Sometimes, the English language plays along. A god-like king of dreams has died, and so there is a wake. Dreams, in the literal sense at least, die upon the dreamer’s waking, and so, too, in The Sandman when Morpheus is no more: the dreamers wake.
There is a sense of quiet throughout this chapter, a quietude. And more so: gravity. Not for lack of words; there are plenty of words throughout these pages. Instead, the quiet, grave, pensive sorrow filling each panel seeps from the pencil lines and muted hues, the scored shadows along most of the edges, and all the downcast eyes. Though the chapter is not rich with plot, it gives an inescapable sense of motion, an undercurrent — the characters are all drawn toward the last page, the last panel. It’s the greatest, grandest view of the Endless we’ve yet seen, but also in many ways the coldest, for they look like stone monuments against a slate sky. “They are the family,” a character says.
Families have a particular power at funerals. We assume a sense of loss greater than that from elected affinities. I vividly remember being at my paternal grandfather’s funeral when I was about eight years old, and standing at the receiving line afterward, with everyone coming out and paying such close attention to me, such deference. (I was the only grandchild, the last of the line.) I enjoyed and was embarrassed by the power of all the gazes, the solemn hands shaking mine, the mournful faces seeking mournfulness in my own. It felt like a performance, like I was an actor with a specific role to play.
Wakes and funerals and memorials offer plenty of opportunity for performance. Such ceremonies and performances serve various purposes, but one of those purposes can be to allow us a way to perform grief and through that performance, perhaps, to turn it into something we can live with, and live through. (Raw grief can only be lived, not performed; experienced, not acted. It is unformed, uncontrolled, and thus debilitating. Performance gives us power over it.) We show our loss and observe the sense of loss shown by others. We unite around the figure remembered. If we are The Family, we gain strength from being perceived as The Family, even if, outside the gravitational force of the memorial we drift away from each other, or dislike each other, or spread rumors about Cousin X’s gambling and Uncle Y’s failed marriages and Niece Z’s adoration of Jersey Shore.
Attendees at a wake who are not The Family can also create a sense of meaning for their grief and for their own mortality by paying respect to the dead. By paying respect, it suggests a connection: we don’t pay respect to people we don’t know, people we have no connection to, no way to judge respect beyond the basic fact of their humanity. We are drawn closer through memorializing, we see ourselves through the dead. Our attention is, for a moment (perhaps for the first time, perhaps for the millionth), given exclusively to the person who has died. Even if it is false, is that so bad? Sometimes, we participate in the Grief Olympics, vying not only for the Gold Medal in General Grieving, but also for medals in I Knew Them Better Than Anyone Else and Their Life Touched Me In Unique & Exclusive Ways. The world could probably do with fewer such games, but appreciating someone more after they’ve gone than when they were alive, while less desirable perhaps than the opposite, is still at least an appreciation.
I think now of the flawed but interesting film World’s Greatest Dad, written and directed by Bobcat Goldthwait and starring Robin Williams as a bland and ineffective father of an utterly repulsive and reprehensible young man who dies from autoerotic asphyxiation. The father disguises the death as a suicide, writes a suicide note, and the note eventually becomes a kind of cult item at the school where the boy was loathed. In death, he is seen anew. His personal effects become relics, and the father, who is a failed writer, creates a fake diary for the son that furthers the legend of this supposedly misunderstood and secretly deeply sensitive young man.
At the end of the movie, though, Williams comes clean and admits to everything. This honesty proves liberating for him, but as I sat watching the movie it seemed to me a case of honesty not being in the best interests of society at large. The lie had caused the students and teachers at the school, people who had treated the boy very badly (understandably so, given how obnoxious he was, but still: chicken or egg?), to reflect on their actions and clearly to become more empathetic, understanding, and pleasant human beings. By shattering this useful illusion, the father likely turns them all into embittered, suspicious cynics.
The wake for The Sandman is just beginning, so we don’t know yet what its repercussions will be, or if there will be Grief Olympics, or if honesty will be useful, or what sort of performances we’ll see.
The mourners have gathered, pulled along by yarns of past stories, drawn together from dreams.
Let the wake begin…
Matthew Cheney has published fiction and nonfiction in a variety of venues, including One Story, Weird Tales, Locus, Rain Taxi, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, and elsewhere. A collection, Blood: Stories will be published by Black Lawrence Press in January 2016. He is the former series editor for the Best American Fantasy anthologies and currently a co-editor of the occasional online magazine The Revelator. His blog, The Mumpsimus, was nominated for a World Fantasy Award in 2005. He is working toward a Ph.D. in Literature at the University of New Hampshire, where his research focuses on the work of Virginia Woolf, J.M. Coetzee, and Samuel R. Delany.