In a scene from the 1991 movie Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, a character asks the Vulcan science officer Spock about a painting on the wall of his living quarters. “It’s a depiction from ancient Earth mythology,” he explains, “‘The Expulsion from Paradise.’” Why does he keep it? “As a reminder to me,” Spock replies, “that all things end.”
Recently the life of Leonard Nimoy, the 83-year-old actor behind the pop culture icon Spock, came to an end. Nimoy, who did indeed live long and prosper, was a film director, poet, singer, photographer, and of course, actor; but it is the pointy-eared, Vulcan apotheosis of logic with whom he will forever be associated. Fans who grew up with the original Star Trek television series, as I did, or who came to know him through the show’s movie franchise, all felt the loss of one of the familiar touchstones of our youth.
“The Expulsion from Paradise,” or “Adam et Eve chassés du Paradis,” may hang on a Star Fleet officer’s wall in the distant future, but it currently resides in a museum in Nice. It is a beautiful image by painter Marc Chagall, the prolific French Jew whose work is shot through with joyful mysticism and Biblical imagery. The half-century-old painting is a dreamlike vision of the first man and woman being banished from the Garden of Eden. For Spock, this image of the end of the original paradise serves as amemento mori, a humbling reminder of the transience of all things, including us.
Coming to terms with the inevitability of our own death is, as philosopher Roger Scruton says, the most difficult trial human beings face. The end will come no matter how—or even whether—we choose to face it; our only freedom lies in finding serenity about it beforehand, says Scruton. Spock seems to have dealt with it by cultivating a certain detachment about death, which the Chagall helped him keep foremost in mind.
Whether or not Leonard Nimoy managed a similarly detached calm about his mortality, I don’t know. Like Chagall, Nimoy was powerfully influenced by Judaism (the famous split-fingered Vulcan salute, for example, derives from his Jewish origins). Like Spock, Nimoy’s rational and mystical sides wrestled. Although the title of volume one of his autobiography—IAm Not Spock—mistakenly led people to believe that he resented being associated with the Star Trek character, he actually had a deep identification with Spock, and he attempted to correct the misunderstanding surrounding the first book with volume two entitled, I Am Spock. So the dialogue quoted above may be as much a reflection of Nimoy’s attitude as of Spock’s.
But do all things come to an end, as Spock said? Perhaps it is truer to say that all thingschange. Death is a change, not an end—or as Scruton puts it, death is a return, a “transcendental homecoming” to the paradise to which we long to return.
Leonard Nimoy died at home. I hope that he departed on his transcendental homecoming with the same peace and equanimity with which his character contemplated the Chagall on his wall.