Cicadas swarmed my town when I was in seventh grade — one of their mass awakenings every 13 or 17 years, their buzzing brown bodies rising from the earth. They came out to mate and lay their eggs, and then they died. We found their corpses everywhere, littering the sidewalks and pristine green lawns and floating in the pools that had been uncovered for the summer.
Most people found the bugs too disgusting for words, especially my fellow 13-year-olds, some of whom screamed when the occasional cicada found its way under the crack of a classroom window. They were big bugs, maybe an inch long, covered in a tough shell, their wings pristine and transparent and the source of the horrible buzzing that permeated everything at all hours. They sounded like a wind that was perpetually trying to rise. During a walk in gym class one afternoon, I picked up one of the bodies that hadn’t yet been crushed or mangled by plodding, incurious feet. Its wings looked like shards of spun glass. Despite the weird looks my friends shot me, I kept it.
I still have that dead cicada. It sits on a stack of Post-its on my desk, now broken into two pieces: the natural process of disintegration, I guess. I don’t know what I was trying to achieve by keeping it. Perhaps I thought it would crumple more gracefully into splinters of dust. A book I loved as a kid, “The Mozart Season” by Virginia Euwer Wolff, featured a mother character who collected the bodies of dead bugs in a dish and let them fall apart. In the book this is a tender act. In the book the corpse-to-dust ritual completes itself every two weeks. After five years my cicada is still mostly parts.
I think I have an unhealthy fascination with the poetics of death. Over break I went to lunch with a close friend, my writing buddy since middle school. In her creative writing class last semester, she told me, her professor had claimed that every story has one of two plots.
“Let me guess,” I said. “Love or death?”
She gave me a look. “No,” she said. “Character goes on an adventure or stranger comes to town.”
Of course. How logical. Not nearly so morbid. But then, every story I’ve ever written has been about love or death. Sometimes both.
I don’t think I’m alone in this. There’s something that draws people to death, that draws art to death: Jacques-Louis David’s “The Death of Marat,” Jeffrey Eugenides’ “The Virgin Suicides,” the opening and closing stories of James Joyce’s “Dubliners.” “It was an exciting day,” Jenny Zhang writes of a classmate’s passing in the essay, “How It Feels”: “To be close to something so genuinely tragic … When someone dies, we go searching for poetry.”
Today, death is simultaneously, paradoxically both closer to us and further away than ever. Think: the 6 o’clock news, photographs of war, Quentin Tarantino movies, Call of Duty. Think: funeral homes, morgues and body bags, wakes where the corpse is made up and dressed up in all its living finery. It is so easy to fetishize, poeticize. Even in the 2008 Japanese film “Departures” — in which Daigo Kobayashi accidentally takes a job preparing bodies for encoffinment, and part of what Daigo learns is not to fear the dead, not to regard bodies as some frightening and untouchable other — the ceremony is beautiful, a little romantic. Poetic. Think: John Everett Millais’ Ophelia floating still lovely in her river, her gown brocaded and shimmering, lips slightly parted, still-bright flowers trailing down her body.
Death is the ultimate sacrifice, the highest stakes you can play. In the shadow of limited time it casts, everything is illuminated. In her essay, “Notes Toward a Dreampolitik,” Joan Didion writes of the appeal that bike movies have for adolescents, that “to die violently is ‘righteous,’ a flash.” Artistically, nothing could seem to matter more, even as death becomes cheaper in video games, in movies, in the news, even as with every murdered brown body, every terrorist attack, we are shocked a little bit less. We know nothing of what it means to be dead and so we ascribe everything to it. A dangerous game.
This past Monday, March 28, marked the 75th anniversary of Virginia Woolf’s suicide, when she weighed down her pockets with stones and waded into the River Ouse behind her home.
Once, a few years ago, I read a short story about a girl who tried to do the same. She struggled in the silt until a friend dragged her from her self-made grave. Like the decay of a cicada corpse, her suicide did not come easily.
It may sound poetic, but I think we forget that Woolf’s death wasn’t beautiful. Imagine the stink of river water and the weight of wet cloth. Giving over your breath. The water closing over your head. There is no tranquility in the last, thrashing seconds of a body trying to save itself. There was no lovely corpse fringed by a spilled bouquet. Even if in art there is. Even if in art we want to make it so.
How could we understand? We are still alive.