Imagine a Life without Notions

Close-up of van Gogh’s “Skull of a Skeleton with Burning Cigarette.”

Imagine if we weren’t predisposed to notions of fate or destiny, or if we didn’t inherit beliefs about divinity from our elders. Imagine if our earthly end was truly a matter of chance or likelihood, and we accepted it as such: an accident or freak illness claims us, or we achieve an age correspondent to our life choices and genetics. None of this idea of unfinished business or unmet purpose in life would influence our feelings about death, that is, if we left no room in our brains for fate or destiny or divine intervention.

It’s difficult–unnatural, even–to trust a phrase like “it was just her time” when faced with an early death. Traffic accidents are the worst, because almost everybody drives, and almost everybody’s loved ones drive, so there’s a pervasive feeling it could happen to anyone at any time (like a terrorist attack or a mass shooting). But if we go a few weeks without news of a fatal car accident, we permit ourselves to slip into a false sense that those things definitely do happen but not to people we know. And just as we’ve settled into our comfortable driving routine, it happens. It may not be someone we know, but it could’ve been, and that’s often enough to unnerve us for a week or two.

Lately a new feeling’s crept in: guilt. When I hear of an early death, I eventually reach a vague sort of spiritual non-geography wherein I wonder, fearfully, if I’ve earned the life I continue to live, while so many who seemed so worthy–young victims of accidents; soldiers; cancer patients–have had theirs cut short. Am I worthy of the years my genetics are likely to grant me? Have I stored enough credits to cover the near-misses I’ve racked up on the interstate? Perhaps the answers to these questions are always both yes and no. None of us is qualified to judge whether a person merits his very life; we can’t know the value of that, not in any quantifiable terms. It lies outside our collective jurisdiction; it resides in a nether region, in the place where the forces both compelling and extinguishing life are found–a region off-limits to our conscious yearning, a land outside our control. I suspect life itself to be the biggest mystery I’ll ever contemplate. Imagine having all the answers–would we want them?

Alan D. Tucker, MA
Content Writer, Essayist, & Novelist

Virginia Woolf on Sickness

Painting of Virginia Woolf by her sister Vanessa Bell.

As I sit home from work today sick, I’m feeling a little useless. But the congestion in my chest, which, this morning, caused a sharp pain unlike any I’ve ever felt with this type of sickness, in all my years of sinus and congestion type infections (I’m good for at least two of these illnesses a year, and lately it’s been more, probably because of kids)–this pain and congestion demanded I stay home and rest. So in my forced uselessness, at some point in the morning, I remembered the Virginia Woolf essay, “On Being Ill,” which I read not so long ago in grad school. Though healthy when I read it, nonetheless, her take on the mental state we assume in sickness resonated. She addresses the sort-of limbo we find ourselves in when given permission to do nothing all day. We remove ourselves from society for a day or two, which is an odd situation for a working, fairly responsible adult and parent. We’re not sure how we’re supposed to feel. Well, rather than try and wrest from my virus-addled brain a substantial blog post, I decided to have Virginia Woolf speak for me. The following is an excerpt from that essay. Enjoy one of the greatest writers ever (and my personal favorite!):

“There is, let us confess it (and illness is the great confessional) a childish outspokenness in illness; things are said, truths blurted out, which the cautious respectability of health conceals. . . . [The] illusion of a world so shaped that it echoes every groan, of human beings so tied together by common needs and fears . . . where however strange your experience other people have had it too, where however far you travel in your own mind someone has been there before you–is all an illusion. We do not know our own souls, let alone the souls of others. Human beings do not go hand in hand the whole stretch of the way. There is a virgin forest, tangled, pathless, in each. . . . Here we go alone, and like it better so. Always to have sympathy, always to be accompanied, always to be understood would be intolerable. But in health the genial pretense must be kept up and the effort renewed–to communicate, to civilise, to share, to cultivate the desert, educate the native, to work by day together and by night to sport. In illness this make-believe ceases. Directly the bed is called for, or, sunk deep among pillows in one chair, we raise our feet even an inch above the ground on another, we cease to be soldiers in the army of the upright; we become deserters. They march to battle. We float with the sticks on the stream; helter skelter with the dead leaves on the lawn, irresponsible and disinterested and able, perhaps for the first time in years, to look round, to look up–to look, for example, at the sky.” (1925)

Virginia Woolf knew much more about illness than I, suffering as she did with extended bouts of depression, but isn’t there something in that passage that anyone who’s ever stayed home sick from work can recognize? I loved it immediately, because I’d never seen anyone write about this type of thing. You’d be doing yourself a favor to read the entire essay, and while you’re at it, read a few more. You simply can’t read too much Virginia Woolf.

Alan D. Tucker, MA
Content Writer, Essayist, & Novelist

Vincent van Gogh and the Nashville Players

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If no one ever died, Vincent van Gogh would be one-hundred sixty-five years-old today. That I just wrote about him yesterday is purely coincidental. I wasn’t aware it was his birthday eve. The fact is he looms large, year-round. His name arises nearly as frequently as Picasso’s. One thing I mentioned in my post yesterday is the obscurity van Gogh suffered–a strange reality given his enduring post-mortem fame and adulation. Will there be an opposite phenomenon in-place for certain artists who are famous in life right now, like Yayoi Kusama orĀ Damien Hirst, where their names are lost at death while people we’ve never heard of make it into the Art History books? If I live to be a hundred-and-sixty-five, I guess I’ll know.

The art gods are fickle, conferring success on some and denying it to others, sometimes regardless of merit, and then often reversing those fates when artists die. It would seem cruel, if it weren’t that there was no one to blame. Those so-called art gods are really only projections of public taste, which is guided by markets and art criticism, among other factors. The whole business is quite subjective, i.e., subject to human whim, which can be negligent.

All of this makes for a slightly uninteresting blog post–kind of an “everybody knows this” type situation. But today being Vincent van Gogh’s birthday got me thinking about the unpredictability of fortune, how she shines on a few and ignores the vast millions. When I moved to Nashville in 2001, of course I knew that people came here with big dreams about the music business (I was one of them), but I was naive as to the extent of it. It wasn’t long, though, before I realized the city positively crawls with deserving musicians, and by deserving, I don’t simply mean there are lots of talented people here. What I mean is they’ve committed their lives to the pursuit of music–to the dream of making “it”–to the degree they deny themselves, sometimes their whole lives, the traditional avenues to fulfillment, like marriage or career or education or parenting. Their work ethics are unmatched, endlessly perfecting their craft, working crappy jobs in order to survive, developing every detail of performance and persona, for hours and hours, which soon become days, months, and years. Throw a rock into any joint in Nashville, and you’ll hit ten people who could feasibly pull off a full-time, professional music gig. Yes, they’re that densely concentrated here. But you’ll never know their names.

Alan D. Tucker, MA
Content Writer, Essayist, & Novelist