Ours was the marsh country, down by the river, within, as the river wound, twenty miles of the sea. My first most vivid and broad impression of the identity of things, seems to me to have been gained on a memorable raw afternoon towards evening. At such a time I found out for certain, that this bleak place overgrown with nettles was the churchyard; and that Philip Pirrip, late of this parish, and also Georgiana wife of the above, were dead and buried; and that Alexander, Bartholomew, Abraham, Tobias, and Roger, infant children of the aforesaid, were also dead and buried; and that the dark flat wilderness beyond the churchyard, intersected with dykes and mounds and gates, with scattered cattle feeding on it, was the marshes; and that the low leaden line beyond, was the river; and that the distant savage lair from which the wind was rushing, was the sea; and that the small bundle of shivers growing afraid of it all and beginning to cry, was Pip.
"Hold your noise!" cried a terrible voice, as a man started up from among the graves at the side of the church porch. "Keep still, you little devil, or I'll cut your throat!"
A fearful man, all in coarse grey, with a great iron on his leg. A man with no hat, and with broken shoes, and with an old rag tied round his head. A man who had been soaked in water, and smothered in mud, and lamed by stones, and cut by flints, and stung by nettles, and torn by briars; who limped, and shivered, and glared and growled; and whose teeth chattered in his head as he seized me by the chin.
The fearful man was Abel Magwitch, a convict, who repays the kindnesses of young Pip with a fortune later in life. The fortune was earned in Australia whither Abel Magwitch had been condemned before returning to see the smile on the face of the young man whom he had helped. No smile though, for Pip was most aghast at the revelation that his benefactor was one so low.
In the face of death out of the blue, we are each one of us Pip .. afraid, suppliant, willing, retiring. What recourse is there against cruel untimely death.
Ledger could have played Magwitch, or he could have played Pip. He was that plastic. In either event, he is descended as are most Australians not from the Pips but from the Magwitches. Perhaps the allure of the Australian is that Magwitchian temperament. But in this sad moment, not to think of such fancies.
My memory of the young Heath is this. It was Christmas 2005. The careful reader will know that I imbibe much from Christmas, and use the season to skate on emotion, and freeze that emotion lest I forget in the intervening madness of the long year of making a living. For several such seasons, I had noticed the rise of an allergic reaction to something in Christmas ... I have since deduced that it is the cedar I bring into the house ... and I sought refuge from my sinuses one rainy day between Christmas and New Year's in a long drive. I went to my old haunts at Cal in Berkeley, abandoned of its normal denizens for reasons again of the season. I wandered about on the campus of the nourishing mother in the rain, and then headed north in the East Bay, picking my way across the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge which soars past the depths of San Quentin, and then I zig-zagged down through Marin County to Mill Valley. And, lo, Brokeback Mountain was showing at the famous local theater. So, on a whim, I bought a ticket and settled in. You must realize, here, that I never go to the movies, that I loathe the crowds, and that I prefer my own company to a bunch of yappy popcorn-eaters. I also avoid the movies because I prefer to suffer the emotion that great art induces in solitude, and in control of the pause function, so that I am the more immune to the wash of sorrow and fear.
I shushed a couple of yappy ex-sorority gals, and settled into Heath and Jake. The performances left me without air, drained. Heath dancing with the clothing of his deceased lover ... I live in a house filled with the memorabilia of the army of friends I have lost to the plague ... it was love and longing and the impossibility of living without dread and anguish. From my groin, it was Jake I loved; from my heart and gut, it was Heath.
The next evening, my oldest friend Frobisher dragged me out of my isolation to a movie at the Sony Metreon. But, alas, Frobisher had misread the newspaper, mistaking a.m. for p.m., and whatevver froth we had envisioned was not available. The only movie left was Casanova, starring, ta da, the young sexy Heath Ledger. What a romp! Farce and the comeuppance of the self-righteous and a bunch of sexy repartee. What does not please here!
So, I ended up going to the movies two days in a row after not having ventured into a theater for over a year ... and both starred Heath Ledger.
Now, without a hint of a warning, he is gone. It reminds me of the emotion of when River Phoenix died. Both were keepers, men who would have grown into depth and vigor unike the frothy nothings who populate People magazine. I have never recovered from River Phoneix' death, and I think I will never recover from the passing of Heath.
Death and the gonads ... it is not that one harbors some realistic hope of a trist with a Heath. Rather, it is that he represents some ideal of the glory of the male erotic. Not strident, but nuanced. Not a stomp but a song and a dance. Not rage, but a dance of irony and joy and play and strength.
When we mourn our cinema heroes, we mourn our hopes, our faint dreams. I want to be Casanova. I wanted to be Heath. No longer.
When I was a boy, I wanted to know Pip, I wanted to wander with him on the moors. I wanted to suffer with him, exult with him, settle with him. Heath was Pip, and I wanted to know him as the sad man left alone in Montana, and as the prancing dandy in Venice ... but now he is Magwitch, a cadaver, gone, dead. Gone dead. Too sad.
Further short reflection on Heath here, and my friend Jim Gaither's correspondence with Roger Ebert on Brokeback Mountain and the Oscar's here