Tuesday, August 4, 2009

At Death's Door with Sandra Gilbert

I'm reading Sandra Gilbert's Death's Door: Modern Dying and the Ways We Grieve and it's helping me articulate something of what I experienced intensely through/at Pater's vasovagal episodes (fainting) last week. She uses Georges Batailles term, "disintoxication," which she summarizes as "a brief awakening from the 'projects' of love and work that function, thought Bataille, like 'narcotics' to help us repress the consciousness of our own mortality. On these occasions, [Gilbert explains,] the fearful knowledge that we're usually (and rightly) good at evading erupts into our dailiness as death's door swings so . . . dramatically open that we can't look away" (xvii). Yes, indeed. Dailiness one minute. Dinner. Wine. Putting the grandchild to bed. Watching TV. Then the eruption as death's door compels me to peer inside . . .

A bit later, speaking of her own precipitous move through that door at her husband's sudden death, she speaks of how she and her daughters found themselves "star[ing] at the silent stone version of himself that he had become, in a space that was bleakly filled by corporeal substance. This death that had suddenly, gigantically, opened around us . . . . forced me, horrifyingly, to confront the metamorphosis of a body I had loved into a dead thing that now appeared to be the substance of fate itself" (5-6).

She speaks of the way her husband "wasn't there, but he was there. And his thereness, his presence at the center of massive absence, was what made death plausible, what flung it open like a door into an all too easily accessible space. . . into which it would be frighteningly simple to step" (6).

Gilbert is describing the mourner's temptation, no, compulsion is perhaps a better term, to follow the loved one into that space. I have not yet tested the truth of that perception although I am quite convinced by Gilbert (never mind by Freud's foundational essay, "On Mourning and Melancholia" as well as countless elegists and psychoanalysts and theorists throughout history). But what resonates with me is the image of my own husband's body, stilled, signifying death at least as much as it pointed to life. I am almost back now to the place where I can say, intellectually, "yes, of course, we are always only one incident away from death" while nonetheless being inured from that common-sense "knowledge." But for the moments I tried to pat him awake, urge him back, all while trying to call for help, I lived in a place where his death was the reality it has always already been. Several times a day, but each day with less frequency, thank God, I gasp out loud again at the intruding image of his body falling straight through space to the floor, to the grey pallor and sightless eyes of the corpse he one day will be. Disintoxification indeed. I need a drink, a narcotic, a drugged pretense, something to keep me from knowing what I know . . . what I never truly knew until last week, a knowledge I will soon, I hope, begin to forget, for now . .

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