My name's Dave. I'm working on it.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Speaker for the Dead

I want to apologize, in advance, if anyone should be upset by what I write here, given the sensitive nature of the subject. I can only say that this is merely intellectual/quasi-spiritual musing, and no disrespect is intended to those who disagree with me. These are just my thoughts.

I am intrigued when I hear anyone speak of the deceased. Lately, this has centered around my friend Nick Bucher, who died last February. I will hear people speak of him in a way that implies that he is still around, as if hovering, watching us in a state of perpetual amusement. Or the discussion will take on a more sinister (at least to my ears) bent: dicussions of what he would or would not think/feel/do about any trifling thing.
Talk of this sort troubles me. I think about Nick a good deal, whether it be wistful nostalgia brought on by glancing at the photograph which sits on my bookshelf, or a memory that comes out of nowhere. I do miss him, and wish he were still alive. But since he is not, I face a conflict as to how, indeed, to think and speak of him now.
I am extremely hesitant to speak of 'souls.' I'm not really interested in discoursing on the word as it is meant in the eyes of various religions; such a talk would only lead to confusion. Language always falls short where such things are concerned. My point is only to have a meaningful term to use in referring to someone after they've died. But to even arrive at that successfully seems a laborious task, and nonessential to my purpose. I have always thought that if one can claim a 'self' (Oh, the holes I am digging for myself) can be said to exist, it is born in the mind. The intellect. Again, there is the potential here to veer into endless hours of debating over semantics, which I really don't care to do. I am here concerned only with two things. For arguments' sake I will put them forth as follows:

A) That in lieu of the deceased, people will create an idea of them for the sake of comfort and to have a point of reference to direct their love/grief/what-have-you now that the body is gone.

B) That no one can ever speak for the dead.

The two are, I'm sure, connected, but let me try to address them as separate for the moment.
I empathize with my friends' need to look for Nick in such a way, and to imagine him lingering about. It's comforting to think that though he is gone, he's not really gone.
Except he, as we knew him, is.
While I have no issue with a picture in a frame, it shouldn't blot out the reality that what once was is no more. Our bodies are quick to decay. This segues into the fact that as the mind/personality of the loved one was housed in that body, it also has to go, i.e. our conception of it has to be re-evaluated. How can we naïvely imagine that one's mind/personality lingers around like a disembodied voice? That it retains cognizance after death? These are nice thoughts, but really, odds are against.
All of this leaves me grasping for something tangible when I think of Nick nowadays. I cannot permit myself to think of him as existing as he did, or else expose myself as a self-contradicting fraud. Why, then, do I bow my head when riding by the ghost bike where he was hit? If I'm honest about my beliefs, this is an act of sheer vanity, and nothing else. The bike serves a purpose, and it is a good one. But it is not him any more than anything else is. So where can I look for him now?
There is nowhere to look.
While I wrestle about whether this is an inherently bad thing, let me attempt to answer that more nebulous second part: Speaking for the dead.
As far as I am able to see, I think it's possible to articulate yourself clearly enough that others may come to 'know you.' It implies an extreme clarity of self-knowledge, first of all, coupled with the ability to express that information in a way that it can be received by someone else. Anyone who's ever interacted with other people knows how difficult this can be. One could argue that books are written as a way of preserving the minds of their authors throughout time; that they 'live' through them, and when one comes to truly understand a book (whatever that means), they have understood its authors' mind, and therefore Know Them. That's one perspective, however contrived. The analogy of the book is simply useful because it is a carefully considered medium by which someone takes great pains to make themselves understood (at least in the case of certain philosophical texts).
Much more difficult is to know the mind of someone from your everyday life. To know someone to the extent that you presume to know (or predict) what they would think/feel/do implies the kind of intimacy that few ever achieve with another person. Even at the height of such an intimacy, it's impossible to be certain. This is abetted by the slippery fact that the one speaking for the dead will usually, whether intentionally or not, color their interpretation with their own emotional biases. Either way it's suspect, and should be avoided altogether. In the case of the living, you might do well (as an exercise) to try and guess what someone would think or feel about something, only to go check with them to see how far off base you really are. But when the one in question is no longer there to put you in line, what will stop you from twisting them around to suit your needs? It is not something to be done lightly, and the potential for disaster is great.
So where does this leave me when I think of my old friend?
I attempt to remember him as he was, conceding that time distorts memory as a necessary reality. That my feelings are my own and that I can never know him any more than I did while he was alive. I may come closer to him by studying his habits or traveling the same paths (i.e. reading similar books, etc.) but never, through all of this, will I ever know what he would or would not think about things now. Really, it doesn't even matter.
Where can I look for him? Only backwards. What can I learn? Only what I wish to learn. I cannot permit myself the delusion that the dead are out there, frolicking in the ether, hoping to teach me something. If I wish to invoke their names to fuel my own self-betterment (or self-destruction), let me not be deceived: it is my doing, not theirs. I can no more speak for them than I could claim to know the mind of another. Language will fail us at every turn.
I'd like to think that this is something Nick would agree with. Certainly I can think of few people I'd more enjoy having such a discussion with, over several rounds of beer. But that's more wishful thinking...

Christian Kiefer - Prologue
PJ Harvey - To Talk to You
Shearwater - Near a Garden

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