The first famous person who died in my life that I cared about was Isaac Asimov. That sounds cold, but when you’re young, there just hasn’t been enough passage of time for you to both become attached to someone outside your group of family and friends, and for you to have the emotional maturity to appreciate the loss. Asimov was the first one who struck home to me. And it struck me at the time how odd it was to feel loss that wasn’t really your own, to feel sadness that someone who had never met you would no longer be breathing.
There’s something both incredibly selfish and incredibly unselfish all at the same time about mourning the passing of those you didn’t know. Selfish because you really didn’t know that person, because your feeling of loss is inextricably intertwined with consumption of a sort. You feel sad because the person who made things you loved will make those things no longer. Put that way it feels so tawdry and cheap, like mourning the death of a man simply because you’ll have to find someplace else to buy a burrito.
But there’s also something gorgeous about it in the same light, something that is purely human. We mourn men we don’t know even though they are abstract to us, not flesh. Our capacity for empathy is so strong, that we can feel the death of someone we never met, merely because they made us feel from a distance. There’s some voodoo power in that, an alchemistry of emotion that is a hallmark of our species.
And so with the passage of Leonard Nimoy, I mourn again.
It’s a strange contemplation for me, because I think this might be the first actor to go to affect me so. The famous whose passing have touched me have almost entirely been writers. The respect and joy I have for words and the contribution they make is something profound and personal to me, and something that I’ve never associated with actors. Their contribution is something a lot less direct, and complicated. If we care because of the man, than what of the art that made him famous? And if we care about the roles he played, then we are focused on a mask that was written by someone else and worn by a talented person. Because it’s not usually the most talented actors whose deaths affect us the most profoundly, it’s the ones who played very specific roles that mattered to us.
But that’s the key really. Actors matter because they become symbols, they become the faces of the ideas and stories that we care about. Nimoy isn’t going to make a list of the greatest actors of the twentieth century, and that’s not to speak disrespectfully of the dead but to point out the much more profound effect that he had. Nimoy once wrote a book called I Am Not Spock, rejecting that mantle that settled upon him. It wasn’t as harsh as the title would suggest, nor the angry backlash as deserved. But he wanted to be an actor, he didn’t want typecast, and he didn’t understand or accept the world’s obsession with making this character on a three season low budget show more important than his entire career.
Nimoy wrote another book years later called I Am Spock, and I remember him speaking about a moment of revelation he had. He himself had an early mobile phone and the first time he casually flipped it open to answer it, he was stopped cold because it was the exact same motion he had done thirty years previously a thousand times on the set of Star Trek. He had been the face of a dream that a generation of children grew up to make reality.
And that’s what we lost with Leonard Nimoy. We don’t mourn the man — because we didn’t know him any more than we know any other famous person we’ve never met — but we mourn the face and voice that gave life to our dreams.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here.