Confronting Mortality – At 3am In A Bar In Soho
Confronting Mortality – At 3am In A Bar In Soho
It was one of those nights, you know the ones. We all know. I was meeting my friend in London as he was passing through, and we started drinking in the afternoon. And so it went on, from park to pub, from beer to whisky, from a quiet one to a heavy night. Several drinks, digressions and sing-songs later we found ourselves in some rock’n’roll bar in Soho. The room was bleary, the light was dim, and I realised I had a notepad open. And I wondered: “Does anybody really want to be here?”
Of course they chose to be here. They weren’t charged out of their cosy rooms at gunpoint (although enthusiastic pleas for clubbing can feel like this), but would people be doing this if this wasn’t just what people did on a Friday night? Given the choice of everything, it seems like quite a silly thing to do – to sit in a room, to submerge your senses, to dull your neurological capacities whilst Bon Jovi blares out so loud you have to strain a shout at your friend across the table. And to do all of this only to wake up to the sound and fury of vomit and vaguely amusing anecdotes. It seems odd.
I felt bored and alone. My friends were no longer in my field of vision having succumbed to the allure of other substances, and I felt distant. I longed for my personality to be spread warmly throughout the room, but I felt I lacked confidence. I wondered again: “Do people actually want to do this?” Then I thought, “I wonder what these people would do if this was the last night of their lives?” And because the filter in my brain had been saturated by alcohol, no sooner than I had thought the thought than I was going around asking people this exact question like a bedraggled YouGov reject:
“If this was the last night of your life, what would you do?”
So I went from table to table to find the answer. There were many unexpected answers, but many were exactly what you would think: skydiving, scuba diving, the usual menu of adrenaline-fuelled activity.
I must admit that I don’t understand the appeal of these things. Or if I do, it’s in the same way I understand the appeal of heroin – an adrenaline rush, a feeling of extreme sensation, but then what? I guess on the last day on Earth some people want to experience the extremity of human sensation. But they also want to go to places that they may never have been – in the sky or under the water (these are also places that human beings aren’t supposed to be). I’m sure if commercial space flights were available then this would be another stock answer to the question.
Then we move to sex and drugs – another example of the extremity of human sensation. “Bottle of wine and a blowjob” was one such answer, followed by, “Have sex in Cancun all day”. Why Cancun specifically I couldn’t find out. It’s a nice place with a beach, I suppose.
These answers were from a man and a woman respectively, and this difference in the framing of sexual experience by gender was pretty consistent. The man is mainly receiving sex, and the woman is taking part in a communal activity where context and atmosphere is important.
The most revealing answer came when I asked a heterosexual couple sitting in the corner of the increasingly blurry bar. The man answered first: “Suck my own penis”. Again, personally, I’ve never understood this as a fantasy – maybe it’s because it doesn’t fit well with my neurotic sense of self-loathing. It seems to me to be the epitome of narcissism. I have heard some men say that they wouldn’t bother with sex at all if they could perform the above onerous activity. The desire to cut off a shared human experience in order to achieve only the cold mechanical goal should worry us. This lad is more machine than man. Maybe this is what James Brown meant? A dystopian warning disguised as playful funk…
But then the girl’s answer killed me. If it were the last night of her life she would, “Marry a gentleman”. There was an awkward silence and the guy sort of rolled his eyes then caught my concerned look and jovially added, “That’s why I love her”. I made my excuses and slunk out as quickly as I could, hoping that I had perpetuated the break-up of a clearly flailing relationship between a narcissistic arse and a naïve Mr Darcy-hunter.
Then to a group of twenty-somethings, male and female, and the desire to, “Take all the drugs humanly possible”. This is self-explanatory – it is scuba diving deep within the senses, skydiving through the soul, going out in a blaze of feeling.
“Do acid with the people I love”. A girl said this. I noticed the difference between this and the previous answer. That one was about quantity; this one about quality, knowing that the experience would be enhanced by the presence of loved ones. The former had no mention of other people being involved. It was another man closing themselves off from any sense of shared experience. Is this telling me something? No time.
Then another girl chipped in: “Get drunk and listen to Bowie”. She said this with a spark in her eyes, as though she longed for the apocalypse just in order to fulfill this modest ambition. The last of the group of twenty-somethings was a long-haired male sporting a Metallica t-shirt. He pondered for a bit, then slowly said, “Clear my existential cupboard”.
It is an incredible sentence to hear in Soho at three in the morning. What is an existential cupboard? A cupboard that exists? Or a cupboard that is not a cupboard as it has to invent its own purpose and is therefore whatever the hell you want it to be? Perhaps it is a place where you keep your deepest darkest worries and desires..?
I see what he meant now. The final night is when you would tell everyone who you really are and what you really think of them. An unloading of your secrets; stifled emotions that once burnt heavy but are now fading light locked away in your existential cupboard. Not so strange after all. But why are we not just doing this as a matter of course in our normal daily grind lives? So many people have to hide who they really are. Some live in that cupboard most of their lives.
I was getting weary, but I had committed to this vital journalistic endeavour, and by God I was going see it through to the end. And to the next table. A man said, “Kill a couple of people, fuck a couple of people, hug a couple of people”. This is the only response that includes murder – best not to analyse that one.
Then a woman overheard my question, snatched my notepad with purpose, and wrote something down. She then pushed it back into my hands, looked at me briefly and walked off. Not quite knowing what was going on, I looked down at the paper and saw a heart drawn with a blade through it. Beside it, in scrawled handwriting, was written: “Say goodbye”.
I felt that feeling of profundity that I imagine religious people get in church. Because, in a way, saying goodbye would be the only thing anybody would be doing on the last night of their life, regardless of their petty dopamine raising material actions. Maybe it’s all anybody’s ever doing? One long goodbye. I looked around and the woman was gone. I couldn’t see any of my friends. Instead, I was alone in a bar in Soho, at 3am…
I felt emotionally exhausted from this maelstrom of existential thoughts. Actually, I think I may have been starting to believe that this was the last night of my life, so I had to get some air. I finally found my friends outside, on the streets of Soho, looking for the next party, the next drink, the next hit, the next…
There’s a certain leitmotif that runs through our culture. Inspirational quotes of carpe diem, seize the moment, or live each day as if it’s your last. The idea is that life is short and you have to squeeze as much excitement and stimulus out of it as possible. Why do so many of us have this idea? Is it the legacy of the Beats, the careless life of the Sixties? Or is it a byproduct of being bombarded by marketing since birth? Eat. Buy. Now! No Time! Perhaps the constant aspirational images make us feel anxious that we are not living full lives – which make us prime meat for advertising. We think we are expressing our freedom, but we are merely slaves to our desires.
But I think my drunken (and totally scientific) survey tells us that the ‘live each day as if it were your last’ thesis is not always a positive ideal to abide by. It is a selfish way to look at the world. And besides, you’re probably not going to die tomorrow. So maybe we should think of the woman who wrote, “Say goodbye”. If life is a long goodbye, we should make it as rich as possible.
Actually scrap that. We don’t need to make it as anything as possible. We don’t need a mathematical equation to quantify our joys. Who stops to do a cost-benefit analysis when someone says, “I love you” or “I need your help”? We should involve all the people we love and accept that there are going to be things left out. We should make our goodbye a visit to our relatives, not a narcissistic drug binge. A night with a loved one; not an impersonal orgy. Embracing time, not spending or killing it.
Maybe we need to rid ourselves of the religion of consumption before we can paint our long goodbye with love and honesty. Perhaps we need to accept that there is not always something better for us out there. Yes, we should fight for a political environment that doesn’t turn human beings into self-gratifying machines. But this will mean we stop obsessing about our own personal journeys, careers and gains. This is enough. We are ok as we are. We just need…
Or maybe I’m a rambling, drunken mess and I have no idea what I’m talking about. After all, it’s 3am, in a bar in fucking Soho.
Written by Stephen Durkan,
Artwork by Jelena Tošković