What is the best way to depict death? That must have been a question that late photographer Tim Hetherington constantly contemplated. Yet photographers have the advantage of the visual — of producing straightforward, unmistakable photographs. Writers, however, don’t: to predict death through writing, and especially through fiction, seems much harder.
The relentless theme laced throughout Roberto Bolaño’s novel 2666 is that of the abundance of female homicides in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, that began in 1993. In fact, Bolaño spends about half of the 900-page book cataloging each victim’s death. And it’s the unceasing, repetitive nature of these accounts, as well as the matter-of-fact, police-report tone he uses to describe each one, that paints a truly visceral picture of these senseless deaths, better than any summarized account of it could.
Likewise, Nadezhda Mandelstam — wife of renowned Russian poet Osip Mandelstam and a survivor of Soviet Russia — found an indirect yet immensely powerful way to depict the death of her husband and her freedom in her books.
We all belonged to the same category marked down for absolute destruction. The astonishing thing is not that so many of us went to concentration camps or died there, but that some of us survived. Caution did not help. Only chance could save you.”
Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hope Abandoned.
As Clive James explains, “[Nadezhda’s writing] is more about horror as a way of life than as an interruption to normal expectancy.”
And in a similar vein, Primo Levi’s books on The Holocaust are rife with stories of the victims and their horrific fates. Because he found that countless upon countless, repetitive stories of the ultimate fate of millions of Jews was the only way he could depict this genocide. Clive James sheds light on this technique:
The story of the survivors was too atypical to be edifying, and to dwell on it could only lead to the heresy that Levi called Survivalism and damned as a perversion. Survival had nothing to do with anything except chance: there was no philosophy to be extracted from it, and certainly no guide to behaviour.
What all of these examples illustrate is that the depiction of death in literature is often most powerful and commanding when it’s not sugarcoated, but instead portrayed indirectly. Better to have the writer less concerned with the inconsequential facts and more concerned with depicting the hellish and torturous feelings and emotions that come with living amongst the dead.
And while certainly not on the same scale as Soviet Russia or The Holocaust, we too are experiencing a wide-scale genocide in America: the death of print and the written word. And as of yet, the best depiction of this I’ve seen was in a text message.
“I think I’m falling in [heart emoji],” a man recently texted an acquaintance of mine. And does it not sum up our obliteration of the written word beautifully? Emojis used to live outside of complete sentences, used for additional, but not crucial, impact. The facial expressions used to be limited, but now, as we can find any facial expression imaginable in emoji form, things are starting to get weird. What used to be used as extra context, perhaps, a means of clarifying a comment as sarcastic, or mere sentence embellishments have now begun to take the place of entire words and emotions. “I love you [heart emoji]” is a thing of the past. Now it’s: “I [heart emoji] you.” And sadly, as we continue to replace actual feelings with emojis, it’s only a matter of time until we begin to lose touch with our feelings altogether.
In the comments section of my article “Why Can’t Guys Handle Work And A Relationship At Once?” I stumbled upon a “Meg” and a “Brave New World,” discussing my likeness to Lana Del Ray and lamenting my “emotions.”
It’s time we stop shaming others for being too emotional, and start shaming others for being too emojional.