Coping by Change:

Sandman’s “Brief Lives,” Chapters 1-3

Investigating the corpus of Gaiman’s literary contributions draws fruitful results when contemplating his creative process. Earlier works often foreshadow later ones, the latter being throwbacks to ideas at their genesis, now fully developed theses. American Gods, released in 2001, features many characteristics of his earlier work and involvement in Sandman, cataloging the twilight of the old gods and the emergence of the new. Brief Lives (Sandman #41-49) captures the missiological heart of American Gods: where do gods go when they die. The arc appears after a considerable hiatus, interrupted by the Convergence collection and a Sandman special issue chronicling and founding the origins of Morpheus’s biological son, Orpheus of Greek legend. Brief Lives resumes the narrative focus on the Endless, breaking away from the mortals entangled by their schemes or circumstances, with the intention of expanding upon their familial relationships. The narrative of the primary arc is moved forward by Delirium, youngest in the pantheon of the Endless, with Dream acting as an anchor to her experiences. The big question Gaiman posits for the ensuing pages is pondering the nature of change in the face of timelessness. All things must come to an end, but can they come sooner, or arrive expectantly? Time must be interpreted within the Sandman corpus as fluid, yet ultimately terminal. In the introductory pages of Brief Lives (Issues #41-43), the reader is presented with the prospect of change against timelessness, and asked what such a concept truly means when death is inevitable and fatefully bound to circumstances outside of one’s control.

Coping is the response to change and circumstantial occurrences. A variety of mechanisms that facilitate this process are widely documented, varying from pseudo-psychological studies on the Five Stages of Loss and Grief to the common, and ultimately repressed, bouts of existential terror that come at the onset of adulthood and maturation of self-conception. It is no surprise then when the Endless experience similar feelings, founding for themselves various means of dealing with common human emotions. In Brief Lives, the concept of existential change is introduced with Delirium holing herself up with the homeless of the English, presumably in London. Amidst a wet, lonely backdrop she listens to the growing madness of an older British woman. Her madness is characterized by her inability to cope with the death of her son, leading to her inevitable fall from society into squalor. This kind of madness is not uncommon in the homeless community, the members of which cavort like free spirits disconnected from the world and are driven as social Luddites to reject the world because of inescapable trauma or neurochemical deficiencies. What is intriguing about Delirium’s relationship with the woman is that the woman’s madness, stemming from her inability to cope, is what inspires the youngest of the Endless to seek out reconciliation and understanding from her wayward brother, Destruction, who other than Death, is the most natural and human of the Endless.

Desire, Despair, and Dream cope in their own unique ways, each reflecting on their deep emotional struggles that they all choose to complacently ignore. Each of these Endless feed off of the work in their domain. What is curious then is how these symbiotic relationships with their realms manifest in their core desires for normalcy. One would imagine that someone entrusted with the dreams of Mankind, acknowledging a colorful array of creative human intelligence, would be sociable, empathetic, and capable of understanding the potential for intimate human connections. Yet, it would seem that this is not the case for Dream. It is quite the opposite. Dream is introverted, highly abstracted and distanced from those that he oversees, and a typical deistic figure. After Delirium’s encounters with her sisters, she meets Dream in the midst of yet another romantic entanglement gone awry. Dream’s methods of coping are theatrical displays of sorrow that are bombastic and cinematic. The reader sees a brooding Lord perched above a Gothic highrise of his picturesque Medieval fortress, self-possessed like a Byronic villain in the throes of his faults. This is obfuscation of the true issue at hand: Dream’s need to reach out and find social intimacy. Rather than finding others to process his troubles, Dream wraps himself up in his grief, and distances himself from any real human connection. When Delirium arrives to petition her brother’s aid in seeking their prodigal brother Destruction, Dream only accompanies her that he may distract himself from his sorrow. This is at best a band-aid for a deep seated issue and only compounds the irony of Dream being an archetype for a species of social creatures that thrive on communication and understanding. If this is not the case, his antisocial pathology may draw from mankind’s common shame. Though it is not explicitly stated in the issue, Gaiman’s fascination with Christian archetypes is well established in the corpus. Dream’s fear of communication and outward reconciliation may very well be a manifestation of the Biblical Fall of Man, in which humanity broke intimate spiritual peace with their creator, thereby perpetuating social dysfunction with one another. This can be seen in Adam and Eve both shifting blame for their transgression to one another. Dream, like the creatures that spawned him, is covering up his pain and escaping personal responsibility.

Despair and Desire cope in relation to one another. Like Dream, they fail to recognize their deep-seated need as individuals, and the way this is conceived by Gaiman highlights the irony of their respective positions. Delirium’s pursuit initially is brought before Desire, who dismisses the crusade as foolhardy. This is troubling given that Desire’s charge over humanity’s capacity to feed their animalistic, carnal needs, unlike her older brothers (Dream and Destiny) and sister Death, is interminable. Desire’s failure to want her brother to return is paradoxical, and among the most profound observations of Delirium in their encounter. How can the avatar of human freedom, shirk their attention from the ultimate category of human connection, the familial bond? This failure to reconcile is Desire’s failure to cope. It can be inferred that Desire, like the other family members of the endless, was hurt considerably by his/her brother’s departure. In that capacity, Desire was refused for the first time and still lacks the ability to cope and understand the meaning of such a conflict of interest. Despair is similar in this respect, who takes joy in watching the suffering of those who have entered her realm. She is not used to being the butt of her own machinations. As she watches in the mirrors of her realm, those lost in hopelessness and self-pity, her reflection emerges after reminiscing on the last friendly interaction she shared with Destruction. Rather than being enthralled by her own suffering, she is corralled briefly into personal reflection, understanding intimately the pain that she routinely inflicts upon those that enter her realm. To distract herself from her pain she inflicts acts of self-harm upon herself. Her failure to cope lies in her inability to love or feel empathy, as seen in Destruction’s final kiss that he gives her in love. Irony traps both Despair and Desire. Each of them wants what the other has but cannot admit it: Desire  despairs of desire and Despair desires desire.

Another theme dealt in the issue is the aspect of terminal change, outright destruction. Without Destruction watching over his realm, is it possible for the “Old Ones” Gaiman speaks of in the prologue of Sandman #43 to be capable of dying? There is ambiguity on this point, as much of Destruction’s character had been hidden away up until his introduction in the Song of Orpheus. Clearly indicated in Bernie Capax’s death, they are capable of dying, but this appears to be just another product of chance. This is seen in Etain’s narrow escape from death at the hands of a gas explosion. Bernie decries his lack of awareness upon his demise and Death consoles him that he has had what all living creatures get: a lifetime. Further clarification is needed until one can settle on the idea that these sudden  outbreaks of catastrophe are related to Dream and Delirium’s pursuit. Suffice to say, the conundrum here is the contrast of human freedom and affixed destinies. Like the child of the mad homeless woman at the beginning of the arc, whether or not someone can “die young” becomes subject to whether or not  someone can choose not to die. Thus far the only one in Sandman who has been able to achieve this is Hob Gadling from Men of Good Fortune earlier in the series. Pharamond, an aging and forgotten Babylonian god, has made his means as an international businessman, per Dream’s advice at the beginning of human civilization. American Gods dealt with the transience of the older gods, which can mean that Gaiman accepts the impermanence of their reign. Since the gods can indeed die and completely disappear, Death of the Endless will ultimately meet them. Therefore, to think that gods (or anyone for that matter) can “die young” is not the case. Just like the Endless, they must survive through  contextualizing their existence and progressively change and adapt. Refusing to cope with fate’s inevitable hand (the ability to do so being the primary thematic transformation affixed to Dream’s character) cheapens their existence, thereby robbing them of the “life-time” allotted them by Death of the Endless.

Coping is a special mechanism, hard won and tested. It is not something easily obtainable by any means, so perhaps it is tough to cast blame on the Endless for their lack of understanding. Orpheus, at the beginning of the arc, sits idly in his sanctuary thinking, but has lost all understanding of time. Having supposed to have died long ago, he is now immortal and doomed to live out the rest of existence isolated in seclusion. The Endless are more fortunate in that their affairs put them in close proximity with mankind; however, it is clear that this fact disqualifies them from simply not trying to seek ways of coping with change and adjustment. Delirium thrives on change, perhaps too well. Her constant state of mind is reeling in flux, but her impetus to reconcile with Destruction is evidence that she possesses the idealism capable of allowing her to reach out to her lost brother. How this will change Dream is yet to be revealed, but clearly the introductory chapters of Brief Lives have begun to pursue the most enterprising of things: Dream’s capacity to relate.

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Stuart Warren is the former managing editor and webmaster for Sequart Organization. Stuart earned a BA in English with an emphasis in Early Modern Studies at University of California Santa Barbara. An avid reader and historian, Stuart researches Nordic mythology and paganism and is self-taught in the Norwegian language (Bokmål). He is a novelist and comic book writer. Spirit of Orn, his breakout Science Fantasy epic is now available for purchase via Amazon Kindle and iBooks.

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