I wrote this essay so I could stop thinking about death for five minutes. If I stop writing, I may – yet again – contemplate my future demise and it’s really high time to stop. It’s just too much. So I decided to start writing, and now I’m not thinking of death anymore. I’m thinking about writing. Or, at least, I’m thinking about writing about death.
Somehow, this distinction is comforting. In fact, the more I think about thinking about writing about death, the more I realize that I am quite comfortable with art that deals directly with the concept of my eventual demise. I haven’t gotten to the point of placing paintings of skulls on my walls or asking people to text me a daily memento mori, but I actually seek out art that confronts mortality and find it uplifting. It pulls something authentically human out of me, connecting ruminations of dust and ashes to a far greater concept that contextualizes beginnings and endings within a grand, universal, and limitless existence.
I was listening to a podcast with Zadie Smith the other day about her new book. The interviewer asked her what her motivations were for working so hard at her craft. What keeps her dedicated, day after day, to the discipline of writing. Is it a desire to make something great? The ambition to be remembered as a great contributor to the artistic canon? No, she said. Writing gives her something to do and helps her stop thinking about her own death for five minutes.
So, I’m not alone in this. We’re all thinking about it. We’re all engaged in one, long distraction. For those of us who are writers and artists, the distraction in question is creative. We desire to create art, to leave a lasting mark on the world by a contribution of beauty.
It seems to me it’s more than a distraction.
The creation of art is intimately linked with the inevitability of death.
Could we go so far as to claim that mortality is the basis of all art? Do we exercise our creative faculties because we have the insatiable desire to push our hot, nervous fingertips through the veil into the realm of some unnamable and terrible infinity? After all, in the mythic tradition of Christendom, art was more or less invented when Cain murdered Abel. Blood sacrifice, the Biblical writer is disturbingly confident, is the seed of culture. Rome, too, traces its founding back to the murder of Remus – again it’s a brother – by Remus. The rivalry is the basis of the empire, all of it traced back to a single death.
Our time on earth is tightly circumscribed, but art mediates something so much more grand than we can ever hope to be. Somehow, it helps us break free. Or at the very least, it gives us something to do, provides an object of meditation, a way to exercise some form of feeble control over our fragile existence, as if writing about a thing declaws it and subverts it.
Art is a type of mourning. We memorialize a moment in time, the face of a friend, a particular golden landscape, a vase of flowers. When I say that art subverts death, what I mean is that it is bonded to it in a relationship that is both loyal and disloyal.
Jacques Derrida explains this concept in the context of friendship. We probably all take this for granted, but in a friendship, one or the other is going to die first. Losing a friend is to lose a part of yourself. Derrida describes this inevitable moment as a rip in the fabric of the universe, “Reflecting disappearance itself: the world, the whole world, the world itself, for death takes from us not only some particular life within the world, some moment that belongs to us, but, each time, without limit, someone through whom the world, and first of all our own world, will have opened up….”
So, when I mourn the death of a friend, I also mourn for myself. It’s an inescapable conflict, and we see it played out day after day at funerals as families struggle to prioritize sadness and celebration. This conflict of loyalty is known to us, in some way, from the very beginning of the friendship. Each friendship formed is an embrace of death, which lies at the very heart of the relationship.
Derrida makes a fascinating point when he claims this is even why we have names. A name is a monument that outlasts physical presence. It’s the same with creating art. He says, “The power of the image [is] the power of death.”
I wrote this essay to stop thinking about death for five minutes, but it turns out that I’ve immersed myself entirely into the subject. In fact, any time I write about anything, create anything, call another person by name, express friendship, or really make an attempt in any way to live my life, I am in the presence of death. When we try to pick up life and live it well, we pick up death, too.
Art is hope and it is love. It is friendship. It is the incarnation of the inner mystery of life. Art is an angel ascending and descending Jacob’s Ladder. It points out the bounds of our world and wages war against them, struggling to break free in an act both loyal to who we are as transcendent souls and also disloyal to the act of sacrificial mourning present at the very heart of culture.
Keep making beauty, friends. Never stop. Not even for a moment.