Thursday, January 7, 2010

Premature Burial

The day was cloudless. Standing on a rise, my nephew’s wife was remembering her husband when I heard her ask us to join her. My brother, his living children, and I walked slowly up the hill, behind the gathered mourners. She offered a chance to speak. My living nephew said a few halting words, then his sister. I tried to form words, but could only see a reclining figure frozen upon a crypt’s lid.

Summers ago, my family visiting from a distant state, we had followed him across the property to the stream, beating our way through tall grasses and thick alder along the stream bank. A photograph from that time shows him smiling, his older daughter on his back, his younger in the arms of his wife. Soon he would not walk. His wife guided the mourners down the hill to a stream. On this chilly cloudless day fall frost had cut down the meadow grasses. I watched her pour him into the shallow water. After the others had returned to the house, I looked at his bone dust lying on the streambed. Even in death he wouldn’t move.


The meeting ended early. A call to United yielded one remaining seat on the commuter flight home. He would have to hurry. There was time, but none to waste, so he was relieved that traffic moved along. He deposited the rental car (express checkout, he still had time), then walked briskly to the boarding area. A United gatekeeper greeted him by name with a boarding pass. Not until he was onboard did he see his seat was a window in the last row.

He made his way down the aisle, stuffed his bag into the overhead. Releasing a seat belt extender, an obese man lumbered to a stand to let him in.

He looked out onto the tarmac, glistening from a late afternoon squall. Eyes closed, he imagined the first open space that came to mind. Andros. He was on the open water, bone fishing. He could see sunlight bounce along the far-reaching rippled sea surface. I can do this, he told himself. Sweat broke out.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we’re ready to pull away from the gate. We’ve closed the cabin door and ask that you turn off all electronic devices.”

He had ignored the words countless times. Now they propelled him out of the seat.

“Sir, you must sit down. Sir, sit down

“Open the door. Please. I have to get off.” It was impossible to return to that seat.

“Take mine,” suggested a passenger in first class. Reaching for bills, he saw the passenger wave away the offer and sat, beyond shame, not caring a damn about the gawkers.


Berenicë is full of vitality when the Edgar Allan Poe story of that name opens. The narrator, on the other hand, is suffering from a sickness. “I, ill of health, and buried in gloom—she agile, graceful, and overflowing with energy.” As the story unfolds, she becomes progressively more ill, dying toward the end, he more obsessed and gloomy. Bernice’s fall into illness sets the plot in motion; the narrator’s derangement fuels it.

In “Berenicë”, as in many Poe stories, ideas seem to bring into being the worlds his narrators inhabit. To say that a Poe character misperceives the world because of a psychological (or psychoanalytical) disorder is to diminish Poe’s achievement. “Berenicë” holds an epistemological problem; the world becomes whatever a character might imagine.

Poe inverts Locke’s argument that sensation creates ideas. Bernicë’s teeth are “des idées” which the narrator coveted “so madly!” Because ideas generate the real, we know as soon as he begins to obsess that something gruesome will result (another inversion, turning Romantic contemplation into gothic horror).

At the end of the story, there is a leap from the mind of the narrator to the effect his mind has had on the world. A knock of the door. A servant enters, bringing with him the world the narrator has transformed. Bernice’s grave has been violated. The servant adds another horrifying detail: Berenicë was found alive in the open grave. The narrator notices his own clothes, blood-stained and muddy. A box falls to the floor, spilling Berenicë’s teeth. The reader need not try to work out the logic.

Poe wrote two other masterpieces that contain premature burials, “The Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Cask of Amontillado.” None are from the point of view of the buried. Only the mind affecting the burial mattered to Poe.


“I leave bedtime until the last possible moment compatible with my nurse's need for sleep,” writes the historian Tony Judt, who suffers from Lou Gehrig's disease.

I am sat upright at an angle of some 110° and wedged into place with folded towels and pillows, my left leg in particular turned out ballet-like to compensate for its propensity to collapse inward...

I am then covered, my hands placed outside the blanket to afford me the illusion of mobility but wrapped nonetheless since—like the rest of me—they now suffer from a permanent sensation of cold. I am offered a final scratch on any of a dozen itchy spots from hairline to toe; the Bi-Pap breathing device in my nose is adjusted to a necessarily uncomfortable level of tightness to ensure that it does not slip in the night; my glasses are removed…

No children’s prayers or pleasant stories here at Tony Judt’s bedtime hour, he tells us. “...and there I lie, trussed, myopic, and motionless like a modern-day mummy, alone in my corporeal prison, accompanied for the rest of the night only by my thoughts.”


However infrequently or often, we fear losing control – of our jobs, our health, our means of negotiating through the years ahead. The claustrophobe acutely feels his precariousness. In the last row of the airplane, the window seat is indifferent to the man bolting from it.

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