Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Dead Man — Ben Libman


I have come here to be murdered.


I have come here, and because I have come here, I know something about myself. What I know
is that I is another. What I know is that the way warm snows fall slantways into black rivers is
what is called a state-change. Only a change of state, from one, to the other, to the third. I have
come to see myself; I have come for a state-change.


To be murdered in this way is different from what you imagine, and also it is not different. As
you might imagine, there is ritual, a series of pantomimes and passageways. There are encrypted tokens, volunteer overlay networks, identity cleanses. There are certain shadowy circuits, and along the way you pass certain portals into which you might briefly glance. But it is better not to. You have not come here for that. As you might imagine, there are certain hesitations, and also certain invisible thresholds which, once crossed, permit no reverse course. It is a matter of cryptographic usernames and further passwords. It is a matter of, in the last instance, letting go of the fundamental share of your identity, of permitting It a degree of access such that the killing might take place. If you have gotten this far, it would only anger It to refuse your share, now. This, after all, is what you have paid for: to see yourself grovel, to see yourself a human dog, to see that quivering sheath of air as one vanishes into zero.


I and myself are one. That is the point. By giving It the contours of my face, the textures of my
voice, the rhythm of my thoughts, I give It the power to produce this synthetic judgement. I is
always a contradiction of itself: I have come here to negate myself. I have come here to watch
myself die by nearly any manner of my choosing. There is a wide selection on offer: scene,
weapon, style of confrontation, race, gender, one may pick one’s fancy. This time it is a man
who I pretend to be my father, cracking my skull with a series of golf clubs, putter to driver, as I
crawl desperately into the sandpit. This persists until truly I die, until, just before the pit, I
collapse into the dewy grass, which flexes stiffly beneath my chin, the last exhalation darting
from my nostrils and whipping a twin-plume of chalk-white sand into my curls. Again. So long
as I am here, I can see this as many times as I please. Again. There is nothing like it. There is
nothing that comes close to doing what this does to the brain, the full panoply of orgiastic
affirmation among the synapses. Dying, living through one’s death, it is a way of one becoming
two. It is a way of exorcizing the negation of one’s One, for a time. Always only for a time.
Once, I had my negated self itself be negated. I watched myself watching myself die, disemboweled by a pitchfork upon a haystack, blood pooling down the ridges like a shortcake. I
and myself and myself are one.


I do not know which is better: the moment before, or the one just after. The restless anticipation,
or the cascading shiver that leaves only through the toes. None is equal to the moment between.
The moment one’s dreams can only dream of offering: the osmosis between filmic boundaries,
the splitting of the ghost from its shell, the hint of the possibility of being present for an original
moment. It is this which gives me the energy to go on, out there, out beyond. When you are
done, the ceremony vanishes abruptly. If the palatial halls inward are gilded and veined with
black marble, the exit is a green tin door that barely keeps the clatter of knives from flooding the alleyway. And then you are out there again, post-operation and the hourglass turned, grains of sand passing through your throat. I need this in order to live. I need this in order to shore up the cracks in the sèvres. It is a matter of flipping the switch on everyone, of being the living among the dead, or being the dead among the living. To exorcize my mortality is to foist it upon you, to cast the Earth in amber and pass like a signal between the flies’ legs. I coast and shove and glide, parabolic over the city, down toward the charcoal river and its quivering lights. I come up in a gasp, darting through the spray, cutting with my wing the skin of the current. And everything else is stopped, people pinned to the spot like upturned Ys, the cabs crushing the ice-skinned puddles, shards and droplets caught in the interchange. This life is the absence of its opposite, which is all one can see from this pure, flowing vantage. I have murdered myself and gained something in return. I have molted like any old crab.


Why and wherefore are perfectly ordinary and terrible questions. When telling about oneself, one must do more than postpone the reasons. One must do more than play with the one being told, more than defer a denouement which will in fact come. So one goes further. But equally a
mistake to reach for an indecipherable cause. The promise of origin, however well disguised, is
still a promise of origin. But I come here for no particular reason; that is, there is no meaning to
it. Think of it like this: either the ice glazes the window in thick, distorted streaks, or it does not.
Either the shadow passes, or you merely thought it did. The closest thing to pleasure is to find
intensity without cause. As I wait my turn to die, I dream up this kind of occluded scenario:

A man enters his apartment at dusk. It is one degree cooler than he likes. When he places an
empty glass down on the counter, the sound can be heard clearly in every room. He turns on the
oven and climbs inside.


A cat gains access to a switchboard and begins routing calls according to frequencies he


In the car parked across the street there is a small tree, no larger than an infant, growing in potted soil. Someone watches as it grows, morning by morning. No one comes to water it, but that seems not to matter. It grows and grows. One day it snows, and the windows fail, can no longer be seen through. Come spring, the interior of the car is completely obstructed by leaves and branches, twisting and knotting indecipherably, ducking here and soaring there, pressed flat at the outer reaches against the glass and the doors, the roots penetrating the chassis and tangled around the rims, axles, engine vents, every seam shot through. Then, one morning, the car falls apart with a sigh, as if in relief, shedding its doors and wheels and skirt like a crab. And in its place: a tree, shaped like a sedan.


There is a woman who does not know the number four. When, on her kitchen table, she places
three buttons before herself, or notices the three sunflowers printed on the tablecloth, she counts them. She thinks of them as a collective, as there. With five, it is the same. But place four
buttons before her, or print an additional sunflower, or ask her how many children she has, and
she could not tell you. The sum will not come together.


Two gentlemen ride in a carriage under cover of night, hoping to make it to the ball. The one is
an alcoholic who has not had a drop in 47 minutes; sweat beads his orange moustache. The other has no eyes, though atop his ebony cane is a real human eyeball, plucked from the skull of a man during the war, preserved in epoxy. Suddenly, the wagon jolts the gentlemen up into the air, their heads colliding with the felt-lined roof. What was that? the alcoholic exclaims. The driver has not stopped. He sticks his orange head out the window and looks behind the carriage at the stretch of road blue with moonlight. My God, he says. That’s a dead body! The other sticks his sockets out his own window and stares. No, he says. It is a work of dark.


It is like a perfect sphere of an apple, without a stem. A red and yellow mottled ball of skin and
juice. It is like the absolute event. All heads toward the sky, straining to meet the sense, whereas
strewn about the anxious feet of the onlookers is the purity of a moment.


I have erected a gleaming temple upon the blue-battered cliffs of Ionia. Alright. I have placed a
jar upon a hill in Tennessee. Good. The question is: how sick am I? It is a natural thing to ask
among people who assume that to desire to see oneself dead is to be sick. It is one of several
desires circumscribed in this way. To be raving mad, to shout one’s manifesto in the street, to
weigh three-hundred pounds, to cry DEATH TO DADA, LONG LIVE LETTRISM when the aria
reaches its climax. Some will tell you that you are disturbing the social order, and others will tell
you, in digressive theorizations, that this complaint is a screen for a deeper problem, having to do with what can and cannot be known within a given arrangement of persons and their bodies, called society. Nevermind that. It is about order. It is about control. I am hated for being fat; or, I
am hated for opening the door between train cars, steel rims screaming in the dark tunnel, asking the ladies and gentlemen if they couldn’t spare a dollar for one who never had a chance. Order quivers in its sheath of air; it has a death-drive; it loves a vacuum. What they hate is the image of their own lack of control, their own insanity lying black and endless on either side of the knife’s edge upon which they are balanced, arms outstretched, knees shaking. Have you seen the footage of the man who crossed the chasm between the Twin Towers on a tightrope? All the time he thought to himself: I hope a plane does not strike one of these buildings. There are things people cannot know and so suffocate with hate. I must allow it all to be involved in what I know. I strap in, I fine-tune my end, I watch myself die. And now the world, organizing itself out of the heavy sleep of chaos, rises up to meet it—my death. In seedless entropy I have planted a center. That is
the difference between you,
and me,
and me.


All of it must be worked out as either a spiral or a series of concentric rings. If I tell you: “the
eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second,” you will have the impression that I am speaking of nested shapes. You will have the impression that each encounter with the world is a confrontation of the senses with that which is there, and that each forms its own cincture of the understanding, horizon piled upon horizon until the wick sags black into the dish. But what links one circle to another, beyond the blank disk between? Am I to imagine a complete discontinuity of time from one moment and the next? Look: now I am in the field, the sun low and catching the dry florets of barley, a goat—a goat?—dashes by, trampling the stalks. And then, spliced violently into the next instant, I am in the busy thoroughfare, watching a shelterless man lie prostrate before the bright shoes of a young tourist. Surely I am myself from one boundary to another, surely I lift boots heavy with soil and extricate myself, loping gait toward the vehicle, clutch down and shift and whoosh, then, to the city.

Not rings, then. Horizons grow ever out of one another, this bend in the river to the next, that
clause to this one, round and out. We begin with a spring from nothingness and mark the edge of its many flirtations with the circle. Both chaos and form, the tracing of experience hugs tight to the rule as it snakes its way ever outward, ever cutting new tracks like the steel-rimmed train on a banking curve. But to what end? Have you ever drawn, absentmindedly, a spiral in the corner of a page? I am doing it right now: I begin at a reasonable center, I stay the wobble in my hand, this fleshy compass, and press the graphite into the pulp fibers so cleanly bleached. And then—aiiie, that pesky corner! That importunate bastard of a sudden triangle! I fling the notebook against the wall and hear the flutter and tear of pages leaping against the coiled binding. Why? What is the feeling? Castrated desire, the severed shot of a vector. It is the spiral’s lust for infinity, its eternal frustration in human hands. None could be more unalike than spiral and man.

I have spent days fretting over this in the darkness of my chamber, the great mass of my tentacled attention transfixed and multiplying on this basic frustration. It has been a while, now, since I was there, down the high-echoing halls and into that gasping arena in which hourly I die. You may imagine, as you like, the walls of my room littered with rings and spirals, bare nails dug into wallpaper and paint, the white plaster and blood swimming in runic urgency. No matter where I begin I encounter with mathematical certainty that blue-balled infinity, that falcon of the widening gyre shot crisp through the breastbone at the very screeching zenith of its conjuration, that world-widened womb in agonistic birth of its subsequent era. In every movement from one circle to the next there is sudden death, the airless Icarian chute of will, which is no model for the human mind. No model that can be stood.


But then, like an albatross: I see it. That very notebook, which I have flung and which you have
so generously brought back to my attention in your function as reader: the coil.

Between the nested rings and the spiral is: the coil, the spring, hung solid with vigilant time,
euphonic in its ringing continuity, never erring from its true diameter.

But there is still the problem of infinity. I cry out, smashing the wall. You hear it and kick the
ceiling—or, for you, the floor—the universal signal to keep it down, down there. This coil must
be severed at both ends! I reply. I am late to the coil, as metaphor. (The rest is silence, of course,
of course.) You wouldn’t happen to have a pair of wire cutters?


But you will be wanting a plot, a story. But I have already told you a story. I have come here to
be murdered; I have come here in a glass carriage and have not mistaken the shadow of my
equipage for anything other than what it is. I have gotten what I paid for. What more is there to
say, then, beyond death? It is the end of every I’s story. It is a truism. Sorry about that. A great
biographer, still living herself, once wrote that death is the one thing that cannot be grasped
authentically by autobiography. One can say, even as one does not remember it: I was born. Of
that one can be certain. Of birth one can declare with confidence that one has experience. But he who says: I have died; he who says: On this date, at such and such an hour, I died; He is a liar.
Unless he is speaking of another I.

Do not mistake this shadow for the other.



The weary reader will have hung onto a few details like those poor men who dove from the
Titanic and found themselves grasping at the feet that came kicking from onboard the lifeboats. I have mentioned that when I return from dying I emerge into a world frozen in time, into a city. I have spoken of a river. It is a city with a real name, and it sits within the black waters of a deep river, also real. It is an island. At night, upon approach, the landscape resolves into view through a receding mist. Little points of orange and yellow blink across its tartan grids. Flat pillows of skating rinks gleam like howlite. Rows of homes, low warehouses, vast parking lots: everything turned off and turned down, all business set to sleep, all activity converted into a humming network of streetlamps, guarding, seeing, reaching out into the unending night. The black mass, sleeping in the middle of the island: the three humps of a mountain, a handful of punctuating lights and a blazing cross. The cars shuttle along like red and white blood cells. Truly, it has texture. And now, with one hand having managed to grip the bow of the boat, the other ready to make use of that final ounce of strength to bridge the gap between the one and the zero, you will want more. You will want me to tell you how to decipher the rest of it. You will tell me you have understood with that part of the mind you associate with the body, but have not the real image like a paradigm you can rotate in mental space. You are afraid that, once you leave me, the whole of what we have together will vanish like an electric dream. But haven’t we already begun to ruin it? Hasn’t the fabric begun, now, to dissolve, with all that texture? Were you not, moments ago, huddled within brooding mystical space, only to have yanked yourself up and out and turned this dwelling into the poorest shelter, the dampest tent of cardboard?

Don’t worry, my dear. We can meet again. Some version of us (my hand, now, upon your
cheek). But only if you let it go.

The river is moving, and you refuse like the stone. Meanwhile, I am flying away.


A man awakens on a train and does not know where it is heading. Outside, it is snowing. It was
going to snow. But the trees are laden with figures, which he believes to be dead men. The
branches sag into the drifts; they have been sagging. They have been sagging so long that, he
thinks, they have lost their will to spring. It has slipped them like a phantom. The old coils. And
when the dead men are gone, the branches will drop without a sound. Or: with a sigh. It is bright and flat and indifferent outside.

It is evening in the carriage, as the man wonders where the train is heading. “Going all the way?” the conductor asks. He nods, smiling. His ticket is not in his pocket but tucked into the headrest behind his pate. The conductor checks it, punches a hole through it, and says: “Only fourteen to go.” The man asks: “Only fourteen what?” but the conductor has already disappeared down the aisle. He starts counting the trees. “Where are we going?” he hears. There is a man sitting across from him, rubbing his eyes. “I don’t know,” he replies. Minutes pass. The man is still rubbing his sockets, pressing them deep into his skull, kinking the retinal nerves. Inside his brain, he sees green and red circles, floating entropically. “Why don’t you check the ticket?” he says, rubbing all the while. The man twists his neck and stares at the ticket, which the conductor reinserted into the seam between the headrest and the metal siding, then turns to look back at the man across. “I cannot,” he says.

“No,” the other agrees, removing, finally, the pesky globes. “You cannot.”

Ben Libman has published fiction in The London Magazine, 3:AM, and elsewhere. He is the author of The Third Solitude, forthcoming with Dundurn Press in 2025.