On Peter Schjeldahl's "The Art of Dying"

Updated: Feb 1


"I always said that when my time came I’d want to go fast. But where’s the fun in that?"




In "The Art of Dying", author Peter Schjeldahl (pictured above with his wife Brooke in 1981, photo by Sheree Rose) comments on his perspective of his life and environment after receiving a diagnosis of rampant lung cancer. An art critic for the NY Times, the author turns an eye to his own history and presents readers with a critique masked as a short autobiography. Schjeldahl touches on everything from cold parents to substance abuse to reckoning one's ego against God.


@IAmADracula, the author of the following commentary on the article has been a writer for over 25 years and identifies with cultivating near-hysteria via the unparalleled need to write, yet struggling every day to get out of bed. Our commentator has had a few similar experiences with love, loss, and adventure to Schjeldahl and one wonders if this is simply a writer's lot.


Just as Schjeldahl describes after his diagnosis, our commentator upholds the believe that Death goes on, Death is every day. And because of this, both Life and Death deserve pragmatic consideration without judgement or regret.


This honest, no-punches-held article deserve a commentary of the same kind; our commentator asks us to look at our everyday through the lens of Schjeldahl's perspective: Cut the bullshit, leave behind your judgement, and savor those you love- because each one of us is dying every day.


- M.S. Yarborough


Thoughts on 'The Art of Dying'


Peter Schjeldahl is an art critic, writer, and former poet who is dying of lung cancer.


I read his look-back on life and discussion of dying in The New Yorker, and it struck

several chords with me.


We are all dying, right now. To some that is terrifying, to others it may be a

comfort. As a currently-living thing, a writer of poems who hesitates to identify as a

“poet”, and a witness to our world collectively losing its mind, I was inspired by

Peter’s words. These are my thoughts (Peter’s passages are italicized throughout).


"I know about ending a dependency. I’m an alcoholic twenty-seven years sober.

Drink was destroying my life. Tobacco only shortens it, with the best parts over

anyway."


The author speaks frankly and honestly about his history of drug use, including and

especially drinking and smoking, and how society and other people will perceive his

death in that context. As if living to the age of seventy-seven and having achieved

a career and a family would be overshadowed? Perhaps a feeling of inadequacy in

the face of human judgment? The idea that living a “straight” life and dying anyway

is what is expected from us, and despite having the same outcome, it would allow

one to die free of judgment and shame.


In truth, some things literally are just a poison. Tobacco shortens your life, sure,

but if the “best parts” are already over, why the stigma? Alcoholism is the last

socially-celebrated means of self-destruction in the world, that I know of. It is

sometimes glorified, in the way that opium and heroin once were at different times.

Ego-death conflated with actual physical death of the body, perhaps. Even if we

reduce the number of American adults dying as a result of excess alcohol

consumption (a recent article by NPR announces that American deaths from

“alcohol-related problems” have “more than doubled over the past nearly 20

years”), opioids and benzos will likely fill the gap. And why not? Life doesn’t come

with an emergency pressure release valve.


Details of Peter’s family life, receiving parental approval / affection (and the lack

thereof), and conflicting feelings about accomplishment are pervasive throughout

the article.


"I don’t feel interesting.


I don’t trust my memories (or anyone’s memories) as reliable records of

anything—and I have a fear of lying. Nor do I have much documentary material.

I’ve never kept a diary or a journal, because I get spooked by addressing no one.

When I write, it’s to connect."


The artist, the writer, and (perhaps especially) the poet are sometimes consumed

by their chosen form of expression, like the Leanan sídhe of Irish mythology: a

muse that at once inspires and devours her inspired victim. Writing about the self

frankly is hard; writing straightforward thoughts about one’s feelings is often

harder. Feeling “interesting” is like trying to kick water uphill. Writing to connect

when one knows they are dying is something we can practice every day, because

we are all of us dying, right now.


"Advice to aspiring youth: in New York, the years that you spend as a nobody are

painful but golden, because no one bothers to lie to you. The moment you’re a

somebody, you have heard your last truth. Everyone will try to spin you—as they

should, with careers to think of. For about a dozen years, I hung out, drank, and

slept with artists who didn’t take me seriously. I observed, heard, overheard, and

absorbed a great deal."


This passage is to me a remarkable truth: it is better to be obscure in public, and

save your greatest achievements for those who matter to you / to whom you

matter most. Humans are selfish creatures, and their Wants typically motivated by

self-centered thought processes. This is not something we can escape – it is part of

our collective experience whether we want it to be or not. But most anyone who

wants, wants to serve themselves first. Maybe even in death, people will continue

to “spin you”, and you won’t be there to perform damage control. In death, we lose

autonomy and identity. We become a concept, a side-plot in the stories and

memories of others.


"That prose-poetic experiment ended when I entered Jungian therapy and presented

my dreams for interpretation. They all made abundant sense, which was

entertaining but not terribly helpful. My problem was not a lack of connection with

the collective unconscious. I was a fucking poet. My problem was getting out of bed

in the morning."


This passage was especially meaningful to me, like a secret handshake from artist

to artist, or something similarly fantastic. What is “helpful”? What is “therapeutic”?

What makes one person feel happy or fulfilled will not work for another. I am a

body-fucking-electric carrying the weight and light of the universe, but even we

have to get up in the morning and choose to live. At our time of dying, well-

meaning people may try to “solve” our demise by second-guessing our choices, our

desires, our actions. Because they can sleep at night. Because they can get out of

bed in the morning, energized and ready to work or study or create. Because they

likely haven’t felt Death’s hand on their shoulder their whole life. They are in a race

against other humans, I compete with finality. Some artists / poets / whatever are

simply trying to connect and transmit before Last Call finally arrives.


This is not to suggest that Other People are always false, always failing, always

completely selfish. The author highlights:


"Family and friends are being wonderful to me in my sickness. I’ve toiled all my life,

in vain, to like myself. Now the task has been outsourced. I can’t go around telling

everybody they’re idiots."


It is my thinking that from time to time, we need to surrender to the idea that

we’re more or less “okay”. Dying is, unfortunately, a great opportunity to listen to

what others have to say about you and believe it, for once. Active listening is an

important skill that should be taught to everyone early in life. Believing someone

else cares, loves, appreciates YOU is difficult, scary, and often misplaced. But you

can’t win if you don’t play, and sooner or later you will be alone with Mortality, and

everyone else will probably be gone. Be present.


"Life doesn’t go on. It goes nowhere except away. Death goes on. Going on is what

death does for a living. The secret to surviving in the universe is to be dead.


Self-knowledge! Almost better never than this late. (I don’t mean that at all. But I

enjoy the sound of it.) I am endeavoring to practice self-forgiveness. I believe it’s

recommended.


As for folks out there in resentful and envious circles who will be glad to have me

out of the way, they, by their pleasure, afford me a bonus credit for increasing

human happiness."


The article continues on for a stretch after this portion, but the above passages hit

me the hardest. Embracing these simple truths and accepting that Death always

wins in the end could be a key to dying well, and living better than one is today.

Death does not care about the time you cheated on a math test in 10 th grade. Death

does not judge you for bad relationships, missed opportunities, or a lifetime of

setback and failure. Death simply IS, and when that day comes, you will be no

longer. But hopefully, that day has not yet come – if that is the case, then do at

least one meaningful thing per day. Pursue fulfillment, not satisfaction. Or don’t.

It’s all the same when you’re gone.


Peter Schjeldahl (pictured as the cover image with his wife Brooke in 1981) is an art critic, writer, former poet who is dying of lung cancer. You can read the article in entirety here.


The author of this commentary can be found at the Twitter account @IAmADracula

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