Christmas got me thinking of so many who only recently were at our family tables and are now gone – in particular quite a few in just the last few years. My wife remarked to me at how odd this Christmas has felt; that in a way, she said, it was as if there had been a “plane crash” that took out of a whole bunch of our family at the same time. Indeed my mother, my uncle, my father-in-law, my mother-in-law, a close aunt of mine, and a special aunt of my wife’s, who were all alive on October 1, 2015 (which is not that long ago) are now all dead.
It has been a quick “passing” of a part of a generation that has changed our life dynamic now for however long we also live. You have doubtless endured similar… or trust me you will too, eventually. Humans have dealt with this since the beginning of time.
While proofing my latest novel manuscript further yesterday – I listen often to a manuscript “read” to me through my PC; you would be surprised how many tiny errors (like a “the” or an “an” accidentally left out of a sentence) it reveals – and considering the story itself, at one point I also thought relatedly on how all of us have a lifespan after which we are no more. At that instant we become merely a memory to those who actually knew us. And by know us I mean narrowly those who knew us IN PERSON.
Within 100 or so years after we are gone, all of those people who once knew us will probably also be gone. Once everyone who ever knew us dies too, we are now not even a memory. We are “history.”
For the last 500 years or so, with widespread writing, “ordinary” people in greater numbers than before were able to leave parts of “themselves” behind for “history.” Although hardly “ordinary” in that she painted the likes of Queen Marie-Antoinette, for instance this lady just below was actually born into a rather “ordinary” family and rose in society largely due to her own talents as an artist and to the patronage of the likes of that ill-fated queen. I use her here as an example:
Marie Louise Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun (1756-1842) is in part an inspiration and a basis for one of my French characters – and if you have read my most recent two novels, I am pretty sure you can guess which one it is. Thus how fiction works. (I do not believe for a minute that any fictional character comes from “thin air.” Any author who claims that for one or more of theirs is, I believe, being less than honest with us. Every character by every writer is in some way, shape, or form, sourced from some human[s] the author has known, seen, or read about.)
Of course she omitted lots, but in that autobiography written in old age she shares with us bits of her recollections of her life – growing up, as a painter, as a mother, about the French Revolution, her travels to Russia, Italy, and England, and her life afterward – and what she had been through. Lebrun was very well-known in certain “small circles.” However, she was not really broadly “famous” during her lifetime in terms we today would consider famous; most people probably had never heard of her.
I suspect if she were alive now she would be big on social media, particularly Instagram. (She painted quite a few self portraits – “selfies?’ – that are today easily found in searches online, including then “scandalous” self-paintings with her mouth open slightly and revealing her teeth, which was then considered “improper” in artwork for a lady to be so seen.) Her autobiography is in its way an extra interesting read also because pre-20th century history is full of powerful men’s autobiographies, while women’s – women being until the 20th century much less likely to be literate than men – are fewer, so seeing any of those makes for a special read in itself. As this English language publisher of it noted in 1904:
Speaking of “old-fashioned,” her husband was known as “an inveterate gambler?” There’s a phrase we don’t see much in the 21st century! LOL!
Aside from portraits (which few could afford to have made), the written word was once all there was of us really to leave behind. Today, with social media, if any of us die tomorrow, we will leave behind lots more than most any “ordinary” person ever did previously. Photos and video of us may be all over the place and perhaps even our voice may continue to be heard. Assuming Facebook, for example, still exists in some sense, a century from now it will by then have far more dead people on it than live users, and how many of those live ones will bother visiting our pages… unless we had been REALLY famous?
Betty White, the U.S. actor who died December 31 just a few weeks before her 100th birthday, will be watched indefinitely; and, for example, U.S. singer Frank Sinatra (who died in 1998) will also probably be listened to indefinitely. But every great actor or singer of more than about a century ago left behind nothing. And even those now as famous in their lifetimes such as White and Sinatra and who have left behind much to be seen and heard in the future may themselves become mere “historical curiosities” by, say, 2122.
In that page above from Lebrun’s autobiography, notice she mentions near the top a “Lovely and Lovable” – in caps – Marquise de Villette. Her autobiography is full of subtle either compliments/digs like that one. I mention it here why? Because that Marquise quite likely in 1797-98 had a brief affair in Paris with a visiting American man named John Marshall – the same Marshall who a few years later was appointed by President John Adams as Chief Justice of the United States… and which you may recall got a mention in my most recently published novel. 😉
They are all as gone now as is everyone who ever knew them in person. Having lived before sound recording and photography, we are left with even “less” of them than there will be left of us. We have only some portraits (if we are lucky) of them and their written words.
Of the mass of humanity who before 1900 could not even write? If we are fortunate, we may know some of their names. Otherwise, we are usually left with literally nothing of them at all.
Someday we too will follow them all and eventually no one will be around who remembers us either, but our social media pages might still be around (including our blogs). So be mindful of what you leave behind on the internet. True, while it is unlikely too many people will care about us in the future, you never know, and what we do know is it will all be around a lot longer than we will be. LOL!
Happy New Year and have a good day, wherever you are in the world. 🙂