»  National Review Online

March 1st, 2002

  The Ghoul Impulse

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You may have heard that the CBS television network is planning a documentary program about the destruction of the World Trade Center. The program is scheduled to be shown on March 10th. Controversy is stirring. The head of an advisory board for the victim's families has written to CBS, asking that they not show any graphic footage of death and mayhem.

I don't envy the producers of that show. Whichever way they go with this, they will take criticism. There is a case for being graphic, and there is a case for being discreet. To put the cases in nutshells:

You can decide for yourself which way you, personally, want to go on this. I myself lean towards the graphic representation of those terrible events. I believe I can justify this attitude on general grounds, but first I want to tell a story. It's a true story, that happened to me many years ago, when I was a student in England.

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I was exceedingly poor at the time, living in a rented room on the third floor of an old Victorian house in a seedy district of Liverpool, which is a port city in the north-west of England. Being a port city, Liverpool had a lot of immigrants. To make a bit of extra money, I gave private English lessons to some of these people. That's what I was doing one Sunday morning, going over irregular verbs with a Chinese immigrant in my room.

The first floor of the house was let as an apartment to two male students from the university. The house also had a basement, an unlit, unheated, smelly place full of rotting junk and infested with mice. We stored coal in the basement. The house's only heating was from coal fires in open fireplaces in the rooms. A coal truck would come by every so often and tip a load of coal through one of the basement windows. We'd trek down to the basement with flashlights and buckets and bring up what coal we needed. I tell you, La bohème had nothing on my student days.

Well, there I was slogging through English grammar with Mr. Tsang (for some reason, I still remember his name — he ran a small take-out place on one of the streets west of Princes Park), when suddenly there was a terrible sound from down below. There is no way to describe that sound except in clichés, for which I apologize. It was like a banshee. It made my blood run cold. It made the hair stand up on the back of my neck. And it was coming up the stairs. Poor Mr. Tsang was even more scared than I was. I can still see his face: a mask of terror. (I am really sorry about these clichés.) My busy, structured, ordinary little Sunday morning had turned into an M.R. James story.

What had happened was that one of the two lads on the first floor had gone down into the basement to fetch coal. While he was filling his bucket, he had happened to glance into a dark alcove off at one side. There he had seen the other boy, the one he shared the first floor with, hanging from a pipe against the wall. The poor fellow had committed suicide during the night.

I was the only responsible person in the house. The rooms on the second floor were occupied by a West Indian sailor and his family. The sailor was at sea, and his wife was consoling herself in his absence with an assortment of mind-altering drugs, interrupting her stupor occasionally to scream at her children, who were in process of going feral. The other rooms were empty, or occupied by people we never saw. The poor lad doing the banshee noises had headed instinctively up to my room. I let him in and got the essential details from him. I went down to the basement with my flashlight. There was poor Jerry (not his real name), hanging in the darkest corner he could find.

I called the police. In the fullness of time, two officers arrived. Liverpool is a rough town, and after a couple of years on the force, a cop has seen pretty much everything. I took them down to the basement. They shone their flashlights on poor Jerry. "Well,"  said one of the officers, "he wasn't kidding, was he?"  (I didn't get this remark at the time. Someone later explained to me that attempted suicide, of the "cry for help"  variety, is much more common than actual suicide, and most of the suicide calls that cops get are only attempts, of various degrees of sincerity.)

Some police conversations then took place on walkie-talkies. The upshot of them was, that we should cut Jerry down and lay him on the floor. The senior policeman produced a large Swiss army knife. "I'll cut the rope,"  he said (it was actually the draw-string of a dressing-gown), "Youse fellas just bring him down nicely and lay him over there."  So myself and the junior officer each took one side of Jerry, brought him down, and laid him on the filthy floor of the basement. I had never, up to that point, grasped the full meaning of the word "stiff,"  as applied to corpses. Jerry was as stiff as a plank. Also icy cold (this was January).

Various things followed. More police arrived, and a doctor to certify death. The room-mate had fallen asleep in my room, and slept through to evening. (A peculiar reaction, I have always thought; but in situations like this, everything is peculiar, all normal rules suspended.) A van came and took Jerry away. Mr. Tsang, a superstitious man, refused to come to the house any more, and found someone else to give him English lessons. The West Indian sailor, when back ashore a few days later, proved to be even more superstitious. He would not even enter our street, but sent shipmates round to evacuate his wife and belongings. There was an inquest at which I gave evidence. Jerry's parents, horribly smitten with grief, spoke angrily to me, seeming to feel I should have prevented the suicide somehow. In fact I had hardly known the boy. I never did find out why he killed himself. There was no love interest that anyone knew of. He was a decently good student, and in fact something of a star athlete on the university track team. Well, perhaps someone solved the mystery, but I never did.

Now, here's the main point. Some time after this, I got dumped by a girl I'd been seeing, a girl I liked quite desperately. She was in another town at the time, for reasons not relevant, and dumped me by mail. She did it as nicely as it can be done; but I'm afraid I did not take the rejection easily. I was, in fact, spitting furious. I tried writing back to her — angry, bitter, insulting letters. Sensibly, I did not send them. At last, having reached some sort of plateau of rage and self-pity, I sat down and consoled myself with a beer and a cigarette. (I am an ex-smoker.)

At this point I somehow got to thinking of Jerry. I remembered how he'd looked and felt; how his parents had looked at the inquest; how the cops had reacted, and the many worse things they must have seen. Soon, with these thoughts, and the beer, and the nicotine, and perhaps some music I was playing — I don't recall the details — I slipped into a state of mind I can barely describe, whose main characteristic was a tremendous, all-encompassing pity. I saw clearly the smallness and fragility of human life, its brevity and insignificance, its unity with uncaring Nature, the terrible loneliness of the human soul, trapped in its little forked bag of fluids, squawking pitifully into the wind. I thought of the lines from the burial service: "Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live, and is full of misery. He cometh up, and is cut down, like a flower …"

I wouldn't call it a religious experience. I think I'm probably too self-centered to have a religious experience. Certainly I was aware of myself and my surroundings the whole time. Still, when I hear people of deep religious faith talking — when I hear the Dalai Lama, for example, speaking about "compassion for all sentient beings" — I understand perfectly what they are talking about. While the mood was on me, I did the right thing: I wrote a gracious and friendly letter to the girl, a letter to be proud of, a gentlemanly letter, wishing her well.

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Jerry's is the only corpse I have ever been up close and intimate with. Most of us, in this time and place, are well insulated from the reality of death. This is, taking the historical long view, an unnatural state of affairs. Our ancestors knew death very well, and saw it frequently, personally. For most of the long millennia in which the human personality formed, death was an everyday companion. It would be hard to argue that people were improved by the experience: those long ages were full of cruelty and inhumanity. In London well into the 19th century, and on the American frontier much later, public executions were a popular spectacle — people took picnic lunches. Wars were fought with grim ferocity; "compassion for all sentient beings"  was not in noticeably more plentiful supply in 1802, or 1702, or 1602 than it is in 2002.

And yet I have no doubt at all that I am a better person for my own short encounter with death. I often think of Jerry, and the way he looked, and the way he felt; and when I think those thoughts, they lead me to think more clearly about human life in general — mine and others. I believe there is an instinct in all of us to want to acquaint ourselves with death from time to time, to look it in the face, to stare it down. A dead body is a disgusting thing, to greater or lesser degree depending on the circumstances of death, but it is also, and much more, something else, when you are up close to it: it is pathetic. We know this in our minds, but we have an urge to see it, to experience it: that's why we slow down to check out an accident on the expressway, half-hoping (come on, admit it) to see something grisly. And when we do see such a thing, we feel overwhelming pity — one of the two components of tragic drama, according to Aristotle. (The other being fear.)

I don't use the word "ghoul" myself. When people rubberneck at an accident site, I think they are doing a natural and instinctual thing, a thing which, if consummated, will improve them in some measure. I feel sorry for the relatives of the 9/11 victims, and I understand that the public display of the bodies of those they once loved is an indignity. I believe, however, that showing the awful truth of what happened — with, of course, some sensible editing for the sake of decency — will out-weigh that indignity, and be a general public benefit. Let us know what was done to us, in more detail than we have so far been shown. Then, when we set out to do what we need to do to our enemies, let's do it not in a spirit of whooping blood lust, but coldly and grimly, in full knowledge, full understanding, of what it means to cut short a human life, to turn smiles and kisses and laughter into the stiff pale grimace of death.