PASSAGE INTO NON-EXISTENCE

In 1993, the novelist Harold Brodkey wrote a famous essay in the New Yorker, revealing that he was suffering from Aids. Two weeks ago, at 4.30am on Friday 26 January, he died. This is his last published piece of writing
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The Independent Culture
I AM practising making entries in my journal, to record my passage into non-existence. This identity, this mind, this particular cast of speech, is nearly over.

IT STARTS in my sleep, a partly dreamed memory of being young and about to wake to the life of a young man. This morning I was playing basketball with Michael Jordan, and I was as big as he was, or bigger. What a mass of roles, of personae, is mixed in when one is ill, alongside the self- loathing and self-protection, the recurring simplicity and the terror. My identity is as a raft skidding or gliding, borne on a flux of feelings and frights, including the morning's delusion (which lasts 10 minutes sometimes) of being young and whole.

Being ill like this combines shock - this time I will die - with a pain and agony that are unfamiliar, that wrench me out of myself. It is like visiting one's funeral, like visiting loss in its purest and most monumental form, this wild darkness, which is not only unknown but which one cannot enter as oneself. Now one belongs entirely to nature, to time: identity was a game. It isn't cruel what happens next, it is merely a form of being caught. Memory, so complete and clear or so evasive, has to be ended, has to be put aside, as if one were leaving a chapel and bringing the prayer to an end in one's head. It is death that goes down to the centre of the earth, the great burial church the earth is, and then to the curved ends of the universe, as light is said to do.

CALL IT the pit, the melodramatic pit: the bottomless danger in the world is bottomed with blood and the end of consciousness. Yet I don't wake angry or angrily prepared to fight or to accuse. (Somehow I was always short of rage. I had a ferocity and will but without rage. I often thought men stank of rage; it is why I preferred women, and homosexuals.) I awake with a not entirely sickened knowledge that I am merely young again and in a funny way at peace, an observer who is aware of time's chariot, aware that some metamorphosis has occurred.

I am in an adolescence in reverse, as mysterious as the first, except that this time I feel it as a decay of the odds that I might live for a while, that I can sleep it off. And as an alteration of language: I can't say I will see you this summer. I can't live with-out pain, and the strength I draw on throughout the day is Ellen's. At times I cannot entirely believe I ever was alive, that I ever was another self, and wrote and loved or failed to love. I do not really understand this erasure. Oh, I can comprehend a shutting down, a great power replacing me with someone else (and with silence), but this inability to have an identity in the face of death - I don't believe I ever saw this written about in all the death scenes I have read or in all the descriptions of old age. It is curious how my life has tumbled to this point, how my memories no longer apply to the body in which my words are formed.

Almost the first thing I did when I became ill was to buy a truly good television set. Pop culture is unbearable when it is not superlatively presented in all its dexterities and grandeurs.

It's hard to know, when one has invented a term ironically, whether it is already full-fledged jargon - at any rate, I am nowadays exceedingly fond of the term "stress management". Stress management means nearly total irresponsibility: a sleeping pill every night, endless television (superlatively presented), answering mail only when I feel worldly or sociable. It's an ancient adolescence, and a male-diva thing... Look, I'm dying...

The procession of pills: two Advil, one 3TC, one AZT, one Paxil this morning, and last night a pentamidine treatment while I was drenched from night sweats. It is the bodily weakness and my own sense of ignorance that form the pit of blackness and fill me with impatient dread. The needle has replaced the kiss.

DEATH AND I are head to head in a total collision, pure and mutual distaste. Death does not want someone who has begun to taste of medication and is bloated and blurred. (Fat and pale - and then for a time wildly pink and purple from the medicines - and dandruffy. I am physically intellectual, finally.) But death's acquisitive instincts will win. I feel death as dirt closing over me.

Perhaps you could say I did very little with my life, but the douceur, if that is the word, Talleyrand's word, was overwhelming. Painful and light-struck and wonderful.

I have thousands of opinions still - but that is down from millions - and, as always, I know nothing.

I don't know if the darkness is growing inward or if I am dissolving, softly exploding outward, into constituent bits in other existences: micro- existence. I am sensible of the velocity of the moments, and entering that part of my head alert to the motion of the world I am aware that life was never perfect, never absolute. This bestows contentment, even a fearlessness. Separation, detachment, death. I look upon another's insistence on the merits of his or her life - duties, intellect, accomplishment - and see that most of it is nonsense. And me, hell, I am a genius or I am a fraud, or - as I really think - I am possessed by voices and events from the earliest edge of memory and have never existed except as an Illinois front yard where these things play themselves out over and over again until I die.

It bothers me that I won't live to see the end of the century, because, when I was young, in St Louis, I remember saying to Marilyn, my sister by adoption, that was how long I wanted to live: 70 years. And then to see the celebration. I remember the real light in the room; I say real because it is not dream light. Marilyn is very pretty, with a bit of self- display, and chubby, and she does not ever want to be old like Gramma. If she is alive, she would be in her seventies now; perhaps I would not recognise her on the street.

I asked everyone - I was six or seven years old - I mean everyone, the children at school, the teachers, women in the cafeteria, the parents of other children: How long do you want to live? I suppose the secret in the question was: What do you enjoy? Do you enjoy living? Would you try to go on living under any circumstances?

To the end of the century, I said when I was asked. Well, I won't make it.

True stories, autobiographical stories, like some novels, begin long ago, before the acts in the account, before the birth of some of the people in the tale. So an autobiography about death should include, in my case, an account of European Jewry and of Russian and Jewish events - pogroms and flights and murders and the revolution that drove my mother to come here. (A family like mine, of rabbis, trailing across 40 centuries, is a web of copulations involving half the world and its genetic traces, such that I, wandering in the paragraphs of myself, come upon shadows of Nuremberg, Hamburg, St Petersburg.) So, too, I should write an invocation to America, to Illinois, to corners of the world, and to immigration, to nomadism, to women's pride, to lecheries, and, in some cases, to cautions. I should do a riff on the issues of social class as they combine with passionate belief and self-definition, a cadenza about those people who insist categorically that they, not society, not fixed notions, will define who they are. My life, my work, my feelings, my death reside with them.

MY OWN shadows, the light of New York, sometimes become too much now; I pull the shades. I have been drawing spaceships for my grandson. I like to think that in a little while perhaps Ellen and I will go again to the country.

IN NEW YORK one lives in the moment rather more than Socrates advised, so that at a party or alone in your room it will always be difficult to guess at the long-term worth of anything. When I first started coming to New York, I was at college at Harvard. This was six years after the end of the Second World War. New York didn't glitter then. There were no reflecting glass buildings but, rather, stone buildings that looked stiff-sided and had smallish windows that caught sun rays and glinted at twilight: rows of corseted, sequinned buildings. Driving through the streets in a convertible owned by a school friend's very rich mother, one was presented with a series of towering perspectives leaping up and fleeing backward like some very high stone-and-brick wake from the passage of one's head. Advertising flowed past, billboards and neon and window signs: an invitation to the end of loneliness. New York was raunchy with words. It was menacing and lovely, the foursquare perspectives trailing down the fat avenues, which were transformed in the dimming blue light of the dissolving workday. Overwhelming beauty and carelessness, the city then - one of the wonders of the world.

New York was the capital of American sexuality, the one place in America where you could get laid with some degree of sophistication, and so Peggy Guggenheim and Andre Breton had come here during the war, whereas Thomas Mann, who was shy, and Igor Stravinsky, who was pious, had gone to Los Angeles, which is the best place for voyeurs. I was always crazy about New York, dependent on it, scared of it - well, it is dangerous - but beyond that there was the pressure of being young and of not yet having done work you really liked, trademark work, breakthrough work. The trouble with the city's invitation was that you were aware you might not be able to manage: you might drown, you might fall off the train, whatever metaphor you preferred, before you did anything interesting. You would have wasted your life. One worked hard or not at all, and tried to withstand the constant demolishing judgement. One watched people scavenge for phrases in other people's talk - that hunt for ideas which is, sometimes, like picking up dead birds. One witnessed the reverse of glamour - that everyone is jealous. It is not a joke, the great clang of New York. It is the sound of brassy people at the party, at all the parties, pimping and doing favours and threatening and making gassy public statements and being modest and blackmailing and having dinner and going on later. (Renata Adler used to say you could get anyone to be disliked in New York merely by praising that person to someone nervous and competitive.) Literary talk in New York often announced itself as the best talk in America. People would say, "Harold, you are hearing the best in America tonight." It would be a cut-throat monologue, disposable wit in passing, practised with a certain carelessness in regard to honesty. But then truth was not the issue, as it almost never is in New York.

I FEEL very well, and for a week now, as part of some mysterious cycle, I have felt very happy. The world still seems far away. And I hear each moment whisper as it slides along. And yet I am happy - even overexcited, quite foolish. But happy. It seems very strange to think one could enjoy one's death. Ellen has begun to laugh at this phenomenon. We know we are absurd, but what can we do? We are happy.

ME, my literary reputation is mostly abroad, but I am anchored here in New York. I can't think of any other place I'd rather die than here. I would like to do it in bed, looking out my window. The exasperation, discomfort, sheer physical and mental danger here are more interesting to me than the comfort anywhere else. I have a bed on a wooden platform - three steps up - and I lie nested at the window, from which I can see mid-town and its changing parade of towers and light; birds flying past cast shadows on me, my face, my chest.

I can't change the past, and I don't think I would. I don't expect to be understood. I like what I've written, the stories and two novels. If I had to give up what I've written in order to be clear of this disease, I wouldn't do it.

ONE MAY be tired of the world - tired of the prayer-makers, the poem- makers, whose rituals are distracting and human and pleasant but worse than irritating because they have no reality - while reality itself remains very dear. One wants glimpses of the real. God is an immensity, while this disease, this death, which is in me, this small, tightly defined pedestrian event, is merely and perfectly real, without miracle - or instruction. I am standing on an unmoored raft, a punt moving on the flexing, flowing face of a river. It is precarious. I don't know what I am doing. The unknowing, the taut balance, the jolts and the instability spread in widening ripples through all my thoughts. Peace? There was never any in the world. But in the pliable water, under the sky, unmoored, I am travelling now and hearing myself laugh, at first with nerves and then with genuine amazement. It is all around me. !

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