The disturbing pleasure that we take from the death of a stranger

On Michael Hutchence
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The Independent Online
I am going to confess to something rather disreputable. When I heard about the as-yet-unexplained death of Michael Hutchence, the lead singer of INXS, a little thread of pleasure was undeniably woven into my immediate response.

That sounds starkly cold-hearted, even given the contrite preamble, so I had better explain myself as briskly as possible. It wasn't that I disliked Hutchence for any reason (or indeed that I thought about him at all, in between his periodic bouts with the tabloid press). And, though it seemed to me that Bob Geldof was the injured party in the marital break- up in which Hutchence played a leading role, my partisanship was nowhere near intense enough to generate vindictiveness about either side. These things happen, after all, and they are more complicated than newspaper accounts will ever allow for. What's more I didn't feel strongly about the music Hutchence made (I wouldn't bet a bus-ticket on my ability to identify an INXS track). So the little spark of satisfaction generated by this news had nothing to do with hostility or a sense of natural justice or even aesthetic relief.

Of course the pleasure of these things is furtive and shamefaced. As soon as the light of your own conscience switches on, it scuttles for the shadows. Once you have had time to read the remarks of a bereaved father or think a little about the feelings of a spectrum of mourners, from lovers to fans, it can be almost impossible to coax it out into the open again. Indeed you can even doubt it was there at all. But was that first little leap of glee really just a figment of your imagination? Surely not. Something in us rejoices at the death of stars - not because we hate them or have ever wished them harm, but because we are still here to reflect on it, to feast on the exact nature of their departure. For the first time, perhaps, we can read about these paragons without even a whisper of inferiority tainting our interest. We cannot envy them now.

There is a trite proverbial level at which this operates - evidence that the old line about "Money not buying you happiness" is not just a consolatory fiction (as we all suspect at heart) but may actually be true. But there is something larger, too - the irrepressible thrill of survival which runs through our veins with an atavistic power. The beast got him and missed us.

And if you fear that you are alone in this selfish appetite, you can take some reassurance from the general culture. Newspapers are not notable for devoting large amounts of space to subjects that make their readers genuinely unhappy. On the contrary, they try to give people what they want - and what they want when a star dies (particularly when it happens prematurely or in unexplained circumstances) is to read all about it - every overlooked warning sign, every private anxiety that might have festered behind the public mask of contentment. In doing this, papers soothe a sore that they have created themselves - with the chafing rub of their daily fantasies of fulfilment and success.

Soap operas similarly know that the surest way to restore flagging viewing figures is to kill off one of the leading characters - and this is not just a punitive reminder that the audience cannot take these fictions for granted (the audience only drifts away from such programmes when they become complacently confident that all will be the same when they return). Such lovingly imagined deaths are also a blood sacrifice to our appetite for intensity and risk. We have, it seems, an irrepressible human desire to peer over the edge which is gratified by the catastrophes of others.

It figures in other ways, too - the weekend's newspaper predictions of an imminent financial crash in the Far East contained more than just a hint of schadenfreude - a sense that economies to which we had been obliged to kow-tow for so many years may not have been quite so intimidatingly superior as we were led to believe. And the fact that their disaster might ripple out to engulf us, too, did not make these pieces any less engrossing - it was at the heart of their appeal, the promise of seismic events that would touch us directly. It is as if we need some sense of danger in our lives during times of predictable peace, as if we want - fraudulently or otherwise - to increase the imagined odds against life, so that we can feel ordinary existence is a kind of winning in itself - not merely membership of that vast and undiscriminating club, the Also- Rans.

In this respect, the paramount obituary cliche may be at odds with our inherited instincts. "The world is a smaller place without him," someone wrote yesterday about Michael Hutchence's premature death. That will feel true for many people, of course - those who were close to him or who had any kind of stake in the future he might have had - whether through something as substantial as intimate companionship or as trivial as an eagerly awaited new album. But I suspect that for many more people - even those who sympathise once they've thought about it - there is still some element in them that repudiates the valedictory platitude. Something in us - something uncivilised and unrepentant - recalls an ancient evolutionary calculation. It knows that the death of another doesn't necessarily diminish the world, but may well enlarge it - making it a place with just a bit more opportunity and just a bit less competition. It isn't an appealing truth, but it is a truth none the less - there is something enlivening in the death of stranger.

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