When we ponder death, we console ourselves with the knowledge that we weren’t around 40, 50, 80 years prior and were not then troubled by that prevailing oblivion. Why, then, should future oblivion bedevil us? The poet Philip Larkin, among others, wrote that this is but comfort as cold as winter stars, or Philip Larkin’s own corpse. The alternative is to worship your jurisdictional god, but that requires time, effort, and full abandonment of our basest solaces. The profundities fail as reliably as the inherited certainties do.
So how should one steel oneself for the yawning black crevasse that approaches? It says here that one should declare, anoint, and then bury the past self — the self that did not exist those 40, 50, 80 years ago. What is your essence, you must first ask? What is your name? Where does that name place you? Where in the past does your marrow insist you belong? Those are the guideposts to finding your place in the yawning black crevasse behind you. In this way we make the oblivion more familiar, more manageable — at least until we realize much too late, beyond those liminal reaches, that the oblivion ahead is distinctly more dread and fell than the one behind. And so you must practice your old death that never was.
By way of instructional example, moundsman Max Scherzer, because he is named “Max Scherzer,” would perhaps direct his lamentations of self toward the North Side of Chicago of the 1920s, when someone with a name like “Max Scherzer” and a will that crackles and sizzles like a beetle fallen into the stove fire would’ve died, possibly of a now-curable disease of despair, after clawing his way about the world as a second-generation German immigrant.
Discern and commit to soil the old self, the self you never were but that hails from where you belonged in your prehistory, by candle-lighting or solemn chant or unsanctioned religious service or the issuance of an oral tradition that your children will neglect. In the case of Max Scherzer, second-generation German immigrant who succumbed to the nearest available malady in 1926, it is a poem:
The hymn begets the threnody,
The dread of which begets the next hymn.
So we never stop singing, praying
Over the body, the library of waters,
For whom this Mass is offered.
Cavanaugh one week, Jaeger the next,
Then Boyle, then a Meyer. Settlers’ names.
Max Scherzer today.
They are not meat cutters, hustling ward heelers,
Lake Michigan stevedores with hands mottled by defeat.
Yet they remembered those who remembered
Stories about turnip farming with the Forty-Eighters,
Being loved and beaten by wagon-makers who hoisted
Granddaughters and lidded steins on seventh days
In the old Nord-Seite and rang briny spittoons
At the mention of Levi Boone;
Some of the old gone ones had mustered
Among the County Donegal Irish
At Missionary Ridge, praying to clamber
Out of the squalls of bone and powder charges,
Smoke as black as leather Bibles, and eke out
Marriages and tenement births and time
Their folk dances to the factory’s pneumatic rasps
Caroming in their skulls from dawn to drink.
The remembering of the remembering
Dies like any other animal —
February’s chill, a falling truss, a careful disease
Renders it down into something worth nothing
More than our prayers.
Rest as you may, Max Scherzer of Chicago.
Give, devise, and bequeath your property of scars.
Speak of the devil, he shall say upon meeting God.