Daily Archives: December 11, 2013

Don’t Live For Your Obituary

Image borrowed from here.

Via Nick Mamatas,this article about writer Colin Wilson, who passed away in the last week, which begins: 

How dismayed the late Colin Wilson would have been if, through some of the occult powers in which he believed, he had been able to read his own obituaries.

The man whose first book The Outsider caused him to be lionised in 1956 by the literary greats of the day has been remembered in several blogs for his later novel Space Vampires, which inspired a famously trashy Hollywood film. In the broadsheets, the life of a self-proclaimed genius has been given the faintly amused treatment favoured by obituarists when dealing with a life of eccentricity or failed promise.

Yet there is sort of heroism in the way that Wilson, having been abandoned by those who once praised him, remained loyal to his own talent, living a life of writing, reading and thinking –probably in that order.

The article, which you might be able to tell from the excerpt, is playing both ends of the game with regard to Wilson (which is why Nick pointed it out, I suspect — to mock it). Wilson would be dismayed, but on the other hand he did what he wanted, but on the other other hand here’s a checklist of things to avoid if you want your obits to be properly reverential.

And, I don’t know. One, I think if Mr. Wilson is still sentient after his death, he’s got other, more interesting things to think about than his obits; I suspect at that point worrying about your obits would be like worrying about the end-of-year assessment of your kindergarten teacher once you were out of college (“Nice kid. Hopefully will figure out paste is not for eating.”).

Two, if Mr. Wilson had any sense at all — or any ego, which by all indications he certainly did — then he recognized (before he passed on, obviously) that to the extent he and his work will be remembered at all, obituaries, transient news stories that they are, are insignificant. He’ll be remembered for the work, and the status of the work in the context of history is not settled at the time of the obituary.

Salient example: Gaze, if you will, on the New York Times obituary for Philip K. Dick, on March 3, 1982. It is four graphs long (the final two graphs being two and one sentences long, respectively) — which for a science fiction writer is pretty damn good, when it comes to obits in America’s Paper of Record, but which, shall we say, does not really suggest that Dick’s notability would long survive him. Now, look at the voluminous record of writing about Dick in the NYT post-obit — an index of five pages of thumbsuckers. Pre-death, I find one note about Dick in the index, and it’s one of those Arts & Leisure preview bits.

So, yes. The obit was not the final word, because the work continues — or at least, can. In Dick’s case, the majority of his fame has come after his death, alas for him. He (nor any of us) would not know that from the four paragraphs in the NYT on 3/3/82.

I noted it before and will like do so again: As a creative person (or, really, any other sort of person), you have absolutely no control how history will know you, if indeed they know you at all. For most creative people, to the extent they are remembered at all, they will be remembered for one thing, because the culture at large only has so much space for any of us. You won’t get to choose which one thing for which you are remembered. If, for Wilson, the one thing he’s remembered for is Space Vampires rather than The Outsider, then that is still one more thing for which he is remembered than the billions of us who go to our graves and are swallowed up by them. So well done him.

But even then, the culture’s memory is not infinite. Wilson’s work, one way or another, is not likely to survive the vicious cultural culling that happens over the course of time; it’s unlikely to be remembered by anyone but academics in a hundred years, or even them long after that (nor, to be clear, will mine, or the unfathomably large majority of works being created today). The good news is the judgment of the obits will have passed from this world long before then. And in any event the sun is going to swell up into a red giant in five billion years and likely swallow up the planet, so that’ll be the end of all of it.

(Obit for the sun: “A long, pedestrian life followed by a brief illness; survived by Jupiter, three other planets and numerous moons and comets. In lieu of flowers, please donate to the Orphaned Trans-Neptunian Objects Fund.”)

I don’t know Mr. Wilson to any degree — I am one of those who knew him best for creating the source material for Life Force, which was a terrible movie — but my wish for him was that he lived the sort of life where he didn’t actually care what his obits said, and instead enjoyed his life and left work that had the possibility of speaking for itself, over time. If you’re a creative (or indeed any other) person, let me suggest you don’t worry about your obits either. As well as you can, live the life you want to live and make the work you want to make. After you’re gone, it’ll all be sorted out or not. You won’t be around to worry about it. Focus on the parts you’re around for.

Francis and Snowden (and Time Magazine)

Time has named Pope Francis its person of the year, and I have to say that I’m down with that; the only other person I would slot in the position would be Edward Snowden, and Pope Francis is at least the more optimistic choice between the two (and also admittedly the safer choice, in terms of who still reads Time on a regular basis).

I’ve noted before that as an outsider to the Catholic Church, I admire the fact that Francis is making a point to say that the Church needs to be in the world and serving the poor, and that its priorities recently have drifted too far from that core mission. Critics have noted that Francis represents a change in tone more than substance so far, which I think is a reasonable if incomplete observation. But I also think that one has to start somewhere, and where Francis has started from is important. Tone in this case does actually matter.

The Catholic Church and I will never agree on many fundamental things; that’s the deal when one is an agnostic who doesn’t believe in the existence of a god, or as a necessary corollary, that Jesus was the Christ. But to the extent that I understand the message of Jesus, and to the extent that the Church sees its mission as serving Christ’s message, I see Francis turning the focus of the Church toward that message. I wouldn’t mind seeing more of that.

For those who grumble that Snowden got robbed — a fair assessment, even if I’m perfectly happy with Time’s final choice — the New Yorker explains why, in the opinion of writer John Cassidy, it’s not even close that Snowden had had the most impact on the world’s news in the last year.

I think that’s correct, and I think that Cassidy’s note that the full page NYT ad that several tech companies placed the other day, calling on the US government to better protect the privacy of everyone’s data, would probably not have happened unless Snowden disclosed all that the he knew, possibly because the bland, not-obviously-sinister technocratic surveillance regime that’s developed since 9/11 doesn’t feel like oppression or an invasion of rights in the same way that someone stomping down your door does, and anyway it didn’t impede that the technology companies needed to do for their own purposes.

In any case, on a personal note, I certainly feel sorrier for Snowden than Pope Francis. Francis, no matter what, still gets to be Pope, which is a nice gig. Last I heard of Snowden, he’s living in a country not his own, eking by doing tech support, and if he ever tries to leave Russia he’s got a perfectly reasonable fear of being snatched up and then living the rest of his life in a SuperMaxx cube. For those of us old enough to have been slathered by USSR propaganda, there’s some irony for you.