Most of us didn’t personally know David Bowie, but that doesn’t mean his passing can’t affect us powerfully. His music is among the most inspirational in history, and his style paved the way for normalizing envelope-pushing individuality. His final album, being true to form and inspired by modern music, both bravely and openly addresses his past and present struggles. Lazarus was an intentionally prophetic work, inspired by his fight with cancer and the awareness he had of his impending, tragic end. It’s an interesting piece of art that adds dimension to a rare genre of death-inspired artistry. While being abruptly shocked with the loss of such a person as David Bowie, this art gives us a place where we can look to contemplate and reflect upon our own mortality. What other famous examples do we have of art inspired by death?
Christopher Hitchens was no stranger to controversy, and the notion that he would stop writing, debating, or speaking just because of some life altering cancer would put a smirk on his face. Like Bowie with Lazarus, Hitch courageously fought cancer with not only chemo and the sword, but with the pen as well. Some may see Mortality as a book documenting his ideas and reflections on people’s perceptions of his condition; however, I see it as a defiant “fuck you” letter written to his cancer in his typical fashion.
Johnny Cash, certainly as important an icon in music as Bowie, ended his career on arguably the highest note with his cover of Nine Inch Nails’ classic song, “Hurt.” Shortly after covering this song, Trent Reznor effectively declared Cash to be the new owner of the song. Judie Cash, Johnny’s wife, died 4 months after the song’s release, and Johnny Cash followed suit shortly thereafter from what many fans and friends called a broken heart. In reality, he died from diabetic complications. Although this is in a way prophetic, we ought to refrain from waxing poetic about coincidental timing and covering a song that is about addiction. Instead, what Lazarus has in common with this cover of “Hurt” is the adage of putting forth your best work just before the end. We can learn that you should always strive for your best work no matter which point in your life you create something. Tomorrow it can all end.
The former Cream guitarist may have made controversial waves that you might have thought would end his career when he supported a racist nationalist in the UK (and never recanted). However, he came back with a tragically inspired song, “Tears in Heaven,” not long after the deaths of his manager, two roadies, and later his son. Co-written by Will Jennings, this song was an instant classic, and will likely bring tears to the eyes of many people still. Like Bowie did with Lazarus, Clapton used the tragedy to write a sad yet uplifting song that was extremely close to home. The end result was a timeless piece that reignited a stagnating career and kept the acoustic ballad alive in rock.
Shelly Kagan is a philosophy professor from Yale, and all of us “non-Yale students” can be thankful that his famous philosophy course on Death is available to all on the Internet. He ventures into the technical philosophy and historical concepts of various perceptions of the meaning of death and how we ought to view it as a result. It’s not only the academic prowess on display, there is a certain eerie passion that Dr Kagan has for the concept of death and its implications. He teaches this class with a mastery that rivals inspirational fictional teachers from famous films. Not unlike Bowie’s Lazarus, he engages in an honest exploration of death: how it affects us, how we should face it, and how we should deal with it. Kagan’s course on death is an excellent way to cope with the loss of a loved one or an inspirational figure.
Back to Bowie
When someone famous—or someone who inspires us—dies, we are left to reflect on where that person once fit in our lives and where we go from this point on. Hopefully these reflections will aid you in inspiring you to do more with your life than you are today. You can create something immortal. Let me know of any other related deaths or artistic works that you were reminded of with Bowie’s passing in the comments below.