Dr. Oliver Sacks’ death Sunday, August 30th 2015, made me ponder the time of death of an artist and come to the conclusion that an artist dies when he has nothing left to say, not that Dr. Sacks had nothing left to say. At least I am not sure that this happened to him. He seemed to write until cancer finally robbed him of the use of his body and his fascinating pensées into the realm of his own death and perhaps he too stopped writing when there was nothing left to say. Cancer cannot rob mankind of its mind. But I am no scientist. I do not have a laboratory where I conduct neurological experiments into the nature of the mind. I do not traverse the topography of the earth, collecting other men’s experiences. I simply know how I feel about myself and some other people I know. The great musicians and pianist Thelonious Monk, for instance, when he reached considerable age, of course, discovered that his art had failed him and he stopped playing. I would like to think that is the artistic version of having no more to say. He simply gave up his spirit. He died. Picasso lived much longer and continued to paint until a very advanced age. He too died when he had nothing more to say. I am sure that life will deal me the same cards.
But unlike Dr. Sacks, who knew exactly where his art came from – his earthly laboratory – I do not know where my art comes from. I believe it comes from God. But there are times when out of my own spiritual doubt, I am not sure of that. My belief in God is shaken by momentous events in my life and then I feel like an animal abandoned and left to die. Still I continue to write, which is when I cannot imagine where the words and metaphors come from. I write more furiously then, sometimes scribbling frantically with my fountain pen or sometimes hammering the keyboard of my computer viciously, lest I interrupt the stream of my thoughts. I do not craft my sullen art, but simply write like James Joyce in a stream of consciousness afraid that the words and the lines will dry up, fade away and die. This is when I don’t know where my art comes from. When it is over, I sometimes find myself standing outside my body and looking at my writing, wondering who wrote that. I am sure that many artists – indeed many nice, ordinary folk, find themselves in a similar neurophysiological state examining, even practicing their art, craft or merely ruminating. I recall Charles Mingus describing something similar, when asked how the music came to him.
Being reminded about Charles Mingus some who wonder what on earth I am thing about when I write this might be provoked into thinking I’ve gone stark raving mad. After all Mingus died at the age of fifty-seven. Does that mean that Mr. Mingus had nothing more to say, or more appropriately, would have had nothing more to say had he lived longer? The statement I find is rife with speculation. But remember that Mingus might easily be said to have lived almost a hundred years in the fifty-seven he had on earth. He began writing “Half Mast Inhibition”, a complex piece that took inspiration from Richard Strauss’ “Death and Transfiguration (Tod und Verklärung), Op. 24”, is a tone poem for large orchestra, which was completed somewhat later and recorded on Mingus Revisited and all but completed Epitaph, perhaps the greatest jazz symphonic piece of musical literature before his death. His work is virtually a complete a telling of the history of the Afro-American artists in America as well as a spectacular probe into the psychological impulses and imperfections of the mind of mankind. And then in his early-fifties, Mr. Mingus’ brain – and later his body – was stricken by non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. As his body degenerated feet-first he continues to write, noodling and singing “Three Worlds of Drums” another one of his significant opuses into a tape-recorded so it could be orchestrated as it was on his last album alive, Mr, Myself An Eye. His great work, “Epitaph” was found later and pieced together by the Canadian musicologist Professor Andrew Homzy.
And there are a myriad of similar accounts where poets and painters – most notably John Keats and probably the greatest example of all is Leonardo da Vinci who died at just 67. Now you might argue that medicine was not as developed as it is today and so many diseases that are easily treated – even cured today – were fatal in the 18th 19th and even in the 20th Centuries. But I submit that I merely speak, from the standpoint what little I know about psycho-physiological impulses of man and I could well be described as naïve. Well go ahead then and call me what you will, but that will still not answer the question: when does an artist die? There is a for of poetry in the Arabia, Iran, Turkey and the Subcontinent called the ghazal. It is a set of fifteen couplets, the last of which are the punchlines of the entire poem. It was, I believe, the Pakistani poet who suggested that the name of the poem came from the gazelle, whose beautiful sang the song of its life, leaping and loping as it did so. This song takes up the first fourteen couplets and the final couplet represents the time when the arrow of the hunter finds its target and the gazelle knows that it has come time for it to die. Then it makes a final cry (the last couplet) before it surrenders its spirit. When I heard about this from an Indian poet and friend, I wrote a poem in English after that form. Now it has a special significance for me. It reminds me that there is a time to live and a time to die. And when my art has nothing more to offer me and the world, then I will utter that final cry because I realise that it is time to die and, like that gazelle, all art and life in me will fade and I will die. I would submit that when the impulse to adorn, like the song of the gazelle is finished as it’s life sinks like the setting sun, so also does that of the artist, because the artist has no more to sing.
The other fascinating aspect of the artistic process is: where does art come from. I myself am at a loss to tell you where my words, metaphors and idiomatic phrases, the rhythm and cadences of my sentences come from. In fact I would go as far as to say that I am sometimes unable to know what I write until I read it back to myself again and to my utter bewilderment am unable to explain how it came to be written. Charles Mingus once suggested that he was a conduit for what God wanted him to say in his music, suggesting that he merely listened and left the writing to a Divine force. At times like these when I am writing about the impulse to write and to adorn I would tend to agree. But if you asked me what I had written a paragraph ago or even how it came to be written, I would be at a loss to explain. How many other artists have experienced the same phenomenon I could not tell you, but I am willing to wager that this is the case with almost all of those men and women practicing their respective art. Art, of course is not to be confused with Craft, which I submit is the honing of a piece of work so that it fits into a destined for it. This is how Ezra Pound, for instance, wrote and crafted his many early poems and his ultimate masterpiece, “The Cantos”. He is known to have worked ceaselessly at his poetry every day, fine tuning and honing his poems as a sword-smith might work at a priceless sword in the days of yore.
There is another aspect of how art happens. Most artists, unlike other human beings have an acute sense of their own mortality and the death of a colleague only heightens the nature of their art. Anthony Burgess is said to have written five superb novels in year that he was led to believe he had to live, when he was informed he had cancerous brain tumour. The knowledge of this made a deep impression on the writing, which is reflected in his books. But the prospect of death prompted him to turn fulltime to writing, and during this “terminal year” he completed The Doctor Is Sick, Inside Mr. Enderby, The Wanting Seed and One Hand Clapping. Luckily it was a misdiagnosis, but the tone of his writing changed forever. In early 1984, one of the charter members of the group Oregon died in a car crash in Magdenburg, in Germany. Crossing was the last record on which he played. A photographer and friend, Jo Härting died in the same accident. The shock of this prompted the remaining members to retire into the privacy of their homes and they did not write any new music for a considerable length of time. When the writing began again and forever after that the uninhibited joy of their music was tempered by a sense of mortality that changed their sound forever. It would seem that the sense of mortality affects the race to finish what artists need to say in their lifetime almost as if they are aware of their own impending deaths. The thought is unpleasant but it has a ring of truth and also becomes the source code of art. Think, again, of the saxophonist Charlie Parker whose flame was put out in his thirties as his music raced to an inevitable conclusion. And then you have the vocalist Sheila Jordan who is in her eighties and who, by the looks of it will go on forever but who, I can assure you is in a race to spread the jazz gospel as she traverses continents and many time-zones to do so month after month, after month. Where they all ask does their art come from? The divinity of the gift I believe comes from the unconscious realm, a place that is bottomless and swirling with ideas we cannot even begin to fathom.
Fear of the unknown and what it may bring is a sort of impulse to create, to write poetry and prose, music, to paint and sculpt. No artist can bear a blank page of an empty canvas, a block of stone plaster of Paris or a lump of clay. But then no artist can tell what will become of these. What will the ink say? What notes will glorify the musical staff? What masterpiece will the stone or plaster, clay turn into? What will happen when fear grips the painter as he stares at a blank canvas? The brain, I believe, has finite possibilities. It takes something or someone infinitely more powerful to intervene. I believe it is divine intervention; God, if you will. Whether you believe in the Theory of Evolution or in Intelligent Design, look what he did with this lump of rock and clay we call home; then consider what he would do with an artist unaware of what is coming down the turnpike…Tempis fugit, memento mori.