Rave On John Donneby Brandon Edmonds / 13.10.2009
Wet Wet Wet once crooned speciously about love being all around us. It isn’t. Death is. A reality show with the highest ratings imaginable. Death seems everywhere lately. Ted Kennedy, Walter Kronkite, Patrick Swayze… Michael Jackson. Celebrity death matches are pretty one sided: death wins. Woken up last Sunday to the urgent brilliance of ‘Billie Jean’ (only a Pop presence as ambivalent as Jackson’s would deny paternity, as he does so vehemently in the song, rather than embrace the ‘rawk ‘n roll’ machismo of getting laid) as a trio of lovely Nigerian students, who live in my block, were washing the car and dancing – I realized this is what a legacy is, that’s how you cheat death, you go on living if the living go on wanting you in their lives. Being a celebrity already means having a kind of spectral, ghostly presence, at once intimate and public, in the world. MJ’s songs will go on soundtracking moments, major and minor, from weddings to first kisses to washing the car… for as long as these things go on happening.
Inspired by such transcendence, let’s read through the greatest of all statements on the great unknown, the big full stop, that horn dog theologian, John Donne’s (1572-1631) stone cold medieval masterpiece, ‘Death Be Not Proud’. I’ve updated the language a tad, losing the ‘thee’s’ and ‘thou’s’.
‘Death be not proud, though some have called you
Mighty and dreadful, for, you are not so’
What an opening: Donne’s staring down death. He’s Samuel L. Jackson in ‘Pulp Fiction’. He’s the ultimate freedom fighter. He’s taking the most terrifying fact of our lives and deflating it, neutralizing it, using language like a great metaphysical safety blanket. Jesus reportedly said some strong things on dying, but was he ever this boldly succinct? These opening lines are amongst the bravest, most moving ever written. Wait, it gets better.
‘For, those, who you think you overthrow,
Die not, poor death, nor yet can you kill me.’
Not only is Donne staring death down, he’s putting it in its place. He’s questioning the emotive hold dying has on us. Its power to end us, to claim us, to ruin our lives is propaganda – it’s false advertising. It holds no sway for anyone strong enough to see through it. Death, for Donne, is a lie. Has there ever been a more radical idea? This is how deep humans can go at times. This is how brave and imaginative we can be: we can put death to death in our minds.
‘From rest and sleep, which are just your pictures,
Much pleasure, then from you, much more must flow’
Who doesn’t enjoy a power nap? Wily Donne domesticates death. It’s just a ‘big sleep’. If you enjoy some shut eye, fancy a siesta, love you some forty winks, wait until you taste death. It’s ghoulish and funny and clever. If Donne were alive today, he’d be one of the Coen brothers.
‘You are a slave to Fate, Chance, kings and desperate men,
and with poison war and sickness dwell,
And poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well,
And better than your stroke’
Pre-dating the occasionally sublime HBO series ‘Six Feet Under’ by like half a millennium, Donne deftly switches the focus of mortality from an unknowable enigma to a more familiar scale of human affairs – war and sickness. We’re living through an age of ‘kings and desperate men’ if you think of the ludicrously outsized bonus packages on Wall Street and the rising tide of global unemployment. Kings – the State – will have to resort increasingly to using force to control populations facing breadlines and bankruptcy, while ‘desperate men’ – all of us without savings or connections – will inevitably think less of law and order and grow more rebellious as our kids starve and we have to make do with next to nothing. Donne even privileges narcotics ‘poppy or charms’ as analogues of oblivion over dying. This from an ordained minister. Thereby pre-figuring every great rock song on the subject of death and drugs and proving that William Burroughs, everyone from the Rolling Stones to the Velvet Underground, to Slayer and Irvine Welsh, are rehashing hacks.
‘One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; death you’ll die.’
Well, Donne gets a bit born again for my taste here – ‘we wake eternally’ (he means in heaven obviously) – but the courage and certitude of a faith unto death, beyond death, despite death, ‘death you’ll die’, is undeniably stirring. It challenges all complacent atheists who don’t bother to believe merely because our ‘social moment’ is so lacking in spirituality that our knee-jerk nullity seems normal. Most of us just follow the debased party line of popular culture. We work on our bodies far more than our souls. Donne’s death-defying faith is a wake-up call to the stakes of existence and what a terrible thing it is to waste. Death may have put Swayze in a corner but the man flew planes, tamed horses, got wasted and danced his pert plucky ass off. It’s no ‘Billie Jean’ but its still some kind of legacy. What traces are you busy leaving?
Image by Jason Bronkhorst… view his art and send him a love letter here.