[Originally written for the September 18th 2012 edition of Write Club, where I soliloquized on “Finish” against Ian Belknap’s “Start.” Mine was the moral victory. In any case, a fitting post for Easter.]
When I was a child of 11 or 12 I was given, by my parents, the soundtrack of Jesus Christ Superstar for Christmas. Even though I had already decided by this young age that there was no god or heaven, I was still obsessed by one particular section, very near the end: Jesus is moaning on the cross, his senses bewildered by all sorts of buzzes and cackles and demonic chanting, until finally he says “It is finished. Father, into your hands, I commend my spirit.” And there the track abruptly ended, buzzes and cackles and all. In the sudden silence it felt a little as though the whole world had ended. I was fascinated and terrified by the magical finality of this ending. He said those words, and then ceased to be. I would lie awake at night convinced that if I too were to utter those same words, then I too would cease to be. My non-existent soul would be claimed by this non-existent Father, just as non-existent Jesus’s was. I was even a little afraid I might say the words by accident. In hindsight, it was probably a bit of wish fulfillment, as most fears are.
When we talk about being finished, we’re talking about being dead. Or not being dead, rather—you can’t actually be dead; to be dead is to not be. There is no aspect or quality of “being” called deadness. You can’t exist in a deadish fashion, deadily. Our grammar just breaks down if we try. We can’t even say that “so and so died.” Dying isn’t something that you can do, because, it’s the end of “you.” By the time you get to the end of the sentence the subject is already gone. You start out with an Abbot and Costello routine—Who died? And you end up babbling like Vinny Barbarino: What… Where … I’m so confused!
We are compelled by language to think of death as just some new state of extreme inactivity. I’ll sleep when I’m dead, we say, when our death doesn’t actually seem so close. I will miss you, we say when it does. We just can’t get it through our dumb dying heads that there will be no I or we to sleep or miss or even to not sleep and not miss. We will be finished, except no we won’t because if you are, if you are being, then you are not finished. It’s called grammar. Just go ahead and try to argue with it.
Meanwhile, for every single thing except for us—except for you and me and everyone else that couldn’t be here today—we have this law of conservation of matter and energy, so that nothing ever ceases to be, it just turns into something else. For every single thing except for us, nothing is ever finished. The story of every single thing except for us can never end; there’s always something more to say, some story within a story. For a while it looked like the universe was ultimately headed toward a state of entropy or heat-death, but now we have these “multiverses”, an infinite number of worlds—each with its own conditions of suspended disbelief. And that makes even our heat death universe just a little bit more suspenseful. Because maybe we’re actually in the universe where everything crawls to a complete standstill for eons and eons, and then one day a bunch of balloons and crepe streamers fall from the sky celebrating our one trillionth millennium of the perfectly distributed stasis of all matter and energy. I mean you just can’t know.
Speaking of crepe streamers, I am reminded that roughly around the same time I was lying awake making sure not to accidently Commend My Spirit, I was attending an elementary school whose students carried on a tradition of flying crepe streamers out the window of the bus on the last day of school. Not the last day of school—there’s still such a thing as school, school still exists—but the last day of the school year. In all my life I have probably never participated so fully in a ritual as I did flying those streamers out the window of that school bus. To this day crepe streamers have a mystical quality to me, archetypal and primordial in their perfect, tightly coiled state of origin. The dry, rustle as we unfurled them out the window to catch the mild June afternoon breeze seemed to be an involuntary gasp of anticipatory joy, and for the entire bus ride home the streamers’ fluttering, like Tibetan prayer flags, seemed to liberate us from time and everyday reality. The whole bus, and all of us in it, had become a benevolent dragon from some Madeleine L’Engle book. School was over and what lay before us was the eternal forever of summer.
And then summer ended and school returned, and there were a few rituals for that too, new school clothes, new school books, new sharpened pencils for writing on clean white new school pages, we were starting over, being reborn, but not entirely convincingly. It nagged a little that what we had so triumphantly put behind us three months hence was back, unvanquished after all, undead, like that Jesus guy. School, like that Jesus guy, had something more to say, and it was good news only in the way that Brussels sprouts were good, or good manners were good, which is to say very, very bad.
Only we can ever really end, only you and me and everyone else that couldn’t be here today. Everything else just goes on, or turns into something else, is reminded of some new important thing to do or be or say, and it’s a fearsome thing, to be finished with something that’s not finished with you. This is what maybe was so memorable about that scene from Jesus Christ Superstar—the dude just winked out like a light. And it was really finished, except no it wasn’t! he came back, and did more stuff, and according to John of Patmos at least, he’s going to do even more stuff later. And we have to keep hearing about it. It is so manifestly not finished…
At this point Scheherezade lapsed into silence. Her sister Dunyazade said to her, “what an unusual and entertaining story, sister. If you are not too sleepy, will you tell us what became of this strange, unsatisfied man and his oratatory contest?” “With the greatest pleasure” said Scheherezade. “But this story is nothing compared to the one I will next relate: The tale of the three wise judges…”
Photos from our Brooklyn Show
9 months ago