Death and dying is a process as fearful for the artist as it is for the rest of us and immortality just as meaningless. But their manner of leave-taking should tell us something about the genius that purports to lift mystery’s veil on existence, at least a little. Dylan Thomas railed against the dying of the light, yet courted it as if he believed “talent, sex, booze and an early death [was] the quartet of literary immortality.” (“Death Becomes Them,” by William Giraldi, New Republic, April 2016, pg. 75.)
Katie Roiphe’s new book, The Violet Hour, looks at the vanishing acts of 5 geniuses: Susan Sontag, Sigmund Freud, John Updike, Maurice Sendak, and Dylan Thomas. At the age of 16, Sontag took an early swipe at death when she wrote, “How is it possible for me to stop living…” (Ibid pg. 75.) As a writer and a scholar, she tried to peer past her mortality to catch a glimpse of a wider universe. Even so, the diversion had its limits. Death stopped for her as inevitably as it stopped for Emily Dickinson, though in Sontag’s case, cancer showed less civility than the poet’s suitor. Perhaps, lacking the humility of her predecessor, Sontag’s genius demanded that she live too fiercely.
Between the short space of darkness before and darkness after, each writer Rophie reviewed seemed to squeeze the excess out of every moment, knowing time was the pulp of existence. Thomas drank his life away. Freud ignored his pain and kept to his research with the regularity of a Swiss watch. Updike seemed to be “wedded to the notion of writing as deliverance.” (Ibid pg. 76.) Each, according to temperament, chose the style of his or her exit. Alive, however, they shared a passion, gathering their wit and skill about them to battle this thing called consciousness. If only they could make sense of it before, like a squalling child or with a blank expression of inevitability, they vanished.
As for me, I prefer the calmer, sardonic view of the Australian author and poet, Clive James. “If you don’t know the exact moment when the lights will go out, you might as well read until they do.” (Ibid pg. 76.)