The first item of news I saw this morning that was Alan Rickman had died, further souring a week that saw the death of David Bowie and, worse for me, someone important to me in my family.
For a moment this week, I imagined my grandmother and David Bowie in the same orientation class in heaven. My grandmother would have no idea who Bowie was, and I picture her saying “There was this strange young man sitting next to me….”
Rickman, though, I think she might recognize. His fame and achievements reach further into her circle of both time and experience. When I saw the news of his death this morning, a feeling of being unfairly treated by the infant 2016 welled up in me, and for a second I wanted to overturn my kitchen table like he does in that video from David Michalek’s “Portraits in Dramatic Time.”
And then I pondered my reaction for a moment.
You know how, every time someone iconic dies, some cooler-than-thou person shows up to audit the emotional experience of everyone who’s upset about it, saying “I never feel bad when famous people die, because I didn’t know them. Why does everyone get so upset?” (No, I’m not linking. If you hang out enough on Twitter or other social media, you don’t need a link to know I’m not building a strawman here.)
As a matter of curiosity, it’s a fine question. But when there is that tinge of superiority and negative judgment to it, I can tell there’s a difference in our willingness to connect to and invest in the human culture that bathes us.
But isn’t it true? I don’t know Rickman, or Bowie. Why should I feel sad at their deaths?
Are you kidding? Of course I know them — or at least significant parts of them, because I know their life’s work. And they did that work so well that it caused me to emotionally invest in it. That is what art is; an invitation to feel. And when the person who performs that deeply impacting work dies, I am again affected emotionally. The more their work draws you in, the more impacted you are by their demise.
The death of an artist, then, can almost be considered a final work.
Obviously, because I don’t have a mutual personal connection with Alan Rickman or David Bowie, I don’t grieve their deaths in the same way I do a close family member. But it does make me sad; it makes me feel that pang of regret that there will be no more surprises, no more distinct and new invitations to feel from these masters. (Bowie may have understood this, given his release last week of a whole new body of work about his impending death.)
And for a moment, those feelings might make me want to overturn my kitchen table.
So you are grieving the death of a famous person you don’t know? Congratulations. You are not crazy or overwrought. Instead, it’s more likely an indication that you are receptive to art; to connection; to humanity. It means you are living fully along the spectrum of human existence.
Now, go listen to some music or watch a film, and answer again the invitation to feel.