The year has been a terrible one for celebrity deaths: Alan Rickman, David Bowie, Merle Haggard, now Prince. The last one hit particularly hard with me. Prince was the music of my difficult and lonely teenage years. I admired him. I loved his music. I thought and think he was a musical genius on par with the historic greats. And it’s been cathartic and touching to see the tributes springing up all over the world and know that I wasn’t alone in thinking that; that millions of people did get how great he was.
Every time the world mourns a celebrity, however, people ask why we do so. After all, it’s not like we knew them personally. Why shed tears — even metaphorical ones — over a stranger?
This tweet explains it better in 140 characters than I will in many more words.
Thinking about how we mourn artists we've never met. We don't cry because we knew them, we cry because they helped us know ourselves.
— Juliette (@ElusiveJ) January 11, 2016
In one of Stephen King’s non-fiction books, he describes writing as an act of telepathy. When you write a piece of fiction, you are using words to put what’s in your head into the reader’s head. If I write, “There was a room with table” you get an image in your head. And, if I’m a good writer, you get something close to the image I had in my head when I wrote those words.
This act of telepathy applies to more than just writers. Artists, musicians, actors … all of them perform acts of telepathy. It’s a bit more subtle since they work in a visual or auditory medium. But it’s the same principle: trying to evoke images or feelings or ideas through an act of telepathy.
We let artists into our head. We have, indirectly, a very intimate relationship with them. People will talk of books or songs or movies that spoke to them. And that’s true in a very literal sense. And if an artist is particularly brilliant, they will sometimes reveal things about us we didn’t know or put us in touch with feelings or ideas we were unfamiliar with. And we share this intimacy with everyone else who has felt spoken to.
So no I don’t think there’s anything wrong with mourning an artist or an actor who has died. Because sometimes we really are very close to them in a way that truly matters.