This week, I was saddened to learn that the neurologist and author Oliver Sacks has terminal cancer. His is among the unfortunate two percent of ocular melanoma cases which metastasise; nine years after the original diagnosis, he now has metastases occupying one third of his liver. Addressing his mortality in a poignant New York Times piece (link below), he writes:
I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.
Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.
For me, Sacks’s meditations on his life evoke the lyrics of Nat King Cole’s ‘Nature Boy’ (1948), which I first heard in its haunting David Bowie incarnation in Moulin Rouge!. In the film’s opening scenes, the camera zooms in classical Luhrmann fashion through seedy 1900 Montmartre to reveal a disheveled, distraught Christian (Ewan Macgregor at his best) click-clacking the words on his typewriter as they are sung: ‘The greatest thing you’ll ever learn / Is just to love and be loved in return.’
The themes of love and life are also central to Luhrmann’s first feature, Strictly Ballroom, with its recognisable motto: ‘A life lived in fear is a life half-lived.’ Being prone to not-infrequent existential crises, life and the search for its meaning (other than 42, of course) are particularly interesting to me. What constitutes a meaningful, full life? If everything is doomed then perhaps is hedonism the best philosophy? Why go to work when you could spend a day lying on the couch, scoffing pastries and watching Netflix (it’s finally coming to Australia in March)?
It doesn’t help that the career path I have chosen to pursue has basically no practical value whatsoever. In a 2000 interview, Zadie Smith remarks—discussing her own education—: ‘Generally, an English Lit degree trains you to be a useless member of the modern world’. Seeing as we’re discussing grand themes, it might be helpful to broaden the scope a little here and mention an oft-quoted Oscar Wilde quip. In the preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, he declares: ‘All art is quite useless.’ Which is not to say that art isn’t important—what else entertains us, moves us and allows us to temporarily escape from the inevitability of mortality like it does? But in purely practical terms, Wilde is of course correct. In usefulness, making art pales in comparison to other callings. The writer Jonathan Safran Foer, for example, who dropped out of medicine at Mount Sinai, struggles like the rest of us in considering the purpose of writing. His doubts are surely exacerbated by the consideration of medicine as a pragmatic alternative. In a New Yorker interview which featured as part of its 20 Under 40 issue (June 4, 2010), Foer describes medicine as ‘Such a good profession. So explicitly good. Never a waste of time. No obstetrician goes home at the end of a long day and says, “I delivered four babies. What’s the point?”’
But as a writer who brings no lives into the world and spends large chunks of her working day alone, staring into a blank screen (or, more commonly, scrolling through Twitter), I often find myself asking: what, indeed, is the point? The answer, I figured, could probably be found online; the infinite expanse of the internet is now surely the closest approximation of an omniscient and eternal God, right? Two of my favoured findings are linked below. The first is a sweet comic strip featuring a doughnut as a metaphor for one’s life; and the second, which is written in listicle-style but lacks the triviality of most Buzzfeed articles, is a Quartz piece about the questions one should ask in order to find purpose in life.