Why It’s Okay To Mourn, To Cry For, The Passing Of Strangers

Many silly things are written when celebrities die. One is that you cannot speak ill of the dead. Another is that you cannot mourn for those whom you did not know personally. A variant of this is that visible expressions of grief for those you did not have personal acquaintance with are ersatz, inauthentic, a kind of posturing.

The folks who make the former claim are simply clueless about the nature of the public life. The latter are clueless about how emotion works, about the nature and importance of symbolism and its role in our memories, and thus our constructed self.

Consider for instance that I tear up on the following occasions:

  1. Watching this musically mashed-up tribute to Carl Sagan;
  2. Watching a Saturn V rocket lift-off (or reading about the death of Gus Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee while testing Apollo 1);
  3. Watching fighter jets at an airshow, or indeed, even listening to the roar of a fighter jet’s afterburners as they are lit.

I did not know Carl Sagan personally. I did not know any of the astronauts on the Gemini and Apollo programs. I did not know Grissom, White, or Chaffee personally. I do not know any of the pilots who perform at airshows or whom I have seen taking off on many occasions. Indeed, one might ask, why tear up when watching or listening to any of these things? Man up! Be authentic! Stick to the known and the personal.

Sorry, no can do. Carl Sagan was an important influence on my education and philosophical and intellectual orientation as a child; to watch that little mash-up of Cosmos is to remember my childhood, one spent with my parents, watching Cosmos on Sundays at home. And my father was a pilot who flew fighter jets; I watched the Apollo 11 documentary with him as a child. My parents are no more. Need I say more about why I tear up when I undergo the audio-visual experiences listed above? Planes, rockets, astronauts, men with crew-cuts, memories of the moonrise. How could I not?

The emotions we feel are wrapped up in the deepest recesses of our selves; they reflect memories accumulated over a lifetime, traces of experiences, formative and supposedly insignificant alike. This is why, of course, when we listen to music, we can conjure up, seemingly effortlessly, a mood, an atmosphere, a remembrance, a time long gone. Music is perhaps the Proustian Madeleine par excellence. We listen to music when we read, write, walk, run, make love, work out, play, talk to our friends–the list goes on. We grow up with music; it becomes associated with our lives and its distinct stages. We listen to some songs again and again; they become almost definitive of a particular self of ours.

So when a musician dies, one whose music we have listened to on countless occasions, it is natural to feel bereft; we have lost part of ourselves.

To ask that we confine our expressions of sympathy and sorrow to only those we know personally is indeed, not just ignorant, but also morally dangerous; it bids us narrow our circle of concern. No thanks; I’d rather feel more, not less.

Hermione Lee On Wasting Nothing

The Art of Biography series of interviews at The Paris Review includes the following exchange between Hermione Lee and Louisa Thomas in No. 4:


This is something you consistently look at—the ways in which a period that is commonly considered a dead period in a writer’s life feeds into their work. I’m thinking especially of Cather and her journalism, and Wharton and the marriage years before she writes.


There’s a wonderful quotation from Proust, which that great Anglo-Irish novelist Elizabeth Bowen uses. She puts it in her preface to The Last September. “It is those periods of existence which are lived through carelessly, unwillingly, or in boredom, that most often fructify into art.” Isn’t it excellent that that can be the case. My friend Victoria Glendinning has a motto she uses, which I sometimes steal—“Nothing is wasted.” It’s a very reassuring and consoling idea, even if it isn’t always true. Think of those terrible phases in your life when you’re just grinding along, or you’re missing your way, or everything seems arid and disappointing. It helps if you can say to yourself, But something will come out of this. Penelope Fitzgerald wrote a note to herself that I take to heart—“Experiences aren’t given to us to be ‘got over,’ otherwise they would hardly be experiences.” [links added.]

This is very encouraging, I must admit, for someone quite used to ‘grinding along’ and ‘missing [my] way’ all the while thinking that ‘everything seems arid and disappointing.’ Perhaps that ‘experience’ itself will form the basis of what I write in the future as indeed, my terrible distraction and attention-deficit, which keeps me from writing and reading as well or as often as I would like to, has served as subject for several posts on that topic.

There is a more fundamental point at play in Lee’s remarks. As the friends and families of writers ruefully note, everything serves as raw material for writing. If the dramatic, the astonishing, the spectacular, and the curious can be so pressed into service, then why not the boring, the mundane, the tedious, the weekday? They too make us and our lives into what they are.

As for material being ‘wasted,’ every book project of mine generates, besides a manuscript file, a ‘bit bucket‘ file, a space where I keep all that I excised from the book: sterile notes, irrelevant asides and digressions, redundancies, orphans of truncated chains of thought. This collection can grow alarmingly large; my current ‘bit bucket,’ for a book whose notes–I will not dignify that misshapen mass with the appellation ‘draft’–run to about eighty thousand words, is almost seven thousand words and twenty-three pages long.  These buckets have, over the years, not been pressed into service; the material collected in them has not found its way into other writings of mine. But neither have I deleted them. I have not given up on them. Here, I’m a hoarder; driven by the same spirit that animates Lee remarks, I persist in hoping that they will ‘fructify’, if not into ‘art’ then at least into the passably readable.

The Pencil Eraser As Proustian Madeleine

I prepare for classes by reading the texts I have assigned. As I read, on occasion, I make notes in the margins or underline words and sentences. Not too vigorously or extensively, because I still suffer from old scruples and niceties having to do with a fetishistic respect for the printed word; it took me a long time to get over my hesitancy  about marking up books. In graduate school, it took some doing for me to mark up even printed or photocopied versions of journal articles; I always preferred make notes in a separate notebook. I cannot, still, markup a book with a pen, but I have mustered up enough courage and wherewithal to mark up text with a pencil. (Suitably sharpened.)

Now, writing with a pencil is a curious sensation. I hardly ever write any more with one. So the mere contact of hand on pencil, pressing down on paper, feeling, watching, and sensing lead marks appear on paper and arrange themselves into shapes pregnant with meaning is an interesting enough experience. But it gets better.

Sometimes I make notes that are incorrect. Sometimes I call out an author in the margins with a ‘!’ or a ‘?’–even an odd ‘?!’ here and there–and sometimes with a more elaborate expression of surprise, disbelief, or skepticism, and then find out, a few paragraphs later, that I spoke too soon. In those cases, I shamefacedly return to the margin and erase my note, my mark-up.

When I first did so, I noticed a curious sensation manifest itself, one even more peculiar than the sensation manifested by my writing with a pencil. When I erase pencil marks, I apply eraser to paper and scrub, hard. Then, I brush off the accumulated residue of paper, lead and eraser material, sometimes blowing it off the paper. These archaic bodily sensations, these antique bodily memories, this embodied set of memories, these were all part of my normal arsenal of daily sensations and bodily interactions at a particular point in my life–schooldays mostly, of course, but also time spent at home with my books. Locked up in that eraser and my use of it–just like it is in pieces of music–is a kind of Proustian madeleine then.

Using an eraser summoned up memories of notes taken in classrooms, of sharpening pencils, of homeworks completed late at night, of correcting drafts of essays and exams, of bemoaning the induction of black smudges in place of neat handwriting, of painfully wringing my hand after a furious bout of scribbling and erasing. (Confession: I never used the term erasing when I was in school; then, I used a ‘rubber’ and rubbed. And yes, that nomenclature is a leading contender for hilarious differences in American English and the English spoken elsewhere.)

So it was via that eraser that an older being suddenly emerged and poked its head around. There’s always multiple selves in us; many lie dormant; and some, if subjected to the right stimulus, the right madeleine, can remind us of their presence, and of the time that they were formed and made their way into our being.