Posts Tagged ‘Paradise Lost’

I’ve been speaking on and off again recently to someone very new to recovery–only days in, barely weeks. She is angry, beyond angry, and cynical and frustrated and resentful and…well, you get the point. Mostly, I think she’s looking for someone/something to blame and looking even harder for a way out. In short, it’s like looking in a mirror.

I don’t have to dig very far in my past to find the Me who was a walking defense mechanism. I don’t even have to look that far into my psychology to find these feelings, simmering like a black hot spring under the good earth I’ve been planting over top. I don’t count it as humility to be able to recognize these things in myself. It’s just a measure of my grasp on an unpleasant reality. On the one hand, I like to think I’ve traveled very far past the days when I lived as one, gigantic red nerve just waiting to cry or lash out. On the other, I live in the knowledge that, in some ways, it would take very little to get back there. One drink, of course.

I don’t believe in a “cure” for alcoholism, simply because I have not found a cure for stress or bad days or accidents or despair. As the phraseology goes: treatements, but no cure. Spending time, even very little time, with someone just days or weeks into her or his recovery is one form of treatment that is almost universally acknowledged among recovering addicts. When I ventured back into recovery circles in 2010, I didn’t realize I was a walking, talking memento mori–but that is probably the newcomer’s most important function in recovery circles. The newly recovering addict is a skull on the desk, the painting of the skeleton, the “remembrance of death.”

Hundreds of years ago, the pious kept these objects in full sight–particularly in their private rooms–to remind them of the inevitability, the closeness of death. In my twenties, I couldn’t quite wrap my brain around this medieval/Renaissance habit of scholars and theologians. At best, it seemed like a quaint, foreign custom. At worst, fetishistic. I identified more easily with Hamlet, whose reaction to a skull is just a commonsensical freak out, followed by a little ego trip and nausea. Skulls belong in graves, not on top of the furniture.

Raised a good protestant, I still don’t quite get the power of the fully physical representation of Our Last End. (Southern Baptism will teach anyone that the scariest place to be is your own head. No need to decorate the lobby with Halloween enthusiasms.) Now that I am some years (and many close calls) nearer to my own death, it’s somewhat easier to understand the practice. I also understand the memento in its complexity a little better: these were not blunt objects designed to conjure simply the last gasp and the shroud, but were to remind the owner too that we can hasten death; we can live in it. For the medieval miind (and those religious folks who essentially keep the medieval world alive today), sin is a form of death. John Milton went so far to allegorize Sin as the daughter of Satan and Death as their incestuous offspring. (Paradise Lost gets serious kink points for this one in my opinion.) To live in sin is to live in death. For anyone coming out of addiction, it is easy enough to acknowledge that there are ways of living that more closely resemble death than life, ways of being that bring on a wish for death rather than survival.

At the very beginning of my recovery, I was encouraged to write a list of all the things my drinking had done that had led to suffering for me and other people. I realized quickly that this could be a very short list (“It destroyed everything”) or a very long one (if I decided to name all the things my addiction ruined). What one winds up with will hardly be comprehensive–because addiction’s losses are hardly comprehensible–but effective, just as the scholar did not have to look at every skull in the world to know he’d die eventually. One was plenty. I was told to look at this list any time I felt like drinking or any time it occurred to me that I wasn’t “really” an alcoholic.

I never look at this list, by the way. I just know it’s there, just as the scholar knew the skull was there without having to look at it, perhaps having even forgotten it a little. These mementos of my addiction–whether represented in my own hand in a journal or freshly from the experience of someone new to sobriety–will occasionally catch me off-guard, however. Listening to them, I am emotionally transported to the pain and rawness of addiction and the hard scrabble work of early weeks in recovery. I do not want to go back there, but it is good to go back there. It is psychologically good, if a little painful, and warns me against complacency. It’s also less conspicuous than keeping a skull on my desk, which would be weird and I think, somehow, less effective, though I don’t ever rule anything out.

It is not really possible to conceive (of) death.  Milton tried, of course, and pretty graphically.  In Paradise Lost, Satan first “conceives” Sin in Heaven, as he’s contemplating rebellion against God.  Sin is a sexy, slip of a non-angelic being who bears a striking resemblance to Satan.  How could he resist?  The offspring of their incestuous union, Death, springs out of Sin’s fateful loins sometime just after the war in Heaven.  Truly an ingrate, Death immediately rapes his mother, and then a lot of other unpleasant things begin.

Allegory was never really my thing, and I’ve always thought it was a theological (though not a poetic) misstep in Milton’s theodicy.  Allegory intellectualizes.  It removes.  We’re not thinking of Granddad on the slab when we encounter Milton’s Death.  If attentive, I think about the grand logics of causal effects and the poet’s lock-step familiarity with the spiritual “truth” of biblical truth:  the intimacy of sin and death.  If churlish, I think of B-movies and marvel a little at the self-indulgent grotesquery of it all.  Well, the point is I’m not really thinking about it at all—not death as experience.  It’s not a feint exactly, but it is a removal.

Writing about the Holocaust, Maurice Blanchot says,

The disaster ruins everything, all the while leaving everything intact.  It does not touch anyone in particular; “I” am not threatened by it, but spared, left aside. 

….

When the disaster comes upon us, it does not come. 

And this is abstraction, but somehow nearer a truth about death than Milton’s allegory.  Camus would have agreed:  we cannot experience death; no one has, nor will anyone.  You could say that death is the ultimate abstraction that will level all the empirical minutiae.  Maybe envisioning death as a giant, perverted monster personifies not death itself but our cartoonish removal from its reality.  Why not give it horns and fangs?    It’s as accurate as anything else.

 In the last years and months of my drinking, I felt death was very imminent.  It was not only that, like many alcoholics toward the ends of their addictions, I contemplated suicide—although I do recall planning it out.  A gun, it seemed to me, would be preferable: and there were moments I would happily have pulled the trigger, but the task of obtaining one just seemed beyond my capacity.  (This alone might suffice as an argument against personal gun ownership.)   Next was pills, but I did not know how to get those either, not “good” ones anyway.  Exhaust fumes could work, but I was reasonably convinced I’d chicken out after a few minutes.  Luckily for me, the inertia that marked every other part of my drinking life made the effort of suicide a near-impossibility.

What I mean is that I felt my death very near, physically.  I had a quite rational horror of falling in the shower or down the stairs.  (And I have since known women and men whose drunken household accidents led them to AA or WFS.)  My liver ached daily—a hot, throbbing pressure under my right rib cage or what some describe as a “burning.”  I habitually squeezed at the lowest rib bone, pinching it with thumb and forefinger to try to get relief from the pressure.  Oddly, I still do this when I feel anxious—a little “hangover” from the near tragedy of that recent past.  Perhaps the worst feeling was the heavy, woolen irritation my brain would give me.  I could feel it swelling, panting there inside my skull.  And I would reflect grimly on the numbers of brain cells I was obliterating and on the certain effects of toxic encephalopathy (what amateurs call “wet brain”).

Oh, I knew all about the blood-brain barrier and about cirrhotic livers, about alcoholic heart disease and the higher incidence of breast cancer, about violent death statistics and the depressive tendency toward suicide.  Enough to be dangerous, but not enough, ever, to get sober for these reasons.

Why wasn’t the threat of death enough?

 Last week, my family and I learned that an old friend of ours had been murdered along with her mother at the hands of her new husband.  He’d attacked and raped her daughter after showing the girl the bodies of her relatives.  She survived, somehow.  A blessedly short manhunt led to his arrest.  The girl is being cared for (we think) by an aunt.  The murderer is in prison where he will presumably molder for the rest of his life.

We found out about this through, of all places, Facebook.  (I say “of all places,” but my guess is that if you are under 45 and you learned of an illness or death among your friendship circle, you had a 50/50 chance of finding out via Facebook or text message.)  The bodies of my old friend and her very sweet mother had not been dead 24 hours before some teenager had posted a grotesquely up-beat collage of photos of the family with sentiments like “R.I.P.” and “We miss you!” scrawled over their faces in a pink, comic sans font.  If it had been a joke, it would have been obscene.  Because it was not, it seemed to me all the more obscene.

But why?   Just my bourgeois taste being offended, I suppose.  It’s not the kind of remembrance that I’d want.  This says something about my priorities, since I’d been willing to be found full of vodka, slumped unheroically over my Toyota’s steering wheel.

As the days have passed, the deaths of my friends and this young woman’s trauma don’t get any more real.  Or, should I say, “realistic.”  My partner was interviewed by a t.v. local news reporter because we were some of the few friends who’d known the family when they’d lived in our city.  I follow news reports from West Virginia to see if new details have emerged, which makes me feel distant and stupid.  Each day, I read the “status updates” from my friend’s daughter in that sophomoric medium.  She has no other outlet, I suppose.  And it is not her fault—I go a little further—that it’s de rigeur to publish the adolescent thoughts that in my generation we kept to ourselves or forced between the pages of diaries we later cringed to read.  Why should I cringe for her when I  read,  “Getting ready then heading to funeral” and then a day or so later, “Found out have to go back to public school next year :/ “.  But I do.  And can’t help thinkin that if, as Shakespeare said, “silence is the perfectest herald of happiness,” then surely it acts all the more perfectly for grief?

I am embarrassed by these things—by the failure of this tragedy to be presented and handled as a tragedy in the classical sense—because the failure so accurately reveals the absurdity, the incomprehensibility of death.  If the news anchors and well-meaning friends and even the survivor herself cannot help mocking (however unconsciously) the traditional pageantry of grief, is it not because those trappings and gestures are themselves bankrupt and have no hope of approaching (let alone containing) the experience of death.  Why not be absurd and superficial in the face of the incomprehensible?  Surely, this response is as valid as any Puritanical funeral rite.

 The families and friends of addicts often wonder why the threat of death—even one that seems quite imminent—is not enough to dissuade us from getting help, “cleaning up our acts,” or otherwise “quitting.”  I remember feeling that way about my father, when he was swaying in the slow, suicidal tango of his own alcoholism.  But this was because I clung mystically to a potent, tragic eschatology that says death is absolute and knowable.  In my own addiction, I had to learn that, because it is absolute, death is unknowable, and the unknowable is always absurd, and even comic.  It is always the cartoon monster, always Wile E. Coyote groaning under the endlessly repeated rock.  It’s the zither and the xylophone, not Mozart’s Requiem.

It was life that was frightening—the known, terrible grinding of that worse-than-soap-operatic script.

In recovery, we move back from that ultimate vanishing point, death.  More accurately, we take our eyes from it.  We begin to take in the rest of the scenery.  And when we do, returning to the land of the “living,” we are graced again with the ability to take death seriously, because we can see it as the antithesis of life, the end to the fantastic mummery in which we’ve finally begun to take part.  It’s a strange amnesia, and a bargain too.  The price of life is merely the repression of death’s incomprehensibility.  That’s not so bad.  It’s why we grin at Dickinson’s paradox, “Because I could not stop for Death/ He kindly stopped for me.”  There is no “place” in which both of these things could be simultaneously true.  And most of us don’t think too hard about that.

Those who croak too loudly about death—who use it as the scourge to whip the unrecovered toward the light—remind me of Coleridge’s mariner, creepily grabbing the wedding guest’s arm, resolved to inflict his allegory on the unsuspecting.  I have the vivid memory of my students’ dull, unmoved expressions to know how delighted most people are to hear this story.  Death—incomprehensible and absurd, as we have come to know it in our addiction—is no deterrent FROM addiction.  And now that I have ceased to live with my eye on that dark horizon, I can no longer speak of it with any intimacy.  But to pretend to is worse, much worse, because it gives the lie that death can be known and experienced.  The ancient mariner is terrifying because we can all become that:  pathetic preachers who sell only the fear of death.

Much better, it seems to me, to admit that we cannot return and do not wish to return to that space.  For me, it was not a delusion.  I believe I may have come very close to understanding death as that which is utterly incommensurate during those awful days.  It does not follow that that knowledge is edifying or valuable.  The truth doesn’t always set you free.

At the beginning of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, “A watchman, either drunk or too bundled up because of the freezing cold, had not heard a train being shunted and had been run over”  (64) as Anna departs the same train, having just met Alexei Vronsky, the man who would later become her lover.  Anna is not overcome by the violence of the man’s death in its own right, but shudders and is near tears because in her heart she recognizes the event as “‘A bad omen'” (65).  I hope I’m not delivering a spoiler when I point out that Anna will throw herself under a train, having ruined her life and crushed her spirit by allowing herself to live as an adulteress with a shallow man who cannot return her passion and commitment fully.

The man’s death was not a dream, but    (more…)