Sunday, May 30, 2010

The Leisure to Be Dead

One of the pleasures of reading the old writers of the supernatural is that, even if a story doesn't wind up being as scary as you hoped, you will invariably be treated to some wonderful examples of style. This was the case in Ambrose Bierce's "A Jug of Sirup" (from Ghost and Horror Stories of Ambrose Bierce).

Bierce develops an entire story from one captivating turn of phrase: "... well within a month Mr. Deemer made it plain that he had not the leisure to be dead." The irony of the story is that Mr. Deemer does not have the leisure to be dead because he never had (or permitted himself) the leisure to be truly alive. In fact, his ghostly appearance is little different than his living appearance: In both cases, he is utterly absorbed in the clerical work of running his general store. The story has a comic element in the mob that storms the store when it becomes known that a specter is appearing within. No one paid much attention to Mr Deemer when he was alive; now that he's dead, people fight for the chance to get a glimpse of him, a glimpse that is indistinguishable from the thousands of glimpses they had of him while he was alive. The crowd has no time for the substantial appearance of an ordinary man; it is only when he is a shadow of his former self that he generates any interest. Why do men prefer the ethereal to the substantial? Perhaps this is a form of original sin, since to prefer evil to good is to prefer the less substantial to the more substantial.

The deadly sins kill supernatural life, so the man who succumbs to a sin like sloth (as Mr. Deemer has) is already dead in the only way that matters. When he finally dies a bodily death, his existence is not substantially changed; for him, perhaps, he does not even notice that he is dead. The story shows two forms of sloth: The man entirely immersed in the cares of the world (Luke 10:41-42), and the crowd captivated by the phenomenal at the expense of the enduring.

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