“All Pleasures Should Be Tainted By That Knowledge”

abraham-lincoln-294215
Pixabay

Trap. Horrible trap. At one’s birth it is sprung. Some last day must arrive. When you will need to get out of this body. Bad enough. Then we bring a baby here. The terms of the trap are compounded. That baby also must part. All pleasures should be tainted by that knowledge. But hopeful dear us, we forget.

Lord, what is this? All of this walking about, trying, smiling, bowing, joking? This sitting-down-at-table, pressing-of-shirts, tying-of-ties, shining-of-shoes, planning-of-trips, singing-of-songs-in-the-bath? When he is to be left out here?

Is a person to nod, dance, reason, walk, discuss? As before?

–Internal monologue of Abraham Lincoln as he cradled his dead son, imagined in the novel Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

 

It was 22 years ago, days after the birth of my own son, after the joy and relief of an uncomplicated delivery, after the tide of friends and relatives had receded and we three were quietly home, as I swayed him to sleep in a darkened room, feeling his warm breath on my neck, that I was struck hard by a version of this idea: At birth the trap is sprung. Some last day must arrive. 

Not that I ever thought we were bringing immortals into the world. But at that moment it framed itself in brutal, truncated form: when you strip life to its barest outlines, we had brought him into the world to die.

I scrambled back from that cliff’s edge, though never so far back that I couldn’t see it.

Neither Saunders’s phrasing nor mine comes close to the hideous limit. In Waiting for Godot, Pozzo condenses life to one unforgettable metaphor: “They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.”

Pull in close and there is texture to the gleam: the pressing-of-shirts, the singing-of-songs-in-the-bath. But I’ve never had trouble understanding the religious impulse to run screaming from mortality — not just from Pozzo’s vision of a mother firing her newborn straight into the ground, with only the details of “an instant” to quibble about, but even from the slow-motion, soft-focus director’s cut we sometimes achieve while walking about, smiling, joking.

My son’s breathing deepened, and I laid him down.

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