Earlier this week I read The Shepherd’s Crown, the last novel Terry Pratchett wrote before he died. And then this morning I am listening to David Bowie’s new album Blackstar. Two artists making art out of their own deaths.
In the video of Lazarus, Bowie lets us see him looking wasted and frail, lying on a bed, his veined hands clutching at the covers. He must have known it was only a matter of time before he’d be playing out that scene for real. Pratchett’s work is in some ways even more poignant, because while Bowie gives us permission to see the degeneration of his body, Pratchett gives us permission to see the degeneration of his mind. Every word of Shepherd’s Crown is a painful reminder that an extraordinary intellect was fading fast, and I’d be prepared to bet that Sir Terry knew that, and just bloody well wrote it anyway. The humility of both artists is astonishing. They are showing us what it is like to die.
I don’t have any comforting answers to the questions raised by death. Mostly I deal with the idea of dying by trying to ignore it. It’s painful and grotesquely lacking in dignity, and it never ends well. But one way of dealing with things that scare us is to try and understand them better, and Bowie and Pratchett have helped us a little with that. Godspeed, gentlemen.