{Dumping the Shark} “The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living” by Damien Hirst (1991)

Right around the time Hirst’s fourteen-foot tiger shark was first being lowered into the vitrine tank, there were battle tanks lumbering over Red Square again; it was 1991, the Christmas of twentieth-century totalitarianism, and although you probably couldn’t see it, this was us, getting caught in the suck of Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan.

The installation in question, and it needs to be an “installation,” because installation is equally a military term as it is a term of art, is Damien Hirst’s The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. A fourteen-foot tiger shark suspended in a five-percent formaldehyde solution inside a glass-and-steel tripartite tank. The tanks that appeared on Red Square in August of ’91 were T-80U’s, sporting Kontakt-5 reactive armor designed to explode on impact: Buran thermal imaging sights, a twelve hundred fifty horsepower diesel engine, and the advanced 9K119 Refleks missile system, capable of surface-to-air target acquisition. In production and upgraded since 1976, the T-80U’s were the brainchild of Chief Designer Nikolay Popov of the SKB-2 Design Bureau, and rolled off the production line of the legendary Kirov Factory in Leningrad. Four days in the death throes of a summer, ultranationalist ambition threatened to make life in Russia “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short,” Thomas Hobbes’ secret signature of “man in a state of nature.”

It’s the birth of contractarianism in the seventeenth-century. In the first part of Leviathan, Hobbes describes the human condition. For Hobbes, the senses are more than a gateway to the world, they also grant certain rights. The ability to perceive something is commensurate with the ability to have something. This is Hobbes’ “natural man,” man in a state of nature. Whatever humans desire, they are heir to. But because no one is alone in a state of nature, because others are competing for the same limited pool of resources, this leads to bellum omnium contra omnes: the war of each against all. Leviathan is Hobbes’ treatise on pulling man from nature and transplanting humankind into the modern condition of a political economy. This is achieved through a limitation of desire and a foregoing of entitlement. Why would anyone do this? Because Hobbes dismisses the idea of the greater good and embraces the idea of the greater evil. No one would willingly concede their “rights” but the fear of violent death would impel people to restrain themselves. Society constituted by acts of surrender.

A shark in a tank and tanks on the street replay the same symbolic politics as Leviathan. T-80U’s meant to usher Russians back to a palpable awareness of summum mallum, the greater evil, and the resistance of death by devolution into the monstrous and demonic. Even if I had seen the original exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery back in 1992, I probably would still have misinterpreted the meaning of the piece from its title: The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living. For me, the “Death” is disconnected from the “Someone Living.” A shark dumped into a tank, framed by that title, is the story of loved ones long buried, their voices dead and gone, resurrected and sustained by acts of human memory. The dead we keep alive with us. Our own private hells cast from our own private halcyons, like Soviet generals alive at the end of the Soviet Union. What if you reach a point where everything that’s constituted you, every choice you’ve ever made to build yourself, simply runs out? It’s the very end you. What do you do next?

We sometimes come to that road by a path of grand historical events, and sometimes we reach that point by way of I Am No Longer Myself Without You. About a half dozen years before the Impossibility was on display at the Met, and half a dozen weeks before 9/11, without realizing it, Jessi (let’s call her Jessi) and I had already drawn battle-lines. Were there certain things that could not, or should not, be represented? The Holocaust, for example. Eventually this would be the thing would that set us apart; in the sense of distinguishing us, and estranging us.

Going further, Jessi was right and I was wrong. And I’m writing out of a sense of guilt, as an act of contrition, and also my closest approximation of Leonard Cohen’s Famous Blue Raincoat. Jessi, I was wrong then, but I’ve grown now, but none of that’s a story you need hear, is it? I’ve always tried my best to never show love and this time will be no different. Jessi held the belief that the atrocity of the Holocaust, the unbridled demonic hatred of it, ought never be on display. In a time before 9/11, before “these violent delights have violent ends,” I believed something different. I believed Lest We Forget, that a record of the Nazi reveling in bellum omnium contra omnes should be preserved for us all. Three years later and three weeks shy of the anniversary of 9/11, while a guest of the German government at the University of Erfurt, a day trip to Buchenwald changed my beliefs. It felt like the revenge of a pre-truth world, an assault of facts without conscience, human suffering and inhuman atrocity on an equal footing, everything reduced to data points and on display for all to see. It felt wrong, and afterwards, I felt wrong. These kinds of depictions were not worth having.

Like you, like everyone you love and respect, I read Julie Zauzmer in the Washington Post earlier this month about millennials and the Holocaust, and I shrieked in horror, alone in the dark. The other side of seeing mobs with tiki torches, the other side of “good people on both sides,” is the fracturing of historical context to a point where the summum mallum of the Holocaust is lost to all the generations still to come. But what of the lesson I learned in Thuringia, not ten miles from where Martin Luther inaugurated the Reformation? Does it have to be omnium contra omnes when it comes to me and Jessi?

In a song not his own, Jay-Z suggests, “I’m not as cool with Nascar as I once was/I once was cool as the Fonz was/But these bright lights turned me to a monster/Sorry, mama, I promised it wouldn’t change me/But I would have went insane had I remained the same me.” Except of course, Jay uses a different word beginning with an “N.” It’s in those last lines that we’re returned to the idea of having lived too long, long beyond the Very End of You, returned to the world of a summum mallum without a summum bonum, a greater good. Returned to the second act of a shark long after its death, suspended in a five-percent solution of formaldehyde, floating in a tripartite tank made from steel and glass for all the world to see. I promised it wouldn’t change me, but I had to surrender the moral high ground of that promise.

Those lines are for you, whoever you are (certainly not Jessi). For me, the lines up front, the reference to the Fonz, who himself lived too long in that episode where he literally jumped the shark. Those lines, and the realization that despite the edginess of my earlier misreading, that there couldn’t be a more perfect union between the Death in the title, and the Someone Living. And that someday I too will be that shark in the tank, and how ever this shakes out, Jessi was right to dump me. Because some things deserve to remain hidden from sight, even if we can never allow ourselves to forget what those things are.