One day there is life. A man, for example, in the best of health, not even old, with no history of illness. Everything is as it was, as it will always be. He goes from one day to the next, minding his own business, dreaming only of the life that lies before him. And then, suddenly, it happens there is death. A man lets out a little sigh, he slumps down in his chair, and it is death. The suddenness of it leaves no room, for thought, gives the mind no chance to seek out a word that might comfort it. We are left with nothing but death, the irreducible fact of our own mortality. Death after a long illness we can accept with resignation. Even accidental death we can ascribe to fate. But for a man to die simply because he is a man, brings us so close to the invisible boundary between life and death that we no longer know which side we are on. Life becomes death, and it is as if this death has owned this life all along. Death without warning. Which is to say: life stops. And it can stop at any moment.
Paul Auster, The Invention of Solitude.
I think if we didn’t contradict ourselves, it would be awfully boring. It would be tedious to be alive. Changing your mind is probably one of the most beautiful things people can do. And I’ve changed my mind about a lot of things over the years.
Your birthday has come and gone. Sixty-four years old now, inching ever close to senior citizenship, to the days of Medicare and Social Security benefits, to a time when more and more of your friends will have left you. So many of them are gone already-but just wait for the deluge that is coming. Much to your relief, the event passed without incident or commotion, you calmly took it in your stride, a small dinner with friends in Brooklyn, and the impossibe age you have now reached seldom entered your thoughts. February third, just one day after your mother’s birthday, who went in labour with you on the morning she turned twenty-two, nineteen days before it was supposed to happen, and when the doctor pulled you out of her drugged body with a pair of forceps, it was twenty minutes past midnight, less than half an hour after her birthday had ended. You therefore always celebrated your birthdays together, and even now, almost nine years after her death, you inevitably think about her whenever the clock turns from the second of February to the third. What an unlikely present you must have been that night sixty-four years ago: a baby boy for her birhtday, a birthday to celebrate her birth.
There is a small minority, for example, that believes that bad weather comes from bad thoughts. This is a rather mystical approach to the question, for it implies that thoughts can be translated directly into events in the physical world. According to them, when you think a dark or pessimistic thought, it produces a cloud in the sky. If enough people are thinking gloomy thoughts at once, then rain will begin to fall. That is the reason for all the startling shifts in the weather, they claim, and the reason why no one has been able to give a scientific explanation of our bizarre climate. Their solution is to maintain a steadfast cheerfulness, no matter how dismal the conditions around them. No frowns, no deep sighs, no tears. These people are known as the Smilers, and no sect in the city is more innocent or childlike. If a majority of the population could be converted to their beliefs, they are convinced the weather would at last begin to stabilize and that life would then improve. They are therefore always proselytizing, continually looking for new adherents, but the mildness of the manner they have imposed on themselves makes them feeble persuaders. They rarely succeed in winning anyone over, and consequently their ideas have never been put to the test-for without a great number of believers, there will not be enough good thoughts to make a difference. But this lack of proof only makes them more stubborn in their faith. (…)
By contrast, there is another group called the Crawlers. These people believe that conditions will go on worsening until we demonstrate-in a utterly persuasive manner-how ashamed we are of how we lived in the past. their solution is to prostrate themselves on the ground and refuse to stand up until some sign is given to them that their penance has been deemed sufficient. what this sign is supposed to be is the subject of long theoretical debates. Some say a month of rain, others say a month of fair weather, and still others say they will not know until it is revealed to them in their hearts. There are two principal factions in this sect-the Dogs and the Snakes. The first contend that crawling on hands and knees shows adequate contrition, whereas the second hold that nothing short of moving on one’s belly is good enough. Bloody fights often break out between the two groups-each vying for control of the other-but neither faction has gained much of a following, and by now I believe the sect is on the verge of dying out. (…)
If you happen to get wet in the rain, you’re unlucky, and that’s all there is to it. If you happen to stay dry, then so much the better. But it has nothing to do with your attitudes or your beliefs. The rain make no distinctions. At one time or another, it falls on everyone, and when it falls, everyone is equal to everyone else- no one better, no one worse, everyone equal and the same.
Paul Auster, “In the Country of Last Things.”
The Euthanasia Clinics are not the only way to buy your own death, however. There are the Assassination Clubs as well, and these have been growing in popularity. A person who wants to die, but is too afraid to go through with it himself, joins the Assassination Club in his census zone for a relatively modest fee. An assassin is then assigned to him. The customer is told nothing about the arrangements, and everything about his death remains a mystery to him: the date, the place, the identity of his assassin. In some sense, life goes on as it always has. Death remains on the horizon, an absolute certainty, and yet inscrutable as to its specific form. Instead of old age, disease, or accident, a member of an Assassination Club can look forward to a quick and violent death in the not-too-distant future: a bullet in the brain, a knife in the back, a pair of hands around his throat in the middle of the night. The effect of all this, it seems to me, is to make one more vigilant. Death is no longer an abstraction, but a real possibility that haunts each moment of life. Rather than submit passively to the inevitable, those marked for assassination tend to become more alert, more vigorous in their movements, more filled with a sense of life-as though transformed by some new understanding of things. Many of them actually recant and opt for life again. But that is a complicated business. For once you join an Assassination Club, you are not allowed to quit.
Paul Auster, “In the Country of Last Things.”
So many of us have become like children again. It’s not that we make an effort, you understand, or that anyone is really conscious of it. But when hope disappears, when you find that you have given up hoping for the possibility of hope, you tend to fill the empty spaces with dreams, little childlike thoughts and stories to keep yourself going. Even the most hardened people have trouble stooping themselves. Without fuss or prelude they break off from what they are doing, sit down, and talk about the desires that have been welling up inside them. Food, of course, is one of the favourite subjects.(…) If the words can consume you, you will be able to forget your present hunger and enter what people call the “arena of sustaining nimbus.” There are even those who say there is nutritional value in these food talks-given the proper concentration and an equal desire to believe in the words among those taking part.
All this belongs to the language of ghosts. There are many other possible kinds of talks in this language. Most of them begin when one person says to another: I wish. What they wish for might be anything at all, as long as it is something that cannot happen. I wish the sun would never set. I wish money would grow in my pockets. I wish the city would be like it was in the old days. You get the idea. Absurd and infantile things, with no meaning and no reality. In general, people hold to the belief that however bad things were yesterday, they were better than things are today. What they were like two days ago was even better than yesterday. The farther you go back, the more beautiful and desirable the world becomes. You drag yourself from sleep each morning to face something that is always worse than what you faced the day before, but by talking of the world that existed before you went to sleep, you can delude yourself into thinking that the present day is simply an apparition, no more or less real than the memories of all the other days you carry around inside you.
Paul Auster, “In the Country of Last Things.”
Simply to have stopped.
As if I could begin
where my voice has stopped, myself
the sound of a word
I cannot speak
to be brought to life
in this pensive flesh, the beating
drum of words
within, so many words
lost in the wide world
within me, and thereby to have known
that in spite of myself
I am here.
As if this were the world.
Paul Auster, Ground Work. Selected Poems and Essays 1970-1979
(…) and to the best of his knowledge he has no ambitions. No burning ambitions, in any case, no clear idea if what building a plausible future might entail for him. (…) it is this ability to live in the present, to confine himself to the there and now, and although it might not be the most laudable accomplishment one can think of, it has required considerable discipline and self-control for him to achieve it. To have no plans, which is to say, to have no longings or hopes, to be satisfied with your lot, to accept what the world doles out to you from one sunrise to the next-in order to live like that you must want very little, as little as humanly possible.
Paul Auster, “Sunset Park”