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Peter Schjeldahl On 'The Art Of Dying'


Peter Schjeldahl is The New Yorker's art critic, but his most recent piece of writing is about what they call "The Art Of Dying." Peter Schjeldahl has lung cancer, and probably not much time. Peter Schjeldahl, who's also won a Guggenheim Fellowship and honors from the American Academy of Arts and Letters for what they called prose that merits recognition for the quality of its style, joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

PETER SCHJELDAHL: You're welcome.

SIMON: How are you feeling?

SCHJELDAHL: I'm feeling pretty well. I've been receiving regular infusions of immunotherapy - not a cure, but things are very much looking up, and I feel very much better.

SIMON: You're 77, right?

SCHJELDAHL: That's right.

SIMON: And smoked since you were 16.


SIMON: Bad idea?

SCHJELDAHL: I thought it was a great idea. And as I say in the piece, you know, I would've been embarrassed to die much younger because people would've said, well, he smoked, you know? Tobacco may be shortening my life, but the best part's over anyway.

SIMON: So being where you are, what's it done to your view of life?

SCHJELDAHL: Well, it's framed it and distanced it in a certain way, or - I don't know, funny - brought it closer and farther away. You know, when you have one foot on a roller skate.

SIMON: Yeah. I want to ask you about some of these indelible lines that you have in this piece.

SCHJELDAHL: By the way, the title of - my title for the piece was "77 Sunset Me."

SIMON: (Laughter).

SCHJELDAHL: "The Art Of Dying" was their idea. I don't think there's any art whatever in dying. It's really easy. I mean, everybody does it.

SIMON: Well, I think that would've been a great title. But you say in this piece that death is like a painting rather than a sculpture.

SCHJELDAHL: Yeah, because you only see it from one side.

SIMON: May I ask you about your parents? You write about them a bit in this piece. Your mother's still...

SCHJELDAHL: She's 102.

SIMON: Yeah, God bless. Your father is gone.


SIMON: Peter, do you think you'll see him again?

SCHJELDAHL: No. No, I doubt it. I have - afterlife is a blank subject to me.

SIMON: Your daughter, Ada Calhoun, asked - well, she overheard the diagnosis, and she said, so where do you want to go - Rome, Paris?

SCHJELDAHL: Yeah. I said, no, maybe a ballgame.

SIMON: (Laughter).


SIMON: A Mets game, of all.

SCHJELDAHL: Yeah. We're big Mets fans. We brought Ada up in the church of baseball. And, I mean, baseball is - it explains everything except winter.

SIMON: (Laughter) And I must say the gods of baseball smiled on your grandson, I guess.

SCHJELDAHL: He caught a T-shirt from the mid-game T-shirt cannon in a completely full stadium. Actually, my editor David Remnick at The New Yorker said that would forever be the kid equivalent of a night with Angie Dickinson at the Copa or something.

SIMON: You know, every question I've asked has been a way of working my way up to this one. What lasts in life? What counts?

SCHJELDAHL: Well, the count - the counting is done by people who stay around. Nothing lasts.

SIMON: Well, before we go, what means most in life?

SCHJELDAHL: Oh, boy. Depending - I don't know. The T-shirt cannon has its moment. You know, meaning is an investment in the moment and, you know, separated by stretches of boredom.

SIMON: One line - last line near the end of the piece really got to me. God creeps in.

SCHJELDAHL: I think we're wired for belief, and it's sort of human pride and ambition to overrule those intuitions. But I find it much easier just to give in. We are tiny, little specks in the universe, and there is a credible limit to what we know. And in a way, the more we know, the more shoreline of mystery there is. But...

SIMON: You're in a territory that most of us...


SIMON: I mean, in the absolute sense, we inhabit it, too. We've all got one foot on the roller skate.


SIMON: But...

SCHJELDAHL: Well, I was saying in my sort of argument about God is just the observation that it seems that human minds are the only ways the universe reflects on itself. And we keep circling back to that - you know, why we're here and not here. And I'm - I guess I'm sort of relaxing into the state of soul that that generates.

SIMON: Peter Schjeldahl of The New Yorker. His piece - well, I like your title better.

SCHJELDAHL: "77 Sunset Me."

SIMON: (Laughter) You'll find it under "The Art Of Dying," though, in the magazine and on The New Yorker website. Peter, thanks so much for talking to us.

SCHJELDAHL: Thank you. I enjoyed it.