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Holy Smoke & Mirrors
Part II of A Hope in Hell
FROM THE TIME we grasped that to be born meant having to also die, we’ve not been happy with the concept. William Saroyan, the great American short story writer (he is to O. Henry what backgammon is to ludo, or vintage calypso is to modern soca), said it best: “Everybody has to die but I always believed an exception would be made in my case”; if there were a God, surely She would give William Saroyan a break for that, precisely because it is literally deathly funny.
We have to die, we have to die, we have to die and God knows there’s no way around it. Philip Larkin, the late English Poet Laureate, made a career of its contemplation, like all the best writers, but didn’t make it his retirement plan, like Ernest Hemingway, David Foster Wallace, Edgar Allan Poe, John Kennedy Toole, Sylvia Plath, Virginia Woolf and many others.
Widen the net of those who choose to spend their working lives trying to sidestep death – i.e., artists – to include painters and, from Vincent Van Gogh to Mark Rothko, you have suicides aplenty. Include musicians and the party really gets started, with the span running from Piotr Tchaikovsky, the “Swan Lake” and “1812 Overture” man, to Kurt Cobain, who named his band Nirvana but could not find it in life.
In our own lifetime, we’ve seen musicians from every genre take their own lives, including, e.g., soul singer-songwriter Donny Hathaway (name-checked as her favourite artist in Amy Winehouse’s, “Rehab”), Michael Hutchence lead singer of INXS, the Australian rock band, prog-rock keyboard legend Keith Emerson and punk rocker Wendy O. Williams. Two guys from one band – Pete Ham & Tom Evans of Badfinger, who wrote “Without You” – both offed themselves.
There’s a reason so many artists kill themselves; and it’s not because they’re all manic depressive or bipolar or mentally ill: it’s because they have both eyes open.
Writers write to try to recreate the world because, in the real one, they are perpetually bewildered. Painters paint to see past the finite and to try to glimpse the infinite. Musicians just sing to God; they have the closest connection to the thing that is bigger than all of us; and feel its disconnection most powerfully.
The God – or whatever the firetuck it is – that artists serve is far more powerful than the God that religions conscript humans into; and artists serve their God more faithfully and completely than the Pope does the Father, Son & Holy Ghost or any jihadist does Allah; the Christian thinks, in a fanciful way, of God sacrificing his only son that mankind might be redeemed; the artist lays down his actual life at the altar of Art.
The thing that makes Art possible, the thing that all artists struggle to reach in their work, whether they sculpt or shake a tambourine, is the same thing that makes us breathe. From the time we have lived together as a species, it has been the duty – and the privilege – of the artist to hold the mirror up to his fellowmen, that they might see their beauty, and choose to let go of the ugliness that also resides in the human heart.
There is no other purpose to life than to live well.
And God knows that’s enough.
Artists kill themselves because they make beautiful art, the single thing truly worthwhile in all of human endeavour – and, in their hearts, they know it is not enough. Indeed, it is when artists finish their greatest masterpiece that they know their greatest torment: I have painted the meaning of life itself.
And no exception shall be made in my case.
Long before we had priests, we had artists. Long before men in dresses claimed to be God’s guides, artists were showing us the one true way to the only God there is: this very life. This is all we have, all we’ll ever have (to quote jointpop on the point).
And it is enough.
Indeed, it is too much, sometimes, for those of us who open our eyes. “Dying is an art,” wrote Sylvia Plath, “I do it very well”.
But the thought that life could have no meaning whatever, other than that with which we imbue it through our actions and our love, is too stark for contemplation.
So we choose obfuscation; in come the priests, with their holy smoke & mirrors.
The only reason people believe in an omniscient, omnipotent God who can grant them eternal life if they follow rigidly the rules declared by men in dresses – always men in dresses – is because they cannot bear the thought that their consciousness, so great that it can imagine God, must vanish into the nothingness from which it came; and their lives could have meant fully nothing at all.
To find a way of sidestepping the simple, but unbearable, reality that the achievements of Genghis Khan, the Reverend Crispy Dollar-Chaser and the fry guy at Mickey D’s are on the same level, mankind invented God. If Alexander the Great wept 2,000 years ago because there were no more worlds to conquer, the spranger weeps today because there is no more cocaine; and God looks equally on them both; which is not at all; because God’s not there.
BC Pires is a low priest of the Church of Nothing Matters and What if It Did?
Next week: the conclusion of A Hope in Hell