One of the saddest parts in Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past” is when he loses his grandmother and he realizes that he will no longer be able to share new sensations with her. He has her opinions on everything that has happened already – but if some new thing comes along, he will not be able to find out what she would have thought about it. That is one of the hardest parts of losing a great critic. You desperately want his or her opinion on things.
When Roger Ebert passed on Thursday, that passage sprang to mind.
By now, we’ve got it all down to a science, this art of public mourning. When someone of a certain stature passes, everyone throngs together and says how much he will be missed, and what her music said to them, and gradually, as Auden said, the words of a dead man are modified in the guts of the living. It all feels odd and self-serving. Do you say something when a celebrity passes? Do you say nothing? Who’s it about?
But Roger Ebert wasn’t just famous. He was a writer. Not just a writer — a prolific writer, which from a reader’s perspective is a rare kind of generosity. He was a familiar voice — on the page and from the television, for years, and then a voice of a different kind, on the Internet, one of the most listened to.
Ebert took two things that could in theory be tremendously isolating experiences -– sitting in darkness and silence staring up at a screen at the movies, and sitting in silence clicking away at a keyboard – and made them places of connection, turned them into places where you felt that someone had seen what you saw, felt what you felt and said it better than you could have dreamed.
It is strange when one of your favorite writers dies –not one of the novelists who releases a polished sheaf of words once in a blue moon, but one of the writers whose voices you are accustomed to hearing every day.
It is strange to have that supply cut off.
There are not many people whose voices you hear every day. Even your best friends, separated by distance or whatever the quaint hesitancy is that dogs us when it comes to the telephone these days, devolve into lines of text on a screen. Even your nearest and dearest are just people whose words you read every day, if you are lucky, inquiring what you did and wanting to know what you know and telling you what they have heard and thought and seen.
And by that measure, this feels like losing a friend. Everyone on Twitter, it seems, has something personal to say about him. There is much less of the usual punning and joshing. You listen to someone that often, you feel like you know him. He does all the things your friends do — sends you links to articles you might enjoy, tells you what he thinks about movies and politics — and yet he has no clue of your existence. You feel a spurious connection, a deep umbilical link that only flows one way.
Writing is always like that, to an extent. Asking people to read what you have written, on a daily or weekly or monthly basis for years, whether you intend it to be or not, is like inviting someone in to sit in the disarrayed living room of your brain. There is a strange intimacy in shared sentences. One can be known, profoundly, without knowing in return. But the words settle in the reader. Millions of people now feel as though they knew him. And when the voice stops, the silence is multiplied — in a thousand living rooms where people turn to learn what he has to say and find him gone.
This era (perhaps uniquely, perhaps like every era before it) is an era with a lot of voices shouting. But he was one of the ones who managed to be heard, from his Twitter to his TED Talk to his constant stream of thoughtful reviews. He made people willing to listen. There is no one word or phrase that leaps out, only the vivid presence of a mind. We wanted to know what Ebert thought.
This is what the Internet is for, in its highest form. To simplify people into their voices and amplify those voices.
He left more than enough words to remember him by — 17 books, more movie reviews than seem humanly possible — sufficient stores of sun to weather a long winter. I’m grateful for those. But I’ll miss hearing from him. And I know I’m not alone in that.