I’m not morbid. Just curious.
From an early age I was attracted to the lives of others, and though I’ve never penned one myself, I’ve had a long and abiding interest in the art of the obituary. In the wake of an unanticipated sequence of deaths over the dying days of 2016 (sorry, the pun was too delicious to overlook) I feel compelled to share a few personal insights.
Death is the full stop of a lived biography. I choose the word ‘lived’ carefully, because a posthumous biography is conceived in the interstices of death and the opening sentence of an obituary.
The dead, in a figurative sense, are the living dead until such time that they are forgotten by all and sundry.
What distinguishes a famous person, a ‘Name’, from your and my lower-case one, is highlighted by the polar-opposite preoccupations of two equally brilliant but scorned disciplines of the last century: Biography and Sociology.
Biography’s reason has, is and will continue to be the art and science of remembering people of public note, particularly deceased ones. Contradistinct to this, Sociology is historically obsessed with agglomerates: A mass of people as a distinct entity whose values, attitudes and behaviours can be subjected to empirical observation and analysis.
In the world view of Sociology, there are no individuals empirically worthy of individual study. The study of individuality as a social trend is what matters.
To the biographer, the face of a particular man or woman is sovereign. Whereas for Sociology, reading the face of the crowd continues to be axiomatic to its calling.
What this means, on the ground, is that a few generations from now when the last living memory of us as individuals is extinguished, we will be forgotten for eternity. However, if there is any consolation here, sociologists, of the historical persuasion, will look back and try to make sense of what was particular about our society (that is, the society you and I are custodians of). So, we’ll still be kind of important, but only in a collective sense.
On the other hand, biographers won’t give a damn about you, unless you once answered to the name of Muhammad Ali, in which case although we never had the pleasure of meeting, I just want you to know that I really do think you’re the greatest.
Tomorrow, New Year’s Eve celebrations around the world won’t be any less muted as a result of the shattering end to 2016. As much as it will be a celebration of the year to come, NYE 2016 will also be a ritual cleansing, an institutational catharsis, and the wake we had to have.