DEATH

 1

I am at Zocalo. It’s noon. There’s a round table full of mothers and children in front of me; all blond, all happy. I look at a kid sitting in a stroller. He is calm and quiet, doing nothing, grabbing his foot, sucking his thumb, looking at the wall… What is he thinking? I then remember the intuitions I had as a child, intuitions of an adult Pau traveling alone along the West Coast, as I’m doing now. An ideal of adventure and nomadism, of freedom. But I also realize that I didn’t have any more intuitions after that, which makes me think that I may just go back home, and lead a normal life till the end of my days.

But then I let my neuroticism take over, and also think that maybe the reason why I didn’t have any more intuitions is because I’m scheduled to die soon… Ah, death… I have never been afraid of it though. I’ve never seen it close either (at least sober). Death… What if I’m bound to die during this journey? Away from home, alone… Now I start to get a glimpse of the ever-menacing abyss. It has always been there, that deep blue yonder. As a kid, when I went diving, I used to look at the infinite depth of the sea with the utmost respect. It attracted and frightened me at the same time. My biggest fear was the moment when a shark would come out of the blue with the jaws wide open, take me to the profundities, and devour my defenceless body.

A sudden death in the sea was, according to the Ancient Greeks, the worst kind of death. However, that’s a type of death that I kind of like. I always had the impression that if I thought about death I might become more aware of life, and perhaps a slightly more afraid of its end, but it looks like the opposite has happened. Long ago I accepted that any moment could become the final fusion, when all men are equalized… and I don’t mind.

2

My friend Malia, the wonder girl, takes me on a trip to Napa Valley. We stop at different wineries where I’ll get progressively drunk and drunker. Spring is in its height, everything in bloom. The abundant California poppy overpopulates the sides of the road. It is illegal to pick them, they are protected by a state law. Malia knows the law; she just passed her Bar exam. She can be an attorney now. I always feel protected around her.

The poppies, so fragile and ephemeral, remind me of the contradiction between birth and death. There is also the unavoidable reminiscence of sex… We are born to flourish, spread our seed, and wither.

As I dialogue with Stag’s Leap wine, Dionysus comes to mind reminding me about Elaphebolion and the tragic festivities in Athens, which were held in spring to celebrate the rebirth of nature. The never-ending cycle of life and death; an inconvenient truth to touch upon every now and then, so we don’t forget that we are actually bound to die.

3

Jeannette wants me to see a show at the Mission district, the place where things are happening in San Francisco. The event is taking place at the basement of a vintage shop. There’s about a hundred people in an overcrowded room. The show is called: “You are going to die”. It is a celebration of the fear of death, an open space where anybody can perform in front of the audience and do whatever crosses their mind. Since we are all going to die anyway, who cares about ridicule?

I go down the stairs and get a beer. Jeannette informs me that I’m up in about 15 minutes; that she reserved me a slot for ridicule… I finish my beer in five seconds and order another one. What the hell are you going to do up there? The guy who is performing at the moment is actually pretty good. He is gently narrating how he became addicted to bondage and domination with his guitar, and he’s really funny.

I automatically turn to my Iphone for help (which is pretty sad). I randomly find a poem by the illustrious Catalan poet Joan Maragall, and decide to read it out loud. Nobody will understand it anyway, they may even think it’s really deep stuff… So I step up the stage and start by saying that I’m from Barcelona (although I’m from l’Escala) and that I’ve never been afraid of death. I say that the epicureans were never afraid of death, because when she is there, you are not… Then I close my stuttered speech by stating that the best way of facing death is through poetry and metaphor, so here we go:

 

L’ÀNIMA DE LES FLORS

 

Aquelles dues flors que hi ha posades

al mig del caminal,

¿qui és que les hi deu haver llençades?

Qui sia, tant se val.

 

Aquelles dues flors no estan pas tristes,

no, no: riuen al sol.

M’han encantat així que les he vistes

posades a morir, mes sense dol.

 

«Morirem aviat, lluny de la planta»,

elles deuen pensar;

«més ara nostre brill al poeta encanta,

i això mai morirà»[1].

 

4

I have two screenings lined up. The first one is a movie called The Fourth Dimension, and it has a Q&A with its directors at the end. While I’m waiting for them to show up, I overhear the girl sitting by my side say: “When I’m in a theater everything disappears, I forget about the world and it’s only my face and the screen”. But I don’t even have the time to think about that because Harmony Korine suddenly jumps on the stage of the Kabuki Theater and gets the full attention of the crowd. This guy is electric. Among other things, he is the writer of Kids, a movie that traumatized a whole generation. There are other directors and producers on the stage, even Val Kilmer is there, but all the attention goes to the little Korine, who can’t stop moving around the stage. He was born in Bolinas, the idyllic fisherman’s town two hours north of San Francisco, and everybody seems to love him. The whole Q & A is a confusing cacophony in which everybody tries to have its own a say. But at the end, only one sentence stands out: “You got balls son”. That is what Sol Korine tells his son Harmony every time he singlehandedly pulls out a crazy project. Val Kilmer absolutely loves it. “You got balls, son!” he repeats out loud. “You got balls!”.

The second screening is a documentary about Diana Vreeland, a revered fashion editor that revolutionized the world as the director of Vogue. Her granddaughter in law, following the example of films like Valentio or The October Issue, decided to produce this documentary: The Eye Must Travel. That’s what Vreeland used to always emphasize about fashion editing. Since English wasn’t her first language, she learned to speak in witty sententious phrases, acting like an oracle with Dali-like manners. She had no formal education, only dance school, thus rhythm was for her the most important aspect in fashion editing… That is what separates men from kids: Rhythm.

Diana Vreeland created her own worlds of fantasy; she pictured reality as it ought to be. When asked whether Lindbergh flying over her house on his way to Paris was fact or fiction, she answered: it was ‘faction’. We have to create our own realities, places where we feel comfortable, entitled to play.

When she was a little girl, Diana’s mother told her that she was ugly. She wasn’t pretty, indeed, but that little girl knew somewhere inside of her that she had to stand out at any price. In fact, Ms. Vreeland always told her kids that they had to either be first in class, or last, but never in between… I can’t help thinking about the young Dalí running out of class and hitting a wall in the playground of his school. When the teacher asked him for the reason behind that senseless act, he answered: “nobody was paying attention to me!”. When he was older, a journalist inquired him about his position in front of the critics… “It’s important to be talked about” he asserted, “even if is well”. We all want to be protagonists; nobody is really comfortable being a supporting actor. Dalí, who dug very deep in his unconscious and played risky games with the paranoico-critic method also declared: “Picasso is a painter. Me too. Picasso is a Spaniard. Me too. Picasso is a communist. Me neither”. He knew too well that we are all more ambiguous than we want to admit, and he fully embraced this reality.

Artists like Dalí have their work (even though he said that his paintings were only a small part of his personality), but people like Diana Vreeland basically have their life, and documentaries must be made in order to preserve their tireless Θαύμαντος, their spirit of wonder, their way of looking at the world like a child. “I shall die young” she predicted, “I may be 70, 80 or, 90, but I will still be young”. An Egyptian priest once told the Athenian poet Solon that: “You Greeks are all children, and there is no such thing as an old Greek. … You are all young in mind”. Like most interesting people, the Greeks were constantly amazed by reality.

5

I go to a synagogue. It’s a funeral. The ‘Solomon Temple’ holds a ceremony for one of the most illustrious citizens of San Francisco: Stan’s father. I go there because Stan is a friend of the family, and also because I’ve always been curious about the Jewish tradition. The rabbi starts with a few words that serve as Oratio Funebris: “Birth is a beginning, and death is a destination. And life is a journey: From childhood to maturity, and youth to age; from innocence to knowing; from foolishness to discretion, and then, perhaps, to wisdom; from weakness to strength, or strength to weakness – and, often, back again; from health to sickness, and back, we hope, to health again … From defeat to defeat – Until, looking backward or ahead, we see that victory lies not at some high place along the way, but in having made the journey, stage by stage …”. That’s a kind of wisdom that can only be held by a 3000 years old religion. “The world is, has been, and will always be”, as Milio used to say. We are condemned to death since the moment we are born, life is a comedy in a tragic framework.

I read the Torah. Genesis. Day 6. The Lord created man in his image, and liked it. He liked his creation so much that he set mankind to populate the earth and rule over the animals. When I consider the possibility of the existence of such God, I often think that maybe Pangloss was right, that maybe this world really is the best possible, and maybe all the pains and sufferings we are exposed to every day are actually a necessary evil that allows us to value everything else…

By the end of the ceremony everybody meets outside, generic conversations pop up, and in one of them I’m kindly introduced as a “starving writer and filmmaker”. While I mingle with the family and friends of the deceased, I meet other kids my age that studied law, medicine, just graduated form Harvard… and then ask myself, once again, what the fuck am I doing with my life? By now, I start to accept that I have officially become a loser. I have no idea of how I will ever be able to make a living with what I aspire to do. I’ve chosen the hard path, the less traveled by… maybe the wrong one… then I think about the words the rabbi just pronounced, that there’s only one life etcetera… and I’m wasting it trying to write this kind of stuff, filling the world with ellipses…

I then try to convince myself that the path I’ve chosen is the only one that fulfills me, the only authentic, the real one… But remember: “starving”. In the Rethorics Aristotle says that “young people have exalted notions because they have not yet been humbled by life or learnt its necessary limitations”. And not only that, their hopeful disposition also makes them think they’ll do great things in life… until they reach a moment like the one I’m in right now.

Regarding old people, Aristotle says that, even though they love life, they see that “on the whole, it is a bad business”, so they become “cynical and small-minded, because they have been humbled by life”. They lack confidence in the future “partly because of their experience, for most things go wrong, and partly because of their cowardice”. I shall die young.

6

At the reception, surrounded by all sorts of delicate food and drinks, I can’t stop thinking about how impossible such  situation would be in my good-old Europe. Celebrate death? I actually think it’s a much better idea than just mourning and dressing in black… But I can’t think too much because I haven’t eaten anything yet, and I’m suffering through a remarkable hangover. I decide to do the snake technique, which I have already done multiple times in the past and progressively mastered to perfection. I eat like a maniac and when I reach a point when I can barely breathe anymore, I just lay down and have a pantagruelic nap.

Sprawled on the couch, pregnant, I look at the wall and see a painting that automatically reminds me of a walk I took in Ocean Beach, years ago, with Stan and Michael. Swallowed by a proustian spiral, my thoughts go right back to that conversation, in which Stan mentioned a painting representing a person floating in a swimming pool he had just put in his living room. That was the very same painting my eyes are seeing right now. In my dreamy state of mind, levitating like the person on the painting, I wonder if that’s how death feels like; a dreamy state of eternal floatyness, integral suspension and undifferentiation. I’ve always derived an intense pleasure from floating in the sea with my arms wide open, as if I were dead.

7

– I’m bored, I think I’m going to create some humans.

– Why don’t you make them mortals? It would make them much more fun to watch…

– That’s actually a great idea! Is there anything more wicked?

8

According to his mom, Edward was a sweet child until one day he became bitter. That was the day he came to know about death. “What? But does this end? Deal me out…” he said. That little kid was Woody Allen.

9

As part of my job as a consultant for the Palo Alto Institute, I edit a few Evoultive Medicine talks that took place at Stanford University. In one of them, a speaker paradoxically talks about death as an adaptive mechanism of life. An irony of Mother Nature’s selection of the fittest. The starfishes, for instance, don’t die, they just divide and move on… and other primitive organisms do the same… But between a successfully reproductive individual with a short life, and a long living useless one, life will always select an early death. It doesn’t matter how many individuals it has to sacrifice to prolongue the species, anything that will perpetuate LIFE is welcome. It is obvious that life is not mend for us to enjoy it, it’s just there by itself, and that’s the beauty of it… it is completely gratuitous, undeserved and unrequired. Life is a gift without sender.

Such idea hits me in the head. Seeing death as an oximoronic mechanism of life makes me face it with a new serenity. There’s no death, there’s just regeneration. There’s no indivuality either, even though we may have the illusion of it. Everything is part of the same process… Death, the last refuge, the most intimate and personal cavity of life, is now reduced to mere functionality.

10

The Dalai Lama says that the most pain is experienced by people who start their sentences with ‘I’. Death is an insurmountable abyss the sight of which confers relief to life and fills it with existential magnitude, but it can only be contemplated alone.

11

Meredith wants to go to Yosemite. I want to go too. I have a car, but I don’t like driving. She doesn’t have a vehicle, but likes to drive… Agreement! On Saturday we wake up early and spend four hours on the same amount of wheels until we reach the Natural Park. In Yosemite nature manifests with all its splendor, as a showcase where it can exhibit waterfalls, giant trees, mastodontic rocks, rivers, bears, deer, etc. In such place, one feels in harmony with nature, and has the misguided impression that the world might have been created for us.

But as I’ve recently read in Houellebecq: “nature doesn’t really give a shit about us”. Or as McKee would put it, less laconic, more ironic: “nature created us because she wanted plastic… and now that she’s all fancy with plastic all over the place, she doesn’t care about us anymore”. The Bridalveil Waterfalls make you think of life as a drop of water that travels alone for a while only to meet with the vast ocean and become undifferentiated again. The colossal proportions of the fall symbolize the constant renewal of life, always flowing, just being per se, and not giving a shit about us, the ephemeral individuals that grant its continuity.

 


[1] Those two flowers laying / in the middle of the path, / who threw them there? / it doesn’t matter / those two flowers are not sad / no, no: they smile at the sun. / I loved them the moment I saw them / put there to die, but without mourn. / “We’ll die soon, far from our plant” / they may think; / “but now our brilliance is captivating the poet, / and that will never die”.

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