I remember learning about it when I was a kid. I remember when the existence of death was bad news. I think it was in Sunday School that I was told Moses had bitten the fertile dust of the Promised Land, all those nutrients from milk and honey notwithstanding. I kept to my room for the next few days and drew pictures of all the people I knew. Even holy men who held conversation with combustible shrubs could die. I kept cool, though. My steely-eyed playground poise: “Death? I’ve heard of it.”
Anyway, I found this tin in my garage labelled “Down-to-earth ways to begin your opinions piece on death”. To read a few: “Let me level with you”, or, the always engaging “We’re all going to die someday”. I’ve never been one to discourse on all the towering, crucial cans of worms, death among them. I’ve felt that any way you write these things, it comes across reductionist or pandering. I mean, I know the footnotes, I don’t need some hack’s editorial. In fact, the crowd of voices on death is so thick and erratic, that perhaps “I’ve heard of it” is still my most informed response to the concept. So, more morbidly than Foreigner might have phrased it, I want to know what death is.
I am not a doctor, nor am I an anthropologist, nor a psychologist. All that anyone can do, is break loose a chunk of the idea and then write it to tears. I like movies and television. Call it vapid, but a study of death by way of various cultural touchstones is not the worst idea, I don’t think. Throw the most engaging, death-oriented movies of a century into the crucible of aspirant journalism, and the lump of salt and steam you’re left with might say something.
Two weeks ago, I saw a matinee of “Barry Lyndon” at the Castro Theatre. The movie charts the feats of Redmond Barry in 18th-century Ireland and England, in and out of fortune. The movie is adapted from a novel called, The Luck of Barry Lyndon, and by its two chapters, is shuffled into a pathetic dichotomy: “By What Means Redmond Barry Acquired the Style and Title of Barry Lyndon” and “Containing an Account of the Misfortunes and Disasters Which Befell Barry Lyndon.”
The curtain closed for intermission. What I was thinking about, as the lights refocused, was the polite barbarity of 18th-century Europe. Barry Lyndon has an uncouth encounter with his cousin and falls in love. Not one to romance her own penniless flesh and blood, Lyndon’s cousin elects a dashing British officer to woo her instead. Lyndon is up in arms about the whole thing. Really. Leave it to the 18th-century to actualize your idioms. Barry takes up his pistol and duels the officer, riding away from his life in town later, alive and with a killer’s notch down his belt. Jesus. Everyday in pre-industrial Ireland, you were playing with your life. What does it mean to live as we all do now? It’s still high stakes, it always will be with life and its loss. But here and now, equipped with penicillin, access to higher education, and more modern modes of conflict resolution, the dealer always has bad cards.
The movie reminded me of “Full Metal Jacket,” another underrepresented Kubrick gem. It’s hard to beat a young Matthew Modine aping John Wayne in basic training. Modine’s character is one of my favorites, Private Joker, he’s monikered by his drill sergeant. Asked why he joined the service, Modine’s character replies, “Sir, to kill, sir.” The sergeant instructs Modine to show his ‘war face’. Modine screams. Kubrick’s representation of morality in Vietnam bleeds gray into more gray. In a haunting closing sequence, Joker’s company marches back to the base, through burning Vietnamese buildings, chanting a Mickey Mouse march song. 1967 seems foreign now. There was the draft—that miserable sandwich line which scooted the just-grown into jungles, pockets full of Valhalla wet dreams. There was more of a dialogue with death.
The curtain re-opens. We’ve become unaccustomed to death, which is part of why we’ve sensationalized it, which is maybe okay. As it turns out, “knowing what death is” is as fruitless and coy as its mushy, power ballad sibling. I know this. We live in a time when death is a big deal, because it’s infrequent, or at least predictable. Love in the time of natural causes doesn’t quite have the same ring as love in the time of cholera. Perhaps we should be envious of the 18th century’s more accessible relationship with death, although the loophole in this logic is big enough to swallow a civilization. As the projection fades to black, a message appears: “It was in the reign of George II that the above-named personages lived and quarrelled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor, they are all equal now.” If this pill is too bitter to swallow, if you’re looking for a consolation, don’t buy flowers, fertilize them: “From my rotting body, flowers shall grow and I am in them and that is eternity.”