Dallas, TX –
A few months ago, John Updike died. I had read almost all of this great writer's novels, essays and stories over the past 30 years, but I've read many books by many fine writers whose deaths were just momentary headlines for me.
Updike's death has been different, affecting me much more than I would have thought. I've found myself looking back through his books, remembering where I was when I first read them, savoring certain passages, searching YouTube for interviews, recalling a brief meeting with him. Even though he was 77 years old, I can't get over feeling stunned. I know this may seem absurd, but I actually think I've been in some kind of mourning for a person I never knew.
Or did I? Perhaps in some real way I did know Updike, just as Michael Jackson's far more numerous fans know him - perhaps more deeply, in some ways, than they know their real friends and relatives. We know these great ones through their art, which preserves the best of their particular genius while editing out the messy externalities that attend every human life.
That's why I am of two minds when I consider this quote from a fan who met Jackson 25 years ago when she was eleven. "Nothing in life tops that moment," she told reporters after his death.
On the one hand, you want to say this seems a bit overwrought. Nothing in life? What about her own family? Her professional accomplishments?
On the other hand, it's clear that Jackson represented something incandescent and transcendent in this woman's life, as he did for so many others. Just as with other great stars like Elvis and the Beatles, the whole surpasses the parts; they are not just the sum of their dancing and singing and songwriting and style and energy; somehow they are also something more, something that combines what they are and what we need.
I remember when the NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Sr. and the Tejano star Selena were killed. I was taken aback by the intensity of their fans' grief. I recognized their talent, but I didn't share the sense of loss or feel the emptiness that so many people felt when something great and inspiring was taken from them.
For me, the death of Michael Jackson is a similar experience. Of course I acknowledge his undeniable talent, and a few of his songs will always bring back fond memories for me. But if I don't share the all-encompassing sorrow that has gripped his followers, I do think I understand it, and I'd like to offer this bit of advice which I'm trying to take myself:
When a genius departs, we should try to look beyond our sense of personal loss to focus on what he or she left behind, the lasting legacy of greatness, and remember that these gifts will continue to brighten the world. We and countless others will keep them alive.
As W. H. Auden wrote in his elegy for the poet William Butler Yeats, "By mourning tongues, the death of the poet was kept from his poems."
Life may be short - and full of pesky paparazzi - but art is long.
Somewhere, right now, someone is reading John Updike for the first time, marveling at those beautifully sculpted paragraphs, wondering, "How did he do that?"
Somewhere, someone is seeing their first Michael Jackson video, watching him float across the stage, wondering, "How did he do that?"
What was best about the great ones will endure, bringing moments of joy and illumination to generations yet unborn. All the rest is just noise.
Chris Tucker is a Dallas writer and literary consultant.
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