A Point of View: Why we banish the words of the dead

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Will Self reflects on whether we the living are too willing to forget the words of the dead.

"D'ailleurs, c'est toujours les autres qui meurent" is my current favourite epitaph. True, I always admired the bleak humour of Spike Milligan's "I told you I was ill", but Marcel Duchamp has the edge by seemingly celebrating his own extinction with this self-penned rhetorical boomerang - one that, whilst flung back to strike the living, nonetheless returns unerringly to his own cold, dead hand: "After all, it is always the others who die."

Milligan's terminal statement has the virtue of being true - no doubt, at some time during his final illness, the comedian did indeed tell those close to him that he wasn't feeling that chipper - but it lacks the apodictic certainty of Duchamp. For, if there's one thing we find true simply by virtue of demonstration it's that only the living speak to us.

A couple of years ago, a friend of mine died. He wasn't especially young (early fifties) and he had led a life for the most part soused in alcohol and wreathed in tobacco smoke, but there was something about the cruel irony of his death - he recovered from apparently terminal alcoholism only to succumb to cancer - that made me reconsider my attitude to us, those others who resolutely refuse to die. As I say, my friend wasn't juvenescent, but looking around me at those who were older, I felt my sympathy for them contracting. After all, unlike Rob, they had made it to three score and more, and although I understand perfectly well that to be an alert mind in a senescent body can be a curse - just as can the reverse - the fact is that at all ages we'd just as soon it was the others who actually expire.

In truth, it wasn't only the old I felt this animus towards. All the living aroused my ire, as it dawned on me that in our modern, secular and avowedly inclusive society, we have wilfully allowed the dead to be so gagged. In an era when every minority is - at least in theory - listened to, we have turned our backs on the great majority and rendered them silent.

It wasn't like this in the past. Indeed, considered from our contemporary vantage, one of the greatest benefits of religions that affirm the transience of our earthly existence is that they also affirm the continuing existence of those who have died. It doesn't really matter if immortality is conceived of as a personalised heaven - one woman's Samite shroud and harp practice is another man's sherbert and multitudinous virgins - or an impersonal realm of manifold knowingness. The important thing is that we are not alone - the void looks back at us.

I don't know about you - obviously - but the more I've considered the exile of the dead, the more claustrophobic I've found the realm of the living. Some argue that it's precisely the self-limiting character of sentience that is liberating. We can have no conception of what came before the thinking "I", and no idea what will transpire once that "I" is struck out. Yet once we've so ruthlessly circumscribed what can be known, doesn't our voracious scepticism go on baying for still more doubt?

Yes, yes, I know that the sciences teach us plenty of facts about the material world we inhabit, and our philosophy, while imperfect, leads us to the sound conjecture that there must be, at the very least, beings much like ourselves, or else how could our language embody so many subtle and purely instrumental meanings? But it all seems like tremendously hard work to me, keeping this external world going. Each day we have to become our own little god - summoning up through communication all those others, and struggling to comprehend the environments they inhabit, lest - due to our inattention - they begin to wink out of existence.

The battle to prevent healthy scepticism from metastasising into cancerous solipsism has typified Western philosophy since Thales of Miletus theorised that all things were but cosmic spindrift conjured momentarily from a great and watery flux. But although such naturalistic explanations have a long and distinguished pedigree, very few of us have ever managed to act on their basis. I wager that even the greatest living atheist, Richard Dawkins, doesn't survey his breakfast table each morning and feel that all's right with the Rice Krispies because they've been brought into being by the highly complex interaction of insensate and ultimately purposeless processes.

No, surely his conviction that nothing stands outside the observable is a form of professional closure. As a scientist, he doesn't want anyone butting into his laboratory - and he has, like all ambitious people, extended the realm of his endeavours to encompass… well, to encompass everything. Certainly the dead have no place in Dawkins's world - but having purged them on the basis that they can furnish no proof of their existence, do we not begin to undermine the capacity of that which they have left behind to also speak to us?

Image caption,
Can one imagine Richard Dawkins at the breakfast table

In the past, the evidence of the past often had more substance than the works of the present. This is why, in part, so many mythologies refer to the ancestors as giants in contrast to the current and much diminished tenants of the world. But nowadays the world is for the most part replete with so much stuff - so much of which is itself ephemeral - that the ancient stones are both shrunken and stifled. Even if they weren't so encumbered, our certainty that the spiritual beliefs of the men and women who built all those temples and cathedrals and castles were so much superstitious twaddle, means that we cannot directly access all the meaning of these structures any more than we can directly sympathise with the remaining art and literature of previous eras. Instead, we rely on a huge exegetical industry in order to bring their wacky beliefs into conformity with our own reasonableness.

My mother died in 1988, and for the decade or so after I still felt her presence quite keenly, by which I mean that she spoke to me. Whether this was a real phenomenon or a psychic one was, as any bereaved person will agree, besides the point. But some time in the late 90s I became aware that were I to encounter my mother walking along some suburban street in the plain light of day, she would seem quite hopelessly out of place. Her hairstyle, the frames of her glasses, the cut of her coat, all would be anachronistic, and therefore quite inadmissible in the relentlessly up-to-date realm of the living. She had been dead - now she was deader.

Don't get me wrong, the realm of the living has a lot to recommend it. It's bright and busy - there's always lots going on. Despite the evidence of genuine privation I can see on the television, on the whole (in my neck of the woods) there's an obvious material superabundance - people are constantly summoning new buildings and cars and pasta dishes into being. True, there's a certain frenzy to all this productiveness, an atmosphere about it that reminds me of children, who, having been given a task to do, keep on at it despite the fact that the supervisor has gone, for fear either that they may be being secretly observed, or - which is worse - that they aren't, and that no one will ever return to tell them they've done a good job.

Image caption,
Spike Milligan's epitaph: "I told you I was ill"

And if from time to time someone quits the stage upon which we all strut and fret, then it's quite true that we miss them, and we remember them. But that mourning is also part of this long-running performance that we call life, it's in the script we were all handed when the curtain went up. Unless we're excessively morbid or mentally ill, we don't tend to address the dead in the second person. They're no longer relevant, they're certainly not going to come back on, and since they aren't even in the wings there's no point in our using their passive presence for more dramatic ironies, oh no. And if from time to time we feel the hollowness of our own act, and find ourselves overwhelmed by the vitality that surrounds, at once so egregious and so ephemeral, then we reassure ourselves, don't we, because after all, it's always the others who die.

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