Tuesday, November 12, 2013

One size always fits all

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio....

Philosophy, Roy Scranton (honesty compels me to note, a Ph.D. candidate in English; all English majors think they are philosophers....) says, is about learning to die.  It is an idea central to his essay at NYT, which ends with these words:

The biggest problem climate change poses isn’t how the Department of Defense should plan for resource wars, or how we should put up sea walls to protect Alphabet City, or when we should evacuate Hoboken. It won’t be addressed by buying a Prius, signing a treaty, or turning off the air-conditioning. The biggest problem we face is a philosophical one: understanding that this civilization is already dead. The sooner we confront this problem, and the sooner we realize there’s nothing we can do to save ourselves, the sooner we can get down to the hard work of adapting, with mortal humility, to our new reality.

The choice is a clear one. We can continue acting as if tomorrow will be just like yesterday, growing less and less prepared for each new disaster as it comes, and more and more desperately invested in a life we can’t sustain. Or we can learn to see each day as the death of what came before, freeing ourselves to deal with whatever problems the present offers without attachment or fear.

If we want to learn to live in the Anthropocene, we must first learn how to die.
Yes, we're all going to die, because we can't go on living like we have.  Which apparently means all of America will be Baghdad after the U.S. invasion, but frozen there in amber, in perpetuity, hell without end, Amen.

So get used to it.

First:  if philosophy is about learning how to die, I'll take theology, thanks.  Second, if philosophy is about learning how to die, then dying is some form of living, and again, I'll still take theology, thanks. 

Historian Philippe Ariès reminds us that death was a part of life. Medieval and early modern romances, chronicles and memoirs speak with one voice: when death knocked, the door was opened and the visitor was welcomed in remarkably similar ways.

Organization was essential. The dying person was responsible for the proper execution of his final exit. The doctor's principal task was not to delay death, but to guarantee that it was welcomed properly. And, indeed, the doctor wasn't alone. Family and friends gathered for the ceremony and the doctor was simply a face in the crowd. One and all understood their roles and the lesson that was imparted: they, too, would eventually be called.

The intimate relationship between life and death unfolded in unexpected places. The medieval and early modern cemetery was no less public place than the deathbed. For centuries, the activities we associate with the marketplace commonly took place in cemeteries, amongst the tombs and charnel houses. Merchants and scribes, musicians and dancers, jugglers and actors and, gamblers and the like sought to make a living in the company of the dead. When Hamlet clowns about with Yorick's skull, he's exceptional only in the fluency of his language.

By the late eighteenth century, language and attitudes began to change. Public authorities tried to stop profane activities in the newly redefined sacred spaces like the cemetery. At the same time, doctors began to sound the way they do today: the crowd of family and friends around the deathbed, they complained, complicated the job of attending to their patients.

Death thus got away from the dying person; it became the responsibility of others. It is only recently, with the rise of the hospice movement, that we're reminded of the ways in which we formerly responded to death. The recognition of death's finality, the planning for its arrival, the gathering of family and the redefinition of the physician's task: rather than confronting a brave new world, we seem to be returning to a simpler and older world. Ariès called this older understanding "tamed death." According to him, the old attitude in which death was both familiar and near, evoking no great fear or awe, [is in] marked a contrast to ours, where death is so frightful that we dare not utter its name. I do not mean that death had once been wild and [is no longer], I mean, on the contrary, that today it has become wild. And death has, in part, grown wild through the very tools with which medical science tries to domesticate it: an irony that would not be lost on Hamlet's creator.

If today, then, philosophy must be about learning to die, it is only because philosophy has first taught us that we should not die; that death is wild and untamed and terrible.  So now philosophy is about undoing what philosophy has done?  Isn't that like the "hair of the dog" cure for a hangover?

The topic always makes me think of these words from Thomas Merton:

THE cross, with which the ashes are traced upon us, is the sign of Christ's victory over death. The words "Remember that thou art dust and that to dust thou shall return" are not to be taken as the quasi-form of a kind of "sacrament of death" (as if such a thing were possible). It might be good stoicism to receive a mere reminder of our condemnation to die, but it is not Christianity.--Thomas Merton

Christianity is not, in other words, concerned with reconciling us with death.  It never was.  Martyrs didn't commit suicide to be with God; they were faithful in life to the end, knowing they were already with God.  God, as Jesus said quite pointedly, is the God of the living, not the dead.  It is not death, or even the fear of death, that Christianity either teaches or ameliorates; it is life.  The Greek phrase usually translated as "eternal life" is not really so Platonic as that.  It is more correctly rendered:  "life into the ages."

With Merton, I'm not anxious to reduce all of Western philosophy to some form of Stoicism, any more than I can agree with modern Biblical scholarship which wants to root some of Christianity's teachings in Cynicism. No more am I anxious to see human beings in terms of computers as understood by non-computer nerds:  Mr. Scranton's editor plucks out a sentence clearly thought to be insightful, but actually quite pitiful, to the effect that we humans are "hard-wired" to think tomorrow will always be like today.

First:  "hard wired"?  Does anybody use that metaphor any more?  And isn't that fear that tomorrow won't be like today the source of modern anxiety?  Aren't we quite convinced tomorrow can't be like today, because of "progress" or "technology" or "Steve Jobs!" or something?  The whole idea is as ludicrous as the generalization that philosophy has anything to do with accepting death.

"My death," Jacques Derrida wonderfully asked; "Is it possible?"   Derrida wasn't trying to make us accept death with that question; he was confronting us with the fact that we could not imagine our non-existence.  It's not quite the same thing as being "hard wired" to think tomorrow, when you are dead, will be just like today, when you are alive.  It's a bit more particular and incisive than that.  Imagining your own death without the continuation of your existence (if you deny the immortality of your Platonic soul), is simply impossible.  To imagine your death is to imagine you observing your death, and death without immortality is simply the end.  There is no you left to experience, or observe, anything.  Imagining that is virtually impossible.  Perhaps the warriors of Beowulf's day didn't have trouble imagining their own deaths, but more likely they simply didn't dwell on the question.  Life was nasty, brutish, and short, and death was very long (in Andrew Marvell's felicitous phrase, "oceans of vast eternity").  Why dwell on the inevitable?  It is only as we have managed to push death back, to overcome infirmities of cancer and infection and even heart problems, that we need to consider the reality of our own death.  It is inevitable, but it is not coming from a sword thrust or an axe blow or an illness in the bloom of youth; it is more likely coming in slow, creeping decrepitude and decline.

"Learn how to die" sounds not just fatalistic to me but positively perverse.  I think if anything we should learn how to live.  We have learned how to kill:  people, animals, species, plants, ecosystems, perhaps the biosphere of a planet.  If that hasn't taught us equally how to die, nothing will.  "How should we then die?" is never the question; it is always "How should be then live?"

And the answer, at a bare minimum, is:  "Probably not like this."

What, then?  It's not death I need to learn, or dieing.  The moment I was born I began that, and I needn't learn it; it will happen in it's own good time.  It's living I need to learn.  It's living without killing, without destroying, without causing every other thing within my reach (and as a member of a highly industrialized society, my reach is long indeed) to learn to die.  No, I think we have dieing down to an art form, to a cultural norm, to an absolute given.

It's living that we need to learn.

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