Poking around in my attic this afternoon, I unearthed a notebook of assorted materials I had typed up or copied beginning in the late 1960s – fifty years ago! These apparently were longer pieces that wouldn’t comfortably fit onto the set of index cards that eventually became my Commonplace Book.
Among what was mostly poems written by various famous and obscure poets (some of which I will post later on), I ran across a copy I’d made of a chapter from A Mass for the Dead (Atheneum, 1968), an unusual memoir written by the award-winning playwright William Gibson.
I read this unforgettable book in 2001, after reading thuderous praise for it written by James Mustich, Jr., the editor of a monthly mail order book catalog called The Common Reader.
I was one of many thousands of Mustich’s fans, and for as long as he published The Common Reader – from 1986 to 2008 – we devoured every precious issue for its alarmingly persuasive descriptions of books Mustich felt were little-known and underappreciated. Via his Akadine Press, Mutisch republished some of the books he had rescued from obscurity, and I was so taken with the copy of A Mass for the Dead that I’d obtained from my branch library that I bought a copy of Mutish’s 1996 reprint.
I don’t remember exactly when or why I chose to copy Chapter 26 of Gibson’s book, but I’m certainly glad I did. Perhaps your reading of this single, short chapter will garner Gibson’s haunting memor another appreciative reader?
“A Gift of Suns”
Grace be unto you and peace, children, gentle readers, myself or whomever it concerns, for it is not altogether clear to me which of us I am addressing in this long meditation of that which was from the beginning, nor does it matter.
That I address others who will not read I know by recalling the week in which I pledged it. In a tiny bedroom of my sister’s house, where my mother lay dying and I sat with the gates of my soul so strangely open, I was leafing through a book of common prayer when a line stopped my eye – “I heard a voice from heaven saying unto me, Write, From henceforth blessed are the dead, for they rest from their labors” – and I thought indeed I would write, but no such lie, her labors were the fiber and sustenance of my mother’s life, and she took a dim view of rest. Some weeks later, n my workroom with her mementoes and missal, I saw this verse was in fact the epistle in the mass for the dead, and certainly it is to the dead also that I write, whom it no longer concerns.
Born, labored, died, and interred now in a perpetual rest of which they know nothing, why on earth should I write blessed are the dead? That the extinction we must come to is the bitterest fact of our existence is no news; after the first espial of death some terror of it is in every brain like a fretful grain of sand, and around it man has created many pearls of wisdom, mostly false; one is that consciousness is an affliction. I have been lucky as my kin were, average citizens in a plentiful land, and in my remembering of that which was from the beginning, which I have heard, which I have seen with my eyes, I cannot put down that any of them begged to be delivered out of this vale of tears I think our history is worth the telling because it is so ordinary, and it contains no suicide; none of us but, like most men, took in every breath possible. Hemorrhaging and in pain for weeks, my father on his deathbed still wanted to live, and banged on a wall with his bleeding fist that he could not. My mother in her last house, impatient to quit a life wherein she could labor no more, murmured not a word to disaffirm her love of this world; I overheard her thanks for it the day after I read of the voice from heaven, and it was her phrase, so much wholer in acceptance, that impelled me to write. Seeing my parents dead in coffins, I could have thought them blessed only in that their flesh was incapable of my grief, which is no pearl except of pity for self.
The truth is our wisdom sets my teeth on edge. By everything I know, the death of the animal is fortuitous, meaningless, and total; insofar as man, a maker meanings, is at the utmost stretch of his talent to bestow upon his dying a purpose, I wish him luck in it.; but when each meaning he arrives at is used by him to multiply the deaths it consoles him for, I think I am living among lunatics Is the decomposition of the flesh hideous? It is a door to the light beyond, said the priests of infinite love, let us kill all who think otherwise. Is our life brief as the grass? We are immortal in the glory of the empire, said the bearers of every flag, let us die to plant it in another place. Saints, patriots, bards, which of them in the name of a greater life has not counselled us to kill and die? From the day I was born I was taught, against the yearning in my bowels for the sun, that I should consent to my death for the illusions believed of my elders; and in all the battlecries of the world, honor, order, liberty, valor, justice, duty, faith, I heard a baaing of sheep, as ignorant as I of what the sounds in their throats meant.
Children, I write this epistle to a punctuation of incendiary bombs my neighbors vote to let fall, as seeds of freedom, upon the heads of children no older than you. I am by trade a maker of fiction, but no word of mine is so counterfeit as the myths by which men who kill and die will ask you to live; the world is a windbag of pieties, that in each age blows multitudes like you into its graves, and weeps over them as blessed. Its touchstone of greatness is bloodletting, Saul hath slain his thousands and David his ten thousands, and no king or president is venerable in our thoughts but like the Judas goat has marched a people under the slaughtering hammer. And beneath the baaing of trumpets and dreams, faint, the only sound I hear as fact is the death rattle of each man.
That sound is my premise. I am the elder now, I tell you my wisdom, not one of the dead is blessed; consciousness is all. I am of course less epochal of mind than the statesman, who in eulogy of the corpses that have served their purpose, his, is confident none has died in vain, well done, thou good and faithful servants; a dish I think fit for the devil is the tongue of every man who asks the power of life and death over others. I speak as that ignoble, small-minded, disaffected citizen, servant and master only of his trade, I mean the artist, joyous and haunted by time, who, making of his spittle a shape, a soul, a voice to survive, wants no interruptions by history or its heroes. Selfish and harmless, in love with my life, I tell you no more than what everyone knows, and is ashamed to live by. Consciousness is all, the sun is born in and ends in your skull; the struck match of self in our skull is all.
So much is simple. It may be pinched out in an hour, therefore, burn in this hour; it may persist a half-century, therefore, burn wisely in this hour; but burn. Yet to make of each day an end and a beginning is not simple, and what is self? I have other selves of me, flesh of my flesh, whatever I believe in is of me, and much of a man is outside his skin; men not fools will die for a fools light as their own. Then burn, believe, die, but, children, I beg you, not for the lies of statesmen, and I think it better to hide and live.
I learned these things at the deathbed of my father, between two wars; on the wall hung a poem with a pasted snapshot of his young brother’s head, blown apart in the war that began in the year of my birth, and upon the night table sat a clock ticking, ticking the irrecoverable seconds away, and at his shrunken hand a portable radio bleated its news of a worldful of sheep who predictably would soon march under the hammer of another war; I did not intend to be in their ranks.. It is a most beautiful earth we inhabit, but not in the eyeholes of the dead. So a savior knew who two thousand years ago said, A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another, and that night was betrayed. Are we less than lunatics who, aware we got into the grave at sundown, even in the failing light cannot love, but wrestle each other in? And when I remember what pains I took to hone this grievous and only jewel, my consciousness, I will not surrender it to any leader half in love with death, neither do I wear it in shame; nothing in his head is worth my life.
Daily I hear a whisper in me of the first and holiest commandment, Thou shalt not die.
Not in our time, but one day when there is silence in heaven about the space of half an hour, all the people will voice their right to live in a joyous shout, and the pillars come tumbling down. States, churches, armies, banks, schools, edifice upon edifice cemented in the blood of our bowing to the hammer, will lie in a rubble; the world will be born again as a comedy whose text is blessed are the living. In that day, great men who invite us to die for causes will charm the children as clowns in the parks, and cowardice will be in style, the ancientest virtue which preserves us, all manner of weakness be revered, and over every kindergarten door will be carved I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the Lord. Not in our time, when that primal commandment is only a whisper, served yet deviously, and in dishonor.
Well, I too shall break it, in the end, and you. Till then, little children, keep yourselves from idols, greet ye one another with an holy kiss, and let us be neither goat not sheep, but lovers of the sun, which is no fool’s light.