquaries.

But the reason this essay comes to you so late is simple: dear readers, it turns out that it is damn near to impossible to write about somebody with a strong internet presence (i.e., his social media and his erotic work, which are easily connected) who died in a very specific way (i.e, the auto-erotic asphyxiation) without making them quickly Google-able. After repeated testing I discovered that even slight, seemingly minor details about an unnamed person can give enough of a portrait for a dedicated internet sleuth to work with, and this essay had to be repeatedly pushed back and re-drafted simply because I continually failed to recognize those details until the last minute.

My writing is reflexively, even neurotically open about the private stuff of my own life. One could easily reconstruct about 90% of my intimacies just from essays attributed to me online. But as for rendering my acquaintance so visible—and visible in so singular a way? To make his life a possible internet search result? And to risk leaving space for interloping essayistic voyeurs to potentially worm their way into his boyfriend’s psychic wounds? This I could not do. I considered employing D’Agata-esque elisions or falsifications to throw the scent off and lead any would-be internet stalkers down a false path, but given that the memorial, as a form, makes a bulwark against emptiness, it seemed deeply perverse to employ such trickery here.

Craig Reinbold, my editorial predecessor here at Essay Daily, hit a somewhat similar ethical stumbling block this past winter, and he took that as an opportunity to write about stumbling blocks themselves instead. The constitutional difference in character this reveals, I suppose, between the two generations of Essay Daily management, is that when Craig is presented with a potentially bad idea he works efficiently around it, whereas I instead throw myself repeatedly at the idea until something in one or the other gives way. The above account of my acquaintance who died from auto-erotic asphyxiation should, I hope, finally be enough to give a sense of him without committing a moral offense as to the privacy of his boyfriend and family.

But besides my fears that I may have rendered my acquaintance visible to pernicious Google stalkers a perhaps greater fear is that I have not sufficiently rendered him in more important dimensions—that I have not arranged my experience of this young man’s life in such a way that it illuminates anything about our human condition, that I may have become mired in the familiar failures of human particularity which plague essayists: excessive subjectivity, over-determination, forgetfulness, retrospective selectivity, imposition. The essay after all, if nothing else, is a human vehicle for the making of sense. The essay is how we make meaning from the patterns of the atoms as they fall on the mind and how we sketch out the contours of Woolf’s semitransparent envelope. But what meaning do we get from writing an essay as memorial? How are we to arrange the murky substrata a life leaves behind? And who does this arrangement serve?

The portrait of my acquaintance I’ve drawn reveals only a tiny sliver of his life, and it’s possible that my effort simply isn’t broad enough to give a sense of who he was. I may also have carelessly lionized his sexual quirks, twisting his erotic visage into some faux-heroic sentimental tableaux, and in so doing attempted to wring out more meaning than his proclivities ever contained. It’s also possible that I’ve failed to treat the manner of his death with the sensitivity and subtlety it deserves. I wanted to avoid turning his death into a spectacle, accidentally making him an exhibition in a zoo of kinky homosexual wonders for the viewing pleasure and potential moral edification of a mostly straight audience. Despite my best humanizing efforts, I may have already here turned him into a gaudy allegoric chimera—half David Carradine (lost to us in so fleshy and lurid and stupid a way) and half Matthew Shepard (so young, so sweet, so fair, so gay, so tragically taken from us so soon)—for some kind of medieval morality pageant in the minds of my readers today.


A simpler version of the essay I am trying to write here might go something like this:
I’m sorry, pal. You deserved a better end than the one you brought down upon yourself. And you certainly deserve a better memorialist than me. But this is the world we have, and I’m not sure what else to do, so I’m going to keep at it.

When I think about the difficulty—maybe the impossibility—of the memorial as a form I think inevitably of Anne Carson’s Nox, a hybrid text which collages translations, visual art, photographs, found documents, and essayistic fragments to serve as an art-book epitaph for the author’s departed brother. The book opens with a blurry facsimile of a Latin poem (one Catullus wrote as a eulogy for his brother, we will later learn), followed by a lexical entry for the Latin adjective multas, and then this brutally melancholic pronouncement:
I wanted to fill my elegy with light of all kinds. But death makes us stingy. There is nothing more to be expend on that, we think, he’s dead. Love cannot alter it. Words cannot add to it. No matter how I try to evoke the starry lad he was, it remains a plain, odd history. So I began to think about history.
Carson and her brother were not close. He fled the country in 1978 to avoid criminal investigation, lived under an assumed name in Europe, and passed away in 2000. During that time they exchanged a handful of letters and spoke on the phone 5 times. Nox is a working through of her own memorial process, and it locates the act of memorialization—the method by which we reconstitute the absent, the process by which we articulate that which has gone mute—as a sort of interpretive gesture by triangulating it in reference to the disciplines of translation and history. “History and elegy are akin”, Carson tells us, in that they both constitute a form of asking, and she traces out this process of uncertain inquiry by juxtaposing biographical fragments involving her brother, an ongoing struggle to translate Catullus’ poem, and a running commentary on the difficulties of Herodotus’ historiographical methodologies.

The trouble lies in this: “we want other people to have a centre, a history, an account that makes sense. We want to be able to say This is what he did and Here’s why. It forms a lock against oblivion.” But this is never how history, or translation, or the reconstitution of a person works, and this sort of investigating “often produces no clear or helpful account.” Carson doesn’t think that this is because of a failure to excavate information, but because of a difficulty that inheres to subjects themselves. In a deliberately uncertain, slippery account of the historian’s practice she puts it thus:
History can be at once both concrete and indecipherable. Historian can be a storydog that roams around Asia Minor collecting bits of muteness like burrs in its hide. Note that the word “mute” (from Latin mututs and Greek myein) is regarded by linguists as an onomatopoeic formation referring not to silence but to a certain fundamental opacity of human being, which likes to show the truth by allowing it to be seen hiding.
The historian can collect data, accounts, explanations, investigations, corroborations, testimonies, and all other manners of evidence, but no accumulation of acts or words can provide a definitive certainty. And this “fundamental opacity of human being” continually resists Carson in her efforts to work out both the interpretive problem of her brother and of the Catullus translation. The problem is “solved”, so to speak, not by resolving it but by reconciling to it:
But over the years of working at it, I came to think of translating as a room, not exactly an unknown room, where one gropes for the light switch. I guess it never ends. A brother never ends. I prowl him. He does not end. Prowling the meanings of a word, prowling the history of a person, no use expecting a flood of light. Human words have no main switch. But all those little kidnaps in the dark. And then the luminous, big, shivering, discandied, unrepentant, barking web of them that hangs in your mind when you turn back to the page you were trying to translate.
Carson laconically notes that “when Herodotus has got as far as he can go in explaining an historical event or situation”—when the accounts reported are at their murkiest, when human experiences push back against arrangement, when a thing seems most untranslatable—the Father of History will conclude with a remark like this: “So much for what is said by the Egyptians: let anyone who find such things credible make use of them.”

That is something to hope for, I think. That while our memorials may never be certain, comprehensive, authoritative, sweeping, definitive, canonical, revelatory that they may still, in their smallness, be of use to someone, somehow.


Will Slattery helps curate things here at Essay Daily. He tweets on occasion: @wjaslattery.

No comments:

Post a Comment