Haunting voice of 'O beautiful death'

by Rich Moniak

"The neck of the cavalry-man, with the bullet through and through, I examine;
Hard the breathing rattles, quite glazed already the eye, yet life struggles hard;
(Come, sweet death! be persuaded, O beautiful death!
In mercy come quickly.)"

Walt Whitman’s words, from his poem The Wound-Dresser, recited in a deep, peaceful voice, is one of the most haunting moments in the film Voices in Wartime. (listen here)

The ‘beautiful death’ Whitman imagines is merciful, sweet in the moment that it overpowers the wretchedness of war and allows the soul its final peace. There is no glory to killing in war, but Whitman restores the natural order of life by returning death to the quiet realm where it belongs.

Death is a subject more distant from the proverbial dinner table conversation than religion and politics. It belongs to the spiritual and philosophical imaginations, places where answers are at best metaphorical questions.

In a culture addicted to the need for certainty, science fails to deliver any meaning to death. It has worked hard to protect us from it, from medicine to meteorology. But I wonder if war, 'the bullet through and through' 'is the shadow image of all the technological advances, looming in wait because we resist death even when it comes to us naturally.

I’ve never discussed death in any great depth until three years ago. It hasn’t visited me much by way of family or friends passing on. Fortunate is the word this simple truth attempts to use as if a smile is warranted. But smiles generally elude me. Just a few weeks ago a man who is currently serving grand jury duty with me said that almost as soon as he saw me he said to himself ‘now there is a man who knows a lot of pain.’

Why am I so serious and glum so often? The question has plagued me, and seemed to isolate me, for most of my life. It’s only been recently that I seem to have a found a place in society where I might have something to contribute. To plagiarize the title from Chris Hedges book, the war seems to have given me a purpose and meaning. How sad is that?

Death in these questions merges the spiritual and philosophical as one with the psychological. What kind of complex has been haunting me all these years? What is it about Whitman’s 'O beautiful death' that reaches deep into my psyche?

Psychology defines a complex as a system of interrelated, emotion-charged ideas, feelings, memories, and impulses that is usually repressed and compel characteristics or habitual patterns of thoughts, feelings or actions.

Have I been repressing an interest in death? If so, is this the reason for my generally solemn demeanor? Yet to have followed the haunting of voices into this curious shadow of life would likely have made me even more of a depressing soul to be around.

What voices? Whitman’s imagined voice through the narrator in the film follows a similar dark affection for my taste in music. Sad love songs are joined by lyrics composed by numerous songwriters that allude to death. They’ve always been there, but it wasn’t till just recently that I realized how fascinated with death my subconscious has been. I became utterly haunted by Jesca Hoop’s recently released “Love Is All We Have”, a song about Hurricane Katrina.

"the rains that came
with the force of a runaway train
ohhh run away
and the waters rose and the levies the levies
broke
ohhh run away
and the cradle broke my beloved
the cradle broke
i must stay
for deep in the heart of our home
my beloved washed away'"

Death is there, in the words, the melody and her voice. And like Whitman, Hoop restores beauty to what is naturally real and intensely sad in the lyrics that form the bridge to the title.

"love me know now is all we have
love me now love is all we ever really had"

I listened to it over and over again, as if to define the idea of haunting in the act itself. Until after the recurring tune had settled into the background of awareness, these words transposed themselves for me.

"the old church bell
is in the graveyard
the old church bell
ohhh lace and stone"

In my head, in a distant yet distinct manner, my subconscious re-imagined 'the old church bell is in the graveyard' to lyrics of a song that caught my attention more than 30 years ago. I was hearing her music but the words had become "the church bell chimed, 'til it rang 29 times."

I was stunned when I began to perceive that it was 'The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald', a Gordon Lightfoot ballad that began a life long interest in his music. And then I remembered that within days I strangely bonded to the closing words to his 'Canadian Railroad Trilogy:' "And many are the dead men … too silent to be real."

I can trace a journey over the years that tried to keep me near to death’s voice through haunting lyrics of other songs, each one which I would listen intently without a clue as to what they wanted from me. Dan Fogelberg’s In the Passage, Carly Simon’s Life is Eternal, Art Garfunkel’s Bright Eyes, and more.

What did they want is a question psychologist James Hillman has taught me to ask even when there is no apparent “they” doing the asking. So who is this haunting? The apparition of your voice remembers love, according to Sarah McLachlan, but to me, also belonging to death.

Three years ago I floated in the cold Alaskan water after an embarrassing spill in a kayak. Alone and unsure of whether or not I’d make it back, death itself had never been closer to my mortal thoughts. Oddly, I felt an intense peace, aided by the quiet beauty of this place I love. But upon reflection the very next day, the peace was disturbed by the confession I had no right to die in such a beautiful setting because I had done nothing meaningful in 48 years of wandering the planet.

Life changed for me soon after that, but not as if I had been so thoroughly woken up that I marched forward with a determination to do something, anything, that would merit appreciation from anyone in the world. Death would haunt me as it always has because I wasn’t listening to it.

War is about death, isn’t it? What else is there that troubles us? I come back to Hedges book, War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning, and it is death that does the work.

For two years I’ve been writing mostly about war, the Iraq war, and past wars that have evaded the future by way of false histories built on glory. I’ve railed against the politicians, searched feverishly for clues in hopes of mobilizing dissent, and only temporarily retreated to disappointment at the effort that always fell short.

There have been a few pieces that carried a softer tone. Those mixed images of flowers with gray days and rain, inspired absent of ambition to end the war. Just as Whitman and Hoop reached me, it was like another voice guiding me to a peaceful appreciation for my soul’s apparent affection for the mystery that death is.

But before all this I wasn’t really writing at all. Did death want me to take writing seriously?

Psychology isn’t about fixing what we perceive ails our mental or emotional state of mind. Rather, it is part of the search for the roots of our existence. For 30 years or more I ignored the subtle callings of death. I needed to almost drown to be stirred from my sleep and start searching the corners of my mind for meaning beyond me. Now I hope what work I do honors the soul of a voice I still hear after she reached for my hand in the cold water.

Death is a silent metaphor to life that perhaps is seeking attention from more than this isolated soul living in the imagined cold of the far north. Are war and death aligned in our collective human complex, the repression of one manifesting in another as all rage and ugliness?

To discuss war in our homes and schools, death will be present. We may need to be open to wondering about O beautiful death before we’ll truly turn away from war.