Maybe it’s the time of year. November in the Catholic Church calendar is the month of the dead, Halloween abounds with talk of spirits and ghouls and the supernatural, and of course next Sunday is Remembrance Sunday.
Or maybe it’s William Crawley, who as well as being thoughful is thought-provoking. He tweeted this morning “If art is an expression of the wound of finitude, as Raymond Tallis suggests, would there be no art if we lived forever?” (He’s also tweeted this morning about several other things, including murals and his programme last night, but I find the death/art one the most interesting).
If there wasn’t such a thing as death, as Danny Morrison pointed out in a tweeted reply, there’d be a lot more time to consider art. There’d also, I think, be a lot less of it. A great deal of poetry and painting is given to grappling directly with death. There are the great poets from the First World War who grieve over the slaughter and the lies, there are poets like Keats and Philip Larkin who continually return to the topic of death - if you haven’t read Larkin’s ‘Nothing To Be Said’, do it. And in literature, whether Shakespeare or Tolstoy, war and death loom large time and again.
I remember once being on a drinking spree with a very bright man in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and I ventured the notion that all art - painting, poetry, prose, music - was to distract us from the terrifying thought that death was on its way. He laughed uproariously and I thought at the time it was the drink laughing. But maybe he was too polite to point out that art isn’t so much a distraction as an engagement with death. It tries to represent it to us, tries to explain its significance and the lessons it offers, were we wise enough to learn them. No matter how often we’re told, most of us prefer to turn our thoughts to more cheerful matters. Why ruin the party by continually checking your watch? But maybe the great John Donne says it best:
No man is an island,
Entire of itself.
Each is a piece of the continent
A part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea
Europe is the less.
As well as if a promontory were.
As well as if a manor of thine own
Or of thine friend’s were.
Each man’s death diminishes me
For I am involved in mankind.
Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls.
It tolls for thee.
Footnote: it’s almost sacrilegious to add a biographical note but I will. Despite studying at Oxford for three years and then at Cambridge for the same length of time, Donne never received a degree. Why? Because he was a Catholic. He began to prosper only when he abandoned his Catholicism and became an Anglican clergyman.
There. End of sacrilege.