Monday, October 27, 2014

Rant on Immortality

My mother, who painted the above watercolor, is very much alive, but she no longer paints because she can no longer see. When I told her that I wanted to put her paintings on a blog so that her friends and acquaintances could see her work, she remarked that she wasn't able to get much money for the paintings she sold because she was a living artist. I wonder why is it that after someone dies their work becomes more valuable. It is because there is a finite end to their output? My mother's finite end to her work came when she could no longer see lines and colors, but I believe talking about her work with people enriches her life as well as the lives of people who are able to see it.

Why is it that people so often wait until someone is no longer alive to voice appreciation for a body of work, be it musical, literary, or artistic? Much of our human culture seems to be obsessed with the idea of some kind of afterlife and/or some kind of immortality, but not being a person who believes in an afterlife or immortality, I know that will not derive any pleasure or benefit from having a posthumous career. Many people struggle to get their work known beyond a small circle of friends, but more often than not it isn't until an obituary hits the newspapers or the internet that people in the "outside world" pay attention.

Writing music is only part of music making. A piece of music, no matter who wrote it (or Whom) only comes alive when people play it. A good composer tries to make an interpretation inevitable through the writing, but the composer's input really stops once the music is notated and distributed or published. A piece of music is a gift to musicians of future generations, but once the composer's life is over s/he will never know where it is played, or by whom.

Recordings give an illusion that a person who is no longer alive is somehow present. The larger the musical personality, the more convincing the illusion will be. But it is still an illusion. Recordings give the illusion that someone who is alive but not within earshot is present. Writing is similar. I still find it miraculous that someone's "voice" can be transmitted into another person's head centuries upon centuries after the writer put pen to paper (or knife to tablet). A writer can also transmit his or her written voice instantly to just about anywhere in the world.

A visual artist can capture an image (moving or still) of a time that can never be revisited, but it is just an illusion because no time can be revisited. We move on and unconsciously filter our memories so that we have room for new thoughts. We need visual art to remind us of where we have been, or not been.

All we really have is the present, and we can use the powerful tools of communication we wear on our faces and carry in our pockets to communicate with people we care about in real time. I think that it is important to celebrate the work of the living. They (and we, as long as I am here) are trying to make the present matter.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"I still find it miraculous that someone's 'voice' can be transmitted into another person's head centuries upon centuries after the writer put pen to paper (or knife to tablet)."

Tufts' Daniel Dennett wrote in philosophical parlance of the "useful fiction." This phrase serves me well and often. Bach cannot be "known" as such is as a person a fiction, whose life details appear in biographies as his life's work appears in scores which we translate into performances. It is indeed a miracle.

But this is also, if you will, spiritual, because among the many useful fictions in people's lives are religious persona. It is also political, because among the useful fictions in people's lives are so many names. The many narratives of today's politics try to become "useful fictions" as they tell us that, as an example, your family's "white privilege" is a reality, when in fact I am certain your family is less financially well off than, say, Beyonce's or Oprah's.

My point is that we become caught up in useful fictions, useful when they serve our needs. Of course the inverse would be true as well. One's useful fictions are not necessarily another's, and so I opt for a live and let live view of life, because I cannot stop another from having, as you write, someone's 'voice' transmitted into another person's head. I can but suggest that some of my "voices" are useful to me for certain reasons.

As Doris Lessing noted, a great deal of life is about telling other people what to do and think. I prefer to "hear" -- isn't that an odd verb -- "voices" of dead people, among them Bach's. But then, this voice as I type and as you might read is also a fiction, is it not, as I will post this anonymously.

I disagree that "all we have is the present." Given so many voices, as well as fingers holding brushes and so much that is now recorded, we have a millennia at our disposal for as long as we chose to hear Homer from ancient Greece, or Purcell from as England long past, and as long as we see the same water lilies as Monet and the protest in Picasso's Guernica.

Should we celebrate the living? You are with a post showing your mother's artwork. She is to me a fiction, useful in this moment. Should we celebrate those who no longer live? Without a question. You and I will disagree about the "useful fiction" which one might find in the machzor on Yom Kippur, but celebrate we must those useful fictions which resonate with us. They tell others more of who we are by on what we focus. Your mother is important to you. Nu? Mine was to me. Such is life, love and the mystery of someone's "voice" that can speak from another city, as from another century.

Not all voices are of equal weight and consequence. Simply measuring the incidence or "hits" is one measure. By such a simple standard, one might measure culture, as it aggregates voices, "fictional" in the sense of Dennett's vocabulary, for us to hear. Some will be faint and others large. It is a miracle of life, and a miracle across death, as I read your brother's phrasing essay which otherwise I might not have, had you not written of its "voice."

Life. A fiction. Useful. Now. Across millennia. Miraculous.

I think I need to listen to some Purcell right now.

Best wishes.