John Burnside

I am waiting for a plane at Newark. Time was when anywhere in an airport was a good place to read, or just to go slack and empty, to be nobody in particular and, by that token, more specifically yourself. Now, there are TVs everywhere, placed so that, as I wander out of earshot of one, I come to the next, the news of the latest atrocity or government scandal following me from point to point with all the power and insistence that amplified trivia possess in our time. Even the bars and restaurants offer no escape, though here the chatter is usually about sports or the latest in a long line of ill-behaved boy bands. Today, however, things are slightly different because today we are being prurient about death. Or rather, about an afterlife that, for some time, has been a matter of common knowledge: a moment’s fear, then a white light from which some beneficent doorman out of central casting steps forward to welcome the newly departed. This anteroom of the world to come is taken for granted by millions, including possibly the same 86 per cent of Americans who told the Larry King Show that they believed in aliens and almost certainly the proportion of that number who say that those aliens have the same supernatural abilities as Lucifer and the fallen angels. Today’s testimony doesn’t stretch that far. In fact, it’s fairly routine stuff. What is interesting is the human dimension.

It seems that the interviewee – whose voice reveals that she is a youngish middle-aged woman from the Midwest – died two years ago in her local ER: according to her doctors, she says, she was ‘clinically dead’ for seven minutes. Now, in her mind’s eye, she sees the ER staff at work, nurses and doctors bustling about the body she has just left and calling for more of something, just like on TV, and she finds all the fuss and urgency surprising because she feels quite calm and not frightened at all. Then comes the light and she is moving into it, away from the mess of this world, with only the briefest pause to wonder why it is all so easy, why she is so free of regret when she has everything to live for: good husband, happy at work, lovely children, the usual formula. The hesitation does not last, however, and soon she is engulfed, the kindled light around her more like a cloud than a god, a cloud filled with all memory, all data. This wife and mother wants to go, she wants to leave everything behind, the old life dwindling pleasantly away, an overwhelming sense of peace flooding her spirit, until someone or something within that holy and merciful light informs her that she has to go back, that it’s not her time yet. She still has work to do.

So she returns to the ER, where a voice is still calling for something and the soul’s light has gone to grey. She returns and, as she tells it, her grief for what she has lost is palpable. I wonder what her children make of all this, or what her husband thinks, as he drives her to work. ‘Larger,’ she says, ‘it was larger’ (or words to that effect) and then she stops – but now we’ve heard it in her voice, not just regret for another world but also that her story is over. As in some latter-day Magnificat, her unworthy soul had for a moment been singled out and privileged, but what matters just as much, or even more, is that she was singled out by television, her story underwritten, her one experience worth telling set down for the posterity of YouTube, and finally made good by an authority we know we cannot trust, but still choose to believe, because it tells us, simply, unarguably, those stories that, even when they are tragic or threatening, are consonant with the narrative we were expecting. By such means, television takes possession not only of our lives, but our afterlives: the Lazarus tales we recount, rapt in wonder and joy, are immaculate scripts, already rehearsed onscreen a thousand times before. Who knows if these stories would ever have occurred to us, had we not learned them from TV?

Some years ago, I met the photographer Richard Avedon when he came to take a group portrait of some Scottish writers in a Glasgow bar. By chance, I had recently been to see his retrospective exhibition, Evidence, at the National Portrait Gallery, and had become almost obsessed by the series of pictures Avedon had made of his elderly father, Jacob, over a period of several years, culminating in a deeply moving final set in which the old man, previously dressed in formal jacket and tie, was shown in a hospital gown. Later Avedon wrote:

At first he merely agreed to let me photograph him, but I think after a while he began to want me to. He started to rely on it, as I did, because it was a way we had of forcing each other to recognise what we were. I photographed him many times during the last years of his life, but I didn’t really look at the pictures until after he died. They seem now, out of the context of those moments, completely independent of the experience of taking them. They exist on their own. Whatever happened between us was important to us, but it is not important to the pictures. What is in them is self-contained and, in some strange way, free of us both.

The full text of this diary is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in