As we watched a hockey highlight package on a sportscast, did my grandfather really believe that goals were being scored during a live game in an unimaginable flurry? “Gol!” he said as he became increasingly agitated. “Can’t those goalies stop anything?”
“Gol” was his minced oath for God. And yeah, maybe he was putting me on. Maybe not.
He didn’t joke around much, though I do remember a dodgy story he told about alleged prostitute/Soviet spy Gerda Munsinger going to the doctor to have a sliver removed from what was then referred to in polite company as her seat. “That’s not a sliver, it’s the whole damn cabinet,” the doctor exclaimed at a time when Canada’s first national political sex scandal was undressing up the front page.
Grandpa, who made it to 93, was deadly serious about giving up one of his passions — the obituary page — when he realized that outside of his family, pretty much every friend or neighbour he had ever cared about was already in the loss column.
I remembered that recently when I came across a passage written in The Idler in 1759 by the literary critic nonpareil, Dr. Samuel Johnson, a few despairing days after the death of his mother: “These are the calamities by which Providence gradually disengages us from the love of life. Other evils fortitude may repel, or hope may mitigate, but irreparable privation leaves nothing to exercise resolution or flatter expectation. The dead cannot return, and nothing is left us here but languishment and grief.”
Johnson, though a devout Anglican (or perhaps because of this), had a horror of death and is not especially uplifting on the subject. Biographer James Boswell, equally unrivalled, records Johnson as saying: “It is neither pleasing, nor sleep; it is nothing. Now mere existence is so much better than nothing, that one would rather exist even in pain, than not exist.”
That’s not true for everyone and, as a personal preference, I’ve always admired writers who manage to inject a little gallows humour while whistling past the graveyard.
Take Shakespeare in the late 16th century, say, when he has Romeo and Juliet’s doomed Mercutio say: “Ask for me tomorrow, and you shall find me a grave man.”
This is Montaigne in his Of Physiognomy essay about the same time: “If you don’t know how to die, don’t worry. Nature will tell you what to do on the spot, fully and adequately. She will do this job perfectly for you, don’t bother your head about it.”
Laugh-a-minute Emily Dickinson three centuries later: “Because I could not stop for Death / He kindly stopped for me.”
Jaunty or what?
I do think Johnson’s observation about the loss of loved ones being the unique “calamities by which Providence gradually disengages us from the love of life” is exquisitely rendered. It’s perhaps a tad less accurate than it used to be, however.
The dead still cannot return, but it is less a given than in the canonical critic’s time that they leave nothing behind but languishment and grief. We’re the first generation in human history that, with a little preparatory archiving, can reproduce photos and videos and soundbites of the missing in inaction at the touch of a cellphone button or a simple voice command to Siri or Alexa.
If we manage to avoid destroying the planet, it’s easy to imagine future interactions with lifelike holograms of the departed, programmed through the moot blessing of AI to act and speak plausibly as stand-ins for the people they represent.
It’s not hard to envision sci-fi-esque scenes where holograms of the dead interact with one another, whether or not the living are around to witness the encounters.
Who you gonna call?
Well, I’m going to phone John Berryman at this point, largely because his approach to the past and posterity didn’t require any bells, whistles or Tupac Shakurian light diffraction.
In a 1968 interview, Berryman — less than four years from his fatal leap off a Minneapolis bridge at age 57 — was asked about his decision to become a poet.
“Well, being a poet is a funny kind of jazz,” Berryman said. “It doesn’t get you anything. It doesn’t get you any money, or not much, and it doesn’t get you any prestige, or not much. It’s just something you do.”
Berryman: “That’s a tough question. I’ll tell you a real answer, I’m taking your question seriously. This comes from Hamann, quoted by Kierkegaard. There are two voices, and the first voice says, ‘Write!’ and the second voice says, ‘For whom?’ I think that’s marvellous; he doesn’t question the imperative, you see that. And the first voice says, ‘For the dead whom thou didst love’; again the second voice doesn’t question it; instead it says, ‘Will they read me?’ And the first voice says, ‘Aye, for they return as posterity.’ Isn’t that good?”
I think so. Write “for the dead whom thou didst love” and they’re never really gone, whatever Johnson might have thought. The same goes for painting, playing music … any artistic pursuit, anything you do with them in mind.
So welcome home, Gramps. There’s something called slow-motion replay I’d really like you to see.