The Heavy Elements: Loss, 16 September 2015

A new person can appear at any minute, from any corner of the world, put up a picture and their thoughts, and let us learn about them on a website, on social media. They aren’t people at first, but they become a person by three forms of osmosis–they become one when you realize they are real, when you realize you love them, and they become real when you realize they have died. That’s when we realize the organism connected to the dream machine we’re all plugged into is not an empathy device custom coded to match our personality quirks, but a person who thinks, eats, feels, laughs, cries–stuff we all do. At first they’re a talent agency for themselves, (it’s the Idoru complex) a PR department’s hagiographic depiction with the faults washed out, the wrinkles smoothed away by a cloning stamp. As for who they are, we have their word, the reaction of their friends, or the lack of reaction of their friends. We deduce and infer like we’re Sherlock Holmes instead of noting and observing because like we should because 99% of us are Watson.

It is a flawed structure when poignancy of thought and flourishes of character are put to the judgment of screaming people hiding behind the best mask–the best mask is your own face. The assignation is a public judgment, weighed by likes and comments, clicks and shares, schools, feuds people can’t let go, disagreement, relationships–it’s an advertisement, we realized we all couldn’t be Idoru so we became something simpler: an avatar that becomes a human when it dies, is loved, or when we meet in the natural world and see all those shy ticks and shaking feet and nervous glances and neurosis and doubt and sadness and melancholy and then we love them. There’s a difference between loving someone and loving the idea of someone, because the idea of someone is what you created, not what they tried to ‘sell’ you.

They become human to us more powerfully, for whatever reason, when they die. People understand loss because life is learning that loss never leaves. It tears a piece out of you. It makes you question the fairness of the world. But death is the unavoidable obligation by which one becomes a person. Flaws are forgotten. The airbrushing starts. And it denigrates their memory. To preserve someone’s beauty, you don’t hide the blemishes or the wrinkles, you paint them like Rembrandt did: with their wrinkles, pale skin, drooping eyelids–who they were, as a character, is not improved by an embalmer. But I guess it’s to be expected. Imagine that your best friend, your intellectual nemesis and someone who is very dear to you, someone you’ve known for 15 years. Would they be more likely to, on short notice, fly from California to see a production of The Magic Flute with you and have drinks or attend your funeral? You know the answer to that. People want to pay their last respects. I don’t even understand that phrase. Does it imply that you had some hitherto unmentioned respect you wish to convey to a person who has passed away? Maybe I’m being autistic (probably the most accurate statement in this mess), but if you love someone, should you let them leave your company with respects you haven’t paid? And is paying respects to them when they’re dead really the best moment to forgive them? No. Caring about people during their life and respecting them while they’re alive is more important. It has to be. You may belong to the ages, but our hearts belong to you, so we communicate in different ways. You think about what they would’ve said, what they’ve would’ve done. What they really were.

That’s the moment when we notice that it’s not the website’s dream, or a bot, but a single person who has died in our lap, leaving a page for us, a guestlist for a funeral the caretaker of the memory’s production value can’t attend, a homegrown show on a homemade stage preserved in a diary unfinished, leaving us wanting more, in the same manner that we must understand that The Brothers Karamazov was incomplete when Dostoevsky died, and it ended with the famous speech on the stone. It’s a finished portrait of an incomplete drama. ‘The Castle’ by Franz Kafka ends mid sentence, but it doesn’t lose the aesthetic value or detract from its quality.

We’re all incomplete and imperfect, and I have trouble when I try to mourn. Because I’m receptive to probable adjudications, or literary remonstrance. Because everyone who knows real writers always have a sneaking suspicion that when a write performs a soliloquy, it’s from the mind, or some attempt at a piece of great literature. It’s not an issue if the person who has written and is prepared to deliver the soliloquy is a banker, but if an actual writer is behind it, there is, naturally, the suspicion that it is an attempt at literary beauty, truth, depth, profundity, but catharsis is closer to the mark. Another issue some may consider: that while it may be well written, and clever or provocative and used a lot of fancy words, it is without true feeling. I think it’s absurd to imagine a writer who doesn’t aspire to literary beauty or profundity. I can’t imagine a serious writer consciously sitting down and saying, “I want to say empty platitudes, I want it to be shallow and without quality.” I think it’s an act of moral and intellectual courage to go beyond what everyone else has said and look at it from a more universal perspective, and thereby put what we see as chaos and random misery into some sort of context we can endure. Once you’ve lost someone you’ve loved enough to die for, you’re no longer living anymore, you just endure. You don’t really know how you do it, you just know that you have no other choice. If this was without feeling and respect for Becky, and for all people who struggle with loss, it’d be a lot shorter and I wouldn’t be indicted for a crime I’m unaware of like Joseph K. in The Trial.

I’d like to think that what we write could be saved, something of what we are, what we have done, right and wrong, as people, that future archaeologists will forgive us for behaving like viruses, for being mean to each other, for needing other people to believe what we do. Hopefully they’ll see us as we advertise ourselves instead of the green screen and the script. And see that while a lot of us disagree and argue and fight and do stupid things, humans are lazy–once they start loving someone they’re too lazy to stop. But we stopped talking and started emailing. We stopped emailing and started texting. We’re not airbrushed geniuses or models. We do not look as good as our profile picture. In fact, the one I use is probably the most unlike me I can find. But what I’m trying to articulate is that this sort of information is trivial–pictures, opinions, debates. The quality of life can’t be valued in this invisible world. What we see isn’t there; what is there is html code, PHP, JAVA script, mathematical algorithms that collect statistics and generate active content.

When this culture has left and the internet has died, whatever kind of life form manages to find a way onto the internet by using our technology (which I doubt, because a lot of people can’t figure out this technology), they will find the externalization of our inner self. They will see us going through struggles, losing, lying, crying, angry, yelling–they’ll be navigating our digital purgatory, looking at the people yelling in this invisible world, unable to tell us that our lives are far too brief to be so pissed off and angry with each other, and that we’ll go back into that invisible world, the one to which my old friend has gone, the world of Carol Anne’s, and this time she’s in the HD monitor and her status updates are the poltergeist. But this time no one’s there. And that’s a scarier story. Because they don’t come back. They can’t. This quote has been attributed to several philosophers, including Plato, but regardless of who said it, it is something I believe in, and I don’t believe in much. ‘Only the dead have seen the end of the war,’ is the quote, but I’d like to add: we may be born as slaves but we’ll be as kings when we’re lowered in our graves. Take pomp, take physics, expose yourself to feel as wretches feel, said King Lear, and today is a day that illustrates the way life is to the perpetual wretch. The saddest people are not sad because of what they don’t have, the saddest people are people that had something once and no longer have it.

This is what we don’t see, the whole thematic element is not intended to be subtle: we don’t see the tubes, the wires, the strings, the bureaucracy and economy of banality is not the home for a living person; this is an electric circus for dying souls whose coded thumbprint haunts inactive pages until connected nodes blink out. You never see it. You couldn’t paint the world we’re in right now, the machinery that renders this protracted obsiquy, as ineffectual as it is contrived, but contrivance can be redeemed by sincerity. The people we see, the people on our friends list, the people we chat with, they’re not the people, they are the people’s considered affectacious projection of the good they have in them. It is the projection of a finished painting of an incomplete subject. The screen can make it so real, so personalized and authentic. We see their pictures and they age, their views and insights, and all this data is in the air and all around us–radiowaves the size of buildings, invisible to us, but all around us–literally, bigger than a house and we can’t see it.

It’s not material, or something we can weigh, or measure, or grab or taste, not like we measure the real world (space with a ruler and time with a clock.) This world is a digital purgatory full of ghosts, ghosts who can’t respond, even if a ghost could see and hear our words the message wouldn’t get through, because they can’t see anything in the invisible world. The worlds between us when we talk, when we fight, when we laugh. These pages will become our fossils, our great arguments, our political debates, it adds up to a  poor attempt at immortality, but it lets the invisible people, all of us who can only mourn when we’re unseen, alone, it lets us visit them and reminisce about the things we didn’t do, the things we would have done had we known how long we had, if our birth certificate had an expiration date, if we we had one more hour just to make a call. We can send them lovely words that can’t be seen in the dark, so they’ll never know we’re still holding on, fighting a reality so harsh we invent ways to deal with it, to soften the blow.

We don’t give eulogies for the person in the casket, because they’re not even there. We don’t go to funerals for the dead, we go for us. Something inside us needs to know, we need to mourn, and in this mourning we are able to purge ourselves of the obvious logic that life is a team playing death–and death has never lost, and to live is a brief detour of taste and sound and color, the transition from animation to a memory to the penultimate form, a screaming dream in the invisible world that tells a beautiful lie to a person sleeping who forgets that while he may be seeing you, you may be seeing him as well. It’s cold as a gravestone, which hasn’t got the heart not to sum us up with a name, two dates and a dash. The dash represents our life. Everything we loved so much and fought about so passionately is a line, signifying everything but saying nothing.

It is interesting, to me, that these advertisements that we make become our tombs, where the living gather in a a wireless mausoleum where the invisible mourn the memories of what they’ll never see again. It’s not new that we all die, but it’s new that we make and decorate our graves, and it’s new that we carefully build and structure and personalize our stage for hours on end, only to in the end wish to have those hours back, those kind of hours when it’s late and you can’t sleep, and you think. You think about people you love, people you’ve lost. And the echo of who they are reverberates in your head and you can see them watching TV in their underwear, doing all the weird and amazing things people do. But it’s not the moments in the invisible world we remember, it’s genuine memories–the kind of information that archaeologists never find. Over 29 million accounts on Facebook were registered by people who have died since then. Roughly 150,000 people die a day, and some of those people leave us ways to continue sending messages to them. When I die, I’ve always said I’d take the thief to paradise and all those unread messages in the dark, if I find them, I’ll reply.

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