Pieter Breugel the Elder, The Triumph of Death, 1562, Oil on Canvas, Prado, Madrid, Spain
There was no Automat last week because I was in the hospital being reminded by everyone that I could die. I didn’t have the heart to tell the medical staff that I already knew this; they were all so earnest and dull that I couldn’t bear to disappoint them. Family members also over-react to these things. People are suddenly reminded that, “Hey, I would miss you if you left.” It is interesting that most people, even people who have just met you, would really prefer that you didn’t die.
To this end, the medical and social establishment immediately add to the patient’s anxiety by insisting that he do something about his illness.
They want you to admit that there is some flaw in you, in your behavior or lifestyle they can ferret out of you so that they can say, “Ah-hah! Stop doing that!” and you will then be cured. Sadly, as this condition has recurred over the years, I no longer indulge in the things that a doctor might once have taken glee in forbidding. The smoking, drinking, partying, and wild hours are all long part of a dim and distant past. Red meats and poultry have long since been eliminated from my diets. About the best they can do now is say “Eat less. Eat more. Sit less. Sit more…” It is really kind of pathetic.
It is smoke and mirrors. Medicine as a profession didn’t even attempt to get scientific in the United States until the great flu epidemic of last century. Even today doctors are best suited to setting bones and cleaning wounds. They are told that if you push this drug it will render this effect, and they are taught which drugs interact badly. The surgeons have learned to hack and hew with precision, and if they can ever identify the right sort of varmint inside you, they can heal you. But more often than doctors would like us to know they cannot do those things, they cannot heal. Doctors feel terrible about this and they expect us, as patients, to help them feel better by pretending to improve.
William de Leftwich Dodge, The Death of Minehaha, 1892, oil on canvas, location unknown.
Look at what it says about that picture. Location unknown. How is that possible? Causes unknown. Cures unknown. There is so much we do not know, and I suspect that it is partly because everyone has been trained to look at the small stuff. The doctor is concerned that the patient’s heart is racing, stressed. “What is wrong with the heart?” he asks, never noticing the bus that has parked on the patient’s foot. Causes unknown. Science does not know why we itch as we heal. There is no good reason for it. Indeed, in the case of a wound it is anti-survival. Sometimes we itch for no reason at all. Medicine calls this non-specific pruritis. It is doctor talk for “I don’t know why you itch.”
Artists know, though. Artists know why we itch and more besides. Artists have always understood that death is impersonal and egalitarian. It is a dance. From the fifteenth century on many artists have striven to give a sense of what it must be like to dance with the Angel of Death. Death is often accepted as welcome, either through the ferocity of a faith that promises death as a doorway to glory, or as a release from the troubles and injustices of living. But mostly Death is accepted by art because it is a true thing, and it is a habit of artists to stare truth right in the eyes. When we are young men and women death is more absorbing than it becomes later on. The very best, most insightful poems and songs and stories about death are all written by the young who are still afraid of everything. Older people, for the most part anyway, don’t really give a shit beyond the initial inconvenience. You are going to die someday. You will go on beyond that or you will not. The doctors, who are now scientists, are worried that the answer might be not. They are trained enough to realize how vast is the universe, how autonomous the stars and galaxies, how thoroughly existence does not require us. As Sagan and Tyson have pointed out, we are no different from the dust sweeping through the cosmos. We are made of star stuff, and when we die we return eventually to that.
And yet…There seems to me to be a greater difference between we living things and the great impersonal stars. I watch my dogs experiencing joy and love and ask myself, what the hell is that all about? Just as we do not know why we itch, equally we do not know why we feel, why we dream, why we love and sing.
We do know one thing: we know when we are not dying. Short of accident or misadventure, I am not dying today. But when the time comes for me to dance, I will know that, too. And because eternity might take a while, I will wear my very best shoes.
Francisco de Goya, The Folly of Fear, 1719-1723, Etching on paper, Linz, Austria