“[Bilbo] used often to say there was only one Road; and that it was like a great river: its springs were at every doorstep, and every path was its tributary. ‘It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door,’ he used to say. ‘You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.’” — J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring
No one, not even the healthiest person, is immune to the vicissitudes of life and death. Or, as the T-shirt says, “Eat right. Stay fit. Die anyway.” There’s always the runaway bus, the surprising terminal illness, the stray bullet, the jet engine falling through the roof, the unanticipated venomous snake, the sudden vertigo on the bridge, perhaps even the rational consideration that you should go out while you can still pronounce your own name.
We laugh at the absurdity of such things—what are the chances!—until the Road sweeps us off our feet. And we learn firsthand how all attempts to insulate ourselves against death are futile, given that death is an indispensable complement to life. Get one, you get the other, and no amount of wheat germ and sit-ups will save you.
How will you die? Do you ever seriously ask yourself that question? Or do you, with such middle-class arrogance as to tempt a corrective bolt from the heavens, ask, How do I want to die? As if it will ever truly be in your power to decide. We immediately think of suicide as the supposedly ultimate act of self-control over life. But is it? When Hunter S. Thompson blew his brains out because he could no longer write, was in great physical pain from an experimental surgery, and was depressed, what actually killed him?
If those things had not been operative in his life, would he have pulled the trigger? If my high school friend, Michael G., hadn’t been angry at his philandering plastic surgeon father, would Michael have dropped a ton of acid and fried himself on some power lines? We’ll never get a chance to find out. But we all ask questions like this about somebody we used to know. Are their suicides really voluntary acts or did the gods just decide, in their boredom and perfection, to flip the switch this time?
Is Putin executing families on the streets of Bucha or are there deep historical and psychological forces working through him and the war criminals under him, like primordial daemons written into human DNA, like the Balrog awakened when the dwarves delved too greedily and too deep? Can one man understand anything, do anything, by himself, of himself, without the proper aesthetic, sonic, kinetic, temporal, and existential keys being invoked? Do you seriously think you have a valid answer to this?
Answerless, I’ve been asking impossible questions. I’ve been thinking about the protean nature of death, pointless literary conceits, stupid war, initiatory dread, insufferable hubris, prescient science fiction, and the Lovecraftian titans shaping our world, which we commonly name deregulation, tribalism, debt, pandemic, climate change, populism, structural violence, siloed thinking, and imperialism—all alive and well in various daemonic and mundane forms, visible and invisible, physical and metaphysical, and actively determining our lives this very minute. As a result, I’ve been, understandably, a bit more gloomy and mordent than usual. (Ah, c’est la vie. It’s my blog and I can cry if I want to.)
But it’s an interesting conundrum, choosing to presume that one has or can someday have control over one’s life up against the Old Gods, Lovecraft’s very alien titans from beyond the pale. We’re inclined to cite the aforesaid “corrective bolt” and call it fate, but it seems a bit ill-advised to anthropomorphize what we don’t understand, which evidently includes most things in life. British art-scene tantric, Phil Hine, puts it like this in his Pseudonomicon:
The Cthulhu Mythos displays a recurrent mythic theme; that the “titanic” forces of creation and destruction—the Great Old Ones—have been cast forth from the earth and “forgotten” by civilised humanity and its narrow, materialistic vision. However, whilst they may be forgotten, they are at the same time ever-present, lurking at the frontiers of order, in places where the wild power of nature can be felt. They are chaotic, in the same way that Nature is chaotic, and they retain their primal power since they cannot be “explained” (i.e. bound) or anthropomorphized. They exist outside linear, sequential time, at the border of “Newton’s sleep.”
We can (and, to a certain extent, we must) impose a rational false consciousness on our perceived experiences to stave off insanity. But the world, as we’ve known from our earliest years, is not rational. And we suspect we’ve always been unfortunately (or fortunately) out of control. It seems like a cop-out at first but, the more I think about it, the more I come to believe that the whole point of this circus is to buy the ticket and take the ride, as Dr. Thompson famously said—to bear witness to how the alien machinery of life does its work.
The non-linear, non-sequential, non-Euclidean, inhuman angles underlying our reassuringly tidy Potemkin assumptions seem fairly determinative if we can only catch a glimpse of them in the Malthusian depredations of capitalism or in the eyes of a dying loved one. Maybe we don’t need to get better, get clean, get saved, and get ourselves together, since we’re always-already coming apart. Instead, as Luc Sante’s anonymous speaker pleads at the end of “The Unknown Soldier,” maybe we need to think of ourselves as verbs, not nouns:
[G]ive my eyes to the eye bank, give my blood to the blood bank. Make my hair into switches, put my teeth into rattles, sell my heart to the junkman. Give my spleen to the mayor. Hook my lungs to an engine. Stretch my guts down the avenue. Stick my head on a pike, plug my spine to the third rail, throw my liver and lights to the winner. Grind my nails up with sage and camphor and sell it under the counter. Set my hands in the window as a reminder. Take my name from me and make it a verb. Think of me when you run out of money. Remember me when you fall on the sidewalk. Mention me when they ask you what happened. I am everywhere under your feet.