It seems we can be forgiven after all for weeping over the deaths of celebrities we never meet. We mourn our own fragility, faced with the reminder that nobody can live forever.
“Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?”
A few centuries ago, religious poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote “Spring and Fall.” A poem addressed to a very young child who was distressed because a beautiful grove of trees had lost all their leaves. She was worried that the trees were dead. Like lots of kids in the ’70s, I studied these poems at school and this one never left me, particularly the wisdom and insight of the final two lines.
“It is the blight man was born for,
T’is Margaret you mourn for.”
Human beings are brilliant at magical thinking. We are unique (as far as we know) among all living creatures in that we know we will die. This knowledge is a burden to us. In my view, we have invented elaborate religions and rituals—all promising a spurious safety or an imaginary reward such as an afterlife—to avoid facing the reality of our own inevitable, unavoidable demise. The very wealthy now seek to use technology to avoid death by having their bodies cryogenically frozen. I wish them the very best of luck with that. I believe even conspiracy theories are about refusing to acknowledge that we are all far less in control of our fate than we want to believe.
In the modern world, despite a resurgence of fundamentalism (and the two may be related), religion is losing its sway. Instead, people are replacing the gods they worshiped with those glittering few we refer to as celebrities. In many ways (I am a battered old atheist) I see this as much healthier. Celebrities are at least real. Most of them have achieved something to gain their status. And, fortunately, most of them don’t claim any supernatural ability regarding the path to enlightenment or the right way to live. (Any that do should be avoided or sent to the Betty Ford Clinic posthaste.) Moreover, like Goldengrove every autumn, when celebrities reveal their essential humanity by dying they also perform the very useful service of reminding us of our own mortality.
Also on The Big Smoke
- TBS Wake: Honoring Those We Lost in 2016
- On Bowie and Rickman: Don’t mourn those who live forever
- 2016: The Best of Times > The Worst of Times
I often wondered if the great outpouring of grief over the death of Princess Diana, a wave of public pain so profound it rocked an ancient monarchy on its foundations, had a lot to do with how brutally it forced us to face the essential chanciness of the world in which we live. Here was a fairy-tale Princess—beautiful, blonde, feisty, empathic, and (most important of all) mistreated and misunderstood. Everyone could either identify or empathize. Yet this fairy-tale Princess died in the most banal way possible, in a car accident at the hands of a drunk driver, probably because she believed her celebrity-safety-magic so much she did not wear a seatbelt. (As a mother of young children myself at the time, I was outraged by that. I took it as a duty of motherhood to not just buckle my kids in, but me as well.) The world has searched for conspiracy theories and cover-ups to explain her death ever since, mostly, in my opinion, so we can blame someone (anyone) for her death rather than face the fact that no one is safe, anything can happen, and it can happen to anyone at any time. Even the world’s Princess was not special or protected.
And so, I am afraid, it is with the spate of celebrity deaths in 2016. Now, don’t get me wrong, I hold no truck with 2016, Trump and Brexit are earth-shattering. Like 9/11, they have brought us face to face with the fact that nothing is immutable, nothing can be relied upon—not democracy, not the good sense of voters, human rights, good triumphing over evil, or our comfortable, well-protected lives. We were no safer pre-Brexit or pre-Trump than we are post-, we just feel like we were. We were no safer on 9/10 than 9/11, we just thought we were. Events like that shatter our illusions, not our safety. That’s because safety is always an illusion. Danger is the only reality. There is, after all, only one way off this planet and that is to die.
Maybe our shock at the litany of celebrities dropping off the twig this past year is precisely because it is easier to grieve the loss of people we never met than it is to face the very real dangers we are suddenly confronted with. Perhaps we also have a sneaking fear that those who died in 2016 may have been the lucky ones.
I mourned the loss of some of the celebrities who died, particularly Bowie, Fisher, and Rickman. But I mourned them in theory. Each of them had good, interesting, and useful lives. They have left a body of work that will continue to provide enjoyment for those of us who remain. You can’t ask for much more than that.
But when you weep for a celebrity or anyone you have never met, remember that at least part of what you mourn for is your own fragility. After all, if the rich, famous, accomplished, and adored are not safe then how can any of us be?