On Death

I am going to see two live performances in the heart of the city and my head is full of death. I heard about three people dying today, and I cannot stop thinking about their death (singular, because they all died the same way, and because death is always the same). I did not know them, but if I were to write down a list of people whom I know that have known them, I wouldn’t stop writing until the sun has come up. But that’s not the reason why I cannot stop thinking about their death. It is rather because their death, like any other death, is about me.

April 1994: Kurt Cobain shoots himself in the head. I am seven years old, and the first anniversary of his death is only a few weeks away.

There is something about these news in particular that I just can’t shake. Maybe it has to do with the number. I owe my life to three people dying. No. Strictly speaking, only one of them really died. The others were never born. Maybe there’s a difference between that. A few days ago, someone asked me about my name and I gave them the short version. That my mother wanted to give me a special name, which is why she—and here comes the well-rehearsed punchline—gave me my brother’s second name and just added two letters. I didn’t go into the meaning of my brother’s name, what it means to me.

Something that I sometimes forget is that I have been a kind of poet once, and that one of the poems I once wrote was translated into Spanish and published in a small anthology. The poem is titled él, er in the original German. It is, of course, about both of them, about all four of them, which means that it is really about me. I recently pulled the book from the shelf where it is collecting dust in the second row, part of the stockpile of a former life. I was reminded of it when I reached for another book right next to it to look at a photo of a friend who took their life in their own hands by ending it.

April 1991: Per Yngve »Dead« Ohlin shoots himself in the head. Øystein »Euronymous« Aarseth takes photos of the corpse before notifying the authorities. He still has a little more than two years to live.

My brother’s first name means something like son of the right hand, but it also means something like the youngest and thus closure. Maybe I received my name as a hand-me-down because it has to do with birth in a certain sense: the bearer of Christ, again someone named after someone else, who came to be the patron saint of all travellers, those who are always present and absent at once, displaced and untimely. There is no evidence that such a person ever existed, but of course he does. I too have considered myself to be a ghost for the longest time, and in that spirit once wrote a sentence that I have never fully understood: Death has many anniversaries.

At the concert, everyone is alive, and someone even says it to me verbatim; they say: Well, I am alive, and we laugh. I buy some records and I get to pick a postcard from a pile as part of the purchase. They all are the same, but different, showing a skeleton, stencilled or stamped onto an old photo of a perfectly pristine empty room. Just yesterday I read something about how the weird differs from the eerie and the postcards are about this, clearly. I take the one on which the skeleton print is the faintest because it looks to me like the ideal representation of representation itself, and all representation is always death.

November 2017: Lil Peep overdoses on Fentanyl and Alprazolam while filming himself and being filmed by others. I turn 30 years old a few days later and use the opportunity to celebrate someone else’s birthday instead.

A few days ago, I was smoking cigarettes with the liveliest person I’ve met in a minute and they were talking about how that one time, some of their friends were shot dead, and how that was precisely predicted by some psychic according to whom the person smoking across from me will die of a heart attack at 80 years old. Winter in Berlin is amazing, they say between puffs, because there is barely any sunlight and nothing to do really, which allows you to focus on work. I get that, but I don’t get that, this is just not where I’m at right now in my life. Or else I wouldn’t be meeting people to smoke cigarettes with them.

On the back of the postcard, there is an aphorism by Walter Benjamin about the mythical force of capitalism and it seems oddly out of place, come to think of it, because capitalism tries to deter and defer death; capitalism is also life, for life is the accumulation of life is the accumulation of death. It’s concretion. That reminds me of something that I sometimes forget, that I once received a text message about being a character in a short story; a character who at some point in the story says that the notion that life is short is, like, oppressive. I have never read that story, because the writer and I were already somewhat dead to each other, but I would still like to tell them l’chaim

April 1994: The editors of Spex convene to discuss Kurt Cobain’s death. They publish the conversation under the headline »Der erste MTV-Tote.« A few years later, a friend hands me my first copy of Spex. I hate it. 

I’m reading David Graeber right now and there is a lot of death on those pages that talk about all the stuff that went down long before capitalism, talk about the economy of life before anything was formalised and yet people were already abstracting everything. And what does abstraction mean if not killing something for life, in exchange for life? And that, too, is concretion, somehow. I myself exchange some words with a person to whom I had given money earlier this evening, and of course we also talk about someone who has just died; someone who sent some emails about a work project, who said they’ll be back in town in April, and then died. And then I learn about another death, about yet another person having died.

In a curious way, all of this is work-related, but nothing is never not work-related. It’s complicated, sure. A few days ago, I was talking with someone about talking. About how we both are bad at talking freely because we are writers by trade; because we best handle speech by killing it by way of concretion and people still think this constitutes abstraction. I do not bring up Wolfgang Herrndorf because how would you explain Wolfgang Herrndorf—another person who took his life in his hands by ending it—to someone who doesn’t already know who that is? Arbeit und Struktur is not a title, but an ideal for living. I remember reading it on my phone while he was still alive, almost crossing a red light, almost getting run over by a car in Rosenthaler Platz.

October 2013: I send someone a text message to notify them that Lou Reed has died. January 2016: I receive a text message notifying me that David Bowie has died. April 2016: Prince dies. It is snowing this time around.

It is interesting in the context of all this that we call it grief work, Trauerarbeit, because that implies teleology, but it also doesn’t. It’s repetition and difference, rep—no, I will not make that pun right now. Anyhow, it’s constant exchange and at this point in my life I’m very sure that playing »The Cause of Labour Is the Hope of the World« will forever and always work. Recently, I was listening to »Farewell Transmission« and thought about how, in another life, that also almost killed me. Recently, I saw a picture of some people posing in front of the house in which Ian Curtis hanged himself. Recently, I have been too busy to think about life to find the time to think about death.

Life deters and defers death, and that is precisely why and how it is born. There is another song that I have been listening to over and over again, as repetition with no difference, repetition with no difference, and there are those two lines in the lyrics about how the final destination is the road to the final destination. I haven’t fully understood that either, but it seems to make sense. Isn’t that the reason why those three people died, isn’t that life, isn’t that … ? Stocks hit a record, a push notification by the New York Times informs me while I am on my way home from the concert, listening to the song on repeat.

November 2019: A few days after my 32nd birthday and the second anniversary of his death, I watch a documentary about Lil Peep’s life. My review is published by Spex, the headline reads »Der erste Instagram-Tote.«

I remember when my oldest friend in the world died. No. I remember when I heard about my oldest friend in the world having died. How I sobbed, my face buried into a cushion, a hand on my shoulder. It’s okay, I said, calmly despite all the sobbing, this is not about them—it is about me. About a decade later, I sit on a chair on a balcony and say a name out loud, and then I say ist tot. There is a different hand on my shoulder as I am sobbing because I feel like I have to. A few more years later, in the midst of life: melancholia. Instead of reaching out my hand, I say something about something that I have once read in Jacques Derrida, something he said about postcards after Maurice Blanchot had died; about writing postcards to Maurice Blanchot, who at that point had already died.

Maybe none of this is actually helpful in this life, neither for me nor anyone else, but if there is one thing to be found within the economy of life that is impossible to share, it is the experience of the death of someone else. I learnt that when I decided to give up believing in God; I was maybe eight or nine years old when I thought that my mother might die, like él had died before, as if those two things were in any way connected, which of course they actually were. Ever since, I have known that any death is always about me. These three or those others, that friend or this friend, all these people whom I have never known—all of them, forever still here.

January 2024: I order vinyl reissues of two Lil Peep mixtapes. A few hours later, I tell someone that I have in fact permanently deleted my Instagram account. Then I repeatedly listen to a recording in which I use the English word »death.«

And how can all that not remind me of that one time that one interviewer asked Derrida to talk about, just—whatever you want to say, ce que vous désirez dire de l’amour, and he tilts his head and replies, de la … ? and so she says l’amour once more, but he asks again: l’amour … ou la mort? The smug bastard has answered the question before he begins answering it, and every time I watch it I think that I can’t help thinking that there’s people whom I’ll have loved until I die. And if you think I’m being too personal here, that’s really on you.