Getting the Living and the Dead Wrong: Mistaken Censuses and Transient Fame

Sometimes I find that someone I had counted among the living has passed away a while ago.  After the initial easy-to-understand embarrassment—for I have revealed my lack of knowledge of the world of the living after all–I often feel an absurd personal regret of the No-it-cannot-be-I-hardly-knew-ye variety. The regret is mostly absurd because the departed person is invariably a public figure of some kind, with whom there was little chance of personal contact. (In some cases, the regret can be a bit more substantive: perhaps a chance for a meaningful intellectual encounter has been missed. A few years ago, I proposed RJ Hollingdale as a speaker for an academic event, only to find out he had been gone since 2001. )

Conversely, when I find that someone I had imagined dead and departed turns out to be still alive, I feel a little shamed: by reckoning my fellow human being dead when still alive, I have carried out premature burial, consigned the living to a too-hastily-prepared grave, so minimized the living, so consigned them to the horizon of my acknowledgement of their lives that they might as well be dead. (While it is a persistent—and revealing–fantasy for some to wish to attend their own funeral to evaluate the quality of the eulogies and the extent of attendance, being thought of as dead is a considerably less commonly articulated desire. It smacks too much of explicit rejection by the living.)

But I wonder too, if the fact that a public figure, once famous, and then obscure again, is the most likely to be reckoned among the prematurely dead, or the persistently living, says something about the effects of transient fame. Once its glare is removed, the shadow life that follows may result in even more obscurity than that which preceded the fame. Fame may shine a dazzling spotlight, resulting in a new ‘examined life,’ one whose shadows promise obscurity with the removal of that light’s glare.  (Sometimes it may not be for any lack of fame that I might reckon the still-living as dead; for instance, I thought Tony Bennett was not with us anymore, only to find out that not only is he alive and kicking, but recording music with Lady Gaga as well. This, I think, says more about my taste in music than anything else.)

The kind of once-famous-now-obscure figure I have in mind should be familiar to most: the hits done and dusted, the appeal withered, our hero ‘retires’ to the margins try his hand at something else, or even worse, tries to recapture notoriety. Nothing works; fame is gone, and the attentions of those who ensured the limelight’s brightness are now, already, all-too-quickly diverted elsewhere. (Sometimes, of course, the rejection of the public life can be deliberate; the retreat and the seclusion is voluntary, to be continued, relentlessly, till the newspapers and the milk bottles pile up, and the neighbors call the police and the ambulance service.)

The blessings of fame have always been mixed; an ambiguous placement in the roster of the living is decidedly among its more peculiar ones.

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2 comments on “Getting the Living and the Dead Wrong: Mistaken Censuses and Transient Fame

  1. There is a great NYT article — from 1997! How long my memory stretches now — about how everyone thought Abe Vigoda was dead then. He’s still alive, apparently. Here’s the link:

    http://www.nytimes.com/1997/02/09/weekinreview/are-they-dead-yet-well-yes-and-no.html?pagewanted=all&src=pm

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