"...yea though I walk through the shadow of the valley of death..."
It doesn't feel like that right now, as I sit typing this, listening to Susan Sarandon talking about the death of John Lennon on the radio, but I guess that as we enter the home stretch, that's pretty much the truth of it. I used to be petrified of dying as a kid - went into real grands mal about it, much to the alarm of my poor old parents - but the fear has definitely receded since we lost both of them. I guess that it's a fairly obvious reaction to seeing anything up close. Things tend to lose their aura of mystery a bit once they've been absorbed into the repertoire of personal experience. I remember thinking at the time my Mum died that most of us are really protected, shielded from death throughout most of our lives. If you stop to think about it, it's happening all around you, all the time on an unbelievable scale and yet - maybe this is more an urban phenomenon - one really wouldn't know it. Nature seems to be incredibly good at recycling itself. So when you do see someone lying dead before you, there's a certain amount of shock attached to all the other emotions that one becomes a home to. But once that passes, a sense emerges that you've been oddly privileged to see something that, whilst obviously the most universal occurence we're likely to know, is also so deeply private.
I haven't done much reading up on it - as I imagine many people do - just a quick skim of the Tibetan Book of the Dead, which I'm going to put off reading in greater depth until a bit nearer the time. But there was an interesting passage in that about the near-death experiences of the Yogic masters who would induce trance-like states so profound that they would take themselves to the very borderline of conscious- and unconscious-ness. They reported back - with surprisingly scientific detatchment - the same sorts of unbelievably intense white light that are familiar from the accounts of so many near death experience survivors. According to the Buddhist wisdom, this is your soul and if you are mindful and brave enough to, this is the ideal moment to grab it and save oneself an awful lot of to-ing and fro-ing on the old karmic wheel. That's a beautiful thought, isn't it? Seeing yourself as a brilliant supernova of spiritual energy and being reunited with an idea of self one only has the vaguest intimations of during this life. Well, I find it a beautiful idea.
I know many of my readers won't have very much time for the idea of a soul - certainly not in the conventional religious sense - but I think most of us, no matter how ostensibly rationalist, would acknowledge that most of us live, whether they like it or not, with a profound need for transcedence from the mundanity of our bare existence. As an artist, I've always found the doctrines of pure materialism somewhat counter-intuitive. Perhaps this is why, despite my evident socialist leanings, I've always found that that belief system is ultimately only a partial solution to some of the problems of existence. For me, listening to Sam Cooke and the Soul Stirrers singing 'Jesus Gave me Water (and it was not from the well)' provides something profoundly uplifting and sustaining and without which I would merely be existing, not living; something that no five year plan or food ration could provide.
We're living in a generally soul-less time - the great fusion of black religious and good time party musics that provided the bedrock for so much engaging and confirming popular music from the 1950s onwards has been coralled into a cynically (not to mention violently and misogynistically) marketed 'urban' style that to anyone with less superficial and meretricious tastes is the musical equivalent of someone defacating in a catheral. The structures we've evolved to ameliorate the pernicious grind of modern capitalism - and I'd include in this the church and the labour movement, both of which should have an arm-long list of fundamental objections to the current administration - means the sort of violent scenes we witnessed earlier this week. It's impossible not to sympathise with the anger and resentment of the student protestors; equally impossible to see a way in which the violence will help anyone but the Coalition, ultimately.
But I've digressed. We were talking about death - at least the fictional treatment thereof. The best, though still unsatisfactory, attempt is obviously Sterne's in Tristram Shandy. Death for Sterne is a plain black page. It's a brilliant conceit and as a death-fearing kid, I had the same apprehension; the extinguishing of consciousness, absolutely and forever, well, it *had* to look like that, didn't it? But what if consciousness does not die when the body does? Supposing our essence does not perish but rather, just changes its form; the way the light that goes out when you extinguish a candle doesn't disappear, the light disappears, perhaps, but it leaves behind a wisp of dancing smoke. This is, I might add, an observable fact. Science, even? Oh well, that's another essay, I think! Anyway, in about 15 posts, we might have more of an idea...