A couple days before he died, David Bowie did a strange thing—he released an album, Blackstar. Not only did he release an album, he released an album that is entirely about his own immediately impending death. As an artist he was afforded an opportunity to make one last gesture, one last attempt at communication with his audience before he slipped into oblivion.
As essentially every critic who has dared discuss Blackstar over the last couple weeks will attest, this makes Blackstar ten times more interesting of an album than it would have been otherwise. Art exists only in context and imminent death is a hell of a context. Not only is it impossible to think of this last album without thinking of Bowie’s death, it is an album that is meant to be thought of solely within context of his death. Blackstar is an artistic last will and testament. It is a way that the dying Bowie was able to take control of his own demise and aestheticize it into one last singular statement to his world.
That’s a pretty cool thing to have done. But David Bowie wasn’t only artist to ever issue a deathbed masterpiece. Throughout the storied history of art, there have been a few other great artists who, by luck or their own design, were afforded one last clear chance to say it all.
If you’re interested in final works, here are two other instances of it that the U4E happens to know off-hand:
Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice
In 1978, the legendary Russian filmmaker and mystic Andrei Tarkovsky showed up at an abandoned hydroelectric power plant in Estonia to make a movie called Stalker. One of the greatest science fiction films ever made, Stalker is about three men who travel into a mysterious, possibly supernatural region called “the Zone” where they encounter what may or may not be God. It’s a spectacularly beautiful film. To make it beautiful, however, they had to spend a lot of time crawling around through the ruins of this power plant. In particular, they spent a lot of time lying down in the puddles and streams of water flowing in and around the facility.
Unfortunately, that water turned out to be obscenely polluted, some have even alleged radioactive, a fact that no one in the Soviet government bothered to warn Tarkovsky about because, you know, it was the Soviet Union. Within only a few years, much of the crew who worked on Stalker were diagnosed with an extremely rare, untreatable, fatal form of bronchial cancer. The staring actor would die from it. Tarkovsky’s wife would die from it. Tarkovsky would die from it.
Once Tarkovsky knew that he was going to die he summed the last of his strength to make one final film. By then he had escaped the Soviet Union and was living in Paris. Calling up on his friend and admirer Ingmar Bergman for actors, a crew, and financial backing, he headed to Sweden where he would film The Sacrifice. His cinematic last will and testament, The Sacrifice tried to encompass everything Tarkovsky had ever tried to say in his films about the relationship between man and he divine, the power faith, the power of doubt.
The plot of the film is relatively simple: An aging academic named Alexander living in a beautiful home with his wife and young son overhears on the radio that nuclear war has finally begun. Racked by fear of what such a war will do to his family and the world in general, he prays to God and says that will sacrifice everything that he loves in order to keep the war from happening. That night, perhaps in reality or perhaps in a dream, he is visited by a friend who tells him that if he has sex with a certain witch it will save the world. After Alexander does this, he then wakes up the next morning to discover the world is fine. Everything as at peace. There is no war. But now he has to uphold his own end of the bargain. And so, in a fit half-insanity, half-delight he throws his own family out of his house and then burns it the ground.
Much of the film is difficult to watch. The colors during the middle, “dreamy” sequences are so dark that it’s often difficult to tell what’s happening. The plot moves at a snail’s pace. The characters seem to exist for no other reason than furthering the film’s march towards its final epiphany. Tarkovsky was dying. He had no time for indulging his audience even to the slightest degree.
And yet despite all that, the scene where the house burns is one of the most powerful in the history of cinema both because it is massive and awe-inspiring and because there is no way to know whether or not everything in the film was really a dream, whether God actually did anything at all, whether anyone was ever in danger, whether anyone was ever saved. It is all ambiguous. Yet it all still burns, because for Alexander there is no question. God has acted. He has given a gift. And that gift demands a sacrifice.
We live in an age when almost no one takes the idea of the divine very seriously. Even the vast majority of those who purport to believe in God with all their hearts don’t take that belief very seriously. They rarely dive deeply inside it, rarely explore it, rarely consider it in all its implications and contradictions. Because of this, there is something powerfully transgressive about Tarkovsky. When we are all consumed by petty practical concerns, he grabs us by the throat and insists we look to the heavens, that the only true measure of our life is on a cosmic scale.
Yukio Mishima’s The Decay of the Angel
On the list of modern literature’s most perplexing artists, Yukio Mishima occupies spots one through twelve. In him were combined a vibrant unabashed homosexual, an outlandish aesthete, the only Japanese writer of his generation to take women seriously as human beings, a fascist, an obsessive body builder, a blatant misogynist, the savior of Japanese theater, the disgrace of Japanese theater, a competent swordsmen, a man who delighted in decadence, obscenity, cruelty, and evil, a vehement proponent of transvestites and transsexuals, a wannabe samurai, a proponent of nuclear proliferation, and the commander of a private paramilitary organization staffed entirely with beautiful, virile young men.
In 1970, Yukio Mishima shocked the world by leading a group of his paramilitary boy warriors in a sword-wielding assault on a Japanese military base. Taking the commanding general hostage, they forced the garrison to assemble outside the headquarters so that Mishima could read them a speech about how they needed to rise up and (more or less) restore Japan to its rightful place as a worldwide military power. The soldiers, though, had no interest in his revolution and, by all accounts, heckled him off the stage. His coup a failure, Mishima then committed harakiri, with his second in command (and suspected lover) lopping off his head with a samurai sword.
The day of the coup, however, Mishima turned in to his publisher the final pages to his final novel, The Decay of the Angel. The fourth book in a tetralogy of novels entitled The Sea of Fertility, The Decay of the Angel deals with the relationship between an elderly, wealthy lawyer and a young man who the lawyer believes is the reincarnation of his childhood friend. It is a thin, difficult novel. When you read appraisals of Mishima’s life and work, the novel is generally ignored completely. People care about his earlier, more popular novels. People care about his death. But no one cares about The Decay of the Angel.
This is a tragic mistake. The great question of Mishima’s life is his suicide. As an artist who believed there was no separation between life and art, he constructed his death to be a work of art. To understand the gesture that “art” was trying to make you have to understand The Decay of the Angel because The Decay of the Angel was, quite clearly to my mind, written by Mishima to be a parody of his own suicide. In it he is making fun of himself. Laughing at himself. Berating his own lunacy.
Central to the novel is a Zen koan about a cat and a mouse. The koan more or less goes like this: a cat sees a mouse and says to the mouse, “I’m going to eat you.” The mouse, however, complains, “You can’t eat me! I’m a cat.” The cat is confused: “No you’re not. You’re a mouse.” Furious, the mouse replies, “You are wrong! I am a cat! And I will prove that I am cat!” At which point the mouse commits suicide by drowning itself in a laundry tub. This of course proves nothing as to whether the mouse was or was not a cat. Instead, as the novel explains, it proves the immensity of that mouse’s sincerity of belief. So sincerely did the mouse believe that it was a cat that it would rather die than allow anyone to dare question that sacred self-belief.
The pattern of the koan is then repeated in the novel’s plot. The young man who is thought be a reincarnation of the lawyer’s friend isn’t actually that reincarnation. The lawyer is mistaken. But so sincerely does the young man want to be the reincarnation of the lawyer’s friend that on the day before his 20th birthday (the point by which every previous reincarnation of the lawyer’s friend has died), the young man drinks a bottle of wood glue so as to commit suicide. Except the wood glue doesn’t kill him. Instead all it does is give him such severe brain damage that he’s forced to live out the rest of his many, many years of life as a mentally crippled, blubbering invalid.
Mishima’s suicide is the same as the young man’s and the mouse’s suicides. He wants to be something that he isn’t. He wants to be a samurai instead of just an artist in a decadent, peaceful age. He stages a coup so he can justify dying like a warrior, with his belly cut open. But he isn’t a samurai. There are no such things as samurai. The idea of the “samurai” is a fiction of the Japanese mind. (Everything he believes in, all the art and the beauty, are fictions of the mind.) And yet there is Mishima in a tower dying desperately in order to make all of it manifest, if only for the brief instant between the moment when his intestines fall out of his stomach and the moment when his second cuts off his head.
You could achieve a lot less as a writer.
*~God Bless David Bowie~*