Exploring death through music and art…
PSYCHIATRIC VIEWS ON THE DAILY NEWS
In the spirit of Ecclesiastes, it has been a time to think about death and dying. My last column on past Friday was a eulogy for the death of Tina Turner. Memorial Day grieves the loss of military members who died defending our country. We are living in another time of escalating nuclear concern from the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Today turns to another popular singer and songwriter, Paul Simon, and his newest album on death and dying.
Psychiatry has been debating the rise of physician-assisted deaths, now including those with psychiatric problems. However, we have paid much less attention to the 2 poles of death and dying. One is the Doomsday Clock, which recognizes our potential collective annihilation. The other is the more usual personal death and dying.
I have certainly been thinking about death and dying more since my best friend of 70 years, Barry Marcus, died on December 1, 2022. As a singer and songwriter himself, Barry loved Paul Simon. It seems Simon has been doing much introspection about dying, too.
In fact, because of Barry’s interest in him and his music, I wrote an article back on July 1, 2016, titled “Paul Simon Sings, Psychosocial Problems Ring,” and dedicated it to Barry. It discussed his new album of the time, “Stranger to Stranger,” and it presaged our professional concern with the social determinants of health and mental health. As usual, important psychological insights often are conveyed first by creative artists. Simon used the artistic—and psychologically sound—strategy of addressing such serious problems with upbeat music in order to cushion the painful aspects of the subject matter. There are various social and individual psychopathologies teased out: violence, homelessness, loneliness, delusions, grief, trauma, and climate change, among others.
At that time, Simon said that he was “yearning to explore questions of spirituality and neuroscience.” Perhaps the essence of what he found by the age of 82 is in the new—and perhaps final—album, “Seven Psalms.” Previously, 2 other popular songwriters produced albums about death and dying right before they died: David Bowie and his “Blackstar,” and Leonard Cohen and his “You Want it Darker.” Did they sense they were about to die?
“Seven Psalms” is a suite of one continuous piece, apparently inspired by a dream. Simon uses the great migration as a metaphor for the unknown transition from life to death as the connecting theme, as he attempted to come to peace with the inevitable.
Simon is Jewish, like Barry and myself, though never particularly religious over his life. Here, there are obvious Jewish references in the lyrics, such as the High Holy Day of Yom Kippur, which focuses on the need for forgiveness and to be put in next year’s “Book of Life.”
There are his own metaphors for God: engineer, earth, path, meal, and stranger. Doing so, he encourages all to make their own spiritual and psychological metaphors.
We know, and it seems like Simon knows, that denial of death is not helpful. Although research is limited, it appears that periodically thinking and discussing one’s own death and dying helps to reduce death anxiety and increase a meaningful transition process. An underlying psychological principle is that the meanings of holiday days like Memorial Day are best of all integrated into our daily lives.
Connecting his prior album with this one represents a journey from social psychiatric concerns to the end of life. It is as if in singing to make the world a better place, he has come to a personal place of peace and meaning. May we all before we die.
Dr Moffic is an award-winning psychiatrist who has specialized in the cultural and ethical aspects of psychiatry. A prolific writer and speaker, he received the one-time designation of Hero of Public Psychiatry from the Assembly of the American Psychiatric Association in 2002. He is an advocate for mental health issues related to climate instability, burnout, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism for a better world. He serves on the Editorial Board of Psychiatric Times.