But I once heard something that I believe, … about how Leontius, Aglaion’s son, was going up from Piraeus along the outside of the north wall, and noticed dead bodies lying beside the executioner. He desired to see them, but at the same time felt disgust and turned himself away; for a while he struggled and covered his eyes, but then he was overcome by his desire, and running toward the bodies holding his eyes wide open, he said, “See for yourselves, since you’re possessed! Take your fill of the lovely sight.”
–Plato’s Republic, Bk. IV.440A
* * *
I’m still not exactly sure what I saw, and, after scouring local online news sources for over half an hour, I’m beginning to realize I will probably never know what happened.
I saw the firetruck lights first. The truck was parked in the road in the oncoming lane as I drove towards town. Two firefighters were milling around outside their truck. As I slowed to pass, I saw him – a contorted figure – lying on the grassy bank along the sidewalk. His head was turned so that his right cheek was against the ground; one arm was bent up, one arm was bent behind him, like he was hugging the bank, on his stomach. His knees were bent. It wasn’t graphic. Dead, I thought. That man is dead.
I don’t know if that man is dead. The firefighters weren’t rushing to resuscitate or move him, and the ambulance that pulled up shortly after was driving slowly, without sirens, without even lights on. But there has been no report of a hit-and-run in the area or anything like that, so maybe he did survive. Maybe he wasn’t even injured; maybe he was passed out. All I know is that I immediately told myself that he was dead even though I’d never seen a corpse before. Well, not human.
I’ve only ever hit an animal with my car once. It was night and a tiny white mouse scurried across the road. I tried to avoid it, but I felt the small crunch under my tire. Like most people, I’ve seen lots of roadkill. I’ve seen deer and raccoons and skunks and squirrels and cats. I’ve seen a poached and disembodied moose head. I always feel that it’s unfortunate that they were hit, but I don’t usually feel sorrow, as I know some people do. That’s why I was surprised when my eyes started to well up: I was actually really upset that I had killed a dumb mouse. In contrast, I have a distinct memory of me as a little kid crouching in keen interest over a partially decomposed mole that was in the driveway. I watched, fascinated, as ants marched over its body, and I stroked its head a few times with my finger because I felt like that was what I ought to do. I knew it was dead, but I wasn’t repulsed. Only curious. (I got a firm talking-to later when I announced to my mom that I had been petting deceased vermin.)
When my Betta fish died, I dutifully brought the bowl into the bathroom so I could flush poor Bacchus down the toilet. I had every intention of scooping him out with the little net myself. I wasn’t afraid, but as soon as the net nudged the corpse, I could feel the dead weight, and it surprised and horrified me. That was the first time something made me truly scream. I didn’t mean to scream, and I didn’t know why I did.
Besides beetles, I’ve never loved bugs, especially leggy ones. When I was a kid, I even used to take cruel pleasure in flooding out entire ant colonies with the garden hose on high stream (which actually kind of concerns me to this day). Although I object to inhumane treatment and killing of animals, I don’t object to the killing of animals in general: I’m omnivorous and I don’t think that in itself is bad. But a few weeks ago my coworker was about to swat a mosquito hawk and I inexplicably and instinctively burst out “NO DON’T KILL IT!!” I instantly felt silly, but I stuck with it. I had some vague notion that we should let it live because it eats mosquitoes (although “mosquito hawk” is actually a misnomer, something I was also vaguely aware of). It also reminded me of daddy-long-legs, which my parents always told me you shouldn’t kill because they’re harmless. But other than that, I don’t know why I reacted so violently.
After recounting these memories, I wonder if it is exposure alone that has caused my wildly differing reactions to death. That’s why I could pet a dead mole when I was five but couldn’t scoop up a dead fish when I was fifteen. But I suspect exposure is not the only reason. Circumstance seems to be an important factor, especially my own role: seeing roadkill doesn’t affect me deeply, but making it does. Death constantly vacillates between revulsion and spectacle, and the subject hardly seems to matter in many cases. I feel pretty strange about possibly having seen a dead man yesterday, but I honestly felt more strongly about the mosquito hawk in that urgent moment than I did when I saw that man sprawled on the grass.
And I’m not sure what to do with that.