Toni Morrison is dead. So are D.A. Pennebaker and Aretha Franklin, and Philip Roth, Stephen Hawking, Ursula K. Le Guin, Milos Forman and too many others to name, even when limited to artists and writers who have perished in the past few years alone. By some accounts, two people die every second, thousands every hour, tens of millions every year. But at this moment in American life, the death of our best people has become a collective lifeline and refuge from our anxieties. It sometimes seems that the obituary is the only news that makes us feel whole.
Morrison was our essential conscience, a writer of narrative brilliance and moral clarity. The magnitude of her loss, at this moment in our descent into barbarism, is incalculable. But to spend time today with her work, with memories of her life and the testimony of those who knew her, is infinitely more rewarding than reading about all the other terrible things that have happened in the past few days. The deaths of artists and other creators make us reflective, and we live at a moment when looking back is much easier than looking forward.
We also crave the reassurance that we are not, as a species, entirely spent. Morrison died only days after two mass shootings, which are not only a regular fixture of American life, but also a recurring reminder of our political paralysis and the corruption of our democracy. We are in the midst of a trade war, markets have plunged, Greenland is hemorrhaging ice and our president tweets racism to inflame a hungry audience of white nationalists who dream of a world without people like Morrison in it.
Death and remembrance, at least, come with the customs and norms that have been shredded in most of the rest of public life. If nothing else, death still inspires a pause in ordinary life and, in the case of artists, a respectful consideration of their habitually ignored accomplishments. The reflective look back on a life and a body of work such as Morrison’s is ultimately celebratory, a chance to think the best of another person and, by extension, ourselves. Artists, performers, scientists, writers and other creators rarely “make news” in the same way politicians do, even though their influence on our culture is greater, deeper and more meaningful. The obituary is a belated observation and acknowledgment that people like Morrison, in fact, made news every day through their work. They formed the deeper part of the minds that our pollsters seek to measure and quantify in the frenzied haste of the news cycle. They are the atmosphere of American culture, while all else is merely weather.
Obituaries are a paradox of sorts, a distraction toward meaningfulness, a diversion to what really matters. The response to the rest of the news is often an impulse to escapism, a turning away. But while Morrison shares space with the usual fire hose of bad news, her passing offers at least one impulse to go deeper, to read more, dig in, think more critically and disconnect from the ephemera. Obituaries like the ones that have been written about her in the past day are even better than the usual “good” news, which is often little more than a reminder that somewhere, somehow, someone has done an unnecessary kindness; obituaries are redemptive on a grander scale.
We seem capable of only two modes of existence: panic and sadness, the former fast-paced and full of collateral damage to the world around us, the latter at least sometimes constructive and reflective. America has experienced periods of intense reflection around death in the past, as when the last remaining veterans of the Revolutionary War were dying in the middle of the 19th century, leaving people to wonder whether there were any steady voices and clear heads to steer us away from, or through, the accumulation of civil strife and political violence. The deaths of those who fought in World War II offer an occasion to think about the fraying of the old 20th-century social contract, the dissolution of the bond between the generations enshrined in key social-welfare programs, and the extinction of American optimism — that we might live in a society without poverty, without unnecessary suffering, with genuine opportunity and social mobility.
But the death of an artist is different from the loss of political leaders, no matter how wise or benevolent, or the larger passing of a generation, which has continued since the beginning of time. Morrison’s work remains with us, intractable, urgent and uncompromising, and it is no less effective today than it was on Monday. It is curious to listen to people on television debating the effectiveness of this policy or that plan, often arguing themselves into the absurdity that because nothing has yet worked, nothing new should be attempted.
Meanwhile, the work of artists outlives them, operating on minds too young to be cynical. Politicians die and, if they’re lucky, are memorialized for having fixed something in the broken world they inherited. Artists die, and we flock to what they left behind, reanimating it, refreshing its meaning and reincorporating it into the body politic.
If you want to change the world, authentically and for the better, would you live your life like a politician, or a businessman, or a pharmaceutical executive or Donald Trump? Or would you live it like Toni Morrison?