Washington Diarist: The Trend in Dying

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Happy is the eye that saw all this, but our souls were anguished by what our ear heard." This is the refrain of an ancient poem in the liturgy of Yom Kippur, a lament for its author's belatedness. It concludes the extraordinary verse narrative of the primal service, long ago lost, at the Temple in Jerusalem--the most awesome hour in early Judaism, when the High Priest ventured into the Holy of Holies and uttered the otherwise unutterable Divine Name, and answered the assembly's affirmation of the Name with the exhortation, "Be cleansed!"; and the most awful hour, when this same numinous figure picked up a knife and murdered a bullock and a goat and a few rams, and sprinkled blood in choreographed patterns of sanguinary absolution, and mixed the blood, and sent the scapegoat over a desert cliff to be shattered "like potter's ware." When I was a boy, I watched old men cry over these passages. It was their distance they were weeping for: they wished to see but they only heard. It is said that Rabbi Abraham Kook--infamous in our day as the idol of the settlers' movement, but in fact one of the great spiritual writers, one of the most light-saturated souls, of the twentieth century--sobbed at the remains of the Temple, at the Western Wall in Jerusalem, because of the priestly service that its destruction had denied him. This always struck me as rather a narrow focus on the Judean catastrophe. And in so radiant a being, why the nostalgia for the knife? I am glad that the knife is gone. I am happy only to hear about it, and my soul would be anguished were my eyes to see it. When my attention wandered in shul--it always does, I am no good at prayer, I lack the cosmology for it--I pondered those lines. We differ in our hopes for our eyes and our ears; we burn, but not uniformly; we are late, but not for the same dream; we know loss, but not the same loss. There are as many objects for tears as there are tears. We may be known by what we mourn, and do not mourn, for. It makes no sense to grieve for everything; or more accurately, the man who grieves for everything grieves really for himself.

 

Now leave the shul and lower the level. In the Style section of The Washington Post a few months ago, there appeared this supplication: "God, please stop taking away our celebrities." It is one of the exemplary American sentences of our day. It began a trend piece, the trend in this instance being celebrity death. Jackson, Cronkite, Fawcett, Carradine, Hewitt, Kennedy Shriver, McNamara, Malden, Novak, McMahon--the diligent reporter noted every sighting of the angel of death, though not a word about what it wore or where it ate. The star-struck reaper has meanwhile claimed also Swayze, Kennedy, Travers, Gelbart, Dunne, Safire, and (here I suspend all satire) my twinkling and troublemaking friend Irving Kristol, the happiest of happy warriors. Where will it end? It is our world now, and pray for us. The Post piece also brought me news of CelebrityDeathBeeper.com, to which I immediately repaired. "We won't quit until they're all dead," the site says. (Also: "Why? Kathy Lee Gifford, that's why.") The Internet never stops breaking new ground in insensitivity, but an idea may sometimes be found in the derision. So what sort of sorrow is sorrow for a celebrity? Consider the death of Walter Cronkite. He was an institution of American life, no question about it. His stability was a boon in an era of instability. He represented a belief in objectivity that our culture abandoned a long time ago. The media exequies for Cronkite were no surprise, of course: there is no undertaker like television, and he was its own. But how much of a nation's sadness, I wonder, was a generation's sadness--a commemoration by other means of the circumstances of its youth? Cronkite was one of those circumstances. Mourning for him was like mourning for vinyl, or pay phones, or the Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature. It was another reminder of how much that was ours, and was good, has fled. ("Mad Men" owes some of its success to the warmth of its pastness, to the feeling of respite from change, of fastidious restoration, that it provides.) Do not mock this melancholy. It is generational not only in the sense that it is experienced by people of a certain age, but also in the sense that it is as inexorable as the years. Nobody will escape it. One day you will look up emptily from the everythingPod in your hand and want your Death Cab for Cutie days back.

 

Celebrities are not people, except for themselves, and maybe not even for themselves. They are products; artificially enhanced markers of this moment and then the next; mnemonic devices for obscure existences that measure themselves out in mass-market references, in the increasingly transient iconographies of the entertainment environment. At this late date in the critical theory of celebrity (which is itself a variety of the virus) there may be little to add, except to repeat that a vicarious life is an alienated life, even if alienation is mistaken for participation. The Style section was theologically in error. God does not recognize celebrity. In paradise every name is boldfaced. As for the death of Michael Jackson, the whole tabloid humanoid circus, with its vultures and its vampires, and its stupid rabbi: I was more moved by the death of Balthazar. Balthazar was a donkey in a shattering film by Bresson. He loved, and served, and suffered, and went out into a meadow to die. Balthazar's death was as real as Michael Jackson's death was unreal. Nobody who saw the donkey die will forget its wisdom. Nobody who saw Michael Jackson die will forget Anderson Cooper.

 

Last month a man named Francis Mason died. I did not know him, though we exchanged letters some years ago. For many years he edited Ballet Review, a small and magnificent journal that was an education for me. It masterfully combined scholarship, criticism, interviews, photographs, all of it held together with staples and available, but not frequently enough, at the Ballet Shop on Broadway and 63rd Street, whose proprietor died last month. (I can hear you laughing.) We now live in a world in which such a journal and such a shop are almost inconceivable. Sure, we have apps. But I will not be texted out of my elegiac mood. The notion that we have impoverished ourselves may be unexciting, but it is true. Happy is the eye that saw all this, but our souls were anguished by what our ear heard. Or as James McMurtry sang the other night in Alexandria, "I don't want another drink. I only want that last one again."

Leon Wieseltier is the literary editor for The New Republic.

 

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