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01/18/2011 08:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

The Writer's Job: Aggravate The Fear Of Death

In his eulogy for Christina Taylor Green, one of the victims of the Tucson shooting spree, President Obama said, "If there are rain puddles in heaven, Christina is jumping in them today." However, for many of us in the post-transcendent twenty-first century, death is not a passageway to eternity but a brute biological fact. We're done. It's over. All the gods have gone to sleep or are simply moribund. We're a bag of bones. All the myths are empty. The only bravery consists of diving into the wreck, dancing/grieving in the abyss.

As baby-boomers enter their/our senescence, we're all looking for companionship in the dark. Michael Billington, reviewing Simon Gray's Close of Play in the Guardian, wrote, "To embody death convincingly on the stage is one of the hardest things for a dramatist to do: Mr. Gray has here managed it in a way that, paradoxically, makes life itself that much more bearable."

Greg Bottoms: "When things go wrong, when Nietzsche's breath of empty space moves over your skin, reminds you that you are but a blip in the existence of the world, destined from birth to vanish with all the things and people you love, to mulch the land with no more magic than the rotting carcass of a bird, it's nice to imagine--" Imagine what, exactly?

Some people might find it utter anathema even to consider articulating an answer to Bottoms's question, but if, as Rembrandt said, "Painting is philosophy," then certainly writing is philosophy as well. Isn't everyone's project, on some level, to offer tentative theses regarding what--if anything--we're doing here?

Against death, in other words, what solace, what consolation, what bulwark? Tolstoy: "The meaning of life is life"--for which much thanks. Ice-T's answer: "A human being is just another animal in the big jungle. Life is really short and you're going to die. We're here to stick our heads above the water for just a minute, look around, and go back under." Samuel Beckett's much-rubbed articulation: "I can't go on. I'll go on." Okay, you're going to go on, I hope and assume. Congratulations. Why, though? What carries you through the day, not to mention the night? Beckett's own answer: he liked to read Dante, watch soccer, and fart.

As a 9-year-old, I would awake, shivering, and spend the entire night sitting cross-legged on the landing of the stairs to my basement bedroom, unable to fathom that one day I'd cease to be. I remember being mesmerized by a neighbor's tattoo of a death's head, underneath which were the words, "As I am, you shall someday be." Cormac McCarthy: "Death is the major issue in the world. For you, for me, for all of us. It just is. Not to be able to talk about it is very odd." I'm trying to to do a very un-American thing here: talk about it. Why? Pynchon: "When we speak of 'seriousness,' ultimately we are talking about an attitude toward death, how we act in its presence, for example, or how we handle it when it isn't so immediate." Wallace: "You don't have to think very hard to realize that our dread of both relationships and loneliness, both of which are sub-dreads of our dread of being trapped inside a self (a psychic self, not just a physical self), has to do with angst about death, the recognition that I'm going to die, and die very much alone, and the rest of the world is going to go merrily on without me. I'm not sure I could give you a steeple-fingered theoretical justification, but I strongly suspect a big part of a writer's job is to aggravate this sense of entrapment and loneliness and death in people, to move people to countenance it, since any possible human redemption requires us first to face what's dreadful, what we want to deny." I like books that overtly worry this question.

E.g., Geoff Dyer's Out of Sheer Rage. This may sound unpromising: Dyer tries and fails to write a biography of D.H. Lawrence, but the book conveys Lawrence better than any conventional biography, and more importantly, it asks the question: how and why do we get up in the morning? In many ways, it's a thinking person's self-help book: how to live your life with passion when you know every passion is delusional, is drained of meaning. Dyer can't commit to place, to relationship, to art, because he can always see the opposite position. Dyer's conclusion: "The best we can do is try to make some progress with our studies of D.H. Lawrence." By getting up in the morning, we get up in the morning. By not writing our biographies of D.H. Lawrence, we write our biographies of D.H. Lawrence.

Chapter by chapter, Coetzee's Elizabeth Costello takes a commitment (politics, sex, love, art, animal rights) that Coetzee, in previous books, had once affirmed and now undermines. The "novel" is a series of lectures that Coetzee actually gave, but in the book it's a fictional character named Elizabeth Costello who gives the lectures. Elizabeth Costello hovers between fiction and nonfiction, as for me, so many of the most exciting books do. By the end of the book, the only thing Coetzee can affirm, the only thing Costello affirms, is the belling of frogs emerging from mud: the animal life of sheer survival. I love how joyous and despairing that is: it's affirmation, but along a very narrow ledge. My favorite books are candid beyond candid, and they proceed frorm this assumption: We'll all be dead in 100 years. Here, now, in this book, I'm going to cut to the absolute bone.

David Markson's "This Is Not a Novel" is a book built almost entirely out of other writers' lines (some attributed, many not). One of the pleasures of reading the book is recognizing so many of the passages. A bibliophile's wet dream, but it's no mere collection of quotes. It's a sustained meditation on this single question: against death, what consolation if any is art? Against the dark night of death, what solace is it that we still read Sophocles? For Sophocles, Markson implies, not a lot, but for us, maybe a little. Markson constantly toggles back and forth between affirming the timelessness of art and mocking such grandiosity. Even for readers who don't recognize the quotations, the book will prove provocative, because it forces you to ask yourself: what do you push back with?

David Shields is the co-editor, with Bradford Morrow, of "The Inevitable: Contemporary Writers Confront Death" (forthcoming in February from W.W. Norton).