Sandman’s Brief Lives follows closely with its former, titular predecessor penned by John Aubrey. His work, which compiles the veritable who’s who of the Western Enlightenment from 17th century Europe, succeeds at creating a window into the lives of polymaths and intellectual juggernauts. Yet what makes the work so intriguing is not merely the biographical material, but it is the quaint brevity of the content, both frank and bold. Sandman’s Brief Lives is hardly removed from this tradition. Gaiman’s stories of the Endless and the variety of mortals, gods, and divine agents that are to be had in the corpus emulate Aubrey’s eloquent candor, situating the giants of the supernatural as little more than amplified humans. In the beginning chapters of the arc, Dream is confronted with the prospects of change, being left to cope with the transitions of life, which rob the immortal from the illusion of the perpetuating static nature of personalities and relationships. In chapters four through six of Brief Lives, the subject of the narrative transitions from creatures of infinite quality, to those of limited deity, yet this change of focus amplifies Dream’s characterization considerably, being stretched across the lives of others in comparison. No longer is he nigh omnipotent and seemingly exempt from cultivating a personality. Dream has a conscience, but is unable to reconcile his immortality with himself and others.
Framed contextually amidst Dream’s failed romantic exploits, it is clear that the role of Brief Lives is to diagnose Dream’s need to relate with the very creatures that determine his existence. The irony of being a supernatural creature founded on the whims of humanity, and yet not embodying their intricate personalities, is the typical paradox of Dream’s characterization. In the arc there are several occurrences in which Dream confronts complex expressions of human emotion, and yet is seemingly incapable of reconciling them with himself. Upon arriving at Bernie Capax’s home, Dream is characteristically placid when discovering his query is inconveniently dead. Bernie’s son Danny is distraught and confused, his entire identity shaken by the revelation of his father’s secret lives. These emotions are compounded by the infantile scrawl of a portrait made by Danny which has been framed and put up on the wall in the basement of the Capax home. There inscribed above the illustration of Bernie is, “My dad is a Lawyer.” It conveys the deep love Bernie had for his son, and amplifies the feelings of betrayal being formed in Danny’s mind, in discovering that he hardly knew his father at all. The nuanced exchange is distanced from Dream, for he cannot understand it. While there is no information of the woman that Dream attempted to abscond with, the reader can infer the struggles the couple might have had. Ruby’s internal monologue later in the issue when they arrive at the motel is equally intriguing. In some form or another it is implied that those of the immortal pantheon, though benefiting greatly from their richly-lived legacies, secretly desire to be mortal as they watch their reigns fall with the sands of time. Ruby is a mortal who desires to be a god, or an amplified human deserving of worship. She desires wealth, reverence, and prosperity bequeathed to her through the travel organization Pharamond has built for himself, while also observing the rites of the sacred (withholding from sexual activity until marriage). This theme is later reflected in Tiffany Calhoon’s desire to be enshrined in “show business” and Nancy’s leveraging of her sexuality to gain power over men. In their journeys Dream and Delirium encounter a myriad of human emotions like grief, hunger, and fatigue at the hands of mortals, which they neither understand nor relate to. These attributes and relationships illuminate the struggle to understand the breadth of immortality.
Introduced early in the Sandman is the problem of immortality and it’s relationship between the self and time. Myth and Legend evolve out of folk tales and soothsayers, which substantiates the tale indirectly over the course of time. Between the point of origin and the later byproduct of the slow accrual of literary worth, this distance is what engenders a story with mythic quality. This distinction can be seen undertaking the process of change in late antiquity when comparing the Homeric epics (and other literature of that tradition) with the Christian Gospels. There were stark differences between historiography of the later periods in which the Gospels took residence and the former works of the pagans, the primary difference being the unabashed embellishment given to the tales to enhance their potency. The Christian gospels were written with the intention of being works of history, employing Ancient Near East genre conventions and framing, therefore serving as commentaries and memoirs, rather than fantastic tales. This odd cusp of antiquity is what the Sandman resides on, titling either way. The problem of being immortal is that eventually the Myth outgrows the person about whom the story is being told, thereby erasing the identity of the continually developing individual. Pharamond, a minor and forgotten Babylonian deity, faced eventual extinction with his slow progression toward anonymity, but was rescued by Dream’s suggestion to find other work in the cosmos. The problem of Myth and the immortal is solved by abandoning the identity that no longer reflects the continuously changing individual. The Sami shaman, known as the Alder Man, successfully undertakes this process symbolically by forsaking his human form and taking on an enduring form, the brown bear. In doing so he preserves his nature, without compromising the essence of his immortality.
Where Sandman becomes interesting is when those who are not able to adapt and change are introduced, and the reader must confront a doomed god pushed to the verge of death by their fading presence on the earth. In the Brief Lives arc, Ishtar and Bast are such deities. Ishtar’s dwindling nature, later envisioned in American Gods as the Queen of Sheba, is that of a marginalized god of cultic sexuality. Pharamond’s enterprising business of travel overshadows Ishtar, who still clings tenaciously to her former identity, resulting in her waning power. Pharamond’s former spiritual significance is never mentioned, but it can be inferred that it was markedly different from the work of his current occupation. Ishtar’s reluctance to change her profession and realm of influence is the fruit of her downfall. It is not until she confronts her past life and romantic interest in Destruction that her identity is rekindled passionately, but only then is it too late as she expends the last of her spiritual presence in cataclysmic catharsis. Bast’s spiritual decay is far more subtle. When Dream summons her attention in the Dreaming by recreating the ancient, but now lost, city dedicated to her state worship, she is depicted as an exotic creature, beautifully crafted and mysterious. Her opiate, along with the other gods that share her fate, is nostalgia and the longing for simpler times. These tragic yearnings turn blind eyes toward the real problem, which is escaping the identity of the former self. Dream and the Endless are seemingly exempt from these issues, as they age in maturity with the mortals they oversee; however, they too are in danger of slowly becoming irrelevant.
The truth is, Destruction of the Endless is the only immortal that is keen on coping with his own immortality and nature.
In Sandman #44, the reasoning behind Destruction’s departure from the fellowship of the Endless is made clear. He reasons that, in Man’s growing intelligence and power, he, unlike the handful of supernatural creatures in the Sandman corpus will grow in prominence rather than waste away in obscurity. While this is good news for Destruction on the surface, it presents a problem that is very real to Destruction. Of all the Endless, he is the most relatable; a jovial instrument of chaos. He is empathetic and intimate emotionally and physically with his brothers and sisters. While Death may be approachable and amiable in her position, Destruction is naturally boisterous and lively. It is the growing understanding of his position and his increased activity that leads him to confront his nature and ask himself if he is willing to continue. The other gods who change professions to survive, and therefore to preserve themselves, are outdone by Destruction’s act of charity in stepping down. He does so to preserve the human race from ultimately destroying one another. In their conversation, Dream and Destruction watch over a human dissecting an orangutan and suggest that humans, like all other living creatures in the universe, are brought to the inevitable end of destruction. Destruction endeavors to change the fate of humanity in stepping down. He even attempts to take on a new identity as creator of art, poetry, and inspiration, though fails to do so despite his good intentions. He is the only immortal in the Sandman to understand the balance between self preservation and living in the capacity of his mandated duties.