|A Discovery |
He is lying on his back. A huge disembodied head hovers above him, inches from his toes. Half the face is hidden in shadow; the other half, ashen with sweat, shouts through a landscape of gaping pores and pockmarks the story of a life ruined by too little faith, or too much.
“Explain me!” it pleads through monolithic lips. “Explain me!”
His own face, bathed in the radiance of the other’s despair, remains impassive. No answer forthcoming, the head draws closer, its shadowy half growing darker as its lit half blazes, the whole more menacing and more frightened, until transposed onto the head of a horse, then back, and back again, the supple nostrils flared and expelling great plumes of misty breath.
Then all is dark. The credits roll past. It is over.
And that is how he discovered death: in the face of Richard Burton in the final scene of the film version of Peter Shaffer’s Equus. Is that what Peter Shaffer intended? Or the film’s director? And what did Richard Burton intend as he spoke those words? It hardly matters. The meaning its audience received on this night was death. Not death the mystery, or death the process. These were already somewhat familiar, and seemed a little mundane and superficial beside this new death which overwhelmed him as though it were the discovery of his own heartbeat.
Neither a question nor an answer, not even a fact – it was too real, too close, too personal to be called by such a cold and clinical name. It was his own death; or rather, the death that owned him, the vast incomprehensible zero from which he had emerged and into which he would eventually submerge once more, and which, even now, ate at him from inside with its icy teeth. And although he knew that this death was inexpungible, and as much a part of him as the flesh and bone and thought it wrapped itself in, he was afraid. It was that fear acrophobics know, which is not the fear of falling that most people mistake it for. What the acrophobic knows deep down, whether he can articulate it or not, is that this fear has nothing to do with the anticipation of some highly unlikely mishap that would send him tumbling helplessly to the ground, but is instead due to the rising and almost overwhelming desire to make that thrilling, though fatal, leap of one’s own volition. In other words, the acrophobic is not afraid that he will fall, he is afraid that he will jump; and if his legs turn to jelly and will no longer support his weight, this is because it is by such a refusal that his unconscious mind hopes to guard against the growing urge to use those legs in a final, irreversible act of self-destruction. The acrophobic cannot stand, and so cannot jump, however he might wish to, however seductively the great gap below beckons him.
And this is how he felt tonight, afraid of death, not because he believed it might come upon him here and now, or soon, but because it drew him into its embrace, tempted him, promising an experience so rich and fulfilling that it would be in itself an adequate compensation for the fact that it would be the last experience of his life.
He turned on all the lights. He would not sleep until the dawn.