In celebration of Halloween, here is a short story for you. Thanks to Poetry Is Dead for publishing an early version of this story
THE WAR WITH THE DEAD
Early in the history of the war with the dead, the living invented their gods. Soon these gods were dead. Some rose again in doomed defiance, but at best were brittle zombies. Those the living had imagined as their heroes, the names they thought would secure immortality, soon joined the ranks of the dead.
This is the history of the war with the dead. Every weapon the living invent turns upon them. Yet they keep inventing new gods, new heroes, new weapons. Each new thing arising in response to the death of the old. Yet for the dead, there is no newness, no age. Only death, a gift held aloft, which the living first refuse and then reach for.
Which will one day be given. Where all gods one day go. In which all heroes, all weapons, are enfolded. To which all is destined from birth.
Yet the living resist. They drag their resistance into the future, where they die, and join the ranks of the dead. They turn on one another in their fury, when they do not willingly turn traitor, marching into the past in defeat.
The great battleground in the war with the dead is time. The dead now hold the past. The living hold the present, though the dead maintain their territories. The future is the realm still in dispute. As the future draws into the present, it is colonized by the living, and then ceded to the dead.
Each secure in their stronghold, the living and the dead both turn their faces to the future. Their weapons turn with them. What complicates the battle is that neither may enter the territory they dispute, only cast things there — their weapons, their resistance, their desire. They set events in motion, chain them forward.
The living set their explosives in the present, sending their explosions into the past. In this way, they plan to take the future. The dead, by contrast, revel in these explosions. They glory in the wakes of their ruins, create objects from the rubble. They launch these into the future, and laugh when the living drag them down into the present. In this way, the dead wage war.
The dead create dead objects from once-living objects. These objects do not interest the dead. The dead do not know their names. They return them to the living, after radiating them with time. The living should resist them, should destroy them, cast them back into the past. But they do not. Instead, they treasure them and seek their forgotten names.
The living seek to revive these objects, not knowing the mistake of this, not understanding the nature of death. Unknown objects, archaeological objects, these missives from dead cultures, constitute and embody a threat. Dead objects, which are pure objects — without names, without utility for the living — are the greatest possible threat to present concepts, present order.
Testaments to a world which was once, but is no longer. The presence of these dead objects threatens the living, threatens to unravel their world. To void its uniqueness, its consistency. Kill its future. This is why the living put ancient vases in museums, rather than destroying them or putting them to use. Like all dead objects, they must be isolated and categorized, castrated. The threat they pose must be removed.
Art, like all else, is a weapon employed by both the living and the dead. The living use art to comprehend dead objects, to imbue them with a living mystery, and in this way exorcise the demons that the dead trapped in these objects. The dead laugh. The dead use art like any other dead object. They take it from the living, draw it into the past, and cast it forward to the future, so that it ends up in the present to destroy.
Thus the art of the living becomes the objects of the dead, alien documents, incomprehensible. The dead imbue these things with death, and then return them to the living. The living, not understanding the nature of art, nor of death, make the same mistake that they make when approaching all dead objects. They attempt to enliven them, to incorporate them into the realm of the living. They interpret, analyze, over-interpret, study, proclaim the undying, universal, classical nature of the dead’s art.
All of these actions are designed to defuse this art, to dampen its disruptive power. To cut the red wire, stop the bomb. But the bomb has already gone off. Life crosses into its continuing explosion.
For the living, immortality means to walk through then return from the land of the dead, so they build their art on the models they have drawn from the dead. They then cast this art into the past. The dead recreates it for the future. To destroy the future, to disrupt the present. The dead create with violence, to do violence, so craft art as they craft all things — with pleasure.
The future is filled with objects, like art, with traps the dead have laid. The art of the dead, like all of its objects, bears no message. Its presence is its message, its violence. The dead reshape the art of the living so that, after it is returned, its shapes might resist the living’s attempts to understand and defuse them.
What the living do not understand, when they look to the future, is that it may not yet belong to the dead, but it can never belong to them. The future will not be won, except by objects. Their weapons, whether skyscrapers or poems, will be the true victors of this war.
The living shall never defeat us. We shall enfold the sun in our arms. Already the stars come to us, one by one, dwindling.
We the dead shall defeat our unborn. They shall fall gentle to the earth from ancient storms.