Going Gentle into That Good Night
by Michael Lieberman
Some years ago Willie Sutton, the famous Boston bank robber, was asked why he robbed banks. His answer was simpleand direct, "That's where the money is." My suggestion in approaching this book of photo essays by Jim Goldberg, Nan Goldin, Sally Mann, Jack Radcliffe and Kathy Vargas is to put aside the written preface, the introduction, and even Marilyn Webb's fine article, Death and Dying in America, and go directly to the photographs. Nan Goldin's photograph of Grace and Carl at Home, a plain picture of a middle-aged couple holding each other, and Kathy Vargas' handcolored photo-collage, entitled Don and Bill: Don in His Apartment, tell us what this book is about.
Hospice, A Photographic Inquiry is at the same time profound and matter-of-fact. The book is filled with the centralcontradiction of dying — how incredibly frightening it can be and how joyful at the same time. It is a book about gains andlosses, about pain — physical and emotional pain, and how that pain can be lessened — and about resolution. There will be few readers who will not be engaged and moved by this book with its jolting mixture of despair and tenderness. In Houston, we are fortunate to be able to see the original photographs from the exhibition that began at The CorcoranGallery of Art in Washington in March of 1996 and is currently at the Blaffer Gallery on the University of Houston campus. In fact, it will be the Blaffer's first show in its newly renovated gallery space.
The news media have depersonalized death and dying by bombarding us with images that are remote from us. Documentary photography, news reels, and television have depicted the Holocaust, Vietnam, massacres in Africa, rebel wars in Latin America, bombings, shootings, accidents, natural disasters and fires, as if death and dying were the outcome of atrocity or accident. Surely the intent is to make the distant suffering of others personal to us. However, we also need to know what it means to die an ordinary death in the presence of family and friends, what it means to die in context, in an American context, to die the way most of us will die. The five photo essays that are the substance of Hospice: A Photographic Inquiry force us to think about the inevitable — we and those we love are going to die. The hospice movement has provided the most extensive repository of vicarious experience available to us on the subject of dying.
The five photographers have approached the topic of hospice in radically different ways. Jim Goldberg's contribution is a photo memoir of his own father's death. Jack Radcliffe captures many different patients — especially their faces — while Sally Mann has chosen a more symbolic approach by depicting events and landscapes that are meaningful to hospice patients. Nan Goldin's work blends these two treatments, and Kathy Vargas has employed sweeping, collage summaries of how death touches relationships. Oddly, although this book is designed to highlight hospice care (and is cosponsored by the National Hospice Foundation), for me this book is more about what it means to die in late loth century America than the hospice movement or hospice care.
In a wonderful, insolent way the book has outgrown its boundaries — what must have started as an ingenuous, well-defined project has become something much larger: a record of how we live at the end of life and a recipe book for those of us who have not faced these problems. Art is supposed to be messy, to spill out over prescribed limits, and in this respect the book is a stunning success.
Art is also supposed to help us understand living — and dying. One of the most famous comments on the role of the visual arts was made by the poet W. H. Auden. His poem, Musee des Beaux Arts, begins, "About suffering they were never wrong/The Old Masters." This extraordinary poem by a cold-eyed realist instructs us that we must not ignore suffering, that all of us must bear witness and act to prevent it. Now, in this collection, Jack Radcliffe's work captures Auden's imperatives visually. The faces of men and women dying of AIDS and their partners, families and caregivers go beyond words. They remind us of the importance of our own humanity in the face of the suffering of others, and they speak to the courage of both the dying and the living. His photographs demand our attention, even as we want to turn away. It is easy to snap off the TV if death becomes too graphic; the impersonal nature of that medium allows easy "ons" and easy "offs." WithRadcliffe we are held. His people are bound to us with such intensity because we recognize the possibility of ourselves. We may turn away, but his work draws us back. We are compelled to look. Radcliffe's photographs also remind us of why we need art in trying to make sense of our lives and our deaths.
Sally Mann's approach is metaphorical, combining images — a dog sprawled on a lawn, a damaged footbridge over a creek — with evocative text and quotations to expand our understanding of how we leave this world and what we knowingly leave behind. Kathy Vargas evokes a similar sense with collages of photographs of people and meaningful objects from the lives of hospice patients. Jim Goldberg, whose focus is the death of his father, includes the original typescript of a letter from his dying father. These approaches help us to understand connectedness — how the dying are connected to this world and to us and how we are connected to them. They are also a documentation of health, the health of the visual arts in late 2oth century America. Each contribution is at once unique and imaginative, and all manage to avoid the cliches that are so common in treatments of death and dying.
Dylan Thomas instructed us: "Do not go gentle into that good night/... Rage, rage against the dying of the light." That is not the message of this book or the hospice movement. Rather, in the presence of the love and care of family and friends, we can go gentle into that good night.
Michael Lieberman has published three collections of poetry including Praising with My Body, A History of the Sweetness of the World and Sojourn at Elmhurst. He is now working on a collection of short stories. In another life he is a research physician and chairs the Department of Pathology at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. He is on the board of the Hospice at the Texas Medical Center.