- The Rest Is Silence
My wife tells me that my epitaph should read, "NOW IT'S YOUR TURN TO TALK!"
The above sentence was the result of a self-imposed challenge to see how brief a piece I could write that would still be long enough to sketch a person and an interaction. Sometimes an easy grader when it comes to myself, I at first felt content, feeling that my super-short communication succeeded in evoking both my characteristic verbosity and the fraying of patience this quality calls forth in my wife.
However, I rarely rest content with a first understanding.
In actuality, the suggested epitaph arose not from my wife but from me. Yet had I not put the words in my wife's mouth, I would have been left with a sentence that sounded precious, one that appeared to have a smirk of self-admiration rather than a smile of interpersonal wit. The implicit dialogue between two people would disappear, leaving in its place the wearisome vanity of one congratulating himself on his own sense of humor.
If this were a first-person pronouncement, what would be even worse than the presence of my exposed vanity would be the absence of interpersonal interaction. Soliloquies that work, such as those created by Shakespeare, are not monologues but powerful dialogues between different parts of one person's mind. For writing to succeed there must be a give and take, at least an implicit conversation between a speaker and an emotionally responsive other. Lacking that is to be left with [End Page 451] pure exposition, in which information may be transmitted but conversation absent.
Curiosity did not die after my one-sentence article grew to the length of what I have written so far. I next found myself turning from how I had written my exercise to concern for what was being said. I had to recognize more profound pressures underlying the already-noted superficial concerns of form.
It is much less common for an epitaph to speak the words of the dead person than for it to be a remembrance offered by those still alive. My creating the inscription has, at least in fantasy, the quality of diluting—if not fully undoing—my demise. It is as if I were saying, "See, I can still have a conversation with you, the living. All right, perhaps I can no longer speak aloud for myself, but I can listen. Even though it may be lopsided, our conversation can continue, so death is not complete."
Of course, an irony of my single-sentence story is that my character, as the person who has died, is that of a long-winded talker. The imagined victory over death in my epitaph would thus carry with it the horrible personal punishment of my being confined to the hell of eternal listening without the power to speak. My imagined solution to dying etched on the tombstone is a dreadful failure. This being the case, I think I prefer the clarity of nonbeing to the mysteries of death.
In this note from me to you, dear reader, have I now done to you what I feared for myself? Have I turned you into the silent listener?
Now it's your turn to talk. [End Page 452]
Washington, D.C. 20015