Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Death in American Culture

on the eve of Samuell Beckett’s 100 years anniversary since his birth in Dublin on April 13, 1906

Any observer of American culture can come very quickly to the conclusion that something is wrong when the discussion turns to more a profound topic such as death. As a matter of fact many Americans seem to avoid death at all costs even though this has many reasons, among them even a humorous aspect to it. As shown in the short satirical novel ‘Loved One’ (1947) by Evelyn Waugh about the funeral business in Los Angeles...

...the British expatriate community in Hollywood, and the film industry, this can include everything from having a grave site being transformed into a Greek temple or else the deceased is launched into outer space by small rockets made available for such special purpose (as alternative to strewing the ashes into the sea from a ship gliding out of the harbor).

Another reason is, of course, a political one. President Bush and his administration has made sure the body count of the war in Iraq remains as much as possible ‘invisible’. These are lessons learned out of Viet Nam and how the many bodies returned in coffins with the American flag draped over them incited, so the reading of political analysts when preparing the ‘public diplomacy’ strategy to accompany the occupation in Iraq after March 2003, public opinion in the USA.

But when I received today from Norbert Blei, an artist and poet another one of his regular poetry dispatches, it made me ponder if ‘death’ can really be perceived as being something like a teacher who ensures that we appreciate life? The poem he forwarded, goes something like this:

Death is a friend


Barbara Larsen


who sits quietly watching us

as we share a cool drink on the deck

with neighbors on a late summer afternoon.

He listens as we gaze out over the water

while comfortable conversation laps over us

like small waves on the shore.

He's the old family acquaintance, always

present at weddings and birthday parties,

witness to our joy and happiness.

Always alone in the front row at our funerals.

He's the perpetual companion

who leans back and observes our love of music

and books and the pleasurable feeling

of bodies limber and alive.

A wise friend, he is

forever counseling us

to savor each day,

each moment.

[from ALL IN GOOD SEASON, Beach Road Press, 2005]


Let me approach the same topic from a somewhat different angle.

It was Andre Malraux who said that art cannot be understood, if one ignores the existence of death. Such a statement should be taken with a grain of salt; after all, Shakespeare pointed out that ‘cowards die many a death, a fool but once’.

There are many forms of deaths. Consequently people abort many possibilities to become creative themselves out of often groundless fears. Naturally there are many other forms of induced fears that make people ‘die’ while still alive. Deadly war zones have that in them with people no longer daring to go out into the streets.

Some time ago, when living at that time in Brussels, I came across one article in the weekend magazine ‘Culture’ of the TIMES (January 23, 2000). The author of the article pointed out something remarkable about Mark Twain who is so often praised as a courageous man, as one who opposed conventional societies with both wit and a sharp tongue. Quite contrary, the article pointed out that he was in reality an indecisive writer. This manifested itself above in all in him preferring much more the oral speech than writing things down. For it had become ‘his’ way to get around the censorship of his wife. By avoiding any written commitment, he made ‘public speech’ into a fugitive place of death in his life. Indeed, the censorship of his wife was so severe that all coarse speech which could cause embarrassment in society was taken out of his writings. In the end, it meant the death of many literary ideas, even before they could be written down and, therefore, never found unfortunately their way into literary history.

Out of a cultural heritage perspective it would mean finding another access to Mark Twain, if it would be possible to reconstruct that what he said but never wrote down out of fear of his wife. Consequently when seeking to understand any writer or poet, we should not rely solely on such popular notions as him having been a writer of defiance even though in the case of Mark Twain he is remembered for such sayings as ‘do everything your doctor tells you not to do’. Instead it would be advisable to imagine the never written books or the never finished manuscripts as a kind of complementary testimony of a man grown afraid of his wife. It would go a long way to explain 'unexplainable failings' to challenge social conventions of the times.

As if wishing to reverse that order, that same weekend Times magazine contained a second article. This one was about the amazing sustainability of a song written by McLean back in 1971 and made into the Millennium hymn by President Clinton when he faced the last year of his presidency, for that meant living then all alone in the White House since Hillary had moved out already. The song has such a strange and strong appeal because it reveals another notion of American culture being linked to not death but to a pie. This American song has a remarkable reflection of soberness and should really be listened to when reading its essential refrain:

So bye bye, Miss American Pie.

Drove My Chevy to the Levee,

But the Levee was dry

and them Good Old boys

Were Drinkin’ Whiskey And rye,

Singing ‘This’ll be the day that I die’

So the American Pie is what life is all about when looking back? The song repeats what everybody reckons with when his day has come. It is squaring up with life. It is not the square of childhood where everyone played but about facing the facts of a single determination: once you have to serve for your country, that is it! There is nothing beautiful about it. The last chance is just to get drunk. There is nothing more to be gained from such a life. Because it is straight forward, it lacks geometrical perfection. Rather the imperfect form offered to exist in such implies a world which is not perfect and therefore such a song and approach to life suits the imperfect feelings. Everyone gets them when many days go by without ever so much as hearing the whisper of the wind or the song of a bird, never mind the voice of a sweet heart.

The song continues in a melancholic mood as if going down sentimental lane. It is a place where not angels exist, and thus there no one to protect you to keep one out of trouble (and in innocence). Only once the old folks sober up as they get ready to depart from this earth, they discover a hidden smile can say a lot.

However, once the pie has become Miss America, the song lurches forward. Once that unusual phenomenon for American culture has been established, the notion of death is in midst of everything. American life, especially in the Mid West, appears to be cut and dry. It saps out of the surrounding landscape everything, and no one knows how many unusual beauties in the autumn there are but it never ceases to amaze when all the maple leaves turn into a symphony of colour. Then it is just like the song emphasizes, not just another, but ‘the’ day when people realize time does not stand still, for time goes by and already the summer has come to an end - once again. Instead of eating then something ‘healthy’, like a T-bone steak, the song becomes a counsellor and prepares just in case the American pie appears:

So if you fork up

Another melancholic dream

Think of the alcoholic

Talking to himself,

Imitating her lips

While he wonders why she would not

Kiss him. Is it just the imagination

Or the fear of life

That makes people stay inside,

Cold and shivering,

In empty halls no longer filled

With the laughter of children

Growing up old and wise?

In that sense the song is an alternative to death being a counsellor and tries to give some answers within this symmetry of love, loneliness and death. It reflects also the sad truth in case dreams risk going empty in the world of the American pie. As trust in life it means not staying inside and no longer hearing the laughter of children but to realize that they too grow up to be ‘old and wise’. No, only cowards are afraid of such repetitions in life. Reference to such wisdom based on the continuity of ‘normal life’ can be found in the person and poet Allen Ginsberg who was quoted as saying when dying on the phone to a friend 'I don’t mind. Do you need any money?’ Samuell Beckett takes this resistance to mean not being worried about one’s own meaningless existence for one should enjoy becoming a part of that earth which has carried one for an entire life without complaining. He wrote about his own death:

Oh, I know

I too shall cease and be as when I was not yet, only all over instead of in store. That makes me happy, often now my murmur falters and dies and I weep for happiness as I go along and for love of this old earth

that has carried me so long and whose uncomplainingness will soon be mine. Just under the surface I shall be, all together at first, then separate, and drift through all the earth and perhaps in the end through a cliff into the sea, something of me.

A ton of worms in an acre, that is a wonderful thought,

a ton of worms, I believe it.

Samuel Beckett, from an Abandoned Work

Certainly transcendence can be reached by way of practicality or as described in the American song by taking the Levee, but finding that the Levee was dry. Life as paradox means writing to relate it to what can and does inspire poetry. It goes beyond that kind of philosophy which Hegel wanted to cement into the minds as if a classical building but which heard no laughter of children for he made ‘death’ into ‘the unmoved mover’.

To return to that poem calling death a friend, it is still strange to consider death to be that or for that matter a teacher, a counsellor. This would be more in line with Hegel. By contrast, Samuell Beckett and others would say that death is not an event. Therefore, it cannot be categorized. So leave it to the next generation to resolve that question and let’s go on living. We can do so as long as we wish to enjoy some of the American pie here in Europe as in Iraq. This would mean we could hear the children laughing because their squares for playing are not being destroyed by those who go to war on the day that they know they will die.


Hatto Fischer


First published on heritageradio


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