Saturday, September 1, 2012

Funny, You Don't Feel Dead


Irony is about intended and unintentional opposites.  You say one thing, particularly if you add emphasis to it, what you’re really saying is the opposite.  Were you to begin an essay with the declaration, This is not about death and dying, the essay in all probability is about death and dying.  You strive for emphasis by saying, This is not about death and dying, this is about life and living, and the reader is going to have increased certainty that the piece is about what it claims not to be.

Somewhere, an editor will say, Why don’t you get rid of the disclaimer, maybe tell us what the essay is going to be about?

Works the other way as well:  You come out with a positive, affirmative tone.  This is about life and living.  If so, do we have to be told?

Is it in fact possible to speak of one without the other causing an elephant-sized bump under the living room rug?

In today’s mail, there was an invitation-sized envelope, which grabbed your attention because you have come to associate such envelopes with notes from the editors of journals, speaking of their pleasure in accepting a short story or essay of yours for publication.

This association was enhanced by the memory that you in fact have a short story in submission.  The heading of the stationery dispelled your pleasant, life and living associations with shattering immediacy.  The Neptune Society was congratulating you.  At least, the tone of the enclosed note seemed congratulatory.  You were, after all, being awarded something.  All you needed do was call the enclosed number to accept the award and make necessary arrangements.

The award was for a free cremation, which is, in fact, your hoped for fate although, as you see things, this will not be something that will matter to you because you will when the time arrives for such choices, be beyond them.  The Neptune Society is, in fact, an advocate of cremation, emphasizing the need for you to make the choice and subsequent arrangements while you are still in a position to do so.

The unspoken is an acknowledgment you both make.  The reason this is at all relevant is because it is a similar acknowledgment made by an author you much admire, whose work, As I Lay Dying, you will be presenting in a literature class in a matter of a few weeks.

The title comes from a remark Agamemnon makes to Odysseus in The Odyssey, on the occasion of the latter’s visit to the Underworld to consult with the former.  The writers who were Homer and, indeed, the thinking classes of Greeks, Turks, Macedonians, and the like evolved a scenario for death where the living could contact them and, presumably, the dead had limited abilities to express themselves.  To your knowledge, no one has commented on the likelihood of the contacts being relative to exchanging nor mere information but story, perhaps even ironic story.

For his part, Faulkner is having a character appear on her deathbed, aware of her forthcoming death, in fact watching her own coffin being built.  She was a teacher and may have, as her creator had, been familiar with Homer, although this is not likely.  She is, however, in some ways like Odysseus, essentially a control freak. She wants her body transported back to Jefferson, the area of her kinfolk.  Most of the action of the book involves the transportation of her in that coffin.

The invitation to accept a free cremation from the Neptune Society was not the immediate trigger to your momentary speculations about the process of life and the ending of that process, nor of the relationship between the two so far as you and fellow humans are concerned.  It was the Faulkner and its implications of what each means in the face and absence of confrontation of the other.

It was you, looking at the award the way you’ve looked from time to time at flies and mosquitoes.  Their presence is a reality, also a bother.  There are things you hope to essay before the process you have been at such pains to build up is extended to its and you limits, where it is the ongoing statement of all you were instead of you being present to taunt it with potential.

Last week, when you met your youngest niece for lunch, she gave you about twenty of your earlier novels, written in your late twenties and early thirties.  This was about two days after you’d in a semi-dream-semi-awake state, seen and composed an opening chapter to a novel you’re eager to get at after you complete the nonfiction project under way.

Looking at these early novels reminded you of Odysseus going to the Underworld to consult with Agamemnon. You see so much beyond what you saw then, irony, awards, essential opposites, squeezed into close, uncomfortable quarters.

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