Van Cliburn died last month. I was reading some obituaries. They make for sad reading. I don’t mean they are sad because they are obituaries. Not every death is an occasion for sadness. I wasn’t saddened by the death of Hugo Chavez, Gore Vidal, or Ted Kennedy.
The obit writers were sad for a different reason than I was. They lamented the fact that van Cliburn never fulfilled his artistic promise.
For various reasons, that doesn’t sadden me. To begin with, even if he had fulfilled his artistic promise, that’s a very ephemeral achievement. A worldly distinction. Like cut flowers.
For that matter, I don’t know that he had any great artistic potential to realize. Maybe he never had it in him to be a probing interpreter like Artur Schnabel, Rudolf Serkin, or Daniel Barenboim. Maybe van Cliburn was simply a technician. A pianistic athlete. You can do a lot with great pair of hands, youthful energy, and dogged practice.
Initially he seemed destined to be the American Horowitz. The virtuoso of his generation. But he didn’t have the temperament of a natural-born showman. He was shy. Insecure.
Once you acquire a certain reputation, it’s hard to live up to inhuman expectations. Laurence Olivier suffered from stage fright at the peak of his career. How can the “world’s greatest actor” suffer from stage fright, you ask? Well, it’s precisely that title which contributes to stage fright. You become a very self-conscious actor. The audience counts on you to pull rabbits out of the hat every night. You can’t stay in character.
What I find sad is that, as I read the obits, it’s easy to see how, had his formative years taken a different turn at two or three crossroads, things would have come out for the better–in this life and the next.
I’m alluding to the fact that he was homosexual, and it’s easy to see how his homosexuality figured in his lack of self-confidence. His nerves. His self-doubts.
Mind you, self-confidence isn’t always a good thing. Arthur Rubinstein was very self-assured. A man of the world who lived for the world.
But in the case of van Cliburn, it’s not hard to see how a few wrong turns during childhood and adolescence put him on the wrong road for life. And I doubt social life at the Julliard helped.
The obits say more about his mother than his father. That’s telling. He was clearly closer to his mother. And it’s not unusual for sons to be closer to their mothers than their fathers. That’s unfortunate, but not inherently unhealthy. Claudio Arrau was very close to his artistic mother. It didn’t harm his maturation, that I can tell.
But it looks like van Cliburn’s mother was a frustrated concert pianist who vicariously fulfilled her own abortive career ambitions through her son. And it seems as if his father was not an adequate counterbalance to the mother. She was the central person in his life, all his life.
How would van Cliburn have turned out had his father been a stronger emotional presence in his life? That’s one fork in the road. One missed turn.
Likewise, how would van Cliburn have turned out if he had one or two brothers? That’s another fork in the road. Another missed turn.
One obit also mentions the fact that he was excused from P.E. for fear he’d injure his hands. That’s a final fork in the road. Yet another missed turn.
In each case, he was deprived of natural, normal male bonding. The things that help a boy develop his masculinity.
Apparently, he wasn’t close to his father. He never had brothers. And he missed out on the rough-n-tumble of male camaraderie in junior high and high school. Seems reasonable to suppose those deprivations predisposed him to homosexuality. With a left turn instead of a right turn, or a right turn instead of a left turn, at just two or three crossroads in his boyhood or adolescence, he might well have avoided that dire outcome. And these were decisions made for him, not by him.
This, in turn, led to the true catastrophe of his life. Having boyfriends posed an impenetrable barrier to his ever taking the Gospel truly to heart.
From what I’ve read, van Cliburn was a lifelong churchgoer. And I suppose it’s something of an achievement for an active homosexual to a regular churchgoer in the fundamentalist stronghold of Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex.
It’s almost like his life was a Faustian bargain, only his parents brokered the deal. Selling his soul to the devil in exchange for a glittering life of fleeting fame and fortune. Not that they consciously doomed him, of course. But what if they had allowed him to be an ordinary boy? Sacrificing the superstardom for a normal family life and a glorious afterlife?
When I read the obits, there’s a part of me that feels sorry for van Cliburn. In my mind’s eye, I can see a young boy who might have turned out very differently, for the better, with a few simple changes in his upbringing.
Someone might object that it’s inconsistent for a Calvinist like me to feel sorry for van Cliburn. But I’m not questioning the wisdom of God’s plan. To the contrary, reflecting on the trajectory of van Cliburn’s life makes me appreciative of how utterly dependent all of us are on God’s providence, for weal or woe. How easily, with a providential adjustment here or there, that could just as well have been you or me. We are at the mercy of forces beyond our control. Unless God controls them, unless God arranges–indeed, prearranges–events large and small for our ultimate good, then we are utterly lost.