How Death Finds You in Literature and On Other Dark Walks
“I am older at twenty than a lot of people who have died.”
So says Faulkner’s most beloved and fraught character, Quentin Compson, as he nears the end of narrating the harrowing ghost story that is Absalom, Absalom!, which, in my opinion, is the greatest Modern Novel of them all. I won’t try to explain what Quentin means, except that depression and fatalism and looking into the eyes of a man who murdered his half-brother in order to prevent incest and miscegenation can certainly make a person feel old. At twenty, at fourteen, or even at the age of four.
I’m always sad when I finish teaching Faulkner’s epic, this Southern tragedy. I’m sad because the novel ends so beautifully and I have to put it down again. I’m sad because there’s little space in our lives to discuss meaningful literary texts with avid, or at least with for-credit listeners/readers.
But I’m also sad because nothing I can do or say will help poor Quentin, and I have felt in my life what he feels in his.
I asked my class on Wednesday what they thought Quentin means by the statement above. I know they understand his words, but they are twenty themselves, and if you haven’t had some similar experience, how can you know? Why should you? And, in many ways, more power to you/them if you don’t.
I used one of my students as an example:
“So you were saying before class that your greatest worry right now is that research paper you’re writing, analyzing the media coverage of the Reagan-Gorbachov years. I am glad for you, and at your age, the most normal thing is for you to be most concerned with something so appropriate to your current age-experience. A college research paper, yes, that’s what you’re supposed to be worrying over.”
Everyone laughed then. Everyone understood.
And then I suggested that there are some of us who don’t have that luxury — some who have never had that luxury. There are those of us who, when we were children, got concerned, scared about eternal things.
We were always too old.
I also explained to the class that Faulkner’s most studied critic, Cleanth Brooks, debates whether Quentin was “in love with death.” He does kill himself in a subsequent novel (The Sound and the Fury). Yet, we know that many take their own lives NOT because they love death, but because LIVING holds no future for them. No hope.
Shortly after Faulkner’s novel was published, the philosophy of Existentialism took hold, arguing, among other things, that when we face the crisis of meaning in life, we often fail and perhaps choose or fall into death. So Quentin is a pre-Existentialist who fails his crisis, much like his literary predecessor, “Hamlet,” who could also be said to be in love with death.
I have to face why these characters move me so powerfully; why they have influenced me and my views of life for decades now.
In my therapist’s office the night after finishing Absalom, Absalom!, I spoke of my friend Owen’s death and the trauma of losing him so suddenly and swiftly. I spoke of my current men’s group, which loves to speak of death, loves to get me to speak of it.
I don’t “wanna.”
I told my therapist of a time maybe twenty years ago when, on a mountain vacation, two men roughly fifteen years older than me tried to engage me in a death talk.
“That makes me so uncomfortable,” I said. We had had a few beers and maybe a toke or two.
“Leave me alone,” I urged.
“Why don’t you want to talk about death? Why does it make you so uncomfortable?”
All I could think of then was, “Well, who wants to think about his own death? Who wants to contemplate that moment, that end?”
I know. I know. Some people really do.
Not me, though.
My therapist asked, “So does death scare you?”
“Yes. it does. Does that make me strange?”
“No, but it would be good to know why, right?”
He’s my therapist, and he’s good and kind. So I decided to trust him yet again.
I told him about Quentin Compson’s plain assertion.
I told him how old I was at four when my first Sunday School teachers began telling me about crucifixions and brothers sending one of their own to death by animal mauling, or so they thought. About the decree that first-born sons would have to die, again and again. About Cain killing Abel over his own jealousy, over God’s favoring Abel’s offering instead of Cain’s.
“Why,” I asked my therapist, “didn’t God like Cain’s fruit and vegetables? I never understood that, not that I sanction killing your brother over it.”
Death. death. More death.
I was only four, five, six.
“Did you think you were going to hell?” my therapist asked.
“No. I never thought that because I never believed in hell. I did, however, believe in death when I was four. Separation from those I love forever. And it didn’t help that I was told that I’d be united with God, a being I couldn’t see, touch, or be held by.”
It’s not that I disbelieve in God, I said. It’s more that I was scared by death. Traumatized by that concept before I was old enough to understand it, to process it, to philosophize over it.
“So you do fear it?”
“I fear the unknown just as the ancient Greeks did. That’s why they gave everything a name. They were too afraid, only afraid, of the unknown.”
“I see,” my therapist said. “And yet with your friend Owen, you walked right in to his death. You were present with him when he died. You faced it.”
Yes. I did.
Thank God for therapy.
In kindergarten every morning when I was five, we had to recite the 23rd Psalm. Every morning I cried as we “walked through the valley of the shadow of death.” On that walk every morning, I saw my mother’s shadow walking behind her on the street where we lived. She was walking without me to protect her, to accompany her. My teachers asked me why I cried, but I couldn’t tell them. They couldn’t follow the pattern of my daily tears, and I believe this is the only lesson I learned that year. That, and that I didn’t like apple juice.
My mother is still walking today, though more slowly, and usually alone. I call her every morning and will do so until she does finally pass from here. I hate the thought of her death, and that of all those I love.
It will come when it comes, I know. And maybe I won’t be as hesitant to talk about it now, though there are so many other things I’d rather be discussing or writing about.
Things like how a Mississippi high school dropout can still help me see beauty and sorrow — aren’t they often the same thing? — in the words he wrote for a forlorn and too-wise young man. A man who was always older than me.
A man who, unlike me, didn’t have the power of recovery or a healing sage to help him through it.