A Little Note on the Big Sleep

I’m typing this on my phone, unable to sleep. I was going to post something like this after Bowie passed, but refrained in favour of keeping my headphones in for a couple of days and letting forty years of great music wash over me.

And now Alan Rickman’s dead.

Kurt Vonnegut – the writer who I may think of most in times of stress – said that his enlightened Tralfamadorians would greet all deaths with a simple “So it goes”. In part because we live in a universe where all things move toward their end, but in a larger part because time, on blessed Tralfamadore, is an illusion. People who mean something to us are always where – or at least when – they were when they came to mean that thing.

It’s a lovely sentiment. But the time machine we call memory is imperfect, and I at least have a little too much Dylan Thomas in me to summon up that clarity without a little rage. Some losses are too keen to make for good philosophy.

For the most part.

I do – as I think we must – think differently of artists whom we love.

When Terry Pratchett died, my mother called me. To see if I had heard, to check I was okay. This is a process that had been missed for actual relatives. But I was okay. And here’s why:

Except in fortunate, specific, cases we don’t know the artists we talk about. We have fleeting glimpses. Formed impressions. Often, they’re not the people we thought they were.

But why should they be? The attachment we feel isn’t to a person. It can’t be. It’s to their art, and to the idea of their art. We feel sympathy for their friends and family. We mourn the passing of the idea.

And for art, well, So It Goes. Songs play their final notes, curtains fall, books come to an end. But the ideas of that aft stay with you.

Art – we must always remember – is not a naturally occurring phenomenon. It’s not affection, or inspiration, or even beauty. It’s an act of creation. All art is something out of nothing. It’s something new entering the world.

Matter, they say, can never be created or destroyed – only changed. But artists add things to our base sphere. Those things remain.

The Tralfamadoriansams are right on this one: art is outside time. The book is waiting for you to pick it up again. The song is waiting to be played.

The impulse to mourn often comes from our sense of loss. The dead don’t mourn. They have gone on to joy or to nothingness. We feel the pang if songs they might have written we never got to hear, parts they may have played we never saw. But EVERY part or song or book or painting or cathedral is more than we had any right to expect.

To borrow from another artist who touched my life immeasurably, without me giving back: I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.

But I will say, be grateful, and take comfort.

The fact of art itself is nothing less than a miracle. To quote another artist whom I love (present tense, because I experience the art now, and not the man, passed), Orson Welles:

“Our works in stone, in paint, in print, are spared, some of them, for a few decades or a millennium or two, but everything must finally fall in war, or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash – the triumphs, the frauds, the treasures and the fakes. A fact of life: we’re going to die. “Be of good heart,” cry the dead artists out of the living past. “Our songs will all be silenced, but what of it? Go on singing.” Maybe a man’s name doesn’t matter all that much.”

I couldn’t say it better. Isn’t it marvelous that I don’t have to?


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