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Brief Notes on Death and Writing

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Issue: 15 Section: Arts

February 25, 2004

Brief Notes on Death and Writing

by Matthew Trafford

I recently had the misfortune to watch a man die on the street.

One result of this experience is that I started thinking about Ernest Hemingway. In the early pages of Death in the Afternoon, his famous journalistic account of the bullfights in Spain, Hemingway explains why he wrote it: "I was trying to learn to write, commencing with the simplest things, and one of the simplest things of all, and the most fundamental, is violent death." I am also a young man, trying to learn to write, and it seems arrogant of me to refute the advice of one of the greatest writers of the 20th Century.

And yet refute it I must; I am culturally too far from Hemingway. I cannot agree with a man who calls death "one of the subjects a man may write of," nor do I find the death I witnessed - though violent - to be simple or fundamental. I saw it standing at the bus station in Kaunas, Lithuania, while traveling through the Baltics with friends and trying to work on my writing. Hemingway would request a simple and detached factual précis of what I saw, reminding me to be sure not to close my physical or mental eyes at the moment of death. I find, however, that I have a great deal of trouble believing in facts; my two friends and I, all standing in the same spot watching the same man die, each came away with different ideas about what had happened. Furthermore, I worry that writing about this man would be exploitation, usury, a reduction of him and his country to a sensational anecdote designed to get me a publishing credit.

The obvious alternative would be not to write about it at all, to stay silent. I cannot choose this; I find silence to be equally if not more despicable than exploitation and misrepresentation. Another choice would be to fictionalize the event: I could internalize my experience, alter it slightly, and produce a new story told in a stylized version of my own voice, not claiming truth or accuracy.

What stops me form this course is a biography of Sylvia Plath I recently read by Anne Stevenson.

Sylvia Plath wrote frequently about death, but the story I am particularly interested in is called The Fifty-ninth Bear. The story is about a young couple counting bears on a camping trip, and the fifty-ninth bear, which attacks their car and kills the husband when he tries to defend their belongings. What makes the story more interesting is that Plath had herself been on such a trip with her husband, had counted bears, and their car had been attacked. Only the death was fictional.

This story produced quite a reaction: her husband's "family and friends were shocked when it appeared," and the biographer seems to share their indictment when she says that Plath's "ambition to produce a publishable story or poem seemed to cancel any normal regard for people's sensibilities."

While not wishing to explicitly defend Sylvia Plath, I find myself guilty of the same crime. Some years ago my brother was in a car accident from which he was extremely lucky to have walked away unharmed. Partly as a way of coping, and partly from "ambition to produce a publishable story," I wrote a fiction piece about an elder sibling coping with the death of a younger brother killed in a car crash. Plath and I both used thinly veiled fiction to cope with a very real fear - the death of a loved one.

That writing fiction can help to process feelings and fears about the reality of death - even imagined death - does not seem a revolutionary concept. But reactions to Plath's story belie the fact that the reading public often views fiction to be secretly true, fact in code. The biography of an author trumps their words and carefully constructed fictions.

Interestingly enough, both writers are suicides - Hemingway shot himself and Plath asphyxiated in a gas oven. Suicide, I think, always qualifies as violent death. Because of my age, I have experienced the lives and the death of these writers only through the words of other authors, who are in turn trying to tell the "real" story, deepening the mise-en-abime. What then, is the true relationship between writing and death?

One simple answer may be this: since before Aristotle all stories required endings. As human beings - writers and readers both - we have trouble seeing any story about a person as 'over' until that person is dead. Endings without death, in fiction or in our own lives, are difficult.

The man I saw presents me with an ending but no beginning or middle, no context, no facts. I will leave the descriptions of gore to Hemingway, and fictional speculations (this time) to Plath. All I can comfortably write is this:

Mourn, if you will, an anonymous man I saw die on the street, an experience which moved and disturbed me. I brought flowers to the site the next day, as did my friends. As far as I know we were the only ones who did, and they were gone the next morning.

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The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.

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