The only imitation is to nothingness – and the mockery of being alive.
Upon reading Emil Cioran’s ‘Directions for Decomposition’ from A Short History of Decay, I am reminded of a piece I planned to write on a number of occasions over the past 4 or 5 years. A piece, in fact, that I am prompted to consider every time I visit a cemetery.
Faux flowers on top of graves.
This image, so contradictory, confronts me and I stop in my tracks. I am forced to consider the reasoning behind this contradiction, the reason for adorning a departed relative’s grave with plastic flowers: Fear of death? Laziness? Aversion to decay?
To know, by one’s own vitality, that one will die, and to be unable to conceal it, is an act of barbarism.
Brushing aside the environmental implications of leaving plastic in green spaces, it seems that the inherent irony of such a gesture is simply lost amongst other concerns.
This action, it appears to me, is motivated by a desire to mask the inevitable decay of the beloved object that lies beneath the ground. If I happen to be in a particularly cynical mood when this thought arrives, it prompts a darkly humorous skit in my mind…
Even when he turns from religion, man remains subject to it: depleting himself to create false gods, he then feverishly adopts them: his need for fiction, for mythology, triumphs over evidence and absurdity alike.
We must also consider that this probably does not occur to those who have purchased man-made flowers for a graveside. So what other reason? Again, with a cynical smirk on my face, I could assume that this decision is motivated by laziness, a desire for a loved one’s grave to appear well maintained, cared for, and most critically not forgotten.
One is civilised insofar as one does not proclaim one’s leprosy.
The frayed edges of faded pink roses, with their spots of creeping green flora contradict this imagined position. At this point one can assume there is a degree of guilt involved in this decision, and of course the death of a confidant is not only one of the worst things one can experience; but it is also the most commonplace.
It is this point that enables me to speak in this way, apparently flippantly rejecting the emotional content. Death itself is not emotional, at least not for the one for whom it is most real. But despite its universality , the loss, loneliness and confusion for those who were close to the deceased, is agonising.
Injustice governs the universe. Everything which is done and undone there bears the stamp of filthy fragility.
One might assume that after millennia of dealing with this shit we might have better ways of coping; of accepting not just death but decay, as part of life. When faux flowers are placed atop a grave the message reads loud and clear: Decay is not welcome here.
Unlike their original, and the bodies beneath them that they have been obliged to honour, the faux flowers do not decay. Their petals may be damaged and eroded by the elements, but what enters the soil by this physical decay is plastic.
Reality is a creation of our excesses, of our disproportions and derangements.
While I do not set out to disparage, especially those for whom faux flowers represent the image of a cherished memorial that cannot die. It is this very sentiment by which I seem to be repelled.
How imagine other people’s lives, when our own seems scarcely conceivable?
Every nostalgia is a transcendence of the present … We want to act retroactively, to protect against the inevitable.
While the forgotten body decays underground, the plastic roses flaunt their immortality in the face of decay.
The obsession of elsewhere is the impossibility of the moment, and thus impossibility is nostalgia itself.
This glaring contradiction seems to me to speak of a society that is terrified of decay. After all, what is more terrifying than one’s own body, one’s only living, visible trace in the world re-reduced to its elements.
[…death is] an unwonted and eternal presence that we can conceive at any moment and that we never dare admit, which is real only before its consummation: death, the true criterion.
What of real flowers? What better tribute to a dead friend than living plants that like us, will rise up above the soil, bloom, reproduce and then wither and begin their decent only to rise again the following spring.
To suffer, truly to suffer, is to accept the invasion of ills without the excuse of causality, as a favour of demented nature, as a negative miracle.
Against the obsession with death, both the subterfuges of hope and the arguments of reason lay down their arms.
Is there a single life which is not impregnated with life-giving errors, a single clear transparent life without humiliating roots?
Ciroan, E. A Short History of Decay, 1949
All photographs my own.
I first met Henry Miller in summer 2017; I was 23, ten years younger than Miller in Sexus, my reading of which being the first encounter. At this time my enthusiastic note-taking on the world was struggling to convince even myself that this might be something someone would want to read. After all, the objective of the writer is to be read, though it must be said that this notion filled me with anxiety. Having recently been responsible for the destruction of a significant relationship I was free falling: destructive behaviour that was soon contextualised within the relationship I found with Miller. There were other men and women but they were his words that provided the lens through which to consolidate and negotiate those physical relationships; his words producing tangible effects through my thinking and actions. Particularly it was how Miller loved that caught me, how he allowed the same free falling himself: both into bars, streets and brothels; and into love. It was with Miller that I found myself wholeheartedly thrown into a glut of ridiculous situations and affairs, all of which in time affecting me and my work.
But freedom leads to infinity and infinity is terrifying. Then arose the comforting thought of stopping at the brink, of setting down in words the mysteries of impulsion, compulsion, propulsion, of bathing the senses in human odours.
This is also around the time that I began “calling myself a writer”. And this too was motivated in part by Miller. Never before had I been so convinced by a writer and his ability to find profundity in smut. His works also reflected an inkling I had had since childhood that it was all bollocks anyway. But Miller seemed, like me, to revel in this. One could say that it was sheer potluck that my reading of Miller for the first time seemed to correspond so readily with my own lived experience. However reading Sexus for the first time enabled me to take the words I wrote more seriously. Here philosophy and real life, with all of its back-alley encounters, no longer suffered the cleavage I had attempted to inflict upon them. Now, with Miller in mind I sought to give voice to the sordid and unchained aspects of my life and thinking I had previously attempted to keep apart from my “more serious” work writing essays.
Every day we slaughter our finest impulses. That is why we get a heartache when we read those lines written by the hand of a master and recognise them as our own, as the tender shoots which we stifled because we lacked the faith to believe in our own powers, our own criterion of truth and beauty.
In the last of my five years of study, a conversation with as tutor had an effect of reiterating my failure to recognise both sides of my life as worthwhile points of enquiry. I was working on my postgraduate thesis on German painter E L Kirchner, making allusions to the role sex played in his life and work but adopting an objective distance symptomatic of academic study. The tutor told me to put the body back into the work, that it lacked spunk, and I left feeling embarrassed. Not because I had exposed myself, but rather that I had failed to.
I took up an occupation, one not given to me but self-inflicted. I could not find a copy of Miller’s To Paint is to Love Again and I desperately wanted to read it. The book was not held at any of the libraries I checked in London, nor was there a pdf to be found online. The only way I was able to access it (aside from spending $200 for a second hand copy to be shipped from the states) was via an audio recording of the author reading it aloud. I decided to transcribe it so that I might sit and read it for myself.
Sometimes I realise that I have no control over my actions. This is neither alarming nor perceived as being necessarily a bad thing. Adaptable, impressionable and caught by the slightest breeze. The two of us together enable this to go further – I follow him and he follows me – us giggling and exhausted, standing in the rain, realising neither of us in control. Yet this passes with both of us, and blind leading the blind, we stumble through dark streets and dirty sheets. Seeing only each other, the world makes more sense, my new way of seeing altered daily as we become more intrinsically linked. Exponentially increasing proximity. Sometimes I feel as though I’m going to burst.
I feel sometimes as though I’m going to burst. I really don’t give a dam about the misery of the world. I take it for granted. What I want is to open up. I’m like an imbecile with a can opener in his hand, wondering where to begin—to open up the earth.
I had taken a break from transcribing the book, in fact I had to take a break from writing altogether. More frequently, whenever I held a pen or typed for more than a few minutes at a time, my right hand would cramp up, this accompanied by a dart of pain from my fourth knuckle to the wrist. My father suggested I buy a kind of soft triangular attachment for my pen to limit the strain.
Sat on a bench writing, the familiar ache just beginning to creep across my hand, I am interrupted by the sound and smell of twigs cracking. An old man has fallen into a nearby shrub, how frail, how weighed down by gravity’s ceaseless force, my own ailment put into perspective as I offer an arm. The man, looking at me bewildered, makes noises that may have begun as discourse but by the time they reached my ears: mmmghh… mmgh! Still clutching my arm he begins to shuffle down the gravel path, maybe he thought I was going too. Perhaps selfishly I wished him the best, and approximating the length of time that would satisfy any would-be onlookers with the notion that I am a walking, talking, feeling, caring individual, I prized his cold old hands off my arm. Then, driven by a desire not just to write, but to be a writer, and with the old man’s plight quickly losing pertinence in my mind, I returned to the bench to continue.
And yet— yet despite all the outward evidences of being close-knit, interrelated, neighbourly, good-humoured, helpful, sympathetic, almost brotherly, we are a lonely people, a morbid, crazed herd thrashing about in zealous frenzy, trying to forget that we are not what we think we are, not really united, not really devoted to one another, not really listening, not really anything, just digits shuffled about by some unseen hand in a calculation which doesn’t concern us.
Though this encounter is presented as an annoying interruption, we both know that I did chose to include the experience in this piece. It is these interruptions, these unrequested encounters that I have long imagined to be tantamount to the process. But what to say of an old man stumbling into the shrubbery on a damp autumnal day? Though far from the city centre, there is noise all around. A vast casting couch of voices, each with his own entanglements and ailments, requirements and assignments, both real and imagined. As I write, sitting on a bench in grey South London, I am inhibitingly distracted by my own primary entanglement: I’ve fallen in love. But what to make of any of this? How might I begin to crystallise my own lived experience, to condense a seething mass of stimuli into a book worth reading?
You’re chaos, quietly contained. Creating chaos in me.
Welcome though, encouraged.
I’m constantly amazed by things. Things like the oval of ripples on an otherwise flat surface caused by your t shirt pulling against your ribs.
My mouth opened when I thought I saw him. An unknown face transformed, if momentarily, into the one by which I am transfixed. Rain spitting, I consider the word patient. A cat heard in the bushes becomes a child. While others tip the population density scale, I sit and wait for one.
I will go directly to her home, ring the bell, and walk in. Here I am, take me-or stab me to death. Stab the heart, stab the brains, stab the lungs, the kidneys, the viscera, the eyes, the ears. If only one organ be left alive you are doomed-doomed to be mine, forever, in this world and the next and all the worlds to come. I’m a desperado of love, a scalper, a slayer. I’m insatiable. I eat hair, dirty wax, dry blood clots, anything and everything you call yours. Show me your father, with his kites, his race horses, his free passes for the opera: I will eat them all, swallow them alive. Where is the chair you sit in, where is your favourite comb, your toothbrush, your nail file? Trot them out that I may devour them at one gulp. You have a sister more beautiful than yourself, you say. Show her to me-I want to lick the flesh from her bones.
Put me on before you set off in the morning.
When you look in the mirror and tug at tufts of hair.
Put me on like you’d wrap a soft grey scarf round your neck.
Let me sit on your shoulder and just watch.
Put me on and you have a protective barrier,
a barrier that despite its imperceptibility – has a certain glow.
Miller, H. Sexus, 1949