On Alan Rickman, Loss, and Mourning Our Heroes

January 14, 2016

It’s been a hard week.

A friend texted me this morning to tell me Alan Rickman died. That was my first contact from any human being today. I staggered from my bedroom, started making coffee, and the phone buzzed.

Sixty-nine. Cancer. Snape, and the Sheriff of Nottingham, and Hans Gruber, and the Voice of God, and Harry the loser husband in Love Actually. And so it goes.

I knew him before I knew him, Horatio. I’ve been nearsighted all my life, but due to a propensity for memorizing eye charts, I didn’t realize it until late. On my family’s few trips to the movies, I saw huge moving blobs of human color, which only sharpened to particular beings if I squinted—so the Sheriff of Nottingham, with his witch and his creepy cloaked posse and his anger management issues, remained the Sheriff of Nottingham to me, not a person playing the Sheriff. I’m not sure I even realized he was Alan Rickman until this morning. I first saw Alan Rickman as Alan Rickman, as a person, in Dogma, and ever since I’ve been following him back through my childhood, finding him in different corners, like when you fall for seven different songs on the radio only to discover they’re all by the same band.

I sat at the breakfast table while water boiled, and I typed into Twitter:

Laughter and weeping lie close together in the human body: involuntary contractions of the diaphragm, stimulated tear ducts, the release of stress through deflections as much as confrontation. The suddenness made it feel most like magic, to me. A coin shown, a coin removed, a coin produced again, isn’t that how it goes? A coin, or a person. Sixty-nine isn’t old, these days. He didn’t seem like he was suffering—but then, when would I have a chance to see that? I did not know the man, though I grew up watching his shadows.

And what shadows.

The great film actors are always the same, and always different. That continuity supports the differences: masters use their instrument to convey meaning. Everyone I’ve spoken to today reached for another role, wizard or bank robber, angel or Jane Austen hero, to capture what Alan Rickman was to them. Whatever Rickman played, he had the best side-eye on the silver screen, and the driest, sharpest wit. On camera, he was unrepentantly, brilliantly, hilariously fed up with the world, and often with himself, for failing to live up to his own exacting standards. On camera, he was God’s own burned idealist, dripping charisma and magic, and whenever he appeared, I became at least twice as interested in whatever I was watching.

But I didn’t know the man. In the last twelve hours, in fact, I’ve learned more about him than I ever knew before. His comrades and co-stars claim he was a fantastic human being, funny, friendly, human, the kind of person who would drop everything and come running when his friends needed him. I learned that he and his lover were together for forty years before they married. I learned that one time, in Potions class, Rupert Grint drew a doodle of Alan Rickman as Snape, and Alan Rickman, as Snape, confiscated that doodle, and held onto it for well over a decade. It’s good to know that this man whose work I respected and enjoyed, and who made me laugh, was a good man—his goodness justifies the emptiness left by his passing.

The author isn’t supposed to matter for the text, is he? It shouldn’t matter that Rickman was a good guy. It shouldn’t matter that, in 1983, David Bowie called out MTV interviewer Mark Goodman on MTV for not playing enough music videos by black artists. Only the work should matter—that’s the line we’re fed. But the author’s self is, itself, a work, and at the work’s end, we naturally reach for some sort of explanation, or justification, or at least purchase, on the whole. We don’t want to let the people who are important to us slip away. We look back at the work, complete, and ask ourselves what it means, what it meant, to us and to the world.

I struggle with mourning. When friends pass, and family, I work through it strangely, sideways, by degrees.

I’m relatively certain that attachment is the root of suffering, that suffering can be eased by letting go of our desire that parts of our constantly changing world should endure forever. We should love, we should hold our friends close, we should celebrate them—but we should also be ready for them to change, and for them to change us in return.

If that’s the case, though, mourning presents a problem. To mourn seems like reveling in attachment, drugging on memory: we cling to one who’s gone away. We refuse to let them pass, we deny the world changes. And yet, not mourning feels inhuman, impossible.

But I’m coming to realize that’s not as much a contradiction as it seems.

No one among us exists as a thing in herself, alone and complete as she appears from the outside. We’re all collages of art and memory and friendship and family, struggling and striving together. Places and people we’ve encountered endure within us. And when those places or people pass away in the outside world, within us something changes too. When we mourn, we trace the shape and magnitude of that change. We find, sometimes—often—to our surprise, the depths at which we were formed by others. There’s little logic to the architecture of our souls; we like to think blood matters, and time, but sometimes a glance or a touch, a half smile on a movie screen, a cover song, a piece of lightning bolt makeup, a Christmas card, an afternoon’s conversation, a book read once in childhood, can be a pillar on which the roof of us depends.

Mourning is a tribute. Mourning is an affirmation of self. Mourning is a battle against the end. Someone passes, and yet remains, and returns, through memory, through work, through fingerprints left on clay. The Nicene creed says, “We look for the resurrection of the dead.” That line has always fascinated me; it tends to be read as, we await the resurrection of the dead, but I read it as a detective’s credo. We look for the resurrection of the dead: we seek it in the world around us, in ourselves, and in one another.

When we mourn, we don’t cling to the dead. We see them, we feel them, we salute them, we let them pass, and we let them be reborn.

I’ve moved beyond my remit, I know. But: Alan Rickman. David Bowie. Robin Williams. B.B. King. Terry Pratchett. Leonard Nimoy. Diana Wynne Jones.

And more will follow. And someday we’ll be among them.

We learn to lose people so we can learn to keep them alive.

Max Gladstone writes about the cutthroat world of international necromancy: wizards in pinstriped suits and gods with shareholders’ committees. His new novel, Last First Snow, is about zoning politics, human sacrifice, and parenthood. He has also contributed to two serialized stories available at Serial Box—Bookburners (available now) and The Witch Who Came in From the Cold (coming out this month). You can follow him on Twitter.

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