Sunday, December 11, 2016

Sometimes an extinguished match is just an extinguished match

When an artist dies young, it is typical to hear analyses like, "He was just too smart for this world."

You know the cliches: He was like a comet who shot across the sky for a moment and disappeared. The brightest stars burn out fastest. How could someone so brilliant endure such a mediocre world?

This begs the question, should brilliant people be expected to die young?

Einstein lived into his 70s
Bohr - 77
Newton lived into his 80s
Tesla, who neglected to invent any health-boosting smoothies, survived until 86. (once again beating Marconi, who despite his own burdensome brilliance managed to live into his 60s)
Edison - 84
Aristotle - 60s
Galileo - 77
Confucius - 70s
al-Khwarizmi - 70
Curie - 66 (the radioactivity her brilliance allowed her to study did her in, and she still lived more than six decades)
Schopenhauer - 72
Copernicus - 70
Buddha - 80ish
Kepler - almost 60

The people who figured out what comets are managed to live long and prosper, but not the people that are compared to comets? Speaking of burning, the inventor of the Bunsen burner died at 88.

Am I clouding matters by not focusing exclusively on artists? No problem, let's focus on those sensitive folks with the artistic temperament. After all, we know they're destined to flame out early.

Michelangelo saw 88
Frank Lloyd Wright saw his 90s
Matisse - 80s
Kurosawa - 88
Michelangelo - 88
Rembrandt - 60s
Tolstoy - 82
Franz Liszt, who lived like a rock star before there were rock stars, lived into his 70s.
Da Vinci - 60s
Picasso hit 91
Miles Davis - 65
Dante - 56
Donatello...79 or 80
Dumas - 68

Many of these people lived in eras where life expectancy was well lower than it is today, and they still lived far beyond what could be called their youth. Several dynamos who died youngish, Austen, Mozart, Chopin, Raphael, died of natural causes. Inconveniently, Mozart was not found dead in a whorehouse surrounded by opium and quill-penned suicide notes. Chopin didn't throw himself in front of a horse-drawn carriage because some asshole in a bar failed to "get" him. The evidence shows these gone-too-soons wanted to carry on.

Pythagoras dulled his brain enough to make it to 75, but Sid Vicious, a man so untalented the band stopped plugging in his bass, burned too brightly? Goethe suppressed his genius enough to fight through 30,000 days, but James Dean, a Keebler Elf who plodded through all of three movies, was too special to cut it in this world? Plato resisted the temptation to hang himself with his toga and died at 80, but Jean-Michel Basquiat, whose paintings are indistinguishable from a infant's bib after a spoonful of Gerber, had no choice but to call it a day at 27? Sounds a little fishy to this genius.

The average age at which Nobel Laureates receive their awards is 59. There is no 27 Club in the Nobel club (even if Nobel Laureates did die young, they still wouldn't leave good looking corpses).

The "brilliant people die young" idea seems a very rock 'n' roll, youth culture idea. We take for granted how much easier it is to survive nowadays, making early death more romantic. As recently as the 19th Century, an open window during the wrong season could snuff one out. When staying alive isn't a given, a person who dies at 27 is just an unlucky stiff, not an automatic Canon Enhancer.

It is poetic to quote Lao Tzu, "The flame that burns twice as bright lasts half as long," (Lao Tzu lived to be 74, by the way), but the myth doesn't hold up under scrutiny. The famously dead weren't too brilliant to endure. They were too damaged to endure. Not all damaged people are brilliant. If that were true, Mensa and Alcoholics Anonymous would simply merge.

"Hi, I'm Fred."

Hi Fred!

"I'm an alcoholic. And my IQ is 152."