You Must Remember This...
(and, yes, a sigh is just a sigh)
Recently, on social media, I encountered this literary allusion:
I remembered that I had written something about it, in Cenotaphs. The book’s main character is a writer who fantasizes about—and plots—his own disappearance. Along the way, he writes several stories in order to explore his options.
This is a portion of one chapter:
Stranded at the Front Desk
J. D. Scrittore, as he ages, begins to augment his writings about castaways and runaways with musings about the nature of fame and what it means to be remembered by others. For some time, he mulled over a potential story idea set in an imaginary place where famous deceased people are forced to linger, stalled in centuries of purgatory.
Before a departed soul can move on to nirvana, heaven, the happy hunting ground, or other—less desirable—destinations, it must sever all ties to the world of the living. Until then, it is stuck in this existential no-man’s-land.
In a bit of irony, every one of them had spent their lives seeking fame. They craved nothing more than to be recognized by others of their kind, and to be remembered by them. Whether they sought recognition through good works, politics, the arts and sciences, heroism in battle or on the playing field—it didn’t matter. The flipside of every accomplishment was the simple egotism of wanting to be remembered.
They hadn’t realized that all their plans shared the same tragic flaw. After death, one thing prevents their immortal souls’ progress: they remain tethered to their former world in the memories of the living. In short, they have no hope of getting past the cosmic waiting room until everyone still living on Earth forgets them.
The waiting room is vast. As far as the eye can see: geniuses and famous fools; poets and scientists; scoundrels and saints; lovers and mortal enemies (who, it turned out, had been—in fact—mortal). The great names of history languish in an eternal state of becoming, never achieving the desired state of being. Plato is right there among them, complaining bitterly about his lot—and filled with remorse. By keeping the memory of his beloved teacher alive, he had inadvertently condemned him to the same purgatory. Socrates’s draft of hemlock was nowhere near as bitter as the one that his famous student had served him.
Charlemagne, Shakespeare, Vlad the Impaler, Galileo, the Marquis de Sade, Elvis, Raphael, Marie Antoinette, Benedict Arnold, and Percy Shelley mope singly in corners, or in disconsolate small groups. They slouch on frayed couches that look like rejects from a Salvation Army thrift store.
Ozymandias joins them in the waiting room sporadically.
That infuriates Shelley. The ancient Greeks (who used the name “Ozymandias” for an Egyptian pharaoh who died a millennium before them) were all dead, and his fame had died with them. Shelley’s eternally pissed off. While he had done his best to rejuvenate the old name, the only living people who ever read his poem are students, but they forget it as soon as they are out of school.
Einstein and Newton are off by themselves, shooting dice with self-conscious irony. Newton is always a sore loser, but Einstein usually has a contented look about him. He may be stuck in one of the anterooms of eternity, but he knows that—in space-time theory—everything that ever happened, or ever will happen, is already in place, and will exist forever. It is all the same to him.
The story idea fascinates Scrittore, but he’s having the devil of a time putting it down on paper. He keeps thinking of famous people who only became more famous by disappearing. How can he worm them into his developing plot? He imagines a separate room, where Ambrose Bierce, Judge Crater, Amelia Earhart, and Henry Hudson must sit together—but what can they possibly have to say to each other? Would they lament that they are remembered for nothing more than something over which they had no control?
Crater, the writer suspects, would be more annoyed than the others. He is stuck in this waiting room solely because of his disappearance. Why else would an ordinary judge, even a Federal judge, be remembered by anyone after a few centuries? It was a dirty trick, something never even conceived—let alone concocted—by the dirty tricksters of Tammany Hall.
Scrittore sits alone, mocked by the cruel glare of white pixels on his computer’s screen. Writer’s block has never plagued him before, but this story has trapped him in his own personal purgatory. He wonders if Melville—who could effortlessly cover page after page with scrawled text—had ever been so afflicted. If so, was “The Whiteness of the Whale” no more than a metaphor for the horror of facing the whiteness of the page? Was it an omen? A forewarning to future generations of English majors—about a “certain nameless terror” destined to emerge from inky depths to drown their literary aspirations?
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