NPR’s Scott Simon speaks with New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl about his latest piece, “The Art of Dying.” Schjeldahl has lung cancer.
Lung cancer, rampant. No surprise. I’ve smoked since I was sixteen, behind the high-school football bleachers in Northfield, Minnesota. I used to fear the embarrassment of dying youngish, letting people natter sagely, “He smoked, you know.” But at seventy-seven I’m into the actuarial zone.
I know about ending a dependency. I’m an alcoholic twenty-seven years sober. Drink was destroying my life. Tobacco only shortens it, with the best parts over anyway.
I got the preliminary word from my doctor by phone while driving alone upstate from the city to join my wife, Brooke, at our country place. After the call, I found myself overwhelmed by the beauty of the passing late-August land. At mile eighty-one of the New York State Thruway, the gray silhouettes of the Catskills come into view, perfectly framed and proportioned. How many times had I seen and loved the sight? How many more times would I? I thought of Thomas Cole’s paintings, from another angle, of those very old, worn mountains, brooding on something until the extinction of matter.
Patsy Cline was playing on the car radio: “Walkin’ After Midnight.” Not a great song, but performed in Cline’s way of attending selflessly to the sounds and the senses of the words. Showing how art should be done. She was thirty when she died in a plane crash, consummate.
I was at the wheel of my first brand-new car since 1962, a blue Subaru Forester that I dote on. I wanted for nothing. I want for nothing. The other night, I dreamed that I fetched the car from a parking lot only to find that it was another Subaru Forester, with two hundred thousand miles on it, dirty and falling apart. (That’s diseased me now, I suppose.) But the real one sits gleaming on East Seventh Street today.
Twenty-some years ago, I got a Guggenheim grant to write a memoir. I ended up using most of the money to buy a garden tractor. I failed for a number of reasons.
I don’t feel interesting.