I Can't Believe you Actually Died (Some Thoughts on Eerie Friendships)

Caspar Heinemann

I can't believe you actually died
I haven't tried (He hasn't tried)
‘Cause you're not dead, you're free
I can't believe you actually died

And I know that you're happy there
Even though I don't know where

The other side (The other side)
The side I try to see
I can't believe you actually died

— The Microphones / Mount Eerie

Entering the fourth quarter of the first year in which I cannot be accurately said to have lived anywhere, I’m thinking about who my friends are and realising my conception of friendship is as dispersed through space and time and spacetime as I am these ‘days’. My alive friends are scattered across the globe, and my dead friends hang out in a perpetual suspended state of having gone to the off-license for a couple of beers, and presumably having discovered something really, really interesting along the way. This might be a defence mechanism, meaning they can never really feel more absolutely dead than everyone else who is not in my immediate surroundings, a terrifying and comforting childlike idealism. I don’t know if this is because or despite the fact that I’ve always talked to my friends in my head in their physical absence, some more than others. A frequent correspondent is my friend Dave, who worked in a punk record shop in Camden when I was 13, and might be dead, but equally might somehow encounter this and grin and get in contact about a surprising new record by a ‘90s anarcho-ska-punk band. Dave had almost died of a rare and premature cancer before I knew him, which felt almost akin to resurrection, or at least having tested the waters of another world. This made him a source of ultimate wisdom and reassurance for me, my zombie punk rock agony uncle. I only saw him out from behind the till once, at an Adolescents show, so he was an infinitely patient, but objectively captive, audience for my teenage angst. I continued to talk to him, both in person and remotely, for years. At some point I stopped spending my lunch money on 7” records by bands with names like Tipper’s Gore, and stopped even having ‘lunch money’, and stopped seeing Dave. But we still talk sometimes.

I’ve visited the shop a few times as an adult, either just looking through the stickered glass, or hopefully stepping through the threshold. I’ve never seen Dave, which has lead to a lingering, entirely unsubstantiated belief that he’s dead. I could have asked the shop’s owner, who I knew less intimately, ‘Is Dave still working here?’ But something stopped me, half British emotionally stunted politeness meaning I didn’t want to cause him the discomfort of explaining that Dave had died in my absence, half the awareness that if I never knew Dave had died, Dave could never really die, he would remain Schrödinger’s Friend and we could keep hanging out, uncomplicated by whatever lore governs the afterlife. This is all hypothetical, since there are clearly many other explanations for his absence - maybe I was just missing his working days, maybe he no longer works selling Conflict patches. But to some part of my mind, unless we meet again, Dave is dead. Once this belief had set in, I became unsettled by the realisation that at some point my conversations with Dave had moved from the realm of the living to the dead, and I hadn’t even known, he hadn’t even bothered to update me, or I was so bad at communicating I couldn’t even tell the difference. I felt troubled by the implication that it wouldn’t make any difference to our relationship if my friend was dead.

Despite some belief in what is known as extrasensory perception, I never thought I literally believed I was asking Dave a question in my head, Dave 10 miles away was hearing it, stopping whatever else he was doing, and sending back his reply, about the girl or the boy or the drug or the imagined illness. Just that I had built up a sufficiently complete portfolio of his gestures, knowledge, opinions, and speech patterns that I could recreate a passable facsimile whenever I needed to lean over the counter of the punk record shop on the high street of my mind palace-city-state. After his passage into the potentially dead, this started to feel problematic. This indicated that part of me had believed I was communicating with an actual living flesh and blood Dave in real time, but was unsure if this was possible after death, and that made me doubt the entire endeavour.

Trying to unpack my discomfort about continuing dialogue with the possibly-dead, I realise it is partially the fear for what it would mean for my absent-but-alive-friendships, what it means if relationships are so wholly based on projection that they can continue uninterrupted after death. It is worth clarifying, in case it’s not apparent, that most of this applies to a particular kind of distant friendship, the people who you had one intense bonding night with in a bar on the other side of the world but may never share a country with again, the people with whom you kept mutually flaking until it felt impossible to reignite, but who you continue to carry affectionately around at the bottom of your backpack. By definition, the people who could die without your knowledge. This is a phenomenon some might presume will die off with social media, but it’s still thankfully still a minority who live a life where everyone they’ve ever known has a last name and Instagram account. And sadly, anyone who has grown up around marginalised or ‘at-risk’ communities probably has a pool of might-be-dead-friends. This sensation is distinct from the total devastation of a confirmed close loss, although there is unsettling spillage from the questions it brings up. Is everyone reduced to a series of pull quotes and stock images as soon as they leave the room, or is there something dynamic and mutual that exists and evolves regardless of proximity? Are any of my friends dead, and I just don’t know yet? How many people am I possibly-dead to? Are they walking around imagining what my 16 year old self would have to say? Communication with the definitely-dead feels in some ways clearer, or at least clearer in its difficulties. It has particular structures and rituals based on beliefs and knowledge accumulated over the course of human history, which you can work with, or not. There is a not knowing involved in communicating with the possible-dead that feels fraught, a lack of protocol for communication with an unknown plane that could be as close as a few streets away.

I have as many half-baked ideas about death, life, metaphysics, and the cosmos as you would expect from someone writing this after microdosing psilocybin, whose current browser tabs include an essay on the Dalai Lama and the X-Files, Terence McKenna lecturing on hermeticism, and multiple psych-folk blogs. But despite being very comfortable in the swamp of that realm, I’m going to leave my damp and holey hand-stitched philosophy boots behind, and instead try to stay with the sensation of eerie friendship, the emotions and ethics of friendship that emerge from conversing with unexplainably absent friends, alive or dead.

In his introduction to The Weird and The Eerie Mark Fisher wrote, ‘The eerie concerns the most fundamental metaphysical questions one could pose, questions to do with existence and non-existence: Why is there something here when there should be nothing? Why is there nothing here when there should be something?’ The process of looking for an absent friend begins as entirely quotidian, a ‘I wonder how they’re doing?’ and slips into eeriness with every failure, their nothingness in the external world incompatible with an internally preserved sense of somethingness. Once the possibility of a friend’s death has been imagined, the unaltered sense of their presence comes to feel like a ghostly half-life, their words and gestures a chosen family heirloom to be treasured. The eerie friendship exists in the flickering between the something of the incomprehensible vastness of death and the nothing of the total mundanity of life as usual (albeit in a vacuum where death is an impossibility). The usual formulation of the nothing of being dead and the something of being alive reverses and returns with every new hope, fear, fact.

There has never been an appropriate moment to mourn Dave, because there was never a moment when I discovered his death, I don't even remember when the possibility occurred to me, it was a gradual and entirely personal conclusion drawn from one too many absences and non-sightings. This makes for a very abstracted sadness, with no real outlet. It feels inappropriate to mourn someone who might not actually be dead. If Dave was definitely dead, this essay might read like a warped and egocentric obituary, but as he might not be, it is suspended in the space of reflections on a life that was once interwoven with my own, but no longer is, but always will be, which sounds like an obituary, if it wasn’t for the arrogance of proclaiming someone’s absence in your life as their absence from this life. But if he is dead, does it become an obituary? Why might there be something here when there might be nothing? Why might there be nothing here when there might be something?

The eeriness is part the intrinsic doubt of not-knowing, and part uneasiness when we perceive a relationship to be happening on unequal terms, the fear that I am taking without offering, because I probably don’t have much to offer in terms of afterlife advice, or advice on whatever the new life is that I have no knowledge of. But this perceived inequality doesn’t check out - my understanding of the situation is too unstable to ask or expect anything specific, or to offer it. The friendship neither requires nor demands nor supplies anything specific to either of its participants. This feels at first abstract, eerie, and oddly detached from the warmth of friendship. Fisher continues:

The serenity that is associated with the eerie - think of the phrase eerie calm - has to do with detachment from the urgencies of the everyday. The perspective of the eerie can give us access to the forces which govern mundane reality but which are ordinarily obscured, just as it can give us access to spaces beyond mundane reality altogether. It is release from the mundane, this escape from the confines of what is ordinarily taken for reality, which goes some way to account for the particular appeal that the eerie possesses.

Seen in this light, the total lack of clarity in the eerie friendship begins to hint at something liberating and radical. There is a Buddhist practice called Mettā, a Pali word which is translated into English as lovingkindness. Mettā involves wishing peace and wellbeing upon people of varying distance, beginning with yourself, moving to a teacher or mentor, then a loved one, a neutral acquaintance, someone you have difficulty with, and finally expanding out to the whole world and everything on it. I have always struggled with Mettā, feeling like an unruly eye-rolling teenager who is about two Sundays away from quitting church for good. It felt impossibly abstract - smug and self-indulgent, or a presumptuous imposition - why would anyone want my lovingkindness anyway? But when I can feel the core of the practice, it feels similar to the sensation of talking to Dave, who may or may not be alive, who may or may not be dead, who may or may not be contactable either way, who may or may not be me talking with myself, and being at peace with the uncertainty of offering or accepting this eerie warmth, that is as much death as life. A conversation with an eerie friend is a conversation with the something in nothing and the nothing in something.

Accepting the ricocheting non-linear mourning and comfort of the eerie friendship requires love without expectation, sending gratitude to the friendly ether, and trusting that in friendship we become irretrievable parts of each other. Later in The Weird and The Eerie, Fisher references The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers as an example of the eerie. In the novel a young academic, Brendan Doyle, is sent back in time in a dubious experiment. He becomes trapped, and decides to track down the subject of his scholarly work, an obscure poet named William Ashbless. Doyle arrives at the time and place he knows from a biography to be the scenario in which Ashbless wrote one of his great works. The poet never arrives, and so Doyle transcribes the poem himself, from memory. Of course, it is revealed that Doyle is Ashbless, so nobody wrote his poems, Doyle is simply the self-described ‘Messenger and caretaker.’ Doyle had discovered the poems, and loved them, and they became so much a part of him that he could write them into existence for himself to discover and fall in love with. Maybe we are all the Messenger and caretaker of each other’s poems.

I think of the mystery of instant affinity, meeting a close friend for the first time and thinking ‘I can't believe we found each other amongst all these floating rocks!’ although it feels inevitable that you would, because you must have already. The technical knowledge of the unknowability of the other collides with the felt sense of intimate knowing, the knowing that we never really know collides through friendships and relationships and distance and death, everything that is us dispersed through thousands of others inside us. In this way, even the non-eerie relationship is eerie, a reckoning with the vertigo of the space between two people, the space that is necessary between all objects to make objects possible at all.

Caspar Heinemann is a nondenominational gay transsexual poet and writer based in London, interested in counterculture, mysticism, springtime, and irreverence. His first book of poetry, Novelty Theory, is published by The 87 Press.