By Krishan Rau
- And I saw, and behold, a pale horse and its rider’s name was Death, and Hell followed with him.
- — The Book of Revelations
- You get what anyone gets … you get a lifetime.
- — Death, from Neil Gaiman’s comic book Death: The High Cost of Living.
A couple of years ago, a Toronto lawyer was demonstrating to articling students in his firm how secure the windows in his 24th floor office were. He threw himself against a full-length window once, and bounced off. Then a new student entered, and the lawyer decided to repeat the demonstration. Only this time, the window opened, the lawyer plummeted, screaming, to his demise far below on Bay Street.
This January, a bungee jumping exhibition was scheduled to be part of the half-time festivities at the Super Bowl in New Orleans. But, during rehearsals for the jumps, someone mismeasured the elastic bands for one of the jumpers, making them just a little too long. The result was that the jumper smashed her head into the concrete floor of the stadium, shattering her skull and killing her almost instantly.
At the end of the millennium, death has become a contest. Sometimes you win, and sometimes, as with the lawyer and the bungee jumper, you lose. But what’s important is the contest. In our lives, both death and life have been devalued to the point where their value, and perhaps even their validity, need to be re-established. Life, for many, is a constant struggle with employment, finances, housing, despotic governments. It doesn’t provide the same sort of automatic enjoyment and reassurance it used to. And it doesn’t provide the same sort of sensations.
But for the lawyer and the bungee jumper, as they plunged towards their deaths, the value of their lives must have become penetratingly, blindingly clear. Both died by accident; certainly neither had intended to die. But both, for whatever reason, had been driven to defy death. The lawyer felt secure that his office windows were strong enough to support him. He had actually been testing them for a number of years. But the first time he tried that experiment, he couldn’t have been certain. And for both him and the bungee jumper, the feeling after they survived each test must have filled their lives, if only for a few seconds, with exhilaration. “Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her,/Alone, shall come fulfillment to our dreams/And our desires,” wrote poet Wallace Stevens. Knowing that your life might end at any moment makes it worth living.
But there is nothing that can imbue our deaths with the same sense of exhilaration. We have not only become jaded about our lives, we’ve become jaded about our deaths. Perhaps even disbelieving. We want to embrace death, we’re just not convinced that death will embrace us. It’s only the spectacular deaths, like the lawyer’s or the bungee jumper’s, that reassure us. But then, people immediately want to try the window or the jump, just to see if death can do it again.
We are approaching the time of the second coming, the end of the second thousand year cycle, the time when, according to the Bible, humanity and the earth will be devastated. Death and Hell will reign. The four horsemen will ride again, there will be a tremendous earthquake that will turn “the sun black as sackcloth,” a beast will rise from the ocean with 10 horns, 7 heads, 10 diadems upon its horns and a blasphemous name on its head, and “the sky will vanish like a scroll rolled up.”
But nonetheless, at least for the next three years, death has pretty much stopped inspiring dread. Sure there are still drugs, guns, murders and heart attacks. There still is an AIDS epidemic. But, we seem to be fighting death to a standstill. Even New York City claims its homicide rate is dropping. And newspapers are trumpeting the end of AIDS, as medicine makes advances and new drug cocktails allow people who would have been dead several years ago to prepare for long lives. Death has never vanished, of course. In most parts of the world, in fact, death continues to rule. Famine, war, pestilence, massacres, disease, even land mines, are still omnipresent realities for much of the planet’s population. But in our privileged little corner of the world, we’ve become blase about death.
When we hear about someone dying now, it doesn’t bring our own death closer to home and it doesn’t increase our sense of our own mortality. If the death is routine, it’s just shrugged off. If the death is spectacular, everyone thinks it’s cool.
When stories of mad cow disease, and its possible links to horrific human deaths, began appearing, the reaction was not shock. The reaction was humour, and jokes about the disease. (Cow 1: “Aren’t you worried about this mad cow disease?” Cow 2: “Meow”). But the mad cow disease (bovine spongiform encephalopathy) that has ravaged British herds has been linked to several human deaths in Britain. Apparently, some scientists say, eating infected beef can lead to the contraction of Crutzfeldt-Jakobsen Disease, a human equivalent of BSE, which leaves the brain like a giant sponge, being slowly eaten away. The patient dies slowly, as giant holes appear in the brain.
But the horrors of BSE pale in comparison to those of necrotizing fasciitis, or the flesh-eating bacteria, which also first came to prominence in Britain. Spreading through simple streptococcus infections, the bacteria act like a sub-microscopic swarm of piranhas, capable of stripping a human body to the bone in hours. Victims look they were skinned alive. But when pictures of victims began appearing (from Britain, once again), the reaction was one of awed approval. “What a way to die!” In Canada, Lucien Bouchard was fortunate to escape with only half a leg gone, but the experience boosted his popularity all across Canada (at least until the Quebec referendum). Bouchard beat death. And he didn’t just beat a heart attack or car crash, he beat one of the more spectacularly grisly methods of death to come along in some time. On the other hand, if he had succumbed to the disease, he probably would have been even more popular. And if it were possible, many people would probably infect themselves with flesh-eating bacteria, just to see what would happen (not to mention the fame).
Bouchard’s rise in popularity came because he survived. Kurt Cobain’s came became he died. Since the Nirvana singer/guitarist blew his own head off with a shotgun, there have been about a dozen teens who have chosen to follow his example, because, they said, they were unable to live without the band’s music and insightful lyrics. One trio of Quebec teens drove all the way across country to Seattle before offing themselves. People seem drawn to imitating spectacular deaths. Maybe they think they can be the ones to defeat death. Perhaps those teens were all genuinely suicidal, or maybe they were just imitating their hero. Another possibility is that they just didn’t believe a shotgun blast to the head is necessarily fatal. Death, after all, is not taken seriously as it could be.
My new favourite comic book, Preacher, has a teenage character called Arseface (for reasons made graphically clear by the book’s artwork) whose facial deformities were caused by his allegiance to Cobain. To quote: “Kid put a twelve-gauge to his head because of a dead fella named Kurt Cobain. Boy was seventeen, typically surly, rebellious little bastard. Hugo tried everything from whippings to putting out cigarettes on his arm and all he got for is trouble was fuck you. Favorite band was the one this Cobain sang in, which got up Hugo’s ass double. How’s he supposed to listen to Earl an’ Tammy with that shit coming through the wall? Now it sounds kind of like a Downs Syndrome fella set to music, but the boy loves it. The Cobain guy is his hero — dumb little bastard even shoots heroin to be like him. Came the day you probably heard about, Cobain did his asshole rock star thing and blew his head off. Kid hears this, tucks Hugo’s Remington under his chin and follows in his hero’s footsteps. Six operations later the boy is indeed alive.” (Preacher is just a barrel of laughs.)
Cobain had better aim than Arseface. You see, Cobain’s fans love(d) him because he was serious. He sang “I hate myself and I want to die,” and apparently he meant it. “That’s a serious artist,” kids say. “That’s artistic integrity.” And like painters or sculptors, Cobain’s sales have increased since his death. In part, that’s because many of those who aren’t dedicated enough fans to try decapitation themselves are still drawn to him by his proximity to death.
Music is filled with such connections to death. Even mosh pits, while still serving primarily as a forum for the homo-erotic activities of adolescent males, seem more and more to be rituals centred around death. Sprains, bruises, contusions and fractures have always been a dime a dozen in a mosh pit. But now, as the pits become more and more violent and less and less disciplined, people are dying. In a mosh pit, the participants are supposed to hold each other up and protect each other. But, instead, out of selfishness or perhaps just for a cheap thrill, moshers have been letting others fall and break their necks on the unforgiving concrete of stadium venues. Many rock bands, unable or unwilling to force their fans to wear protective padding and headgear, have been refusing to allow mosh pits. It seems that death, or even injuries, are bad for insurance rates.
And so are loose truck wheels, which seem to have developed a malevolent intelligence of their own, springing free from their moorings to crush any innocent families they took a dislike to. Over the past couple of years, Ontario highways, especially around Toronto, have become killing fields for truck appendages who slaughter and terrorize their bloody way through hapless motorists. But nonetheless, motorists continue to crowd the highways. Some, in fact, seem to have taken to driving even closer to large trucks, presumably to test what really happens when a giant wheel comes loose. As David Cronnenberg’s film adaption of the J.G. Ballard novel Crash demonstrates, our highways have become a stage for acting out our attraction to spectacular death, and our simultaneous conviction that it can be beaten.
Of course, sooner or later, we’re all going to die. Most of us will die from heart attacks or cancer or old age or in a car accident. Most of us will not die in a spectacular bungee accident or in the grip of a flesh-eating bacteria. But, whether we die mundanely or dramatically, we all end up in the ground, decomposing. And hundreds of years from now, all our bones will look the same. And yet, I can’t help but think of how truly alive that Toronto lawyer must have felt in his last seconds of existence as he saw the ground rushing up to meet him. Maybe that’s why I’m trying to find a job in a high-rise office building — with full-length windows.