Sunday, July 31, 2016

Thoughts on Death and Dying

Philosophy as the Art and Practice of Dying

"While I thought I was learning how to live, I have been learning how to die."  (Leonardo Da Vinci, Notebooks, p. 65)

Are we all learning how to die as we learn how to live?  This is one of the questions discussed in a course I recently took on "Philosophy as the Art and Practice of Dying".  The view expressed by Leonardo is not too dissimilar from that of Plato as demonstrated in his dialogue, The Phaedo, about Socrates's death.  He argued that the best life is one where we practice the art of dying for we will be going to a better place.  This view was rejected by the poet Lucretius who expressed a more natural view in his poem On the Nature of Things.  He claimed that death was the end for both the body and the soul.
"you must concede, still, that the soul is mortal:  what matter whether it's lost, dispersed in air, or drawn in, crushed, contracted into nothing?  In the whole man, the senses more and more are failing, and less and less is left of life." (Lucretius, p 69)
Yes, for Lucretius, the world of nature and that of man were one and there was no soul that could depart upon the death of the body and continue on eternally.  But so what?  What difference does it make whether there is a soul that outlasts the body?  Apparently this means a lot to many thinkers, not to mention the religious whose faith in the afterlife is a dogma that is fundamental to their belief.

What do these differing views of death and dying suggest to us?  What follows are some of my disparate thoughts upon reading what several authors had to say about this.  While contemplating the death of Socrates I considered the importance of judging.  That is judging what kind of life one should live and whether it depended on your notions (or Socrates) of whether there is an afterlife.  Can we "free our minds" in any literal or physical sense?  It seems that metaphorically this would help us develop some objectivity towards ourselves and others.  Perhaps we could develop empathy for others.  This is certainly possible for thinkers like Adam Smith who argued for a natural sense of empathy in his Theory of Moral Sentiments.  In Socrates case he demonstrated his teaching by the conduct of his own life up to and including the final act of taking the hemlock.

Why should we live a life of reflection and examination?  Some later thinkers like Rilke and Heidegger argue for developing an authentic life through developing a life that is lived for oneself.  Here is what Rilke says:
"Who is there today who still cares about a well-finished death?  No one.  Even the rich, who could after all afford this luxury, are beginning to grow lazy and indifferent;  the desire to have a death of one's own is becoming more and more rare.  In a short time it will be as rare as a life of one's own." (Rilke, The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge, trans. Stephen Mitchell, pp. 8-9)
This suggests that an authentic death is connected with living an authentic life and one must care to live a life filled with desire for living to expect such an authentic life, much less a death of one's own.  Berthold Brecht put it more succinctly, "Do not fear death so much, but rather the inadequate life." (Brecht, The Mother, p 117)  And in his film The Seventh Seal Ingmar Bergman demonstrates through the actions of the Knight and his squire the importance of a meaningful act for one to have an authentic or adequate life.

Modern thinkers have managed to add to the complications surrounding these issues in their attempts to provide some answers or at least ways to frame the issues.  In literature Tolstoy seems to provide the most complete portrait of a death in The Death of Ivan Ilyich.  Yet Iris Murdoch takes another view of this: "It is not easy to portray death, real death, not fake prettified death.  Even Tolstoy did not really manage it in Ivan Ilyich, although he did elsewhere(Murdoch, Iris, "The Sovereignty of Good Over Other Concepts", in Existentialists and Mystics, p. 385)  Perhaps she was referring to the death of Prince Andrei in War & Peace.  The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein suggested an altenative explanation when he said, "Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death." (Ludwig Wittgenstein, The Tractatus).

Some final thoughts on the art and practice of dying:
Paul Tillich had this to say about Socrates:  "The courage of Socrates (in Plato's picture) was based not on a doctrine of the immortality of the soul but on the affirmation of himself in his essential, indestructible being.  He knows that he belongs to two orders of reality and that the one order is transtemporal.  It was the courage of Socrates which more than any other philosophical reflection revealed to the ancient world that everyone belongs to two orders (The Courage to Be, p. 169)

Some of us are not convinced of these two orders and would turn to a view described by Paul Ricoeur in his criticism of Heidegger, "If it is true that the banalization of dying at the level of the "they" amounts to flight, does not the anguished obsession with death amount to closing off the reserves of openness characterizing the potentiality of being?  Must one not, then, listen to Spinoza: "Free man thinks of nothing less than of death and his wisdom is a meditation not on death but on life" (Ethics, part 4, prop. 67)?  Does not the jubilation produced buy the cow--which I take as my own--to remain alive until . . . and not for death, put into relief by contrast the existentiell, partial, and unavoidably one-sided aspect of Heideggerian resoluteness in the face of dying?"(Ricoeur, Memory, History, Forgetting, p. 357)

While this view is complicated by the reference to Heideggerian concepts the central comment by Spinoza is one that resonates with this reader.  I think it is a point on which to end this brief discussion and a point on which to begin a continuation of thinking about these ideas.

Mysterious Body Parts

Sleeping Giants (Themis Files, #1)Sleeping Giants 
by Sylvain Neuvel

“Deadwood sure isn’t thriving, but it’s still standing. And the landscape is breathtaking. It’s sitting right on the edge of the Black Hills National Forest, with its eerie rock formations, beautiful pine forests, barren rock, canyons, and creeks. I can’t think of a more beautiful place on Earth. I can understand why someone would want to build something there.”   ― Sylvain Neuvel, Sleeping Giants

I read this book on my kindle app and it was one of my better experiences doing so. The story begins with a prologue that captures the reader's attention as it narrates the experience of 11-year-old Rose Franklin falling 50 feet through the ground and into a giant metal hand. Then the story jumps to 17 years later, when an adult Rose, now a physicist, is trying to find the rest of the body that belongs to the metal hand, as well as whoever, or whatever, put it there. Rose takes on the mystery with help from Kara, a pilot, Vincent, a linguist, and others.

The story benefits from multiple plot lines with the suspense of each complementing the other. There is the original mystery of the body parts that begins with the metal hand and proceeds to lead Rose and her associates throughout the world exploring for body parts. Rose is a physicist tasked with investigating exactly what the hand is made of. Its composition is nearly impossible, metallurgically speaking, and it weighs one-tenth of what it should. This seems to be beyond human comprehension. In addition the exploration is compounded by the speculation as to what the large body was for and who made it. Since it is thousands of years old this speculation excludes human origin.

The project to find the body parts leads to a further plot line that involves international politics, particularly when Kara Resnik, an Army helicopter pilot, crashes while running a covert operation over Syria. The cause of her crash soon reveals itself: another piece of the giant robot has appeared. Further complications are aroused when a French-Canadian linguist named Vincent Couture makes inroads toward decoding the symbols, he and the rest of Rose's investigating team unleash an international race to find the rest of the robot — a race that upends the geopolitical stage, even as it threatens Rose, Kara and Vincent, all of whom find themselves pawns in a game played by shadowy figures with less-than-noble plans for this new yet ancient technology.

This entertaining read also benefited from the use of an interrogatory approach to narration as the characters told the story to an anonymous questioner.  There was, however, a bit of suspension of belief required (more than normal for science fiction). The author is not a physicist nor an anthropologist (in fact he has a Ph.D. in Linguistics from the University of Chicago). Thus the science behind the story has a few holes, but that does not diminish the suspense of the mystery, the chase, or the international intrigue. The result is a first time science fiction novel I can recommend to most readers.

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Monday, July 25, 2016

Writer, Thinker, and Reader

"Almost Kien was tempted to believe in happiness, that contemptible life-goal of illiterates. If it came of itself, without being hunted for, if you did not hold it fast by force and treated it with a certain condescension, it was permissible to endure its presence for a few days・"― Elias Canetti, Auto-da-Fe

The above lines are from Auto da Fe, Elias Canetti's only novel.   Winner of the 1981 Nobel Prize for Literature, he was born on this day in 1905. Canetti's reputation as a polyglot and polymath can be traced to his cultured upbringing and cosmopolitan travels.  He was born in Bulgaria, raised in Vienna, Zurich and Frankfurt, and spent most of his working life in London. The hero of his most famous novel, Auto-da-Fé, is a reclusive, book-loving scholar, a man easily entrapped and destroyed by his small-minded and self-centered antagonists. Published as Europe slid into WWII, the book is often read as a voice of warning, as is the later Crowds and Power, perhaps Canetti's most famous book.  It is an anthropological-philosophical study which finds a herd-animal pathology behind many cultural events and social groups.

Canetti was one of those writers who use literature to explore the nature and source of knowledge: 

“What a man touched upon, he should take with him. If he forgot it, he should be reminded. What gives a man worth is that he incorporates everything he has experienced. This includes the countries where he has lived, the people whose voices he has heard. It also takes in his origins, if he can find out something about them... not only one’s private experience but everything concerning the time and place of one’s beginnings. The words of a language one may have spoken and heard only as a child imply the literature in which it flowered. The story of a banishment must include everything that happened before it as well as the rights subsequently claimed by the victims. Others had fallen before and in different ways; they too are part of the story. It is hard to evaluate the justice of such a claim to history... We should know not only what happened to our fellow men in the past but also what they were capable of. We should know what we ourselves are capable of. For that, much knowledge is needed; from whatever direction, at whatever distance knowledge offers itself, one should reach out for it, keep it fresh, water it and fertilize it with new knowledge.”   ― Elias Canetti, The Memoirs of Elias Canetti: The Tongue Set Free/The Torch in My Ear/The Play of the Eyes

And above all he was a reader:

“There are books, that one has for twenty years without reading them, that one always keeps at hand, that one takes along from city to city, from country to country, carefully packed, even when there is very little room, and perhaps one leafs through them while removing them from a trunk; yet one carefully refrains from reading even a complete sentence. Then after twenty years, there comes a moment when suddenly, as though under a high compulsion, one cannot help taking in such a book from beginning to end, at one sitting: it is like a revelation. Now one knows why one made such a fuss about it. It had to be with one for a long time; it had to travel; it had to occupy space; it had to be a burden; and now it has reached the goal of its voyage, now it reveals itself, now it illuminates the twenty bygone years it mutely lived with one. It could not say so much if it had not been there mutely the whole time, and what idiot would dare to assert that the same things had always been in it.”   ― Elias Canetti, The Human Province

Saturday, July 16, 2016

One Man's Mortality

When Breath Becomes AirWhen Breath Becomes Air 
by Paul Kalanithi

"Our patients' lives and identities may be in our hands, yet death always wins.  Even if you are perfect, the world isn't.  The secret is to know that the deck is stacked, that you will lose, that your hands or judgment will slip, and yet struggle to win for your patients.  You can't ever reach perfection, but you can believe in an asymptote toward which you are ceaselessly striving." (p 115)

I cannot remember reading a more courageous book. The author, a neurosurgeon who was both a reader and a writer, was able to face being diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer and write about his experience of being treated. More than that he writes about a demonstration of transformation through his own example; first from a young student of literature into a Neurosurgeon/ Neuroscientist; and second, from an intelligent thriving man into a seriously ill man facing the imminent nature of his own mortality. How he was able to face both that battle and his own limitations that resulted from the battle comprise this inspirational story.

The demands placed upon a medical student are tremendous.  They are described in detail with a beautiful prose style that blends reality with metaphor in a seamless way. These demands are nothing compared to the demands that Paul placed on himself as he traversed the difficult course toward his twin goals of neurosurgeon and neuroscientist. His residency is described as a breathless experience, yet one that allowed him eventually to breathe a little as he observes, "By this point in my residency, I was more experienced. I could finally breathe a little, no longer trying to hold on for my own dear life." (p 88)
He describes the tension when operating on the brain or near the spinal cord; where minuscule movements can make the difference between life and death or, even worse, life without some necessary brain function. The suspense of these moments is palpable for the reader.

After being diagnosed with lung cancer and beginning to undergo treatment that, perhaps, might extend his life enough to provide at least the possibility or part of the life he had originally planned, he underwent periods of pain that made his life incredibly difficult. One thing from his earlier life became a life-saver, however temporary, for him. It is a moment when he shares, "Lost in a featureless wasteland of my own mortality, and finding no traction in the reams of scientific studies, intracellular molecular pathways, and endless curves of survival statistics, I began reading literature again: Solzhenitsyn's Cancer Ward, B. S. Johnson's The Unfortunates, Tolstoy's Ivan Ilyich, Nagel's Mind and Cosmos, Woolf, Kafka, Montaigne, Frost, Greville, memoirs of cancer patients--anything by anyone who had ever written about mortality." (p 148) He was trying to make sense of death and find a way to begin to define himself with a vocabulary that was meaningful and helpful. It was a vocabulary that would help him understand his own experiences. It was a process that worked as he concluded, "And so it was literature that brought me back to life during this time. . . I got out of bed and took a step forward, repeating the phrase over and over: 'I can't go on. I'll go on.' [Beckett]" (p 149)

He was able to return to work for a period of time. Not at the level he had been at when first diagnosed, but at a level that allowed him to contribute and attempt to be the surgeon he once was. But the joy was gone, and eventually the cancer returned. Paul writes eloquently of the final days with his wife and new-born baby. Yet his life did not have the longevity that his words would. His life, his breath, allowed him to share a story of fortitude and courage, becoming an inspiration for his family, friends, and all who have the honor to read his memorable memoir.

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A Discourse on some Platonic Dialogues

Discovering PlatoDiscovering Plato 
by Alexandre Koyré

"The reader would like nothing better than to learn the answers to the problems placed before him by Socrates.  But those answers are just what Socrates most often denies him.  The dialogues, at least the so-called Socratic dialogues, the only ones which will concern us here, leave us up in the air.  The discussion ends upon a note of impotence with an avowal of ignorance." ( p 1)

This short book includes much more "food for thought" than many tomes more than twice its' size. Alexandre Koyre demonstrates an incisive erudition in his commentary on four of Plato's greatest dialogues; these include the Meno, the Theatetus, the Protagoras, and the Republic. The Republic takes up about half of the short book presenting a focus on politics and on the just city.

Beginning with the lesson from the Meno that virtue is not taught, but it can be taught. The same subject is discussed in the Protagoras, yet in a different and, according to Koyre, more amusing way. The further discussions of Theatetus and Republic are equally inviting and challenging as far as they go.  They suggest ways we may conceive of knowledge and elucidate how theory and action may work in combination in both philosophy and politics.  Is there such a thing as a just city?  This book provides direction toward how to think about this and other topics.  Ultimately it is a good introduction to both the philosophy of Plato and the acute analytical thought of Alexandre Koyre. The result is both invigorating and engaging for the reader.

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Friday, July 15, 2016

A Scholarly Battle

by Margaret Edson

"Now is not the time for verbal swordplay, for unlikely flights of imagination and wildly shifting perspectives, for metaphysical conceit, for wit."
And nothing would be worse than a detailed scholarly analysis.  Erudition.  Interpretation.  Complication.
Now is a time for simplicity.  Now is a time for, dare I say it, kindness." (Wit, p. 69)

"Nothing but a breath--a comma--separates life from life everlasting." This remark about the last line of Donne's most famous Holy Sonnet is made by E. M. Ashford, D. Phil. to her student, a young Vivian Bearing, and is an early indication in this remarkable play that the story of Vivian's battle with cancer is going to be more than just one of doctors, medicine, sickness, and emotion. It will be a battle of wits and wit, mind and matter, the body and soul of Vivian against the destiny that nature has given her. Like all great plays, the reader is presented with questions, conundrums, and perhaps paradoxes if you will; presented in this case as they involve life and, ultimately, death. But does not all living, whether displayed on stage or lived as one's own life, ultimately involve the question of death?

This play is almost a one woman show as Vivian Bearing, Ph. D., professor of literature specializing in the Holy Sonnets of John Donne, is on stage for the whole play. She is surrounded (I hesitate to say supported) by her oncologist and his chief clinician; but she is supported by the primary nurse who develops a bond with her that is unique in the play, for Vivian is alone in this world and must depend on her mind as she experiences "aggressive" cancer treatment. She eventually receives support from her nurse and a touching visit from her former professor and mentor.

Among the questions raised by the play is one that contrasts the medical doctors with Vivian herself as they treat the cancer in a way that mirrors the methods used by Vivian to analyze and dissect the poetry of John Donne. Is it appropriate to treat the patient as a science project, a body that will provide evidence for some future paper? Is she no different than a work of literature? "What a piece of work is a man!" as Hamlet says, but in Wit we see the wonder, but not the humanity. The clinician, who has a vast knowledge of medicine, must refer to his notes to remind himself that his patient is a human being who deserves at least a minimal amount of polite concern. Vivian bears his lack of feeling with her own brittle stoicism.  She consoles herself with the thought that "they always . . . want to know more things."  But at the same time she buries her true emotions until she is too ill to respond in a way that is able to demonstrate any strength or depth.   

She has an epiphany when, upon completion of chemotherapy, she reflects: "I have broken the record. I have become something of a celebrity. Kelekian and Jason are simply delighted. I think they foresee celebrity status for themselves upon the appearance of the journal article they will no doubt write about me." But she immediately realizes that, "The article will not be about me, it will be about my ovaries." She goes on to relish the relief that returning to her hospital room will be, even as the play proceeds and her room slowly begins to resemble the inside of a coffin.

This is a play filled with literary wit. It plays on the difference and the similarity of words and life. At one point Vivian thinks, "my only defense is the acquisition of vocabulary". She is learning and reflecting even as she is slowly losing the battle with cancer. Should we live our lives like Vivian, continually learning and thinking and growing, even as humans we all move closer to our own personal appointments with mortality? This reader says yes! Even so, this play reminds us that the road will be difficult, but that there are ways to face one's destiny that may not be known today. It is the ability to deal with this unknown and the possibilities of tomorrow that make the battle worth engaging and our lives worth living.

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Monday, July 11, 2016

Practicing Freedom through Death

The Essays: A SelectionThe Essays: 
A Selection 
by Michel de Montaigne

“To begin depriving death of its greatest advantage over us, let us adopt a way clean contrary to that common one; let us deprive death of its strangeness, let us frequent it, let us get used to it; let us have nothing more often in mind than death... We do not know where death awaits us: so let us wait for it everywhere."

"To practice death is to practice freedom. A man who has learned how to die has unlearned how to be a slave.”   ― Michel de Montaigne

In this collection of essays, Montaigne established the essay form in the modern way that we still recognize today.  From this collection I would like to focus on one of the most famous essays; namely, "To philosophize is to learn how to die".  Montaigne begins by referencing Cicero (who himself was paraphrasing Socrates as he was presented by Plato in his dialogue, Phaedo). He quickly concludes that the purpose of philosophy "is to teach not to be afraid of dying." (p 17) This, however, he immediately modifies this to say that "the labor of reason must be to make us live well, and at our ease," with a target of happiness (quoting scripture rather than Aristotle).

The essay could have ended here, but Montaigne goes on at length about the nature of virtue and how it abhors death. He also references common opinions about death but comes around to his own recommendations that death is part of the human condition. The answer, it seems, is to always have our death in mind so that we become used to it, and as such prepared for it. He provides quotes from his predecessors including the following, from Plutarch, that sounds just a bit fatalistic:
"Believe that each day is the last to shine on you. If it comes, time not hoped for will be welcome indeed."(p 24)
He even invokes religion and its contempt for life: "why should we fear to lose something which, once lost, cannot be regretted? Death is inevitable, does it matter when it comes?" (p 30) This would seem to be an end to the discussion.

However, he turns to the works of Lucretius in the closing pages of the essay and lets Nature speak about how one should view death: "Leave this world,' she says, 'just as you entered it. The same journey from death to life, which you once mad without suffering or fear, make it again from life to death. Your death is a part of the order of the universe; it is a part of the life of the world'"(p 31)
Thus he suggests living is like a project and one should not regret the unfinished project in anticipation of death. This view is not dissimilar from that later thinker and essayist, David Hume, that puts forth a sense of benevolence for life and death as a natural part of human existence.

Montaigne concludes his essay with an exhortation to seek happiness in the most natural way possible. This will dispel any interest in immortality; even as Nature claims that a life that lasted forever would be unbearable. We should be aware rather of the advantages of death and recognize that what bits of anguish this life may contain only serve to make death more palatable and our acceptance of it more reasonable. Lucretius painted a poetic vision of how natural death is for humans in his great poem, On the Nature of Things. In this essay Montaigne reasons with himself and with us as fellow humans toward that same end in his own philosophical way as an essayist.

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Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Writing with Penguin at Side

Death And The PenguinDeath And The Penguin 
by Andrey Kurkov

"'This is highly confidential.' he said.  'What we're after is a gifted obituarist, master of the succinct.  Snappy, pithy, way-out stuff's the idea.. . . What you'd have to do is create, from scratch, an index of obelisk jobs -- as we call obituaries -- to include deputies and gangsters, down to the cultural scene -- that sort of person -- while they're still alive.  But what I want is the dead written about as they've never been written about before.  And your story tells me you're the man.'" (p 5)

It is always interesting to read a story about a writer. This writer is even more interesting both for what he writes - obituaries - and his penguin. When his girl friend abandoned him he adopted a King penguin who was likewise abandoned by the local zoo. Together they share an apartment and one another's unique sort of loneliness. This is the tempting, for some, beginning of what is a melancholy and comic thriller of a novel.

Writing obituaries turns out to be more interesting than one might suspect. His passion for writing and the assistance of a Mafia operative combine to lead him into a mysterious situation from which he may not be able to escape.
"The more he worked, the more his suspicions grew, until they became the absolute certainty that this whole obelisk business was part of a patently criminal operation.  The realization of this in no way influenced his daily life and work.  And although he could not help thinking about it, he found it easier to do so every day, having recognized the complete impossibility of ever changing his life." (p 156)

The penguin is an updated version of a Bulgakov-style social satire, where the improbable comes to look more and more sensible against the depiction of what is real.   While pathos and humor shine through, this is at its core as  black of a black comedy that I have read in some time.  It has that rare distinction among my reading of being an evocative look at friendship with a penguin and an invention of genius.

It is energized by comic twists and turns that make Kurkov's writing unique in my experience.  Subtly humorous and exciting, it contains unexpected moments galore.    A vigorous bizarreness makes it a successfully brooding novel, which creates an enduring sense of dismay and strangeness.

The author is a Russian living in Kiev who has written, in addition to novels, screenplays and books for children.

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