Rickman and Bowie: how we remember them

Some celebrity deaths hit you harder than others. The first Thursday of classes, the news of actor Alan Rickman’s death hit me harder than I was expecting, especially following only four days after musician and cultural icon David Bowie’s death on January 10. Both of these artists were pillars of my youth and childhood; their deaths came unexpectedly and the cold weather always sets a rather blue and unhappy tone for the days going by.

If there is anything that deaths like this teach the rest of the world, it’s that underneath the frenzy of the Harry Potter franchise or avant garde artistry, these artists — and others like them — lived private lives, just like regular people. Deaths like this bring to the forefront the idea that in this day and age, the media allows us to know a true artist, that their lives are public fodder, and then turns it on its head. While the world mourns the loss of these talented individuals who were in the cultural landscape for so long, it’s important to recognize the extent to which art and person are one and the same, as well as the key distinctions between the two.

Alan Rickman, known perhaps best by millennials as Professor Severus Snape in the film adaptations of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, passed away at the age of 69 from cancer. His voice, which can only be described as mellifluous, is the kind that you want love letters to be read in. Even in some of his other performances, such as in Die Hard, Sense and Sensibility, or Love Actually, I picture him weeping and clutching the lifeless body of Lily Potter during the emotional memory montage of Snape in the final Harry Potter film.

Bowie, conversely, wore so many hats that it is hard to picture him in one era or one musical genre. In a cruel coincidence, Bowie passed away at the same age and from the same cause as Rickman. But while Rickman’s most notable and enduring feature is his voice, Bowie is perhaps most notable for not really having any single voice. As a result, Bowie is indelibly etched into my memory as Ziggy Stardust, his alter ego for a while. But Bowie’s career spanned beyond that in either direction. In fact, his most recent album, Blackstar, was released just two days before his death.

While these two men seemed to have little intersection, except for an interesting collision on an episode of The Simpsons years ago, their deaths, and the coincidence of them happening almost in conjunction, led to an enormous social media response. For all the Facebook statuses that pledge sorrow and sympathy toward the individuals and their families, there is the response of those close to the deceased describing more of their lives and their true nature. Many musicians paid tribute to Bowie through performances, however many of Rickman’s colleagues expressed their sorrow through stories of working with him and knowing him. Longtime collaborator actress Emma Thompson and Harry Potter star Daniel Radcliffe were among those who expressed their thoughts about working with Rickman: about his compassion, unwavering support, and humor, among other characteristics.

While it is great that the lives of these stars impacted so many — that is, in fact, the goal of art — it is important to respect that being impacted by their art is not the same as being impacted by their lives as individuals, nor should we treat it as such. In an era where media, social and otherwise, give people the impression that they can truly know someone, it is important to recognize that there are limits to art, and limits to the personal connections that can be made through it. The idea of this personal connection encourages people to emulate others in a positive way at best, and convinces those that they have the liberty and obligation to criticize and demean others at worst. From behind the veneer of anonymity, lashing out against anyone, not just artists, out of the illusion of personal connection is damaging and incredibly hurtful.

Now more than ever, as we mourn the loss of these great people and their art, we need to remember the limit of human understanding, and the hurt that feelings of closeness can cause. The world is so privileged by what they shared and who they were, regardless of whether or not everyone truly knew them.