A Matter of Death and Life


Life is not random, some say, it is choreographed by a controlling force with a master plan that we may not understand at first, but will eventually come clear when we look back and see the final portrait.  For others, life is a random series of moments, equivalent to an abstract pointillism painting.  This belief suggests that we’re simply here one day, talking to our friends, gone the next.  Human life has more meaning than the life of the badger in the arena of consciousness of life, but little more than that.  The primary difference, for these people, comes from the act of looking at life, examining it with strained eyes, until we see a purpose that we believed was there all along.  No matter how one looks at it, we can all agree that these moments of life are finite, and that it is an abuse to waste them.  The latter becomes all the more clear when we’ve survived a death-defying incident.

An abstract pointillism painting

An abstract pointillism painting

Part of the allure of the story of the vampire is the dream mere mortals have of being immortal, so that these moments of life can be infinite.  These dreams only become more profound as we age, and the realization of our own mortality becomes more substantial –and the idea of eventually becoming inconsequential, even to those that love us most, haunts us– we dream of immortality.  The dream of immortality is one thing, the non-fan have argued, but the actuality of it would be quite another.

The import of the allure of the vampire story is the question that fascinates us, “What would you do if you knew knew that you were going to live forever?”  The less obvious question, asked by cynical viewers/readers of the story is, “Why would you do it?”  How exciting would the bungee jump be to the person that knew there was no chance they were going to die?  The primal fear of falling would surely affect some vampires, as they were all mortal once, but if you can’t even be superficially wounded, much less mortally, how much allure would there be in the “death plunge” of the bungee jump?

In most incarnations of the story, the vampire is not only immortal and invulnerable to superficial injury, they can even manipulate situations to a point where they wouldn’t have to experience emotional pain.  Through the power of their eyes, most vampires can convince mere mortals to do their bidding.  As a result, no girl can ever dump them; no bully can pick on them; and no moron can ever do anything to mess their life up.  In most incarnations of the vampire story, the use of this power is selective, so as to allow the mortals involved in the story to do things that give the story greater drama, but the cynics in the audience wonder why the vampires don’t just turn on their eye power and persuade the girl to love them.  (I know most vampire stories involve the vampire wanting organic love from the girl that results from the mortal deciding to love them, but the very idea that they can circumvent this process by turning on their eye power diminishes this to a tool used by the author of the story to provide drama.)  We cynics understand that thread of the story that the greatness of love lies in its achievement for the vampire, but when he is utterly devastated by the failure to do so, the vampire doesn’t have to experience that devastation.  The vampire has a plan B.  The eyes.  Just flick on that power.

Mere mortals have no idea if the girl is going to love us in real life, and we have no plan B if she doesn’t.  We are pretty sure that we’re going to survive the bungee jump, and the roller coaster, as they offer some comfort of being a controlled environment, but there is some fear –that results in some adrenaline– involved in the idea that we’re not 100% positive.  If you were 100% positive that you weren’t going to die, or even receive some painful superficial wounds, why would you do it?  Would there be any sense of accomplishment in achieving love from another, if you knew that you had such a solid plan B that you could convince the girl to love you, regardless what she decides.

Some of us have had near death experiences, from a car crash that first responders informed us should’ve resulted in the end of our moments; we’ve been informed that if our death-defying incident had occurred inches to the left, or right, we would no longer be here to talk about it; and others have had incidents that require no such explanations of how close they’ve come.  Those that have survived the latter speak of a sense of euphoria that overwhelms them and profoundly informs the rest of their life.  This sense of euphoria, they say, does not last forever, or as long as it probably should, but for the short time you’re immersed in it, your second lease on life can be euphoric.

In an attempt to explain this blast of euphoria that comes from being unsuccessfully murdered, author of the collection of essays We Never Learn, Tim Kreider, uses the plot of Ray Bradbury’s The Lost City of Mars to illustrate: “A man finds a miraculous machine that enables him to experience his own violent death over and over again, as many times as he likes –in locomotive collisions, race car crashes, and exploding rocket ships– until he emerges flayed of all his Christian guilt and unconscious longing for death, forgiven and free, finally alive.”

In the essay, Reprieve, Kreider explains that after it was deemed that he would survive the attempt on his life, he considered everything that followed as “Gravy.”  A term he derives from a man, author Raymond Carver, that was also granted a second lease on life.

Quoting from the proverbial “food tastes better” template of survivors, Kreider states that he did things he wouldn’t have done in his pre-murder attempt life, and what was once deemed troubling, dramatic, and consequential in the first life, became trivial in the scope of having survived.  Kreider claims he even developed a loud, racauos laugh, in his reprieve, that caused “People to look over to make sure I was not about to open up on them with a weapon.”  He claims that laughter could be heard when he complained to a friend, “You don’t understand me.”

The friend responded: “No, sir, I understand you very well –it is you who do not understand yourself.”

Whereas most survivors perceive divine intervention in their narrow escape, Kreider states that even in the midst of his euphoria, that “Not for one passing moment did it occur to me to imagine that God Must Have Spared My Life For Some Purpose.  I was not blessed or chosen, but lucky.”

I wish I could recommend the experience of not being killed to everyone.  It’s a truism,” he basically states, that motivates most thrill-seeking adventurers to attempt what are basically “suicide attempts with safety nets”.  “The trick,” he writes, “Is to get the full effect you have to be genuinely uncertain that you’re going to survive.  The best approximation would be to hire an incompetent, Clouseauque (Inspector Clouseau, played by Peter Sellers, in the movie The Pink Panther) hit man to assassinate you.   

“It’s one of the maddening perversities of human psychology that we only notice we’re alive when we’re reminded we’re going to die, the same way some of us appreciate our girlfriends only after they’ve become exes.”  Kreider writes of his terminally ill father, writing that while in his last days: “(The man) cared less about things that didn’t matter and more about the things that did.  It was during his illness that he gave me the talk that all my artist friends have envied, in which he told me that he and my mother believed in my talent and I shouldn’t worry about getting “some dumb job.””

But, Kreider writes: “You can’t feel crazily grateful to be alive your whole life any more than you can stay passionately in love forever—or grieve forever, for that matter. Time makes us all betray ourselves and get back to the busywork of living.”

The latter quote reminds one of a guest on The Tonight Show in which this guest talked about a love that spanned decades.  She claimed that her husband provided her a white rose every day, and that the two of them never fought.  In the aftermath of that interview, host Johnny Carson turned to his sidekick Ed McMahon and said something along the lines of: “It’s a beautiful story, and I wish I had the same (Carson was married four times), but I can’t help but thinking how boring it would be to never fight for that many years.  I’m not calling her a liar.  I believe her.  I just think it would be boring.”

In great loves, and great lives, life can experience great highs and great lows, but the great highs cannot be fully appreciated without the contrast of great lows.

I don’t know why we take our worst moods so much more seriously than our best,” Kreider writes, “Crediting depression with more clarity than euphoria. We dismiss peak moments and passionate love affairs as an ephemeral chemical buzz, just endorphins or hormones, but accept those 3 A.M. bouts of despair as unsentimental insights into the truth about our lives.  It’s easy now to dismiss that year (following the survival of the unsuccessful murder) as nothing more than the same sort of shaky, hysterical high you’d feel after getting clipped by a taxi.  But you could also try to think of it as a glimpse of reality, being jolted out of a lifelong stupor.  It’s like the revelation I had the first time I ever flew in an airplane as a kid: when you break through the cloud cover you realize that above the passing squalls and doldrums there is a realm of eternal sunlight, so keen and brilliant you have to squint against it, a vision to hold on to when you descend once again beneath the clouds, under the oppressive, petty jurisdiction of the local weather.”

We all love to quote Murphy’s law: “Anything that can go wrong will go wrong.”  It’s important to prepare for things to go wrong, of course, but is it a truism that everything will go wrong, or is it a “maddening perversity of human psychology” that we only notice things when they do?  If the petty jurisdiction of local weather provides us with clear and 60, how long will we remember that versus -2 and 10 inches of snow?  And how beautiful is clear and 60 when all we’ve known, all week, is -2 and 10 inches?  How beautiful, conversely, would clear and 60 be if we could use the eye power of the vampire to have clear and 60, 365?  The dream would be one thing, the reality quite another.

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