I’ve always been impressed with the thoroughness of death. You would think, with so many things to die—people, places, ideas, moods, eras—one or two might have slipped into the cellar at just the right moment and been overlooked. But no. Death overlooks nothing.
Having reached the years where the intervals between major losses grow ever shorter, and one no longer even tries to resist the knowledge that loss is life’s great theme, I find that accepting the transience of everything is easier than when I was younger—out of necessity, or resignation, or the detection of the sublime, or just fatigue. I’ve had a few pretty close to home lately, and the fire at Notre Dame cathedral caught me completely off guard.
We said goodbye yesterday to my old friend, with whom I shared a soul to soul relationship and with whom for so long I stood in the same relation to death, that distinguished abstraction—but no longer. Her loss, like all losses, moves it one more step out of the abstract and into the real—an event that shows you, like a shady peddler opening his trench coat in an alley, your own mortality.
Notre Dame is one of those monuments of tortuously achieved hardly believable beauty and eloquence we realize, seeing its fragility, that we need to be permanent—to whatever extent that word has meaning for us. We are not psychologically prepared to lose it.
In the midst of all this, I happened to hear the song “Stardust,” and I had a very poignant version of the thought I’ve had many times in my life—that time redeems everything by rendering it into story, that all emotions, even the most unbearable, the most ecstatic, decay into poetry. I can imagine, before the dying and expanding sun engulfs our watery little pebble, our story, all of it—because poetry overlooks nothing either—echoing around the deserted old neighborhood before floating off as stardust to mingle in new worlds. It makes you wonder how we even conceived of the word “permanent,” since no one has ever seen a single example of it.
Hoagy Carmichael’s tune has been recorded something like 1500 times since its original recording in 1927, and after Mitchell Parish added the lyrics a couple of years later. It’s hard to find anyone in 20th century music who didn’t record it. Coleman Hawkins to Dylan. Sinatra. Willie. But the version, for me, is Nat King Cole’s, and that’s the one I heard.
It is impossible for me to hear that song without welling with nostalgia at the days that are no more (death), and the accompanying perception of the sublime (poetry).
The haunting melody, the not quite sentimental lyric, Cole’s silky voice, combine to remind us that all days become the days that are no more, that all things pass, that even the greatest love, the greatest anything, leaves only a song, forever lingering in a place you can’t quite reach.
One of my favorite (of many) dishes in my sojourn in Germany many years ago was a delectable workingman’s concoction called Pfeffersuppe, which featured black peppercorns. It was from that soup, I think, that I learned the proper use of certain spices—not to pervade the dish but to supply the unexpected surprise.
So it is with love, beauty, joy, and the nostalgia that laments their transience. A warm pang best enjoyed sparingly.
Life and death are the inhaling and exhaling of nature. They are ordinary. The fact is, we die continually in our lives and there is no central consciousness we can call ourselves. To lose the specific consciousness of the person we assume ourselves to be is nothing to fear—we do it every day, every moment of our lives. What endures is not consciousness “of,” but consciousness itself.
“Me” and “You” are like beauty—they can only exist if they do not last.
We are stardust.
April 21, 2019