Do celebrity deaths matter? Today, as I write this, I have two celebrity deaths in my mind. The first is of rapper JuiceWRLD, a 21-year old who had made two reasonably successful pop albums and had achieved some chart success with emo rap music aimed at depressed young people like himself. His life was cut way too short when he apparently died of a seizure in an airport. Like many people, I was not a particular fan of his music but at the same time he died way too young, before he had the chance to grow up and make some much better music. He was snuffed out way before his time in an alarming trend among emo rappers to die even younger than most musicians do, which is too young already. The second death is of Rene Auberjonois, a talented European-American author who was in his late 70’s and who had achieved a great deal of success as a character actor in a great many television shows and films. Speaking personally, I most appreciate his work as Constable Odo in Star Trek: Deep Space 9, as well as his voice work in Disney’s A Little Mermaid, but he also acted in memorable turns in such series as Boston Legal as well as Benson, among many other projects.
While I must admit I feel no emotional tie to either of these men, they do represent two very different types of celebrity deaths. On the one hand, one of these people lived a full and long life and was able to accomplish much, while the other was cut short before he really had a chance to grow beyond angsty and melodramatic teen poetry, and thus never had a chance to reveal his talent, however far it extended. Surprisingly enough, both of these men were praised by those who worked with them as good souls, gentle people who were great to work with. And that is greatly to be praised. While I must admit I knew neither of these people personally, it is clear that both of them received a lot of goodwill for the way that they worked with others and that is something to be praised. It is good to be missed, whether one does young or old or anywhere in between. Death always means a loss of talent, a loss of potential, and a reminder that none of us knows how long we will live or how much we will be able to accomplish in our all-too-short time on this earth.
Yet in many ways I find it hard to feel emotional about the deaths of celebrities. As people, I do not rejoice in the death of anyone, but in terms of one’s works, death marks a spot by which one’s works can no longer be added to and one will be judged by one’s deeds up to that point. May they be judged with mercy, for the sake of all of us. A great many people attach a high degree of emotional resonance with celebrities, which is deeply unfortunate as a great many live all kinds of disordered and dishonorable lives which are shortened by physical ailments brought on by their stressful lifestyles and tendency for drug and alcohol abuse as well as violence and the general demented celebrity culture of self-destruction. At their best, we are left with a body of work that we can watch or listen to with a high degree of respect and a melancholy feeling of loss for not having had more, or at other times we are left with cautionary tales that may prompt us all to change our behavior if we are living in ways that might lead us to an untimely grave ourselves. And yet because we see celebrities and appreciate the culture that they bring to us, we tend to feel a greater sense of loss than we do at the death of all the roughly 150,000 or so other people who die on average every day, or a rate of roughly 1.8 deaths per second, most of whom are entirely unknown to us and so do not affect us all, however decent and honorable their lives may be.
And I’m not sure how I feel about that. I think it is unwise if we allow ourselves to become emotionally attached to people who we cannot influence and who do not know us and who, ultimately, we do not know. Artists in general have a hard time with intimacy and a great many artistic works of great power and resonance are the result of one’s struggles with frustrated longings and a lack of ability in being able to get along with others and communicate with others and be at peace in our world. We may read what others write or listen to what others sing or play or watch what others act, and we may delude ourselves into thinking that we know their souls or that they are speaking to us, and as a result we may very often find ourselves in the sad position of being attached to people who do not know our existence and who might not be the sort of people we think them to be. We will be led to put down other people because they appreciate other actors or other series or other artists or because they think poorly of the art that our chosen celebrity has helped create. And this is a great problem, in that we allow our imaginary and fictive bonds with celebrities to make us worse people to others than we would otherwise be if we simply were patient and longsuffering with their awkwardness as we would hope they would be to ours. And surely the celebrities themselves are real people, sometimes people who even show aspects of themselves in the art that they help create, but unless we are a part of their worlds, we are limited in how much of them we really are connected to and really understand. Does it make us better people to mourn them when they die, even if they never knew us or interacted with us at all?