Feb 272007

Attention is asymmetric at times. It can flow out of the system, as when the living pay attention to the dead. I was very painfully reminded of this just recently.  Ten days ago, a very close friend of mine died by her own hand; six days after that I found myself driving down the hill on which I live heading for the cemetery at which I would help choose a plot for her. It was a beautiful day. I could not help mentally yelling, “Stacey, you fool! Why didn’t you stay alive long enough to enjoy this?” Even if I had yelled aloud, phoned, e-mailed or written her, of course I could not have gotten through.

Yet memories of her crowded my attention. Earlier times, when she was very much alive, notes she left, and the sheer act itself. Why did she do it, I tried to understand, and of course, what were her last moments like? Both these remain bewildering, beyond reach, but it is hard not to try, to seek an alignment of mind that might only truly be possible for those similarly inclined, and possibly not even then. Beyond that of course, we cannot know what it is like to be dead, because it is probably not like anything, and non-existence seems literally unimaginable —at least as an experience. We cannot literally pay attention to a dead person, since we cannot mirror or align with nothing.

Committing suicide, also, except for those whose lives already drew great attention, distorts our memories of that person. The act itself is so extreme it brings great attention, which often seems part of the goal. But everything else in one’s life is shaded by the intense and fascinating horror of that departure. The exceptions are those like Van Gogh or Hemingway, who achieved wide attention for work that had nothing to do with their death, even though in Van Gogh’s case it came only afterwards.  For the poet Sylvia Plath, though, and probably others, the art that came before is still only visible through the prism of her sticking her head in that oven.

Still, we retain memories of the person, and can keep on paying attention to all sorts of things she said, did or expressed some other way during her life. Even after death that attention is still associated with her, her name face and other attributes, in our minds. The mere fact of death does not quickly alter that attention.

Of course we pay attention to countless dead who did not die that way: Homer, Buddha, Aeschylus, Aristotle, the old Testament prophet Isaiah, Confucius— the writings —perhaps transcribed— of all of these have been preserved for well over two millennia and are still much read today. Since print was invented, the number of writers— along with artists, whose work is preserved through engraving or is accessible in museums or other sites, and composers whose work could be put in note form and also engraved— is much huger, even though only a small fraction have many fans. More recently with photographs and then phonographs and cinema and all the other audio-visual media we are surrounded with, the number of dead who impinge on our consciousness nearly as much as they would have when living has grown still more. The times have changed, but refurbished recordings of, say  early Frank Sinatra might be much clearer than when first heard by our grandparents —only the times and tastes have changed to give these songs a new and different context, slightly affecting  how we now align to young Frank.

All this is quite different from what happens upon death to the money and material goods that made up wealth in the money-market-industrial era. While such wealth can stay part of the dead person’s estate, it immediately passes to either the state’s control or that of an eventual heir, or in the case of a foundation or trust set up in a will, to the directors or trustees of that new institution. The money itself of course has nothing at all personal about it.

At times though, some material possessions, say some objects particularly and idiosyncratically assembled or collected by the deceased may retain her personal stamp. While kept together they cause mental alignment to her in those who pay attention to the ensemble. Other than that and whatever creations and expressions she left behind, there is nothing that particularly evokes her. Even in this case only attention-getting ability can survive death as still tied to the person.

Of course, for every attention–getter, dead or alive, there may be those who try to divert some of the attention to themselves as impersonators (think Elvis), interpreters (in the broadest sense, as e.g.,  Aristotelians), explainers, editors, biographers, historians  or translators. Still as long as some semblance of the “original” expressions survive, no one has an automatic monopoly in any of these roles. This is unlike the case in the old economy of material heirs who by law can have total control.

To repeat, then, attention is really a different kind of wealth in this respect as well as others.

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