Monday, 2 January 2017

Spoilt canonisations, or death, the great leveller

The annual worldwide mortality rate amounts to some 55 million people every year. I'm not sure if last year this statistic went up but if it were possible for the Grim Reaper to die from overwork, he would surely have succumbed by the end of 2016. From Aleppo to Yemen via Kinshasa, the calendar was painted in vermillion hues.

I've no wish to make light of this figure, particularly where those deaths were possibly avoidable, as in the current Middle East conflict. Still, 2016 also saw an unusually large wave of deaths among celebrities of all stripes. From David Bowie in January to Carrie Fisher in December, by way of so many other well-known names, the Reaper's harvest appears to have been abundant among the famous. Requiem aeternam dona eis, Domine.

One of the more curious phenomena of the media age is that deaths usually happen twice over, or at least bereavements do. I'm not alluding here to the delectable anecdote about Mark Twain who once corrected a newspaper that had reported his demise: 'Rumours of my death have been greatly exaggerated!' I am thinking of the fact that such celebrity bereavements happen first as a family and private experience, and then as a public manifestation.

For the family, bereavement is all too recognisable: the absence of the beloved, the complexity of the post-mortem arrangements, the funeral rites, the slow-motion aftermath, etc. For the celebrity, however, a second bereavement occurs closely on the heels of the first. The media are hungry for news and celebrity demise is always worth a few sales or a few clicks. Celebrities seem to belong to the public in some way and even more so in the moment of their loss. They are mourned for the portion of our culture that they represented, for the images they created or the sentiments that they evoked. It is probably for such reasons that over time public mourning seems to grow insincere. Rarely are such celebrities worthy of the accolades accorded them, and there is a kind of laudatory one-up-man-ship that overtakes the commentariat on radio and TV.  Now is not the moment to denigrate the fallen hero or even attempt a balanced appraisal of their contribution. The levels of mourning seen in the wake of the death of Princess Diana are now echoed in smaller ways with certain celebrities.

In such cases of "social canonisation", we also see a variety of myth making at work. The celebrity's death brings a certain consecration to the social values they symbolised. Take the recent death of George Michael whose only shame in the eyes of the myth makers was to have closeted his sexuality for so long. When Michael told the Guardian that his drug taking and cottaging (i.e. anonymous gay sex with strangers in public toilets) were 'just who I am', he anointed himself an archpriest of individual choice, and his auto-consecration was acclaimed by the adoring admirers.

That 'just who I am' has a powerful narrative function in the current climate. It is a little like 'and they all lived happily ever after', the expression that ratifies the outcome of the traditional story and justifies the trials that had been endured. If what we have done is 'just who I am', then all is well.  The paradox is that 'just who I am' rises above its individual origins and stands in some normative position for the rest of society. If what I have done is 'just who I am', then society must tolerate it. Being 'just who I am' licenses everyone to be just who they are. In such circumstances responsibility ceases to concern others and takes to itself the measure of self-fulfilment. Irresponsibility is not to fulfil oneself.

According to reports Michael was a frequent donor to good causes and generous to a fault. May much, therefore, be forgiven him. Still, what of those around him? What of those whose dignity he helped destroy in tandem with his own? Indeed, what of those who have read his lyrics, imbibed his spirit and became intoxicated on the licentiousness he legitimised?

From such dizzying heights of human glory I suppose we all might easily fall. Michael lies tonight in some cold mortuary fridge, as somber and silent as any corpse. Dead men tell no tales, but cadavers do give lessons. Oddly, the commentariat are a little less reluctant to celebrate what Michael now conotes, than they were to congratulate him on what he once symbolised. I wonder if the modern love of cremation is less about denying the resurrection of the body - as was once the case for many secularists - and more about trying to disguising the evidence of where it all leads.

As I am, so once was he. 
As he is, so will I be.

Well, there is a cheery thought to start the new year. As Dickens' Mark Tapley says, there is no credit in being cheery except in the face of misfortune! In my end is my beginning.

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