Roger Ebert recently wrote about the deaths of loved ones and how this has caused him to dwell perhaps a bit too much on his own mortality. It’s coming for all of us. For most of us, the younger we are, the less we concern ourselves. Being forty-something, I’m at that point where I think about it more than I’d rather admit, but probably not as much as I should. I’m over that hill, and picking up speed.
I found myself reading his words out loud to myself, because I have always enjoyed how Ebert crafts sentences in a manner that is so easy on the tongue and so effortlessly like casual water cooler talk while at the same time just being a poetic master of the language. It’s a dance. I rather imagine Roger Ebert like myself in only this manner; an intellectual commoner. One who knows both the world of the blue collar and the world of the white collar. Not afraid to get his hands dirty, but also appreciates a good vintage or a proper symphony. When writing as an intellectual commoner, ya wanna relate to where you came from but you also aspire to where you’re going, or where you hope to be someday, or where you already were and to heck with those bastards. So you talk easy but throw in the occasional quarter dollar word like it’s a three penny whistle, just to show off now and again. Not too much or they’ll think you’re showing off, which you are. A bit.
Anyway, I like how he throws down words. His thoughts of mortality caused my thoughts to drift. I wish I could be his voice for a day, but as I read his words I could see my voice would fail to appease his need: he wants his own voice back. He doesn’t want others speaking for him. He doesn’t need others speaking for him. He wants people to remember his voice. The voice he so identifies as his own and has since long before any of us read his critiques of cinema, or seen him thumb wrestling with Siskel.
So if I were to be his voice, I’d have to study his voice. Not in an attempt to copy exactly how he used to articulate, but to better understand his phrasing and inflection, so I could do his words justice to others who have never heard his ‘true’ voice, as well as seek the approval of others, who like me, remember how Ebert sounded. However, I couldn’t ever do better than Ebert himself before his lost his vocal chords, and I dare say I could do no better than a software program he has which allows him to use a limited vocabulary of his own voice in digitized form, from countless recordings he had made in his career. And even THAT really doesn’t do justice to the man we remember, and the self he remembers.
All I could do is offer my voice, but it wouldn’t be his voice. It’d be my voice using his words. I once called a radio station here in Texas in a vain attempt to get the DeeJay to play a local band I enjoyed at the time. He asked me who they sound like and the first band that came to mind was The Eagles (tho my local band was better). The DeeJay was like why don’t I just play The Eagles? And I said cuz they’re not MY band! The DeeJay sucked. This was back when calling in a request line was just beginning to die away. Nowadays as I understand it, it’s not even possible to call in requests to radio stations. Anyway, the DeeJay failed to understand that I didn’t want to hear The Eagles again. I wanted to hear MY favorite local band, and I wanted to be certain others would hear it too, and might enjoy them as I did. That band no longer exists by the way. I don’t know many you remember them. I still have their CDs. They sit unplayed on my shelf. I should remedy that. Keep them alive one more time if only for an audience of me. At least I still remember them.
Reading Roger Ebert’s words also reminded me of something that.. well the past few weeks I’ve noticed a lot of things remind me of this. I read about this only recently and while it doesn’t sound like something i never knew before, it has as of late sort of haunted my mind in a way that unsettling thoughts do. Laurie Anderson once said language is a virus but perhaps it’s the thoughts that they carry that burrow about like worms in the brain, not the language itself.
Practically every cell of the body is replaced with time. Skin cells slough off every few weeks or months. muscles may take years to recycle anew from old, but who you were seven years ago is not the same exact person you are today. Except for the brain and spinal cord. I haven’t found in my reading any indication those cells regenerate like the rest of the body. I’m sure I must be wrong. A scientist has a better grasp of this than me, but when people talk of nerve damage, it’s usu assumed they won’t grow back over time. I think the nervous system I have now, with perhaps only some regeneration and growth and change, is essentially the same since at least puberty, if not the same roughly since early childhood development completed some point soon after infancy. Perhaps there’s a part of me that has been with me since I was still in my mother’s womb, that part of me, if it exists, would be inside my nervous system.
We are only our nervous system. The muscles, skin, bone, and everything I think of as me when i point at myself is just an exoskeleton and transit vessel for the brain and connecting nerves. I’m a little jellyfish inside a chassis, riding around sensing the universe through a device of my own genetic’s blueprint.
This haunts me because what I see in the mirror is who I think I am but there’s also a me in my mind’s eye that i see in dreams and doesn’t look like the me in the mirror. Then there’s this cold reality that I’m really just a grey blob w/tenuous feelers, more like a jelly fish than a man. Who am I? Objectively? Subjectively?
Who is Roger Ebert? Is he the man recollecting his past writing words on a page? Is he the Roger Ebert we all still remember laughing and debating with Gene Siskel in front of a camera? Is the the child in those photos he looks at with friends and family? Is he only the memories of himself? Is he the memories of everyone who has ever known him? Is he just a grey jellyfish in his own chassis, and all the rest of this is not him? Are we as individuals nothing at all like how we actually perceive ourselves? Are we not who we are?
When I look at myself in the mirror, I am not just that. Just what I see. I am more than the sum of my parts. And if I am also how others perceive me, then there’s parts of me i will never meet. Parts of me i will only get glimpses of, when others behave to me differently than I intended. Their perception of me will not reflect my perception of myself. Nor perhaps should it.
When I die, Roger Ebert will not remember me at all cuz he’s never met me, but others have and I will live on perhaps in their memories, just as my father lives on for me in my own, and in the memories of anyone who ever met my father, who never met a stranger. He’d talk your ear off if you let him. Oh I’m NOTHING compared to him when it comes to longwindedness. You have no idea.
When Roger Ebert dies, will he not live on as other great American thinkers? Like Mark Twain and Will Rogers and George Carlin? Are his words not just as memorable? His contributions to society just as unforgettable in their own way? Is that really who he is, though, or is that just a reflection of who he really was? The little boy in dated photographs with tall people around him whose names are on the lips of so few now. Are they no longer who they were, because no one remembers them? Is our longevity, indeed our immortality, dependent solely on the words we leave behind? The language? The viruses of thought we endeavored to inject into humanity before our passing?
I’m not a fan of the animated series Futurama, but I do like the idea of keeping famous people’s heads in jars so that they can quip one-liners for all eternity. I like the idea for purposes of fictional narrative, but be careful what we wish for. Would we really want Siskel & Ebert’s heads floating forever inside jars? Is it not enough we got them floating inside our own psyches? And in either scenario, are they who they are? Are we who we are?
There’s no after life. Let’s not even dwell on that, but there is a life hereafter in the lives of those we leave behind, and our longevity will depend on their interest, and on whether or not what we left for them will be enough for them to dwell on our memories. We will be who we were to them; who they will need us to be, if indeed we’re needed at all.
Sobering. Humbling. Disconcerting perhaps. Not distressing. At least not to me. At least not yet.