I have often found comfort in the notion that the dead may survive in the minds of those who recall them. It is no mere vanity to desire such afterlives. Indeed, the concept of lingering in each other’s thoughts by virtue of some worthy deed or memorable word can be a significant motivational force in our lives. I am not sure, however, whether the self-images we try to instill in the minds of others as potential extensions of our corporeal existence are to be considered a noble attempt at rescuing our finite lives from triviality or whether these transferable or continuing selves are a construct that trivializes the finality of death. After all, does not the realization that we are perishable render each hour we have left so much more significant?
During times of war such as these, the possibility that those lost are never truly gone or might yet return has particular resonance. Radio, in the pre-television years, was often thought of or exploited as a spiritual medium. Gathering around the receiver to hear voices from the unreachable beyond—or the far away, at any rate—could assume all the magic of a conjuring act: a high-tech séance. As I have argued in Etherized Victorians, my doctoral study on so-called old-time radio in the US, broadcast propaganda often availed itself to addresses from the hereafter, words akin to the cries of “Remember me,” uttered by the Ghost in Hamlet, to stir and motivate the listener.
On this day, 18 April, in 1944, such a ghost voice was cast into the living rooms of America by radio playwright Norman Corwin (whose works I have frequently discussed in this journal). It is the voice of a soldier killed in action. “As for his life,” explains the narrator of “Untitled” (a recording of which you may find here),
there is no straightforward account available, but there are several people who could piece it together, although they cannot always be relied on to give you a true interpretation of the facts.
Through the various recollections of others, including those who thought little of him, the soldier’s unwritten biography comes to life. It is a conventional one, all told, if giving your life for an ideal may be justly labeled “conventional.”
Corwin’s soldier is not an action hero, but a man of doubts, a thinking fighter—or fighting thinker—who, in today’s parlance, chose to engage in a war on terror—and that terror, still very much alive today, was fascism. Rather than relying on others to give an account of his beliefs, the dead man picks up on and tears apart their words—some shallow, some insincere—like a radio commentator taking issue with so-called facts. The memories of those lined up to speak for him are proven to be too distorting or inadequate to capture the true self of the deceased who, according to the justice of the radio poet, is now given the opportunity to speak up for himself.
These lines, uttered toward the end of the play, are some of the finest written for radio—or any medium, for that matter. They are worthy of Shakespeare, and certainly worth quoting here and remembering thereafter:
I am dead of the mistakes of old men,
And I lie fermenting in the wisdom of the earth.
It is not enough to live on in the minds of others from whose sundry impressions our existence might be retraced. Instead of becoming the mental playthings of our contemporaries or former associates, we must seize the chance to communicate our own minds while living. This journal may serve as a record of my thoughts.