I want to write about sex and about death. Since writing was invented it is hard to think of a writer who didn’t embrace these two states of the human condition. They jockey throughout life like two racecars fighting for pole position, and we go along for the ride, strapped into the passenger’s seat of both cars, pretending that we are at the wheel. We avoid thinking that sooner or later we are going to crash both cars. Our brains program us to believe that we are Formula A professional drivers. That individually our skill shapes, alters and controls our destiny. It’s a simple delusion that sitting in the back is the same as being at the wheel but it does pull us through the day (and night).
That’s the reality of life. Your two cars are going over the cliff and into the void. Sex is the one that usually stalls out and sputters to a stop first. Old age sputters, too, and sometimes needs a little push before gravity takes over. And if you look in the rearview mirror, you’ll see a long line of cars right on your bumper about to follow you into the void.
Why the gloom, Moore? What Celtic genes are switching through your synapses that sends a chemical bath through your neuron system and comes out the other end as the ritual of a shotgun marriage between sex and death and a James Dean finality to all of it?
Sir Frank Kermode
It started with Sir Frank Kermode died on Wednesday in Cambridge at the age of 90. He’d written over 50 books. He’d been knighted. He was a Shakespeare scholar, too. Sir Frank wasn’t a relative, a mentor, a friend or even someone I’d recognize passing him on the street. His drive over the cliff of life has been noted in the literary blogs, that faint cluster of stars in the far reaches of the visible Net universe.
Sir Frank with 90 innings at the plate and 50 home runs is inducted into the Pantheon of those few who are nominated by the living as having accomplished a good life, left behind a body of work with his name attached, and contributed to our knowledge and understanding about literature. I think of Sir Frank as someone who represented the high road, what we call ‘high culture.’ He is scheduled to go from life to myth and legend. That apparently is the best we can hope for when the nose of our car points due south and into the void.
So far I suspect a number of readers have been skimming this article impatiently wanting to know when do we get to Sex. That’s the leveler, the Pantheon of beings that gets our engines going. Either you do it, read or watch others doing it, talk about doing it, buy medicine that promises doing-it performance, shop for doing-it accessories, think or day dream about doing it, or have dreams in which you definitely out distancing Robocop in the doing-it department.
This brings me back to Sir Frank. We don’t think about old people having sex. Dying, yes. That’s what they’re supposed to do, get out of the way, make way for the young horny ones in our midst. Let’s take a short drive down the low road. Our driver is Shigeo Tokuda, who started his porno film career at 60-years old, and fifteen years later, hitting the 75-year mark, has 200 films under his belt (so to speak). Mr. Tokuda (no knighthood on the horizontal bamboo mat in his future) claims no need to swallow a Viagra before the cameras roll. His position (he assumes many in his films) is that getting and maintaining an impressive erection is purely psychological. Most of Mr. Tokuda’s co-stars are females who are around 30-years old. There is a whole genre of porno films labeled ‘elderporn’ where the age difference between the elderly male and his counterpart is best measured in light years. There is also a sub-genre of elderly women having sex with young men but apparently the market for such films is thin.
When Shigeo Tokuda follows Sir Frank over that cliff for his final take, he may not be remembered for his insights into Shakespeare but for his starring roles in such classics as Tit-Lover Old Man Kameichi and His Horny Pranks.
High road or low road, like blue pill or red pill. You have a choice in the road you take. Authors make that choice every time they start a book. Writing blends death and sex into myth, folktale, legend and serving up a strong brew turns us into addicts. We drink down to the last dregs such stories and ask for a refill. The reality is Sir Frank’s opus makes believe that lives devoted to the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom are the pinnacle of human existence and shows our true potential for opening our minds. But our dirty little secret is that we’d trade places playing Shigeo Tokuda’s understudy in our old age rather than parsing the meaning of Hamlet into a book-sized essay. In our heart of hearts, something tells us that while we can never aspire to the likes of Sir Frank, we have a fighting chance to follow Shigeo Tokuda’s example to the final moment when the lights are cut and the stage goes dark.
I could leave Sir Frank and Shigeo at this point. But that would do both of them a disservice. There is something not quite right in the mash up of two very different lives that should stop us from snickering into our hand. This is where SLIM comes into the picture.
The SLIM, which is short-hand for Small, Limited and Impermanent, describes the outer ring dimensions of a single human life. It doesn’t matter whether you’re aiming to be Sir Frank or Mr. Shigeo, SLIM is what all of us are stuck with, including you. We have a sense in a celebrity driven world that some lives appear to be inflated, expanded beyond the normal, and indeed in a real sense these lives give the impression of a SLIM violation.
But there can be no such violation. The human condition is the same for everyone. No one is an exception—no one is immune to SLIM as it is the fundamental rule of defines our existence.
There is another point about the high and low roads. The guardrails and yellow line down the center are come from morality, laws and ethics. We are taught from an early age to follow these rules of the road. But we love our outlaws and our porno stories nonetheless.
The best writers sculpture stories populated with characters who promise to have found a trap door and chance of escape from SLIM. In reality fiction, such a conceit usually is the characters undoing. In fantasy and science fiction, the elements are bent, twisted, and the way out is something that looks vaguely like the human condition but is post-SLIM, like the promise of post-human singularity life. The digital world promises a kind of abstract immortality that is impossible in our analog biology. In the digital universe you are converted into a kind of ‘fingerprint’ in a book where we keep track of whose existences are worthy of remembrance.
Books and films and music—the arts—offer readers a chance to transcend their human condition, sweep aside the SLIM, and substitute a human condition that is much larger, borderless and permanent. The journey to find such alternatives is our tragedy. Noir is the world where the characters never will stand a chance at such transcendence, a world where all the guardrails and center lines are an illusion, the headlights are switched off, and the character drive blind. In the noir world, at each step, the reader understands the utter futility of fighting SLIM. Shigeo Tokuda will one day need to pop a Viagra, and later on the day will come when even Viagra won’t do the trick. Laughter will rain down from the rest of us when that happens, as we secretly believe that unlike Shigeo we will be spared this humiliation as our young co-star lights a cigarette, wraps the sheet around her and winks into the camera.
50 books, 90-years old is an accomplishment; make no mistake about that. Sir Frank gave us our best shot at blowing a hole through SLIM. Bigger caliber rounds have bounced off the shell of SLIM before, and bigger rounds will be loaded and fired in the future. Why do we continue to believe the impossible can be achieved in a single life?
Because so much of life is in working out the daily stuff of existence, Sir Frank working over a draft of a book, Shigeo driving to the studio, brushing teeth, eating, checking email, taking a phone call, reading a newspaper, gossiping with a friend, helping out someone in the family or a neighbor. It doesn’t add up to much. It lacks weight and importance. It is so incredibly impermanent. We crave a life that tips the scales as having been heavy and strong and long.
As writers we undertake the tasks of finding the location of such weight and meaning among the rubble of day-to-day existence and attached these dispatches which makes life grander, more exciting, and purposeful. Unless you write noir which puts your nose into SLIM and asks you as the reader to keep on breathing.
Like bends in the road, a story—noir or otherwise—demarks a path, and characters need a good reason to go down that path, equipped with the skills to negotiate the twists and turns, and dealing with the troubles along the way. The destination is, as they say, not the reason to travel; it is the journey and what happens along the way that defines us.