Or, the art of dying.
Of course, a treatise like this made a great deal of sense in the 15th Century, while memories of the Black Death still lingered in the collective consciousness. And while we look at drawings such as the one above, now a quarter of a millennium old, we might not be wrong to wonder how much has changed.
For one thing, the focus now is on living. Death remains an inviolable condition of life, but dying at a young age, usually in a grotesque, violent or horrifying fashion, is no longer the prevailing standard (at least in countries and areas with electricity, running water and hospitals). Today, we’re more about self-actualization and, while that could be the subject of cynicism, it is inexorably a sign of significant human progress. And if we think of self-actualization as the art of living, and we define a full life as one that invokes few regrets as it ends, we are ultimately creating documents (our lives) to review, presumably with satisfaction, at the final analysis. This, then, might be the more accurate contemporary application of this concept–the art of dying: not something to practice with proper reverence at one’s death bed, but an active process undertaken throughout one’s existence. If, to die properly means a life well-lived, or a life lived to its fullest, or at least a life lived as fully and exhaustively as possible.
Where does art and those who create it come into this picture? Artists are no different than anyone else. Not just in terms of how they go about living and, eventually, dying, but even in the ways they practice, however imperfectly, their vocations. In fact, I’ll take the contrary view and assert that, in many regards, it’s easier for the artist. That is, an authentic artist, truly committed to his craft, can (and must) filter out the time-sucking detritus and ceaselessly focus on the task(s) at hand, the work. Each project (the short pieces that take days, or hours, or in our blog-centric world, minutes, as well as the features or stories or novels that one’s in for the long haul, however long it requires) demands investment: of time, of energy, of concentration, of resolve. And the results are often directly proportional to the seriousness and integrity with which the project is invested.
Living well can be an art in and of itself, not unlike the act of creation–on literal and figurative terms. A life, especially a life that involves the lives of others (friends, family, spouse, offspring) is inevitably comprised of millions of urgent and banal moments: the exigencies of existence that are forgettable as they are necessary, the way individual drops of gasoline fill a tank and keep the car running.
In his essay Why I Write, George Orwell explains that “writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” Once again, contrary to the facile image of a wild-eyed artist churning out work in frenzied, passionate bursts, the summation of effort that comprises a completed novel is full of quotidian drudgery: page after aborted page, revision after turgid revision, an eternity of silent moments spent searching for the inspired line. Sentence upon sentence the pyramid is built out of optimism, self-absorption, concentration and chaos. Kind of like a life.
There is more to say here, and I didn’t even get to Hunter S. Thompson yet.
To be continued…