Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, April 18, 2014

Death and Twitter

Yesterday Gabriel Garcia Marquez died, and suddenly my Twitter feed was full of tributes to him. Person after person recalled how deeply they had been moved by his novels and stories. And yet, I don't believe that in the seven years I’ve been on Twitter I had ever before seen a single tweet about GGM.

This has happened often on Twitter: I think of Whitney Houston, Paul Walker, Philip Seymour Hoffman. People poured our their expressions of affection, gratitude, and grief — all for those whom they had never mentioned on Twitter until then. Why?

Well, death always does this to us, doesn’t it? When you hear that an old friend has died, even if you haven’t seen her in years and years, your memory draws up all the good times you had together: they appear before you enriched and intensified by the knowledge that they can no longer be added to. The story of your relationship takes vivid shape in light of its ending, as often happens also with stories we read.

But I think on Twitter that natural and probably universal experience gets amplified in the great cavern of social media. You tweet about Whitney Houston’s death in part because other people are tweeting about Whitney Houston’s death and you don’t want to seem cold or indifferent, and as the avalanche builds, it comes to seem that Whitney Houston was of great importance to a great many people — even though most of them hadn’t thought about her in fifteen years and wouldn’t have noticed if they never heard a song of hers again. Such are the effects of what Paul Ford and Matt Buchanan have called “peer-to-peer grieving”.

I’m reminded here of a brilliant piece by the playwright Bertolt Brecht called “Two Essays on Unprofessional Acting,” in which he comments:

One easily forgets that human education proceeds along highly theatrical lines. In a quite theatrical manner the child is taught how to behave; logical arguments only come later. When such-and-such occurs, it is told (or sees), one must laugh. It joins in when there is laughter, without knowing why; if asked why it is laughing it is wholly confused. In the same way it joins in shedding tears, not only weeping because the grown-ups do so but also feeling genuine sorrow. This can be seen at funerals, whose meaning escapes children entirely. These are theatrical events which form the character. The human being copies gestures, miming, tones of voice. And weeping arises from sorrow, but sorrow also arises from weeping.

To this we might add, “And tweeting arises from sorrow, but sorrow also arises from tweeting.”

And there's one more element worth noting: When someone like Philip Seymour Hoffman dies, at the height of his powers and of his fame, the grief that people express is distinctly different from that they express for a faded star like Whitney Houston. Since they have no recent encounters with her music, they cast their minds back to their own youth — which is of course lost. As Gerard Manley Hopkins said to the young girl weeping over a forest losing its leaves in autumn, “It is Margaret you mourn for”.

All this said, I wonder if it might not be useful for all of us to spend some time thinking about those artists and musicians and writers and actors and thinkers whose death would — we know now, while they’re still here, without any crowdsourced lamentation — would really and truly be a loss to our lives. And then maybe tweet a line or two of gratitude for them before death forces our hand.

6 comments:

  • Well said! Two thoughts: What you and Brecht describe can be observed in a nursery ... one baby cries, and they all start crying. Funny in a noisy sort of way.

    And one of the small sorrows of my life is that I never wrote to Robert Penn Warren to tell him how much I loved his writing. A good word to start that practice.

  • As someone who tweeted profusely in the wake of Whitney Houston's, Paul Walker's, and Philip Seymour Hoffman's deaths, I nodded my head while reading this. I also nodded my head after reading the last line, for just yesterday I found myself idly thinking, "I wonder what I’ll tweet when Jack Nicholson eventually dies." Now, who's to say whether I or any of us will outlive Jack Nicholson, but I do think about this sort of thing perhaps more than I should. On Twitter and elsewhere, I try to be celebratory at least twice as much as I am critical, but I always feel a little alone when I go on a jag on Twitter in which I publicly acknowledge people or work I love. I feel like it's much more socially acceptable to complain about things than it is to praise them. Death, then, gives people who might otherwise feel like expressing admiration for something is dorky or lame a chance to be celebratory.

  • "Death, then, gives people who might otherwise feel like expressing admiration for something is dorky or lame a chance to be celebratory." A great point.

  • I wonder if this isn't a modern-day version of the communal death wails that were common to so many ancient cultures (and that continue in some contemporary ones). It was often believed that the wails opened the doors to the afterlife for the deceased.

    You might think of the death tweets as a kind of keening that ripples noiselessly through the network.

  • There's also the "call no man happy until he is dead" thing. What if I tweet about my amazement that Alan Jacobs writes insightfully about such a broad range of topics, and then he starts churning out a bunch of wrong-headed nonsense? I'd be pretty embarrassed. Better to reserve my praise until he's safely dead.

  • I had a curious reaction to seeing everyone (including friends) pay tribute to GGM; I was inspired to write a blog post about my thoughts on never having read GGM! Something different, at least, from the norm.

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