Opening my mailbox this morning, I came upon the sad news that jazz singer Anita O’ Day just passed away. I didn’t know what to do with the information. I haven’t heard her name until now or have I listened to any of her records. And yet, I know she represented something important, something urgent. She was an artist for one, who sang the heartbreaks and hopes of her generation, delighting many a people with her performances with her band.
But dying in a Tuesday morning in her sleep in the wake of the approaching winter, her lungs collapsing and flooding with death, turning off the light in each and every cell of her body, she knocked at the doorstep of immortality. Now, the image of her as an older woman convalescing in a home for the aged has been extinguished by the brilliant fire of her former glory. Music critics will begin digging into her discography. Jazz fans will be curious how she actually sounded like. And a biography would probably materialize in the coming years.
To achieve this kind of renown and regard, one would inevitably have to be literally out-of-the-picture. Your life finished like the narrative that it was, people would begin to pore over its pages to look for something that would endure, cross continents and culture, stand tall in the hurricane of time. It need not always be a work of art: it could be a gesture, an act, a word. Mahatma Gandhi will be forever be remembered for his assertion of ahimsa, the concept of non-harm. More than her films, Marilyn Monroe would be eternally visualized as the sultry vixen in a street of New York, grasping her skirt from totally flying off. Even a brave death concluding a rather uneventful life takes a bid at immortality.
Immortality is a virtue to be aspired which, in the course of one’s lifetime, is nurtured by difficult work. Those magnificent dead who are valorized until now are remembered for the products of their imaginations and deeds. Shakespeare is Shakespeare because of his voluminous work. Had he just written poetry, I doubt if we would have still held him in the same regard. Sure, a writer could be remembered for one poem, one journalistic piece but he would easily be displaced by someone who did more, who achieved more. And they are many. We go to one grueling class after another to study their contributions, how they changed the world as we know it.
But immortality has a cousin, much more friendly and more fun, called fame. In this age of reality search TV shows, everyone wants to be a celebrity. Why toil studying your lines, going to acting classes for example if you can just try out for Starstruck? You don’t even have to peer from the afterlife–if there’s such a thing–to watch how you are being received by the public. There you are, standing, being admired for a semblance of talent and your looks. Fame comes instant gratification, and not to mention, instant grand.
Which is okay. I have the sneaking suspicion that those who would rather take the more challenging route are predetermined by the stars or the genes, or both, anyway. To be ambitious, to reach for the ineffable, to aspire to be immortal takes a certain mind and guts. For the work involved is at once immense and intense and only those who have the capacity of spirit can possibly endure.
But one can try, against the odds whittling you down to remain life-size. If you can’t be immortal to the stature of Van Gogh or Marie Curie, at least you can be immortal to your future kin by blazing a path for them, living an exemplary life, or channeling your lineage towards a meaningful course. You will be the subject of family story-telling sessions as they open photographs and letters, saying how you were such a darling once.
In effect, our concept of immortality is our answer t the perishable quality of life, our â€œrage against the dying of the light.â€ We don’t want to succumb, helplessly, into oblivion. We want to linger with the words we left behind, we want to be remembered. And the living who remember us, in moments quiet or otherwise, acknowledging the windy presence we left behind, are the ones who carry the true heaven in their hearts. In their fierce devotion, it’s as though one has never died at all.
Montage Vol. 10 • December 2006