September 18, 1998 (Ira Pilgrim)
Between the mighty legs of Death,
We play the schoolboy pranks of breath;
Scrawl challenge on his sodden boots,
The while he coils his cypress-roots.
Samuel Hoffenstein, 1939
Jade Tippett works with youngsters, particularly boys who are gang members. We were chatting one day and he remarked to me that he thought that the gang culture was "a culture of death." That phrase set me thinking about the many cultures in which death is a prime element.
Of course death is an important element in everyone's life. When it happens it is an overwhelming experience, and no one is immune. However, a death culture is continually obsessed with it. With people who are obsessed with death, early death seems to me to become a more frequent event.
The most conspicuous "cult of death" is the Spanish sub-culture that deals with bull fighting.While it is largely a spectator sport, to the matador it is a matter of life and death. If he is good at it, he courts death with every pass. If he is not very good, he can be cautious and live with the boos and catcalls of the audience. Every time the bull's horns miss the matador, he can say to himself that he has cheated death; until the next pass. While all of this is happening, a certain percentage of the crowd is hoping that this time they will witness a truly spectacular event, when the bull gores the matador and, hopefully, kills him. Now that is real sport. The spectators really get their money's worth with the death of the bull fighter. When the matador is famous, there are funerals and all sorts of celebrations. The whole business is partying, from beginning to end. What makes bull fighting worthwhile is not the skill of either the matador or the bull, it is death. Weighed against the danger is fame and fortune. A top matador, like any top athlete, makes big bucks. But he, in contrast to a figure skater, puts his life on the line with every performance.
Many spectators get off on the fact that the performer is in mortal danger. It takes just as much skill to do a trapeze act close to the ground or over a net as it does to do it high up with no protection. But it is not the skill that attracts many people, but the prospect of the death of the performer.
Like bull fighting, we have a deadly sport that anyone can do. There is no profit in it that I know of. It takes no skill at all. That sport is bungee jumping. Another great sport is Russian roulette. You take a revolver and put a single bullet in cylinder. You spin the cylinder, put the gun to your temple and pull the trigger. The odds are somewhat better than five out of six that you will hear a click. If you lose, you not only lose the game, but your life. To play this game requires you to not only be an idiot, but a super idiot. There is a great thrill of relief when you do hear that click. The reason that I said that the odds are better than five out of six is because the weight of the bullet increases the probability that the chamber with the bullet will not be on the top of the cylinder. There are also ways of cheating, but that makes the game not worth playing; unless the objective is to sucker some fool into committing suicide.
There are people who find that the element of mortal danger turns them on. Some of these people get paid by National Geographic for their stories. A friend of mine was an avid mountain climber. He seemed to be oblivious to the danger. He tried caving where, instead of going up when you are fresh and coming down when you are tired, it is the reverse. Following that experience, he sold all of his climbing equipment. He had had a "moment of truth" in which he realized that he could be killed. He also decided that no thrill was worth dying for. It is no accident that most combat troops during a war are young and temporarily insane.
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