Storming ahead with a burning violin


There’s a popular saying that says we start dying the moment we’re born. Our cells start ageing as they’re growing, and even though damaged cells are, up to a point, nurtured back to full function, and destroyed cells replaced, the rate is never adequate to keep us alive forever. Then there’s the fact that our lives could be terminated by unnatural causes as soon as we venture out of our cots. Can anyone be blamed for having severe existential anxieties every time they go outside?

A few years ago, in that glorious year right when I was supposed to join mainstream adult life, I was fortunate enough to watch a classic epic on my borrowed black-and-white TV. I had never been keen on cowboy or outlaw movies, but this movie gave me a particular perspective on life, and an attitude that has proven to be most useful.

The movie, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, tells the story of two outlaws in the Old West. After robbing their way into trouble, they make their way to South America. By the end, the two bandits are held up in a small town in rural Bolivia by what they assumed were just a number of local deputies, unaware of a platoon of soldiers who also happened to be in the neighbourhood. Butch and the Kid are sitting in a room, their backs against a wall, discussing the chances of them getting out alive. Surrounded by the local militia, oblivious of dozens of soldiers also taking position, they calculate their chances to be slim. They would try, nevertheless, they decide. Outside, on the walls of the town, surrounding them from every possible side and angle, dozens of loaded barrels are awaiting their attempt. They check their guns, exchange a few last words, and emerge dodging and ducking hundreds of bullets. Although it is merely suggested by skilful direction, everyone knows the only possible outcome: They went down, but – with all guns blazing.

As I was watching the credits, mesmerised by the profound implication for my own life, I recalled seeing a screenshot in the newspaper that advertised the movie on TV that night. I located the newspaper, cut the picture out with a pair of dull scissors, and decided to make it a permanent and prominent fixture of every place I would henceforth inhabit. It was stuck to the bathroom door in the council flat I shared with my younger sister, to a closet door in South Korea, and displayed on more than one wall after I had returned to South Africa. It was the first picture I pinned to my living room wall when I got to Taiwan, and at this very moment it is pasted next to the front door of my current apartment, lest I forget where I’m coming from, or where I’m heading.

It has become the closest to a personal dictum, a philosophy of life other than “live and let live” that I can be content with.

Entering my living room this afternoon after Chinese class, the picture once again drew my attention. I had been thinking of my recent plans of leaving this island – an important train of thought that usually takes precedence over any other truckload of ideas, but the picture distracted me. I thought about how the picture explained what I have been doing this past decade, and especially during my time in Taiwan. My ongoing attempts at keeping myself busy are my own valiant way of going down with all my guns blazing. It’s not exactly heroic or brave, but it is my way of saying, “If we are going down no matter what, then I’d rather go down keeping myself busy to the final exhalation.”

It did occur to me though that my version of this dictum, and my attitude to life on earth might be a tad defeatist, perhaps even a little morbid, and embarrassingly boring. “Is there no place for some mindless entertainment?” I asked myself. I stared out the kitchen window for a second, and then it came to me: Nero playing the violin while Rome was burning. He – or at least the mythical Nero – ignored the horrible facts on the ground, so to speak, and instead amused himself with some musical distraction.

A lot may be said about this attitude as well, but it does have a certain panache, a degree of defiant flamboyance. To indulge in casual entertainment in the current day and age is not dissimilar to Nero’s drunken behaviour while flames were licking the marble pillars of his city. Watching a soap opera while people die of hunger may not qualify as flamboyant defiance in many people’s minds, but that doesn’t mean there is no justification for having fun.

We will all eventually die, our natural lives unavoidably reaching its conclusion. Going down with all guns blazing, whatever the substance of that for each person embracing this dictum, is one way of going. If you could have yourself some fun while you’re at it, then so much better.

Butch and The Kid stormed into an avalanche of a thousand bullets, their own guns firing away until silence fell, until their lifeless fingers slipped from the triggers. Nero tried to silence the screams of burning citizens by plucking at his violin. I do my household chores, learn a few Chinese characters, write the odd line of poetry, fix my bicycle when necessary, paint my walls and doors different varieties of eggshell white, and plan my repatriation from exile. And I’m pretty sure if I look for it hard enough I’ll be able to once again find that middle “C” on my cheap electronic keyboard.