Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Old Masters

Is it Halloween yet?

There is a strong tendency, especially on the intertoobs, to set everything up as an either/or, the better to be belligerently defensive about your position.  Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.  But this quote from Laurie Anderson made me want to re-examine the question of death, with perhaps less strenuousness on my part:

One of the interesting parts of the film was about your decision not to euthanize Lolabelle when she gets sick, because Buddhist teacshings say that dying is a process that involves approaching death and then withdrawing from it, and you didn’t want to deny Lolabelle that cathartic experience. But could you also argue that it wasn’t empathetic to keep her alive through her illness?

Of course you could. I try to be really light-handed with that because there are animals that get so sick that you kind of have to do that. The trouble is, the American way of death is really about that. There’s this fear of pain and fear of suffering. So I’ll just clonk you on the back of the head with a brick, put you out so you won’t be there. And I think being there is a really important thing now. Of course you might ask me that [question] when I’m on my deathbed, begging for morphine and you’ll go, “Remember what you said! I just want to see it through. We’ll take you home. There’s no equipment at all. “ I’m not trying to tell people what to do. I’m just trying to say what we did.
The point being:  death is informed by our philosophy (which includes, by most tellings, Buddhism); or by our theology; or, if you prefer, by our spirituality.  How we approach death, what we even think death is, is a matter of our own expectations.  Take Ivan Ilyich, for example:

And suddenly it grew clear to him that what had been oppressing him and would not leave him was all dropping away at once from two sides, from ten sides, and from all sides. He was sorry for them, he must act so as not to hurt them: release them and free himself from these sufferings. "How good and how simple!" he thought. "And the pain?" he asked himself. "What has become of it? Where are you, pain?"

He turned his attention to it.

"Yes, here it is. Well, what of it? Let the pain be."

"And death...where is it?"

He sought his former accustomed fear of death and did not find it. "Where is it? What death?" There was no fear because there was no death.

In place of death there was light.

"So that's what it is!" he suddenly exclaimed aloud. "What joy!"

To him all this happened in a single instant, and the meaning of that instant did not change. For those present his agony continued for another two hours. Something rattled in his throat, his emaciated body twitched, then the gasping and rattle became less and less frequent.

"It is finished!" said someone near him.

He heard these words and repeated them in his soul.

"Death is finished," he said to himself. "It is no more!"

He drew in a breath, stopped in the midst of a sigh, stretched out, and died.
Throughout the story, since he injured his hip, Ilyich has suffered from his fear of death; but there is nothing in 19th century Russia available to relieve his suffering; certainly no physician assisted suicide (Tolstoy's mocking of the medical establishment is one of the highlights of the story).  There are contextual reasons for the relief that releases Ilyich from his suffering, that allows him to embrace death and stop struggling against being forced into the black sack (Tolstoy's imagery).  And certainly this is a very internal view; his wife tells a visitor at the beginning of the tale that Ilyich screamed "incessantly for three days" before he finally died.  But internally?  He doesn't suffer at all at the very end.  Why?  Because he frees himself from his sufferings, something he has been able to do all along.  And what is the cause of his suffering?  In Tolstoy's telling, it is spiritual, not physical; but in Tolstoy's telling the spiritual and the physical are at odds with each other; and one is real, and one is, ultimately, false.

Maybe this is what we have lost.  It is dualism, to be sure; but it is a reality, too.  Suffering is a matter of apprehension as well as perception.  The contemporary fear of suffering seems to rest almost entirely on the fear of loss of control; the same fear Samuel Johnson suffered most of his life, as he worried again and again that he would lose his reason (it was his personal hell).

Modernity has deep roots.

This is not to compare the suffering that can be relieved with drugs to the suffering that is psychological.  Hospice care is about palliative care, and I am one of its biggest proponents.  I have been at the deathbed of people in hospice care, and I cannot recommend it strongly enough; especially since death took place at home, not in some building no one goes to but the sick and dying.  We should not part with the dead so easily when we have the choice.  We should recover the sense that even the corpse is our family member, our beloved father or grandmother, and they should not be left alone until the burial.

Our sense of the rightness of things has deep roots, too; but we keep uprooting them, thinking what is new is better, because it is new.

But about suffering:  there is chronic pain, and I have known people to suffer from that, and find little relief despite the best efforts of medicine; and I have known people so afraid of death it paralyzes life.  And we seem so prone to that we praise the courage of someone so afraid of dying they die on their own terms; so afraid of the suffering they have yet to feel, that the fear of it alone is too great to suffer.

I pity such people; but I will not praise them.


  1. Very fine post, a lot to think about. Way too grown-up and serious and deep for the internet.

    I am more concerned, all the time, that the idea of euthanasia will turn out to be just another means of getting rid of people for economic reasons. Its casual acceptance on the left, almost always without much thought about how it will turn out in the real world, is as disturbing to me as the casual acceptance of the sex industry.

  2. I agree. I don't mind accepting it. I just won't casually accept it.

    Too often the latter stance is taken as rejecting the former stance. Nuance is not appreciated, in general; and yet the world runs on it.

    So it goes.

  3. As I said, way too grown-up and serious for the internuts.

  4. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  5. You ever been screened for OCD, Sims?

  6. It's my blog; there are comments I don't have to put up with.

    Just spent the morning scrubbing the site of spam. Why would I tolerate insult?


  7. "I love it when scientists try to set
    themselves up as superior to philosophy. It's like all the
    philosophical work of the 20th century never happened."

    Oh absolutely, all that philosophical work of the 20th century had a major impact on people's lives. I'm thinking, for example, of all the diseases philosophy cured. Not to mention the philosophers who used to come over to my house and set up my stereo systems in the 70s and 80s.

  8. BTW, the phrase "philisophical work" is particularly hilarious.

    Like you guys were swinging hammers while dressed in overalls.

  9. I've no doubt you needed help setting up a stereo system, at any time in your life.

    It must have been a particular mental challenge for you.

    And for a guy whose total effort in the world seems to come down to being a troll, I wouldn't say too much about what other people find valuable and worthwhile. Especially when you are so ignorant of the subject you are commenting on.

    Then again, I'm sure stereo instructions confused you, too.

  10. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  11. Like I said: insults I don't have to put up with.

    Especially from a troll.

  12. The problem, Rmj, is that what simels said was true, it wasn't an insult, it was an observation.

    I'm sure you'll delete this, too. Let there be no light shone in the echo chamber.

  13. So Simels is repeating his comments at Eschaton so he can brag about them, and you can all tell him how clever he is?

    How sad. Come back when you've left the children and the sandbox behind.

  14. actually, he's not repeating his comments at eschaton. I'm the one that first made the observation. I stand by it.

    you see, you undertook to pass judgment in ignorance on a person who had more compassion, more wisdom and more courage in her pinky than you have in your entire psyche.

  15. You left out humility. You have gobs of humility.

    As for compassion, wisdom, and courage (?). What, to come here and denounce me, that's courageous, compassionate, and wise?

    You have a different dictionary than I do.

    And I stand by what I said. Stalemate, no?

  16. And by the way, who peed in your Post Toasties, that you come over here to brag about your compassion, wisdom, and courage by judging me?

  17. I wasn't talking about me, which is obvious to those who read English, but of course, everything is about you. I will not further grace you with my memories of her.

    You used one *fictional* character to generalize about every single person who has ever lived, and their experience of suffering, and dying. There's humility, to judge all of humanity. Perhaps you are become God.

  18. it seems from the outside the two of you are working from intensely personal experiences that no one else is ever going to understand and that to use those experiences as any kind of universal benchmark is... futile, I think. As well as a sort of diminishing of the people and situations

    at some point you almost have to just let people be wrong. I think the vast majority of us would be surprised to learn how often other people let *us* be wrong

    (probably not a useful comment at all, but if nothing else possibly you can find common ground on *that*)

  19. jim--I'm as perplexed as you are. Not used to people coming here just to comment on how much better they are than I am.

  20. JR--I have absolutely no idea what you are talking about. Except you seem to be talking to a mirror.

  21. rmj, you're the one that is talking to a mirror, assuming this is about me, and that everything is about you. It's not, it's about your insufferable condescension towards people, one of whom was a dear friend of mine, that chose to exit on their own terms.

    jim, I'd be better at letting rmj be wrong if he didn't use his wrongness to launch attacks on people for something they didn't say.