Tuesday, February 14, 2012

We May Well

We may well be astonished by space-filling acts which come to an end when someone dies, and yet something, or an infinite number of things, die in each death–unless there is a universal memory, as the theosophists have conjectured. There was a day in time when the last eyes to see Christ were closed forever. The battle of Junín and the love of Helen died with the death of some one man. What will die with me when I die? What pathetic or frail form will the world lose? Perhaps the voice of Macedonio Fernandez, the image of a horse in the vacant space at Serrano and Charcas, a bar of sulfur in the drawer of a mahogany desk?

- JL Borges, "The Witness"

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Much is made, and rightly so, of Borges' blindness. The irony of it demands some mention of it (haven't I just done so?). He famously wrote of it:  

No one should read self-pity or reproach
Into this statement of the majesty
Of God; who with such splendid irony,
Granted me books and blindness at one touch.

But unlike the eyes of the "some one man" that closed and took with them the last memory of Christ or Helen or a now forgotten battle, Borges eyes closed before he died, slowly fading over years and in that dimming, fading time he stitched into every sentence a vision that continues to burn and light the way for anyone willing to look for it. It is a vision of an immortality stretched impossibly thin yet which nonetheless succeeds in conquering death. It is a lie, of course. Death cannot be conquered. But it can be tricked.

* * *

What space-filling acts of yours will astonish us when they come to an end? What will we suddenly realize was a significant part of our lives–noticed only too late? But space-filling sounds like so much Hamburger Helper: nothing real, just some sawdust to stretch a meal or stuff an animal. Not real, just the semblance of real. It sounds unreal, but make no mistake, this is what we do, what our lives are for. We occupy this time and space and fill it with meaning through the doing of things, through space-filling acts. A fucked life takes this basic truth and turns it into sawdust, sees only the pejorative in space-filling, believes the finite nature of our experience in time is justification enough to sit on the curb and whimper, "Woe betide me."

There is woe that attends our days. We fuck it up. Chance breaks our hearts and our spirits. But there is more as well. There are balms and cures and healing wells. There is joy and quiet to match the sorrow, maybe not equally, but certainly in the fact of it. When you let your life run off its rails because your time here seems like so much space-filling, a place holder, a stop-gap, you lose sight of of the incredible privilege you have, that each of us has, to discover who it is you are and fill the space around you with those acts that describe the singular truth of your life.

But "The Witness" has something more on its mind as well.

In Kevin Brockmeier's, A Brief History of The Dead, he imagines the end of human life on this planet. Melting polar ice caps wash us down the drain. As people die they find themselves clustered in odd groupings. There is a connection between them, but there are so many of them it s impossible to know. And then the dead start to disappear. They are the memories of those still living and as long as one person lived who knew them, who carried a memory of them, the dead lived on. But as all human life is swept away the city of the dead ceases to exist. At last there is only one person left alive to do any remembering and when she goes, it all goes.

Borges wrote of this forty years earlier in "The Witness."

There is a thin veneer of immortality available to us. It is made of memory. At best, death can only be wrestled to a draw. Attempts to avoid this unshakable truth only waste the bit of time we have to work with. But those space-filling acts, those acts undertaken because they express and reveal the central truths about your life, about your perception of what your life is for, about what you did with the privilege of being, those acts sidestep death. Your body is washed away, but the things you did continue to exist for a while anyway.

Artists and writers have it easy. They leave behind artifacts. I read the private journals of Marcus Aurelius to help guide my way. How is it possible they still exist? Eyes closed a long time ago on the last person who knew the man when he lived, yet all of us can continue to know his mind, his spirit.

What space-filling acts of yours will astonish us when they come to their end with your death?

Fucked fuckers that we are we assume only artists and writers get to live on. But nothing is further from the truth. How you live, the way you conduct yourself, the love you have to give, the work and sacrifice you can offer to another is all that matters. The pathetic or frail form does not matter. What matters is that you give your life some form. Do you understand? You get to choose.

* * *

I have no idea where Serrano and Charcas is. One day, whether it was in full command of his eye sight, or part of the fading, Jorge Luis Borges saw a horse in a vacant lot there, or he simply imagined one there. One of an infinitude of images that made up his life, that make up all our lives. At a certain point only so many people could have seen that horse there and perhaps there is still one or two still alive who could attest to the sight. (If you like you can imagine one.) Surely the horse is dead, but by placing the horse on the page he saved it from the dustbin of history and gave it to us in a frail and pathetic form - not the thing itself, but a description of the thing. And that is nothing short of miraculous. You do the same with every word spoken, with every gesture and act.

Death always wins, but we fucked fuckers can still out live it.

Now get going. You have space to fill.

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