Tuesday, August 05, 2008

On Death

I am ashamed to have had nothing to say about Alexander Solzhenitsyn; it is years since I read him. I am, however, grateful once again to Frank Wilson for this extract from a 1978 lecture at Harvard. The line that catches my eye is 'To defend oneself, one must also be ready to die....'  A readiness to die is, as Solzhenitsyn notes, rare in a materialist society. But it is a very healthy thing - not just in self-defence, but also as the primary aspect of nobility. 'Men must endure/ their going hence, even as their coming hither/ Ripeness is all.' In which context, I read somewhere that the favourite movie line of David Simon, The Wire's presiding genius, comes from Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch. It is 'Let's go', spoken by William Holden's Pike Bishop. It means 'let's go and die because that's what we are here to do'; it is a summary of the entire movie and, though spoken by a villain, it should be a summary of the life well lived. We are all here to die, death is a duty. 'We owe God a death.' All of which is, I suppose, barely comprehensible out there in the anaesthesia of the shops, offices and cafes, but I thought I'd say it anyway. For Solzhenitsyn.


  1. I quite often find those good day to die moods. more to do with Chief Dan George than God Almighty...

    looking out the window, today isn't the right time.

  2. Yes. We know the 'Wire' is good. Have you nothing to say about 'Deadwood'? Pure poetry - here's a sample:

    'God rest the souls of that poor family... and pussy's half price for the next 15 minutes.'

    'Don't forget to kill Tim.'

    Al, if you're not dead and already moldering, I send news to revive you. A fish, to rival the fabled Leviathan, has swum into our waters. Get well soon, and we'll land the cocksucker together. Your friend, E.B.'

    'You cannot fuck the future, sir. The future fucks you.'

    Trixie: What's the matter with you?
    Al: I lack patience with cunts too ignorant to know when their lot's improved.
    Trixie: She’s using again.
    Al: Who do we speak of now?
    Trixie: The fucking Mrs. Ellsworth. And I told her I knew and that she’d ruin her child and that I quit her stupid job.
    Al: Oh, if that don’t straighten her out, I don’t know fucking what.
    Trixie: What was I supposed to do then?
    Al: Look after your fucking self, you loopy cunt. Now get the fuck outta here!'

    And of course, the magnificent -

    'Open the fuckin’ canned peaches!

  3. Trust me, this will make sense to many in officeland. For about 5 years i was quite keen on death and saw it everywhere.

    My favourite Wild Bunch line is "why not?" - i believe it's Borgnine's line when Pike says 'let's go', spoken with true Scandinavian glee and grimness. It's a line Beckett would have loved for its everydayness and the way, deeply considered, it opens out and stops you quite dead: why not? Whenever people ask why i've painted myself green or am shambling around like Ledger's Joker or am scarred, i say 'why not?' In a world without a centre, without a God, everything is very much a case of 'why not?' Why not die rather than live? - and that being so, why not die an excellent death, a Wild Bunch death, an Elberry death?

  4. My favourite line is when the William Holden character (Pike?) says - 'Well, why don't you answer me, you damn yellow-livered trash?'

    It reminds me of a school I used to work at that experimented for a brief period with 'tough' interview techniques based around 'good cop / bad cop' scenarios.

    There we were one day, interviewing a handful of newly qualified teachers for a basic scale position teaching Health and Social Care to the dim-wits. It was late, I was tired, the candidates were boring . . . it was a straightforward enough question: 'where do you stand on formative assessment in the light of recent research that suggests summative forms of testing are likely to provide more effective stratas of linear development thus enabling smoother transition stages especially from years 6 to 7?'

    Not a thing. 'Come on!' I cried -'. . . why don't you answer me, you damn yellow-livered trash?'

    We gave the job to someone else.

  5. Death isn't the problem. It's the bummer of ageing which makes the whole thing so drawn-out and wretched. "Let's go ... and avoid dementia, incontinence, cancer, wheelchairs and the retirement home hell" does have a certain appeal.

    That said, outside it is cold, wet, windy and dark. This at midday on 5 August. Add on a couple of hundred pages of The Gulag Archipelago and I suspect that topping oneself by 5 p.m. would seem a merciful release.

    Yes, he was a great man. But he could bear reality in a way that would leave the rest of us fried. Too much for me, at least today.

  6. I love the smell of napalm in the morning!

    Well, no. I love the smell of coffee in the morning and reading the words of my buddies here.

    Bryan, I now think I know why "Let's roll," as said by one of the men on the hijacked flight that crashed in my state on 9/11, has the power it has. Obviously it derives from the movie you've just quoted (which I don't remember, as I must have been a toddler when it came out and I never saw it). The man who said that knew he was about to die, but he and the other guys were going to stop the terrorists aboard their plane from taking the White House with them.

    My favorite movie line of late, and my son and I say it often, with accents and gestures attached, is: "I steal your milkshake!"

    If you don't know that line, then you don't know what Daniel Day Lewis won an academy award for a few months ago.

  7. He was a great man, they come along very rarely, and he stared death and evil in the eye and never blinked.

  8. And very well said. One of the very few places that you will read anything rational about death. (You aren't secretly that Buddhist guy by any chance.)

  9. I recall in one of AS's writings on torture that he said that to survive torture you have to be willing to push your torturer to the edge. The goal of torture is information not death so by pushing your torturer to the point of killing you, you force them to either stop and not gain any information or kill you and not gain any information. When I read that, my thought was that this guy had a huge pair of balls to have survived what he went through.