Franz Nicolay

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Franz Says: Don't Be An Asshole While You're Alive, or, On Ambition & Immortality

“We'll all sit around talking about the good old days, when we wished we were dead.” – Beckett, on the afterlife

The Times, a recent Sunday past, had three entries regarding ideas of immortality.

Woody Allen, talking about Bergman, says “I have joked about art being the intellectual’s Catholicism, that is, a wishful belief in an afterlife. Better than to live on in the hearts and minds of the public is to live on in one’s apartment, is how I put it.” A review of a biography of the opportunist hustler Amerigo Vespucci notes that in “one of his few existing manuscript letters, Vespucci tells of his decision to write an account of his most recent voyage so he can leave 'some fame behind me after I die.'”

And rather more transcendentally, in the Magazine letters, Lorraine Ditko wrote that “[t]he stars we see now first emitted light billions of years ago. And yet we see that light in the present, although many of those stars have since died. That means our sun, and the reflected light of its planets, are currently emitting light into the future, which means we do exist forever. Perhaps time and space are heaven. We’re streaming through the night sky, where the ancients always said heaven would be.” (Or, if you prefer, “Ooh baby, love comes first / Ooh, heaven is a place on earth.”)

Even atheists and other assorted non-believers are, in the end, sentimentalist suckers for the idea of eternal remembrance, if not eternal life; the narcissist depressive's idea of heaven: I don't have to live in this vale of tears anymore, but 'til the end of days, people will remember what I made and that will justify all the crap I got away with to produce this allegedly priceless and ageless “art”. It's of a piece with the adolescent dream “Someday I'll get out of this town and be famous and then they'll all be sorry.” I once wrote a song with the couplet “I hope I die and am forgotten – I hope it's quiet where I lie”: at best, one of the more disingenuous statements of my life; and at least, in the context of a widely publicized and disseminated rock record, a complicated sentiment.

Montaigne laments that “virtue and ambition, unfortunately, seldom lodge together.” It is one of the unfortunate paradoxes of posthumous renown that those who achieve it, even those of the most upstanding character, are often tainted by the kind of nagging demands of the death-fearing ego that poison their relationships with their contemporaries but rarely survive in the public memory. Thus do some of us attempt to trade the tenderness of our temporal friends for the respect of our descendents, for “the blessing of extending one's signature in space and time.”

By which I mean, most of the people I know in the music business who’ve had success got it by being a little bit ruthless. That is, by trading the respect of a few people who know them for the love of thousands who don’t. If you give them (us?) the benefit of the doubt, it becomes the mark of a natural-born performer: to say, the difficulty I have in communicating with other people and the exhaustion with which I greet the prospect is not necessarily an indication that I prefer to be left alone or harbor ill-feeling towards them. Rather the opposite. But it is a matched-pair with another: on stage, I can express my love for people individually and as a mass and experience the human connection through the mediating distance of the stage. It’s safer that way – I can give them the gift of the performance and our shared joy in it uncomplicated by the sublety of individual, bilateral communication. This is sometimes taken for ego and a thirst for attention, but to interpret it that way is to mistake for a one-sided monologue what is intended to be a two-way communion.

I was recently accused of being an optimist. (More to the point, informed, “I thought you'd be arrogant, but really you're rather sunny!”) I don’t particularly value life for its own sake, nor do I expect much from it. I have, perhaps prematurely, passed judgment and found it reliably disappointing. Eventually, though, I decided I didn’t actually wish I was dead. Once that’s decided, there’s an easily adoptable survival strategy of expecting little to nothing and appreciating anything beyond that as a rare gift. When Sly Stone said, “I just want to celebrate another day of living,” I wonder if he meant it the way I do: like a celebration after a habitual, circadian battle, toasting the survivors and the weary and savouring the fleeting relief at being among their number. We’re all in this together. On those terms, optimism comes easy.