Memento Mori – Death and the Artist

“My knowledge that I will die gives focus and meaning to every day that I am alive.  Were we to live forever, what motivation would there ever be to write a poem?” – Neil deGrasse Tyson

David Bowie. Photo by Jimmy King.

David Bowie. Photo by Jimmy King.

Of course the last opus of David Bowie comes to mind, impeccably released within days of his own death.  Bowie was as much a storyteller as he was a musician, so it is fitting that his last work would be an expression of his final journey.  With the single “Lazarus,” Bowie has written his own requiem:

“Look up here, I’m in Heaven

I’ve got scars that can’t be seen

I’ve got drama, can’t be stolen

Everybody knows me now.”

Bowie kept his 18-month long illness private, which may be why his fans are obsessing over cryptic clues about his death in the lyrics of his songs.

Perhaps the knowledge that we are mortal beings with limited time is what inspires some artists to continue to create until their final days. But why? Is it a means of control? Does it bring meaning to their lives? Is it a way of saying goodbye? Facing one’s death is deeply personal, yet these artists have shared their journey in a public way.

FRIDA KAHLO (1907 – 1954, painter)

Frida Kahlo was one of the most painfully personal artists of the twentieth century, whose work furiously confronted the life and death consequences of her tragic tram accident. Throughout much of her life, Kahlo was tormented by illness and thus confined to her bed. Trapped as she was in a broken body, her paintings often explored the Mexican theme of death as rebirth, which may have represented to her a release from her corporal suffering.

GEORGE HARRISON (1943 – 2001, musician)

Brainwashed liner notes. 2002.

Brainwashed liner notes. 2002.

Though George Harrison’s fight with cancer was not as private as Bowie’s, he did continue to work on his final album Brainwashed even as the cancer spread to his lungs and his brain. After his death, his son Dhani recorded the remaining vocals and instrumentals as Harrison had instructed. The result is a posthumous album that definitely feels like the work of a man coming to terms with the end of his life with lyrics like: “Had no idea that I was heading/To a state of emergency” in “Looking for My Life” and “There’s no escape, can only run so far,” in “Run So Far.”

Rolling Stone reviewed the album upon its release in 2002, “Brainwashed is a warm, frank goodbye, a remarkably poised record about the reality of dying, by a man on the verge. Fear and acceptance run together in these songs, anger as well as serenity. Most important, there are lots of guitars.”

Perhaps the ultimate resolution for Harrison can be found in the liner notes included on the album, a quote from the Bhagavad Gita “There never was a time when you or I did not exist. Nor will there be any future when we shall cease to be.”

OLIVER SACKS (1933 – 2015, writer, neurologist)

Oliver Sacks. Photo by Adam Scourfield.

Oliver Sacks. Photo by Adam Scourfield.

We can never know the true motivation of these artists as they faced the end of their lives, but if anyone can give us a pretty good idea, it’s Oliver Sacks.  Upon discovering that his cancer was terminal, he made it his goal to be as productive as possible.  In this beautiful op ed he wrote for the New York Times “My Own Life,” he writes about his changed perspective with the news of his terminal cancer.  I also highly recommend the thoughts he shared with his friends at RadioLab.

“Now I am face to face with dying. The cancer occupies a third of my liver, and though its advance may be slowed, this particular sort of cancer cannot be halted.  It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can.

Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life.

On the contrary, I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.

This will involve audacity, clarity and plain speaking; trying to straighten my accounts with the world. But there will be time, too, for some fun (and even some silliness, as well).

I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends.”

Surely, these are words to live by.

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5 comments
  1. Betty said:

    Well done. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Lovely post. Reminded me of Warren Zevon as well. His last appearance on The Late Show with David Letterman maybe the best show Dave ever did. When asked if Zevon knew anything about life since his prognosis he said a profound sentiment “Only just to enjoy every sandwich”. God bless Warren, Bowie, George and Mr Sacks.

    • busyk said:

      Who knew a sentence about a sandwich could be so heartbreaking! I’ll have to check out that Letterman appearance on YouTube. Thanks!

      • No worried. Great post.

      • No worries. 🙂 Great post.

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