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?
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 or 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.
Seventy-one lifetimes. Or at least seventy-one of my lifetimes. That’s how long it’s been since the earliest would-be Italians lived in huts of wood and thatch in small villages on land that would become the heart of the Roman Empire. But I’m no historian. All I’m qualified to do is publicly ruminate on the 3,000-year-old burial urn that I saw near the entrance of the Frist Center’s current mega-exhibit: Rome: City and Empire.
The text placard states that the urn held its owner’s ashes, but what happens to ashes over such a long period? Do they disintegrate? Or does the wind lift each one up and out of the urn—single particulates, one by one, until the vessel is empty? Maybe three millennia is enough time for such arduousness. But the urn was buried, so does that mean the poor man’s ashes are mingled with the Roman soil still? Beneath the ruins on Palatine Hill? His spirit may’ve roamed the statued avenues of high empire, swirled up fluted columns and pierced the pantheistic heavens, drunk on the triumphs of his ancestors, but his body was bound to the same ball of rock and dirt that will one day lay claim to all bodies, whether ashen or buried whole. We’ll never know if the 3,000-year-old spirit, once free of his earthly matter, was relegated to an underworld of dubious torment, or if he was free to fly the expanses of empire, never stopping long until he reached Elysium, where he stretched his ghostly limbs in Lethean fields.
But isn’t it just like art to connect us to a 3,000-year-old person? We know instinctively that whatever his social position, whether peasant or patrician, he had loves and losses, pains and ecstasies, talents and flaws. Maybe he was educated—whatever that meant back then—or dumb as the ceramic that would house his remains, but the indisputable thing is that he shares with us—across seventy-one lifetimes—a humanity that is triumphant by sheer force of its existence. The urn says, “Here I was.”