We miss out on an awful lot of things after we die. To some anti-social people, I suppose that’s welcome news. But to control freaks who like to organize every minute of their life, not being consulted is a troubling thought.
Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn got to sit in on their own eulogies. They were lucky. They weren’t really dead so they could still listen to, and even affect what other people were saying about them. Most people don't get that chance.
Take the fascinating case of piano player Scott Joplin (1868-1917). In King of Rags, an historical novel just published by my colleague, Eric Bronson, Joplin is shown to be the king of all ragtime composers. But ragtime was thought to be low-down music, played only in brothels and bars in America’s late-night, red-light districts.
Joplin wanted nothing more than to be remembered as a classical musician, but that’s not what happened. Toward the end of his short life, when he chose to write an opera in the classical tradition, it was ignored. In the early 1900s, no one wanted to hear a musical about race and justice. Joplin thought he could go it alone and financed the opera himself. As a result, he died penniless, buried in an unmarked grave in Queens, NY.
History is always the final arbiter of who we are, and we don’t usually get to write it. Even if we do write our autobiographies, we never get the last word. Nobody was more troubled by this fact than existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre. After the horrors of World War II, he was understandably suspicious of giving our fellow human beings the power to decide how or even if we’ll be remembered. “Hell is other people,” says a character Sartre’s play, No Exit.
For Sartre, it wasn’t just that other people might be jerks. Even good people are problematic. They define us, and not often in the way we would choose.
According to Sartre, “the Other’s look fashions my body in its nakedness, causes it to be born, sculptures it, produces it as it is, sees it as I shall never see it. The Other holds a secret—the secret of what I am.”
We’re always subject to how others see us. Joplin was a musical genius, playing music long before he received any formal training. He saw himself as a classical musician in the tradition of Chopin and Wagner. But he was also an African-American, the son of a slave. That meant that no one else saw him the way he saw himself. He was black first.
As sociologist W.E.B. Dubois famously put it, “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.”
In Bronson’s novel, King of Rags, Joplin fights a losing battle to be properly understood. The piano man might have had and easier time of things if he simply capitulated to how others were typecasting him. But that would have made for a less interesting book.
“It is a sad story,” Bronson writes, “when an artist seeks to become an entertainer and succeeds. The opposite tale is a far more interesting one, though. The story of an entertainer who seeks to become an artist, but fails. That story is the stuff of real tragedy.”
Joplin thought he’d be better appreciated after he died. And he was right. In 1973 the film, The Sting was released to critical acclaim, winning and Academy Award for Best Picture. Paul Newman and Robert Redford played lovable conmen and the popular musical score featured Joplin's music.
Joplin, it would seem, was back. People returned to mark his grave. He was even given a Pulitzer Prize, posthumously. Other people can get it wrong, but there’s also always the opportunity to make amends. Sartre describes “reciprocal and moving relations” among us all.
These days you are bound to recognize Joplin’s “Entertainer” or “Maple Leaf Rag” when you hear it played on your child’s tiny and tinny battery-operated starter piano. Don't expect to hear Joplin's opera performed anytime soon, though. We’re not quite ready for that, and we’re still the ones who make the call.
It’s empowering to know that we can choose how others will be remembered. But it’s unsettling too. Who will decide our fate and how we’re remembered? It probably won’t be who we think. It may not even be anyone we’ve met.