Exit, Ghost

On the flight home from Belfast last week, I finished reading Exit Ghost, the new Zuckerman novel by Philip Roth. I didn’t enjoy very much of it, except for the scene of Zuckerman’s reunion with Amy Bellette, the woman brilliantly “fictionalized” in The Ghost Writer. It’s only in that episode that I really felt the weight of Zuckerman’s age, as he and Amy recommence a conversation they began 50 years earlier.

The rest of the novel — in which the narrator laments his lost erection as he fixates on a perfectly toned, slim, large-boobed, literary oil-heiress who has married a schlubby Jew — left me cold. At its worst, it degenerates into a bad standup routine: Zuckerman, isolated in the Berkshires for more than a decade, comes back to NYC and grouses about people using cell-phones. Fortunately, the character doesn’t have to fly anywhere, or else we could’ve been subjected to a rant about airplane food.

But I digress. Where the book did succeed for me was that one evocation of old age and loss, as characterized by Amy Bellette’s refusal to let the the love of her life go, though he’d been dead more than 40 years. And it got me thinking about how long I’ve been reading Philip Roth’s novels and how I’ll feel when he dies. Flying home, I thought, “I’m sure I’ll be sad, but I wonder if I’ll cry.”

I doubted that I would, and that got me thinking: Which living artist’s (writer, musician, actor, painter, cartoonist, etc.) death would move me to tears?

I’m having an awfully hard time thinking of one. There are contemporary artists whose work mean the world to me, but I’m not sure any of their deaths (provided they’re not killed senselessly or somehow incredibly fittingly) would make me cry.* I’m trying to puzzle out what this means, since some of the possibilities aren’t too palatable.

So I put the question to you, dear readers! In the comments section, tell me (okay, the world) “What artist’s death would bring you to tears, and why.”

(If you need to expand the field to include athletes, feel free.)

* I mean artists with whom I don’t have a personal relationship. I’m friends with a number of professional writers whose deaths would absolutely crush me. So no cheating and naming a writer who’s your dad or something.

20 Replies to “Exit, Ghost”

  1. Grief is funny, and Americans are notoriously vexed by it.

    I can think of about three or four reasons why someone might grieve the death of an artist not personally known to them, more than one of which is probably at work in any given instance.

    The first reason, of course, is in the case of an artist who dies young, leaving the rest of us to imagine and lament the works of genius left unrealized. I’d certainly mourn the interrupted careers of Wes Anderson, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Sarah Polley, Nick Park, David Fincher, Susanna Clarke, or Stephen Colbert.

    A related reason is a death whose manner is movingly tragic or wasteful or simply horrific. It’s hard to speculate about these in advance, but I’m sure I’d cry if Winona Ryder hung herself or were Eric Idle to be devoured by a tiger.

    Some artists OWE me, and were they to die now, their debt would remain outstanding. I would never forgive Terry Gilliam, Jodie Foster, Jeff Goldblum, or (yes) the Coen brothers if they failed to redeem certain missteps or omissions.

    Media reactions can also overwhelm deaths that would be otherwise observed with composure. I fear the tributes to Bill Watterson will be more than I can handle.

    The death of certain artists can portend the passing of an entire category or degree of excellence in art itself, and therefore provoke tears. When Peter O’Toole, Ian Holm, and Tom Stoppard leave us, I will be inconsolable.

    And then there are artists whose work and lives have become so personally meaningful that their death reminds us of our own mortality. I don’t think I will be able to avoid weeping when Matthew Broderick or Christian Bale die.

    Finally, let me say that not a day goes by that I don’t have a tear for Douglas Adams.

  2. What an interesting question. For me, the answer was easy: Lori McKenna. Lori McKenna is a contemporary folk singer whose music has been the soundtrack of some of the most important events of my life. I was listening to her song “Never Die Young” on a solo roadtrip across the country when I decided to get a tattoo. I walked down the aisle at my wedding to her song “Fireflies.” And I was listening to her album “Pieces of Me” during the birth of my daughter. (And those are just a few examples.)

    Her music and lyrics speak to me in a very personal way. On top of that, I love the story of her personal life. She is from a blue-collar town in MA. She married her high school sweetheart who is currently a plumber for the gas company. She has five kids and writes her music at the kitchen table once her family is asleep. She used to work part time in a factory to help pay the bills. And because she’s my age, she makes me feel better about finding my path so late in life. She’s a living example that just because you are a wife and mother, it doesn’t mean that you can’t still pursue your dreams and achieve great things.

    Several years ago Faith Hill recorded some of Lori’s songs and Lori went on tour with Faith Hill and her husband, Tim McGraw. Even though Lori clearly has the money to buy a big house and fancy car, she still lives in her tiny one story house with a rusty swingset out back and drives a minivan. She is as unpretentious as she is brilliant and that endears her to me even more.

  3. One pal of mine writes:

    My reactions to artist deaths actually fascinate me, because they are rarely what I assume they will be.

    Case in point: given how I feel about the Clash, and my firm belief that “London Calling” is the best album of all time, when Joe Strummer died, I just kind of sighed.

    However, when Mr. Rogers died, I sobbed like a girl. (oh, wait, I am a girl.) And I didn’t even LIKE Mr. Rogers.

    It’s a mystery.

    I read “Everyman” not long ago, and it made me want to make a shopping list for suicide. But man, it was good.

  4. Bonus grieving opportunity: one of the joys of parenthood is that you can mourn your children’s losses before they themselves realize them. Tim Allen better hang on until my kid is in college.

    Oh, and Jim Henson still hurts.

  5. I get a little choked up each year at the Kennedy Center Honors television broadcast when I see the depth and breadth of a life of accomplishment with the performing arts – particularly when the honorees range from the likes of Ossie Davis & Ruby Dee to Mike Nichols to Steve Martin to Julie Andrews to Itzhak Perlman to Diana Ross, just as a tiny sample. Each career retrospective overwhelms me. But would/will I cry over any of their deaths? I might feel sadness and respect, but I can’t think currently of any artist I don’t know personally who would elicit actual tears.

    Recently I read Marjorie Williams’ collection of essays, The Woman at the Washington Zoo, which compiled political profiles and life observations written for the Washington Post, Vanity Fair and other publications. The final section featured a series of essays written after she had been diagnosed with liver cancer at age 43. She managed to live another 3 years and wrote straightforwardly about her medical treatment, dealings with doctors, and her family as she came to terms with her early death. There might have been some sniffling as I finished up the book, but I’m not sure this applies to your question, as 1) she had been dead for some time when I cried, and 2) I sort of did know her. Her family lived next door to my grandparents in Princeton and to my own family when we took over the house, and we were friendly with them.

    So, there may be the death of a stranger that will make me weep and flow like a fountain, but I’m hard-pressed to think who it may be.

  6. I sent you a list, to which I would add Tim O’Brien. I sometimes get a little weepy about Raymond Carver. Fucker quits drinking after decades of the heard stuff and immediately gets untreatable lung cancer. Dumb Fate. And Spalding Gray made me sad, for a variety of reasons.

    Elayne’s list is as follows:

    Artists whose death, depending in part on the manner in which it came, would truly bum me out:

      Rufus Wainwright
      Martin Scorsese
      Lucinda Williams
      Amy Hempel
      Nick Flynn
      Richard Serra
  7. Amy was a little agog when I said I was more likely to cry over an athlete’s death than any writer, musician, cartoonist…

    “I guess I can understand you’d cry if Jeter died,” she said.

    I replied, “Um, actually, ANYONE from the 1996 Yankees…”

  8. One of my cartoonist buddies writes:

    Of course I don’t know till it happens… I expect Crumb’s death would. And, of course, those who are friends of mine.

    One whose death DID make me cry was Charles Schulz. And I still get teary eyed when I think about Herge’s death — and the reaction to it in France and Belgium.

  9. Both Gaddis and Hawkes are gone, and I am still wearing black for them, but my heart broke this last year when I read in manuscript form THE SHADOW FACTORY by Paul West, who is fortunately still with us writing. The book chronicles his 2004 stroke and recovery and his struggle to speak and write once more. Like my late grandfather used to say, “Love then while you still have them.”

  10. I pondered this all day– very thought provoking. I often cry at the thought of artists who HAVE died, especially when confronted by their work. But it is hard for me to imagine someone passing until they have. I guess, in the end, I don’t want to go there, or maybe the passing of time intensifies the importance of the loss.

  11. If David Lynch died, that would devastate me to no end. He’s the reason I chose to be a filmmaker and why I moved to New York.
    Same with David Bowie. If he died, the waterworks would switch on.

  12. Actually, you were one of the inspirations for this post, Mike. I forgot to mention it above, but I recall you telling me and Amy that you cried like a bitch when Robert Altman died.

    So I guess I should’ve expanded this question to “which artists’ deaths caused you to cry in recent years, and why,” but hey.

  13. Another pal writes:

    I do recall twice that [our mutual friend, who is black] mentioned he cried … on hearing of the death of Miles Davis and James Baldwin.

  14. Same pal writes:

    Excepting artists i know personally or at least correspond with, no. For one thing, i hardly know of any artists other than writers. And even when i do admire writers, i don’t know their circumstances. if they had good lives, i don’t really feel moved to tears. i cried at the end of van Gogh’s biography by David Sweet because i was fully aware of how he had lived, i felt close to him, and i felt his despair when he shot himself with a pistol in that cornfield — but most of all his last letter to Theo was heartbreaking.

    Another thing about a reported death . . . reading a newspaper account generally is not the sort of thing that makes me cry (and I rarely watch tv).

    When my father died, i cried like a baby of course, without seeing the body. But by the time we went to the funeral home, i was dry-eyed — until i saw his name over a door. Then i broke down and cried uncontrollably again. For months afterward, something he owned could reduce me to tears — objects often make me bawl.

    i cried the other might watching ‘Munich’ for the 4th time. (Now I am not talking crying a river, more like being on the verge of tears.) Although i didn’t know any of them, i felt their circumstances — especially when they are being herded in their underwear. Details like that — these guys in their underpants facing terrorists with machine guns — seem to crystallize an emotional response in me.

    Watching Lord Jim the other night i knew Jim was going to die at the end — it is Conrad, after all — but also i had seen the movie once before. i was fine until Jim threw his hat on the body of a boy whom he had sort of adopted and who had loved to wear his captain’s hat — that did it for me . . . i reckon that’s a form of Eliot’s objective correlative.

    I can sympathize; I cried at the end of The Iron Giant.

  15. I’ve certainly been saddened – most notably over the passing of Ella Fitzgerald – but genuine tears? Not yet.

    When Tennesee Williams died I remember spending the weekend re-reading his short stories. He was one of my favorite writers and even though his best work was far behind him, I still felt a twing of loss for someone who had devoted his life to his craft.

    Artitsts of today? Many come to mind but as you said, the circumstances of their death would have more to do with my reaction than their actual death.

    That said, I’d be upset if Madonna left us before hitting 75.

  16. One of my (near-)Ph.D. pals writes

    Interesting question – and one that stumped me for a while. I’m coming close to the end of my dissertation, so I am working with all long dead people, and I had to pull my head out of the eighteenth century to even contemplate the question.

    I think I would have cried when Benjamin Franklin died, if he wasn’t already dead, simply because his intellectual curiosity was something rare and special. I will cry when [my dissertation director], dies because he has an amazing mind (can quote Greek philosophers in Greek at will) coupled with a truly humane soul. That kind of humanity is rare in our world. I strive to be as good an academic, a teacher and mentor to my students as he does every day.

    My husband cried when Joey Ramone died — and I mean really cried, which is highly unusual for him. The Ramones meant a great deal to him, from spurring his development as a musician to validating the inevitable feelings of alienation that come with growing up in a NJ suburb. But I have never cried at the death of an artist or writer, although I came close at the death of Bernard Rimland, the psychologist responsible for banishing the concept of the “refrigerator mother” as the origin of autism.

    I don’t know why I didn’t cry for Douglas Adams, Jim Henson or Laurie Colwin, especially since I am prone to tears — I cry easily at movies and books. I think I come closest to crying for authors and thinkers who work to achieve some kind of grace in the world, probably because it is so rare. Maybe I will cry for Frank Oz, whose voice has influenced so much of my childhood.

  17. This is an interesting question. Like the last person who posted, I wear my heart on my sleeve a lot of the time – I cry at movies, and even the occasional insipid commercial. That being said, I cannot think of one artist whose death would make me cry. I don’t cry when celebrities die – but the senseless death some random person who I identify with can bring tears to my eyes.

Leave a Reply to Deb Newton Cancel reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.