The Tense of the Dead

Back when I was teaching, I instructed my students to always use the literary present in their papers (and to split infinitives, if they so desired) — to say Nietzsche writes, not Nietzsche wrote. The argument I gave is that their papers were not about the historical person of Nietzsche — who lived and died — but about his texts which exist in the present. In this case, the name, "Nietzsche," doesn't designate a person but a set of words and concepts.

These days, I've found that when I write, I no longer use the literary present. I usually say Nietzsche wrote. I didn't decide to do this; I just started doing it because it felt right. And what I realized is that, as I've gotten older and become more and more solitary, I have come to feel as though Nietzsche — and Burroughs, Deleuze, Foucault — are my companions. I want to picture their bodies, their lives; I want their historical person as much as I want their texts. I want to live in their company, not just with their pages.

What, then, of those people we know who have died? What tense do we use to talk about them?

My sister would have been 52 last week. I use the conditional here as she — her body — didn't turn 52; her body ceased to be at 49. And when I remember certain events, the past tense seems right — I remember when she said....

But I found myself conjuring multiple tenses when I thought of her birthday. While she would have been 52, the day is still her birthday. A birthday doesn't cease to be. So her birthday is, not would have been.

The tenses get more complicated when I think, or discuss, her. For instance, do I say: She was so sweet? Or she is so sweet? Did her sweetness end? Her actions of sweetness are no more but doesn't her sweetness persist?

If we use the literary present to discuss texts from writers who are dead, why wouldn't I use the present to discuss the qualities of my sister? Her text may not be written, may not always be visual, but it exists quite palpably. My sister per se didn't cease to exist 2.5 years ago; only her body and her actions did.

And, no, I'm not talking about her soul. At least, I don't think I'm talking about her soul as I don't know what the word soul designates. I am talking about the living text, the living impressions, she made on this world and, more specifically, on me and those who knew her. Or do I say those who know her? Our knowing of her certainly hasn't ceased. I don't think I would ever say I loved her. That sounds and feels all wrong as I love her here and now.

But if I only use the present tense, it has a funny double effect. On the one hand, as when academics use the literary present, it effaces her personhood, her living life by existing only with her trace, her ghost, her memory. On the other hand, it makes her persist above and beyond her physical life and conjures her personhood here and now — who she was and who she very much still is.

And so my sister lives in multiple tenses, as I suppose we all do. She lives here and now with me —  her unshakeable sweetness, her infinite smile, her always honest laugh. I see it; I feel it; I know it. And, at the same time, all these things are past — maddeningly, excruciatingly, deafeningly so.


Unknown said...

This moved me to tears.
Thank you

Daniel Coffeen said...

Thanks for reading...

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