Memento Mori

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If you’ll excuse this post, it’s not going to be very much related to film. In fact, I meant to have this done by the time of Hamilton‘s Tony Winning night – Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical based on the life of Alexander Hamilton, largely informed by Ron Chernow’s biography. Since I’ve been listening to the soundtrack of Hamilton continuously for the past five months, there was a particular element of its story that resonates with me stronger than anything else. And I felt it necessary to at least write it down, even if I didn’t immediately intend to put this out, much less make it a Motorbreath post, given how I will be imbuing a bit of my own psychology and personal life into it. Hell, given that I have unfortunately not yet seen the actual production myself, I won’t even be talking about the musical so much as the album as a piece of radio play or concept album.

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In addition to Hamilton, I will also be throwing in another piece of pop culture, albeit not as phenomena effecting as Hamilton under my eye. Reading Scott McCloud’s recent graphic novel The Sculptor (my first narrative work by McCloud after reading both of his most popular works – literally THE books on comics) in the past month will do that, especially when it talks about the same sort of concept in my head that Hamilton brings out of me and circles around.

If you’re not in the mood to read something not film related, you are free to parse through the reviews.

You see, Hamilton is a very dense tale, scripted by Miranda. There’s a lot of inspiration in it, there’s a lot of commentary on diversity, on initiative, on relative intelligence, on what makes a belief so attractive, and so on. It’s not my favorite Broadway musical even running now – not when The Book of Mormon and Fun Home are still open – but it’s one I take a lot of obsessive to in dissecting its lyrics and musical structure. And I don’t mean to dismiss all of the things the play truly is about, because it’s very rewarding to dig into them. In any case, of all the things I discover in Hamilton, not one of them takes more precedence to being why I replay the album over and over than this:

Hamilton – in my eyes – is about two men, not just one, who live in perpetual states of memento mori. The Sculptor is not even slightly ambiguous about it: the very premise of the graphic novel is a man deciding what to do with his artistic powers while knowing he’ll die within the next year. Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr, as portrayed in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical by Miranda and Leslie Odom Jr. respectively, are two men absolutely obsessed by how close death is to them – the play opens with regards to the tragedies in Hamilton’s early life, including the death of his mother and suicide of his cousin. Burr himself suffered through untimely death of his entire family (“When they died, they left no instructions/just a legacy to protect”… “If there’s a reason I’m still alive when everyone who loves me has died”). David Smith, the titular sculptor, has almost nobody in his life – his mother, father, and sister all dying before his 26 and him being a bit too confrontational to make friends, save for his childhood friend Ollie. That very confrontational attitude is what ostracized him from the art community. Death literally approached him with his contract of unlimited artistic ability for an accelerated death in the form of his own dead uncle.

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How all three characters approach that certainty of death in the face of all the things they want must do is where the works and characters truly went scrambling in different corners of my brain.

I’ll get back to that however, for now, why does that affect me?

Back in 2008, I circled around a group of, shall we say, ‘peers’ rather than ‘friends’. The things we did together usually revolved around running around starting fights, hoodlum work, and basically spending nights getting into trouble that would affect my sleep and my attitude during the day. I had a lot of reasons: I was angry, I felt life was unfair, I didn’t like being just another anonymous face in life, work stressed me out, the future scared me, we could be here all day. And the only escape I found was taking it out on anyone whenever I could. And three of these folk, as I found out later, took my drive to jump into near-suicide so seriously that they did what any concerned individuals would do…

… They put out a pool on how and when I’d die.

I like to joke about how I’m more offended I was not allowed to buy into the pool than I am at the pool existing. In any case, the latest a bet was made was that I’d die before I turned 25.

Fast forward to today – I’ve almost immediately rushed to New York City (which also happens to be the setting of Hamilton and The Sculptor) on account of learning a friend of mine has passed and dealing with the shitshow surrounding her passing. It’s stressful, it’s complicated, it’s distracting enough to keep my mind off of my own troubles back in Miami, but it’s overwhelming enough that I have to spend every free second I have trying to put myself into something artistic or enjoying the city to unwind before I go back into the shit. It’s like five different caseloads at once. Excuse me if this post is my venting, but I’m going to at least wrap it around the main concept.

In the middle of all this, I’m thinking back to many times I’d sit and think about how many people I use to know and try to help and how many times I’d find out that they’re underground now and it starts with your mind when you could fill a good amount of a cemetery with your memories. It starts to make you feel like you’re nothing but damage, a living omen. It sucks.

And it reminds me that maybe eventually my day will be coming and my thoughts turn to the quickening perception of time speeding my death soon. And I’m remembering that pool one more time.

I am turning 24 within the next few days and it’s getting harder and harder for me not to be scared of how close that edge feels. Sure, I’ve taken things easy, but I haven’t really gotten myself to a point where being a modern-day goon feels out of the question. And it means I don’t feel out of harm’s way.

Cutting away from all that to return back to The Sculptor and Hamilton – Hamilton is a character who KNOWS he’s gonna die, he feels it in his bones, and he relishes it. He’s so transparent that within minutes of meeting him, George Washington (portrayed by Christopher Jackson) calls him out on having a “head full of fantasies of dying like a martyr.” Something we know to be true as Hamilton digs into “My Shot” with the acknowledgement “I imagine death so much it feels more like a memory”, a verse that sneaks in constantly including “Yorktown (The World Turned Upside Down)” as he euphorically expresses his excitement at being on the battlefield and the possibility of finally getting the violent death “on the battlefield in glory” (from “Right Hand Man”) until he remembers “my Eliza’s expecting me/not only that, my Eliza’s expecting”, snapping him out of it as he recognizes that now he has started something he is obliged to finish. This is also something Washington calls Hamilton out on earlier in “Right Hand Man” – the music itself abruptly stopping to push in the line “Dying is easy young, man. Living is harder.”

He has to die later, if he can help it. His wife Eliza (portrayed by Phillipa Soo) continuously reminds him to “Stay Alive” in the number of the same name, “That Would Be Enough” (established in meta mode as “the first chapter where you decide to stay” – Hamilton realizes his imminent family demands he eschew his death wish), and “Non-Stop”, adding in that he needs to take a moment to recognize that he has something to appreciate in his life “Look at where we are, look at where we started, the fact that you’re alive is a miracle”. Hamilton fails to recognize this, distracted from Eliza by his self-imposed workload, his eventual adultery, and his kinship with Angelica Schuyler.

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This doesn’t stop Death from remaining on his mind, once again transparently enough that his peers note that he writes “like you’re running out of time” in “Non-Stop” and “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” and it still hangs around him like an atmosphere as his best friend John Laurens and son Phillip (both portrayed by Anthony Ramos to drive this home) both meet untimely deaths, both of them at the end of a gun, Phillip himself in the middle of a dispute that Hamilton feels he is responsible for (and which eventually mirrors Hamilton’s own death at the hands of an enraged Burr, feeling antagonized by Hamilton). It’s the sort of thing that resonates with the sort of life I lived, people getting hurt or killed around me that didn’t need to and feeling like I was the one who set off these dominoes, even while Washington tells Hamilton “you have no control who lives, who dies, who tells your story”. Such an acknowledgement of Death as a surrounding presence reminds me of a passage from David Wong’s This Book Is Full of Spiders, Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It that captures my own thoughts when it occurs:

John sat down in the cornfield and tried to think of a dozen ways to talk himself out of it. The same rationalization—the exact same—that was running through the heads of dozens and dozens of people inside those army barriers up ahead. The families of those firemen, and the friends and coworkers of that reporter, and all of the other people who had died in an instant when everything went to shit: death was something that happened to other people. Strangers. Extras in the background. We don’t die. They die.

Smith in The Sculptor simply doesn’t recognize the gravity of his imminent fate until it’s too late. It’s all white noise for him, he’s surrounded by dead memories, he had nothing to look forward to, and nothing he has been proud of. He outright tells Death to its face, that it’s not a thing he fears approaching. It is only once he makes this contract that things start to fall in place for his life and it’s only when he’s getting closer to the end of his life that he recognizes his life has literally just began. But this is not the only thing hanging The Sculptor up about death, nor even Hamilton. See David Smith and Alexander Hamilton are more than just a pair of dead men walking…

“God help and forgive me/I wanna build something that’s gonna outlive me” Hamilton tells Burr in “The Room Where It Happens” and this is more or less the motivation behind David Smith, his frustration at not being recognized for his art due to feeling hindered and gagged out by the people he works with, hence by the time we meet him he is alone in every sense of the word. He has tossed away every potential relationship he could have gained and lost the rest as they were out of his hands. His artwork is more than just his way to deal with his memories and his pain – one particular sculpture based on a happy hopeful memory of his disabled sister; others I can’t really go into without spoiling the hell out of the story  – but it’s not enough for him to have that venting. When Hamilton mentions writing his “testament to his pain” – his early life – in the numbers “Alexander Hamilton” and “Hurricane”, it was literally to get him somewhere – to get him noted by his community and sent to America to move up. Smith’s art is meant to establish a legacy for himself to be remembered. This is further brought as an objective by the deliberate anonymity McCloud selects in naming the character – Smith shares his name with a real-life American abstract sculptor, a waitress’ cousin, and a police detective investigating him.

Hamilton runs towards the makings of his legacy (and obviously succeeds), Smith can only hope that he makes it before his numbered days run out. Burr, to return to him, is outright arrested by his own knowledge of death, covering it by stating that he’s “willing to wait for it”, until he recognizes in the number “The Room Where It Happens” that such indecision won’t cut it, starting a relentless attempt to drag Hamilton down in order to reach his spot (I’m sure I’m far from the first to note the Hamilton-Burr relationship incredibly similar to Mozart-Salieri, an envious recognition of talent in the form of a man found to be unsophisticated).

Anyway, like I said, Hamilton does what he set to do, even if he doesn’t feel it in the moment of his death in “The World Was Wide Enough”. He died with a nation built behind him, with so many things he created, standing by his words even at the cost of his own life. He may not have been satisfied, but he did what he came to do and more… “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” is testament to that.

It is the weirdest most ridiculous feeling to be absolutely smothered by feeling like I’m going to die soon, but it can’t be something I’m not thinking of when I feel so deep in it and don’t know if I can or want to get out of it. In addition to this, my feeling like I haven’t done anything I’ve truly felt I was brought here to do – nor if I truly recognized my purpose – but I’ve run out of time to figure it out is absolutely arresting.

The Sculptor, in any case, responds to the concept of legacy in a much more shocking (albeit somewhat muddled) fashion and it involves most of its final chapter involving developments that seem frankly cruel on McCloud’s part and close to nihilism. I’ll avoid spoiling this. But, it begins with David literally gloating about the security of his legacy to Death’s face and suddenly dealing with the cards life hands right in that moment. And he simply strives to make every second count to stamping his place in history as well as the people he loved in his final days until it’s suddenly cut short…

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And its literally penultimate moment: The Sculptor suggests that nothing is forever. Nobody is going to remember anybody or anything until the end of time. Everything is consigned to oblivion.

And that’s absolutely fine – it doesn’t make it any less futile to try to make a difference in the world and be remembered. But you shouldn’t take it as a failure as long as you left your mark on the people around you. And of course the final note of The Sculptor  ends up becoming suggesting that David will definitely be on everybody’s mind for a long time – followed by a jaw-dropping text afterword by McCloud that suddenly gave away the graphic novel and David’s identity as an extension of McCloud’s own heartbreak. In a graphic novel that had many moments that already nearly wrecked me because I saw so much of myself in it, that was the moment that got closest to breaking me.

In any case, Hamilton and The Sculptor had been on my mind since I first experienced them and they simply mixed into the whirlwind with my mind thinking back on how my life has gone to this point and if I think I’ll prove the same people who swore I was going to die young wrong and if I don’t, if I can be ok with how things went.

I think Hamilton and The Sculptor both help me put things in perspective enough that I could answer “yes” to both questions. Besides I promised someone who meant a lot to me that I’d at least make it to 30. But recognizing how Hamilton and The Sculptor comment on being stuck in memento mori helps me square it up in myself and that’s why both works matter as much as they do to me.

Raise a glass. Here’s to making it past 25 and beyond.

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