Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Not so good a time after all

Ivan Albright painted a series of self-portraits at the end of his life.
     To write is to err, as I say when a reader points out one of my blunders with an excess of glee. Mistakes inevitably happen when you put words together and hastily poke them in the public eye, and the writer who takes too much pleasure in another writer's gaffe is mocking someone today for something he may very well do tomorrow.
     That said, an innocent whopper showed up deep in the New York Times Monday that merits sharing. In the Arts section, page three, the "Arts, Briefly" column. Compiled by Andrew R. Chow, which means maybe he wrote it, maybe he didn't. Under the headline "Saluting David Bowie At Carnegie Hall."
     The badly-timed, unfortunately-worded opening sentence reads:
     "It's a good time to be David Bowie, below. He just celebrated his 69th birthday, released an album, "Blackstar," and has a show, "Lazarus," running off Broadway."
     Ouch. Bowie was also dead, or nearly, when the above was written, though of course the author, like the rest of us, had no idea.
     Which is worth relating, both for the rueful chuckle it might draw, and to show how little we really know of celebrities, though we pretend otherwise. We imagine them living large when, quite often, they're not. In this case, Bowie wasn't living at all. 
    My immediate thoughts on David Bowie's passing were posted here yesterday morning. But in the afternoon, polishing them for Tuesday's newspaper, I started this way:
     Of course the public never knew David Bowie was sick. A man who controlled his image so artfully, so thoroughly, who moved from one personage to another and was famous and adored for nearly half a century, well, naturally, he'd slip away without fanfare, leaving us to burst into applause to an empty stage.
     Which was the tack my colleague Rick Morrissey took, praising his silence in the face of illness, as opposed to "the compulsion to make one's cancer fight  a tent revival."  
     A sharp line. And the sort of thing that doesn't get said much, because being sick grants people license to share away, and they do, with varying degrees of tact and skill. 
     Though sharp lines also prick. Even as I was applauding Rick, I had to pause, first thinking of when my alcoholism memoir came out, and some idiot at the Tribune wrote a column saying, in essence, "Gee, where's my addiction, so I can get a book contract?" Making writing such a book seem boorish. A tarter version of the sentiment lauding Bowie for keeping mum (I responded to him with something along the lines of, "You know, Anne Frank did very well with her book, too, though I would hesitate, if I were you, from envying her publishing success too much, because there are other factors you are not considering.")
     The idea that too many are too public about being sick ignores the value of writing about illness. And it lumps together all the sick individuals posting graphic updates from their hospital rooms on Facebook with creative works like Evan Handler's novel of surviving cancer despite the ham-handed care he gets at Sloan-Kettering, "Time on Fire." I give it to every friend who gets cancer, because it's both funny and useful.
     Yes, there's a lot of that going around. But there are a lot of babies being born, yet reacting to your neighbor's infant with, "What? Another?!" is both rude and short-sighted. The world need babies, news, memoirs. First, those might be of interest to people who are not yourself, other people, with other needs and interests — bulletin: you are not the only person in the world. And second, they're obviously of value to the person writing them. And how much should a healthy person really complain about something bringing comfort to the sick? Nobody forces you to read it.
    Third, there is a general value to publicizing illness, in that it takes away stigma. People didn't talk of having cancer, not because they were being discreet, but out of shame. It was a seen as a death sentence and a personal failing. Just as gay people stepped out of the closet to demand funding for HIV research and civil rights for themselves, so people who talk about their illnesses normalize them, and remind us that sickness is part of the life, and deserves attention.
    Bowie's secrecy regarding his illness was characteristic — his art was public, his private life was, well, very private. And in this era, it was an amazing feat, one few celebrities could pull off. But like orange hair, just because it looked good on Bowie doesn't mean everyone should do the same. For instance, Roger Ebert's public battle with cancer was also characteristic, for him, perfectly in keeping with his life of elegant introspection and bracing candor, and it provided a moving denouement that in some ways was as culturally significant as his film criticism. Should he have kept it to himself, just to spare us a jarring picture in Esquire? The brutal full-face portrait was important, thought it wasn't everyone's idea of a magazine photo. 
     A writer is allowed his subject, her field of interest. For me, when I get sick, my guess is that I will try to keep it to myself, not out of reluctance to join the packed tent revival, but out of the feeling that Roger Ebert has already covered this ground, and far better than I ever could.  Of course, you never can tell what you'll do until you're there. Chicago artist Ivan Albright painted self-portraits right up to the time he died. They're hanging in the Art Institute.


  1. Now there was a brave and honest man, Albright I mean.


  2. As usual, "it depends." Bowie kept his illness secret, but the art he made out its looming is as powerful and direct as it gets. Check out the video for "Lazarus" NOW that we know he's gone, and he knew he was going. He knew we wouldn't see it until he was dead. He is indeed very consciously saying goodbye, showing one way to do it with dignity and grace. Powerful stuff, indeed. And P.S. I LOVE me some Ivan A.

  3. Neil - You should definitely sit down and listen to Blackstar - as JJ said, knowing the news now only makes it more haunting, but also paints DB in a new light. He definitely wanted to express his emotions and ordeals in the best way he could. Baring his soul as it slipped away as nobody else could. He hit it out of the park. Interviews with his band mates for the record said if they knew how this would all shake out, they probably couldn't play those songs.

    I haven't seen the Albright portraits in a while, but I remember seeing them all (20+ ?) in an exhibition a number of years back and they were truly astonishing - as is much of his work.

  4. Good column. If Bowie felt that keeping his cancer under wraps was the right thing for him, then kudos. OTOH, I think of Warren Zevon, going around touring and appearing on Letterman after a terminal cancer diagnosis, meeting his fate with dignity and grace. The point (insofar as I have one) is that mortality is one of those intensely personal experiences to which there is no one, single right attitude or behavior.

    Bitter Scribe

  5. Beautiful writing here. There is no 'wrong' way to handle dying. Share if you want to and if you can, don't if you can't, or make your imminent passing a final work of art. It's all lovely.

  6. The Albright pictures are haunting.

    Agree with Neil that criticizing someone for the way he choses to shuffle off the old mortal coil is unseemly.

    Although the event now seems to have been postponed, I liked the way Jimmy Carter spoke publicly about learning of his terminal cancer. He said he was surprised and gratified that if wasn't personally devastating.

    Tom Evans

    1. Tom--I don't think Carter's cancer is terminal. The last I heard, it was in remission.

      Bitter Scribe

    2. It is in remission now but wasn't when he made the remarks I was alluding to.


  7. Sickness is one thing, terminal illness and imminent death is something else. It's very personal and I think Bowie handled it in the same fashion he's handled most of his career. His life is private, but artistic expression is his way of communicating his feelings, as we've seen with his latest release. As usual, the message is powerful.


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