In his 1977 film F for Fake, an aging Orson Welles released his final cinematic masterpiece. It was a documentary-style film about high class frauds who sell forged paintings to unsuspecting collectors for large sums of money. It’s an avant-garde film so if you’re not accustomed to that technique, watching it might be a less than gratifying experience.
I’m not necessarily encouraging anyone to watch this film, but there is a two and a half minute scene in this movie that has stayed with me over the years. It’s a scene I’ve rewatched on YouTube countless times.
Welles momentarily shifts away from the film’s subject to reflect on the enduring nature of art. He’s standing before one of Europe’s oldest stone cathedrals from the 12th Century in Chartres, France. There he offers a monologue about the legacy of mortal man. Time has forgotten the name of that cathedral’s architect. The inspiring craftsmanship has outlived the memory of whoever sketched out the design of this magnificent achievement.
Not everyone who reads this post will be a person of faith. And not all belief-systems have a clearly defined view of the afterlife (assuming that they even believe in one). I have my own personal view of what happens to mankind after they die, but that is a subject for another time.
The point of this scene (and my point in sharing it) is to offer all of us an opportunity to pause and reflect on the legacy we are constructing. We all have daily, mundane tasks and responsibilities that we must handle, but I’m wondering how many of us are actively building something valuable that will outlive us after we are laid low.
Below is a transcript of the Orson Welles monologue I am referring to:
“Ah, this has been standing here for centuries. The premier work of man perhaps in the whole Western world, and it’s without a signature: Chartres. A celebration to God’s glory and to the dignity of man. All that’s left, most artists seem to feel these days, is man. Naked, poor, forked radish. There aren’t any celebrations. Ours, the scientists keep telling us, is a universe which is disposable. You know, it might be just this one anonymous glory of all things, this rich stone forest, this epic chant, this gaiety, this grand, choiring shout of affirmation, which we choose when all our cities are dust, to stand intact, to mark where we’ve been, to testify to what we had it in us to accomplish.
Our works in stone, in paint, in print, are spared, some of them for a few decades or a millennium or two, but everything must finally fall in war, or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash. The triumphs and the frauds, the treasures and the fakes. A fact of life. We’re going to die. ‘Be of good heart,’ cry the dead artists out of the living past. Our songs will all be silenced — but what of it? Go on singing. Maybe a man’s name doesn’t matter all that much.”
As I think over my 40 years of life and contemplate how many days I may have left, I can’t help but wonder what kind of mark I’m leaving on the world. Some of us are married, others are divorced or single. Some of us have children, and others do not. Some of us inherited a wealth of opportunities, others less so. But all of us still breathing are entrusted with the most valuable commodity known to man: time. Time to act. Time to love. Time to create. Through varying levels of professional or relational success, all of us lay our heads down at night facing the question “what did I do with the time that was given me?”
There’s nothing wrong with pursuing career goals or raising a family, but will that be the sum total of your biography? Are you crafting anything that will inspire the generations ahead of you?
Some of us may live to a ripe old age, while others may have their lives cut short by sickness or tragedy. Whether more or less, our days are numbered. Regrettably, too many will spend most of their days on worthless nothings and leave nothing behind to commemorate their beautiful existence. As political, cultural, and tribal battles rage on all around us, are we driving any stakes into the ground to “mark where we’ve been, to testify what we had in us to accomplish”?
Every day is a gift. Each passing hour is an opportunity to memorialize our being. The fleeting permanence of all our achievements may eventually be forgotten in the years to come. But what of it? Life is precious. “Go on singing…”