Thursday, 24 February 2011

More tits and Goldblum's terrible movie

Right. So the other horror film I saw, which kind of creeped me out, was The Fly, with Jeff Goldblum, by David Cronenberg (before he went all 'artistic' and started making some of the worst shit in the history of movie-making... man I had to turn this film off after half-an-hour because it made me want to drive my knee through the TV screen). (A second after posting this I realised that Mulholland Drive is actually a film by David Lynch. I got confused. What is it with Davids? Do they just all make crap films?)

You know something though? I don't really feel much like talking about The Fly. I was all jazzed up for it last time, but then I ran over the word limit, and I knew that the four readers who mistakenly stumble onto my blog when they're looking for free torrents of Twilight on the internet aren't even going to open the page if they see the entry is more than four paragraphs long. I couldn't treat the topic then.

But what can you do. I promised you guys I'd tell you about The Fly, and now I've gotta do it. Otherwise I'm going to be sent to Alcatraz. It's a federal crime not to follow up on your blog promises or something.

Before getting onto the film, though, there's another thing I need to say. I noticed that the site visits spiked to almost double the average about three minutes after I put up pics of tits on the blog. Is this a coincidence? Probably, but just to be on the safe side, here's another picture of boobs.

With the perfunctory twenty hits out of the way, let's get back to us. I didn't much like The Fly. There's a number of reasons why I didn't, and the title is already one of them. “The Fly.” I mean, it's pretty vague. What if you're listing through a catalogue in the cinema and you see a film titled “The Grasshopper” or “The Longhorn Beetle.” It doesn't sound like an engaging story at all, it sounds like a fucking BBC documentary to be aired at 3 a.m. between Blatter's presentation of the Wii Bowling World Champions and a homoerotic show of Danish Fashion. But anyway.

Another thing I didn't like is how they use the lead actor. I really quite like Jeff Goldblum, he plays one of my favourite fictional side-characters of all time, that being Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park (a rock-star mathematician who introduced me, at a tender age, to the concept of chaos theory). I liked him in The Fly as well, but around half-way through the movie they coat him with this gross make-up shit because his flesh is all rotting or something and you can barely see him anymore. Might as well have given the part to Leslie Nielsen.

(The leading lady is something slightly different... she's hot, but my God, the eighties, along with the fifites, had a unique ability for building hairstyles which demolish attraction... what ARE those curl-balls they carry on their craniums??)

Anyway this leads us to the real reason I didn't think much of this movie. It's really disgusting. I know horrors are *meant* to be sick, but Night of the Living Dead made its point without all the gut-spilling, and that's why I kind of liked it, after all. Cronenberg's film is just horrendous. Basically the plot is that this wacky scientist builds two teleportation cabins, and in the process of teleporting himself, he accidentally lets a fly in the cabin with him. So he is recomposed at the molecular level with his DNA mixed with that of the fly, and he slowly mutates into a fly-man hybrid. (This leads me to another thing I never understand about these movies, the idea of these scientists who build industrial machinery on their own. Where did he get the hundreds of pounds of steel? Who fused it for him into two capsules, and who built the circuits to connect them to each other and to the computer? Did he do that himself? So as well as a genius in molecular physics, he's also a master of electrical engineering and IT programming? Speaking of which, where did he get the hardware, and how did he reprogram it into the artificial intelligence he uses? And even if he were capable of doing it all on his own, where does he get the immense capital that all this must cost, since the apartment alone is worth several thousand a week? How much power does teleportation burn and how is his domestic circuit able to support it, and if it can't, where are the generators? At one point we see him placing an animal into the capsule for experimental teleportation, a process which of course ends with gore splatted over every wall, and it's a baboon!! A fucking baboon, for crying out loud!!! And later it turns out that he's got TWO of them!! WHERE THE FUCK DID HE GET THEM?? They don't grow on trees do they... oh wait they do grow on trees, but what I'm saying is, how on earth can he get two rare and protected central-African animals as experiment-fodder?? Teleportation doesn't work on white mice for some reason? Man, the hairstyles in this film may be from the eighties, but the sci-fi is straight out of the twenties, and it's like they're having a race at which of the two is the dumbest...).

No, Bar Refaeli doesn't have anything to do with my argument, I'm just keeping the traffic coming...

So I was saying, before this most extensive parenthesis, that the film is full of goo, guts, vomit, flesh, blood and other revolting things. And personally, that's a negative, even when the story has some interesting premises, as it does here. Maybe I haven't been desensitized enough by cinema, but this stuff disturbs me. And maybe it's a matter of personal taste to a great extent, so there's little more that can be said. In truth the question of a film's responsibility with respect to portraying violence (and the categories and qualities of that violence itself) deserves its own (very long) discussion, and since I'm virtually emptying my head of junk at the moment, I'm really not going to start on that lane now. Besides, my fuel for intelligent discussion has all been taken up for The Terminator, as I said, and for at least a few days, I'm not gonna touch anything clever with a fishing rod. (Back to Italian politics then, whoopee...)

So to end today's blog entry on a note as intelligent as that on which I started it, here's what I thought about the film:

Monday, 21 February 2011

Of Tits and Zombies

The fact that I should have been born a girl is the consensus of all of my friends, or it would be if anybody agreed with it. Girls in particular get all WHATEVA when I suggest the pacate proposition. But in truth, the evidence on the subject is substantial. Consider: 1.) I am extremely sensitive (and I cry easy, too). 2.) I like sweet, cloying drinks, like Coke and Sambuca, which I've had to stop drinking because of all the people who scream faggot when I walk by with that pink shit in my hands, and conversely I dislike the most bitter and burly versions of beer (that stuff feels like throwing a hand grenade down your throat). 3.) I'm almost hairless. Even my beard grows sparsely. 4.) I love cooking. (whoops... faux pas there). 5.) And dancing. 6.) And Titanic. Fuck it. 7.) I'm more into literature and the humanities than into the sciences.

And though by this stage you're probably thinking OHMYGODHE'SGAY, I'm sorry to disappoint. Nope, I don't pack fudge. I was just given the wrong tag on the birth-processor.

So anyway, all of this dubious introduction serves one purpose only, and that's to introduce my subject-matter. In reality I wanted to write about Cameron's The Terminator, as I had some really brilliant things to say about that movie, but that article has been mooched by a film-site (I shall be linking it shortly) and you guys get STUFFED!! Instead of something really clever, you get this bullshit post summing up my thoughts-o'-the-day to avoid the blog falling into dis-use and growing jungle weeds, which would make it difficult to access again, and it would encourage gorillas to settle colonies here.

This image is about the Terminator. (No seriously, that lady is the TX from Terminator 3).

So the point I was driving at is that I now have another piece of evidence pointing to the fact that I should have been born boobied, and this is it: I don't like horror movies. I'm generally quite squeamish and seeing people slapping each other with their own livers is something that grosses me out to no end. I do make an exception for the Alien saga, but that's mainly because I grew up with it, kind of like other people with Biff, Parker and Chip or however the fuck they're called, and besides it's closer to sci-fi than horror.

Yet despite my comparative dislike of the genre, I've been pushed into watching a few of these movies as of late. Firstly, there's Chris with his blog on zombies who told me that if I watched Night of the Living Dead, he'd put all rounds on him next time we went out drinking together, so I thought, what the hell. I watched it. Remuneration will have to wait till I'm back in the rain-trench also known as England, but in the meantime, everybody and their dog is asking me – did I like it?

Uhm, so-and-so. I was relieved to find that the film is actually remarkably tame. I mean, zombie movies are usually some of the grossest shit you can imagine, but this one didn't have much more than people beating each other with their shoes, which used to happen to me all the time anyway with some of my housemates. I mean, it's a disturbing film psychologically, but they aren't tossing pints of blood around like Bavarians at the Oktoberfest for a change.

The film, for those who don't know, is the story about a young deer who grows up in the forest. As he matures, he gets to make friends with several of the other animals, acquire new skills, but one day the hunters come and he must learn to be brave like his father.

No wait, that's Bambi. What the fuck was I writing about again? Oh yeah, gruesome films. Actually I think Bambi succeeded in horrifying more children with its fucking Schindler's List finale than Night of the Living Dead ever did (there's a film for you to write about, Chris). But still. Night of the Living Dead is the story about BARBRA and another group of schlocks who barricade themselves into a house and try to survive while dead people outside are raised by an asteroid's radio-waves into cannibalism (I love how that sentence started out rational and slowly decayed into total WTF territory...). One of the film's main themes is the name BARBRA, because in the first ten minutes you hear the name BARBRA a lot (particularly for the immortal line: 'They're coming to get you BARBRA,' which particularly distresses BARBRA, presumably because she's tired of hearing her name said all the time. Like, ok I'm called BARBRA, I got it guys! This isn't a porn movie!).

Another of the film's main themes is death. Or I'm guessing, anyway. I'm not completely sure.

So anyway, to be serious for five seconds, the film is actually pretty good, if a bit rudimentary in its execution. It's got quite a few psychological layers which make it engaging, it was undisputably influential, and astonishingly, it has a black protagonist (1968? Jesus!). The story is good, but I think the technique and direction, with all its close-ups on faces and screeching music, sort of underlining for us 'This is when you have to be scared guys,' feels a little dated. So it's obviously a good movie, but one that has suffered aging more so than many other films of the time. The undead, for instance, are not very credible. You just can't get out of the sense that, eh, they're frigging actors! What are all these people panicking about??

The soundtrack is also a very famous feature of the film. This monotone, hysterical piano is one of the most distinct and recognizable aspects of Night of the Living Dead, and it was particularly successful in the subsequent concert that toured all of America, called Night of the Dead Live (sorry. I couldn't resist that). It was followed by numerous sequels, some of which as influential as the first: Dawn of the Dead, Day of the Dead, Afternoon of the Dead, Tea-time of the Dead, Evening of the Dead, Supper of the Dead, Clubbing with the Dead, Drunk-Driving with the Dead, Laid with the Dead and others. (Laid with the Dead is known in some countries as Twilight. Apparently the girl there gets in a threesome involving a wolf and a vampire... woof man, necrophilia up the ass and bestiality in the mouth and they're still wondering how this film got a PG13?).

The other horror film I saw these days that I wanted to write about... yo dude, what ho! I'm out of space! I shall discuss it in the next few days.

Stay tuned! And in the meantime, get this!

Monday, 14 February 2011

Discovering Dostoevsky

Russian literature, for a long time, has been the thorn in my literary education. I simply never got around to reading much of it. I've put a few names under my belt so I could show off (War and Peace most clamorously, and some Gogol and Bulgakov), but there was one colossus of a novelist whom I especially felt was lacking from my mental librairies: Fyodor Dostoevsky.

I don't think there's that many people out there with a BA and MA in literature who never touched anything Dostoevsky until the age of 25, so I feel kind of privileged (I guess in a game of humiliation it would have scored me a few points). Anyway, last November I headed off to Russia and I needed some reading material to kill off the dead space in my travelling time, so I thought it was time to patch holes. I got hold of a copy of Dostoevsky's two supposedly greatest novels, Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, and I set down to reading them.

I finished the first in mid-December, and the latter only a few days ago, and I thought I'd make a blog-post out of it. It's not an in-depth analysis or anything, so don't expect anything ultra-insightful; just my thoughts as they come up.

Crime and Punishment (CAP) is going to be forever dear to me in memory if only for the particular experience of reading it. I went through the whole thing in St Petersburg, as a way of killing daylight hours before night came and I could go out partying. I spent four, even five hours a day inside this Russian pub on Nevsky Prospect, drinking tea and smoking cigarettes (two habits I've never much indulged in, and the latter I stopped since coming back), and reading either contemporary British poets, or Dostoevsky.

My choice of reading material was quite illuminated, because CAP is a novel which flows very well. The back of the book and the introduction went a way towards hyping it, describing it as 'one of the greatest and most readable novels ever written', and a 'most gripping' story. That's hyperbolic, of course; people used to airport novels aren't going to find this such a big page-turner, and there's several instances in the narrative when it kind of slows down. Perhaps most importantly, one has to share some of D's most human/philosophical interests to really get engaged with the things and events being described. That being said, it's still a novel which proceeds quite quickly, not at all burdensome to read, thanks mostly to an intent narratorial voice which never loses sight of its subject-matter.

Did I like it? Yes, I guess. I wouldn't say I was overblown by it, but it's definitely an interesting tale. D's technical merits are undisputable: the things that the prose does are very far ahead of its time; you could even say that D was the first truly modern author, and there's no doubt that he cast a long shadow over all the great novelists who came in the 20th Century. However, I think my main issue with it was this: I didn't think the point it made required a novel. Or at least, not one in excess of 400 pages. D's discussions are existential - essentially, he's weighing up the practical possibilities of our metaphysical freedom. Starting from the presupposition that God only exists if we accept him, he considers what we can and cannot do with our boundless liberty of action. Ultimately, from what I understand, he comes to the conclusion that a philosophy of action that does not account for a person's spirituality ends up crippled by its own hubris, because a man's moral nature inevitably draws him back to (re-)imposing a moral schema on an amoral universe (in the novel's specific case, by self-punishment for the 'crime' which the protagonist thought he was at liberty to commit). I could probably elaborate a bit on this, but the novel has been summed up by many others, often and well, so I won't add anything more.

It's an interesting parable. My problem, as I said, is that I didn't think it required a novel. I'd have been equally satisfied with an essay on ethics (provided it was competently written, of course): something more direct, making its points by argument and demonstration, and not through the twists and turns of a narrative. Alternatively, a narrative, but more concise (the obvious point of comparison is Camus' The Outsider; a paragon is unfair, given the different periods when the two authors were writing, but the Frenchman's is an example of a philosophical novel which is so successful because, well, because it's brief, however simplistic that may sound. Consider also Orwell's Animal Farm or Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. I don't think their stories are any less complex or important than that of CAP, but they draw their parables in a hundred pages or less).

Then again, the objection is subjective. I do have some trouble with the medium of the novel in general, as I think it's quite dispersive (compared to poetry and essays, anyway), so maybe it's just me. In any case, if economy (or lack thereof) is an issue with CAP, this is even more marked with The Brothers Karamazov (BK), a monster of a novel running to almost 900 pages, second in length only to the above-mentioned War and Peace (according to the introduction, anyway).

BK is a fascinating novel. D's last piece of work, completed shortly before his death, it is by many considered to be his masterpiece. The story follows three brothers and their (mis)adventures before and after the death of their father by murder. The attention to detail is remarkable: D draws a tremendous fresco of the little village where things take place, and the characterisation (covering a fucknut of characters) is one of the most convincing, exhaustive and complex you'll ever find. This meticulousness of evocation is the novel's strength and, to some extents, its weakness, as the novel uses up a lot of pages to cover a story in which not that much happens in terms of real 'events.' (Some parts I thought to be almost a waste of space: the prosecutor's speech in the trial towards the end of the novel is a good thirty pages long, and it does nothing but re-narrate everything that has already occurred).

What really intrigues me about this novel is the narratorial voice. It's kind of hard to explain, but it's like D were deliberately trying to create an ancient, almost chtonic novel. His concern with form is palpable, organic. CAP, by comparison, feels so fresh and innovative because it apparently relinquishes questions of conventional form and congruity in favour of a direct, extemporary voice sticking like glue to the events and the thoughts of the characters at the very instant that they happen. There's no concern other than the raw telling of the story, in CAP. With BK, things are more sophisticated. D seems to have gone back to the origins of prose as a form of expression, like he were trying to create a primal, formally perfect novel: the novel as it is meant to be written.

Personally, I think he succeeds completely. BK is 'the' novel, the very heart of how this form expresses meaning. It is perfectly balanced, with the primary narrative 'holding' events, monologues, dialogues, philosophical reflections and even other narratives (stories of the past, told by the characters themselves) within itself without ever losing a single quantum of stability or unity. As with primary novels of the late Eighteenth Century, the narratorial voice is attributed to a 'real' person within the diegesis; in this case, the person speaking is an unidentified inhabitant of the village where everything is taking place, one who frequently foregrounds his/her presence by introducing chapters and characters with anecdotes of his/hers. Even so, the voice never becomes anything more than a voice: the speaker is never actually introduced, never interacts with any of the other characters at all. It grounds the narrative in a sense of reality while never being obtrusive.

I'm really not sure why D, who proved so subversive and radical with CAP, then turns so conservative with BK. Coming to questions of evaluation, the two are almost hard to compare. But for what my two cents are worth, I preferred CAP. Not only because it's faster, more furious and shorter, but precisely because it felt not as close to the 'heart' of the novel (as I mentioned, I'm not completely enamoured when it comes to this literary form). Besides, there were other issues which marred BK, partly relating to the novel form itself (and D's decision to bind himself to the very core components of the form), and partly for the tale in itself.

For one thing, I had the same problem with BK as I did with CAP, in that I would have preferred D's reflections to be more ordered and concise. Admittedly BK, which encompasses a tremendously broad spectrum of spiritual perspectives, is less 'precise' than CAP and therefore would have been much less suited for an essay. CAP is a linear parable, BK is more of a journey through many different perspectives. On the other hand, though, the narrative itself didn't do much for me emotionally. There's a few very nice moments, but most of the things that happen I thought to be, well, uninteresting. The introduction, in its typical sales language, gushes that "if you want money, sex and violence, you will find them in BK." But while there's plenty of money going round, there really isn't much of the other two. The murder itself is never described, and there's nothing in the book which we could call 'violence' other than a couple of scuffles. As for sex, there's one suggestion that Karamov-Father may have impregnated a mentally retarded girl at one point, and that's it. The rest of the novel is as chaste as anything written in England in the 19th Century. The idea of Katerina Ivanovna or even Grushenka contemplating a shag is as plausible as that of aliens landing in the middle of the village and introducing everyone to laser-beams. There isn't even a kiss in this book, that I can recall. Honestly, if it weren't for the South Americans, I sometimes wonder if we'd ever have known what it's like to have a novel with plenty of sex in it.

(Come to think of it, and in fairness to D, CAP does include quite a bit of sex. Though it's alluded to rather than explicitly described - which is a good thing, in the context of this story - one of the main characters is a young girl who has ended up in prostitution, and there's a few scenes where the topic of sex is suggested almost with a certain sleight of hand. Anyway, I'm losing myself in pointless discussions here - let's get back to the point).

In general, CAP just seemed more pertinent. The entire narrative was a little too diluted for the purposes of its meditation, in my opinion, but formally at least, it stuck with the story. BK goes out of its way to describe the lives of people whom I have difficulty caring much about. So Father Zossima used to be a soldier and he converted just before his duel... yay. At least War and Peace discusses the 'great' events of life and history (albeit with varying success, and with less lucidity than D). BK is, I dunno... parochial? I just don't see why I have much reason to empathise with these people stuck in a village a hundred miles from anything, worried about getting three-thousand roubles from their inheritance and about marrying this person or that (the mechanics of their falling in love are also a bit mysterious to me... Alyosha decides to marry a girl on a wheelchair with whom he has exchanged, uh, about thirty words in all the time he's known her?).

I confess that I have difficulties criticising D because every single person who told me about him was enthusiastic to an extreme (including some girls I loved, which I guess has an ironic resonance given the concerns of the character in the novel and my own as I write these lines). I did like the book, I just didn't feel it to be as 'timeless' as people give it credit for (especially the writers of these introductions). In fact, and at the risk of saying something idiotic, I wonder if its time may not already be coming round. Of course this has nothing to do with D himself and everything to do with the novel form in general, which in many ways is the most naturally transient of all literary forms. Novels are built around a voice which is actual, unmediated; they speak the same language of the times they were written in, even when they 'dress up' in other voices. This is why they're so effective to tell stories, and why they're so easy and pleasurable to read. It's like having a friend telling you a story in person. But this is also why they decay rapidly. Your friends become grandpas and your own nephews find them old and slow, if not boring. It reminds me of Beethoven's wane in popularity in Vienna over the last ten/fifteen years of his life - a dramatic decline in attendance and critical favour, exacerbating his already considerable sense of isolation, all the more astonishing because he was writing some of his best work ever. The great contemporary novelist Alessandro Baricco sums it up in 'Lesson 21' by saying that they (the Viennese) were "a world in movement," while Beethoven was old. Or, to use another word, he was still. I think it's the same with ourselves today. Today, to 'have culture' doesn't refer to being learned in how living organisms work or how the Phoenicians dressed, or knowing how to build a boat or factorise an equation. Mostly it means to have ready many novels from the 19th Century (and early 20th). It's our banner, one way that we make sense of things. I think the upper limit is reached with Joyce and Proust: they are the last 'great' novelists, and most of the stuff coming later seldom counts as 'culture' (with a number of interesting exceptions, mostly sophisticated writers like Borges or Calvino).

Beethoven, in the last years of his life... now you know why he was so pissed off.

This is not an historical constant at all, of course. There used to be a time when reading novels was seen as a pastime for the uncultivated, for romantic girls at their homes, adolescents, bourgeois gentlemen, and in general people who wanted to be up on the latest fashionable bestseller in Europe. 'Gentlemen' read poetry and the Classics from Greece and Rome. Today, 'gentlemen' read 19th Century novels. They read Tolstoy and Zola and Melville and the Brontes. And they read Dostoevsky. He is precisely one of those 'indispensable' authors (the term 'indispensable' is one of those hyperboles we use to describe a certain cultural quality of a book; it is almost interchangeable with, say, 'life-changing' or 'timeless'). The quality of his work, per se, will remain forever, I just wonder how long it's going to be 'indispensable' for. Truth is, I don't even know if I'd call it that now. Counter-intuitive as it may seem, the things which we can't live without tend to be the first we leave behind.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Death and the paradox


We have looked at the problems posed by the current views on death, and at the background provided by past approaches to the question. We are now going to consider the practical aspects of the question. When, where and what is the best death, and what is the nature of the choice (if any) that we have on the subject, and to what conclusions do these questions lead?


Once I have established that dying of old age is not necessarily the preferable or natural possibility, all alternatives left to consider amount to suicide (since death by accident cannot be chosen). So the question becomes (and it's a serious question): is it best to let oneself die of natural causes, or to choose one's death by means of a calculated suicide? And if so, when should we kill ourselves? We must of course consider that, framed in this way, death by natural causes is itself a choice - it's just that you don't choose WHEN you're dying. And so everything points to this as the most synthetic form of the question: when is the best time to terminate your life (if any)? We shall return to this later.


The nature of the choice is not homogeneous for all of us, of course. It depends heavily on what kind of future we have, and what situation we're in when we reach an elder age. If certain conditions apply, the choice of death does not pose itself. If I have a family, for instance, all considerations of suicide must be dropped. The responsibilities towards my wife and children (even if the latter are economically independent, there's affective and emotive responsibilities) are enough to forbid me from choosing death.


If I do not have a family, or do no longer have one, or have lost all connections with the members of my family, then the dilemma of natural death versus suicide has the grounds to be posed, and it is only under this implicit condition that we shall now explore its possibilities.


Let's go back to the question in the final form it revealed itself: when is the right moment to die (and is there one)? It is widely agreed that youth is the best part of life, so for all the emo kids who protest otherwise, definitely not then. As a rule, as long as you have full possession of your physical and mental faculties, there is no reason for you to consider death. It is also common sense that aging is not a pleasure, and that the longer you age, the more difficult it becomes. So if there has to be self-termination, it would have to be only after the body has reached a point of irreparable deterioration. If you contract a disease as lacerating and degrading as alzheimer's, for instance, it makes sense to end it before it gets to the stage that you've forgotten how to eat, even if you have a family.


Still, it's not that you should live or die because youth is pleasant and old age is painful. It's that when you're young, you haven't had the time to fulfill (or even choose) a 'purpose', and therefore to kill yourself then is to negate the value of life itself (you are essentially saying, it is better never to have been born than to live at all). I don't really agree with that statement and that's not the question I'm posing. I'm saying this: assuming that life is worth living, what is the right way to end it? All other questions would be thoughts on life, not thoughts on death, so they're not the subject of these meditations. Therefore if one should terminate life by one's own hand at all, it would have to be in old age, not so much to spare oneself the pains, but because I'm assuming that then you've had the time to do whatever it is that you've invested your life into doing. If you reach the age of eighty and you still have dreams you want to fulfill, the problem of killing yourself is again not to be posed.


First scenario. I am seventy, and I seem to be pretty much as lucid now as I've been most of my life. My body isn't deteriorating too badly: I can still go out for a walk by myself, I can take care of things, and I'm not tormented with too much pain. Conclusion: no need to consider ending life. Even if you already feel accomplished, you haven't really lost anything you had when you were young (other than the possibility of playing rugby with your mates), so there's no more reason to kill yourself now than there was then.


Second scenario. I am sixty, and I can feel that my mind is beginning to slip away. I forget things, I can no longer reason clearly, I often fail to make sense with my friends in conversations, and I am no longer good at the mathematics/economics/journalism that I've spent my life doing. I've suffered from a disease of the bones or the heart or the nervous system a few years ago, and now I've got killer back pains every night when I go to sleep, or it looks like I'll need a wheelchair five years from now, or I'm wetting my bed, or several of these put together, and I'll need a nurse to take care of me. Conclusion: the conventional objections to suicide do no longer hold.


Kant went down that road. Here's Scruton's account of his final days. It makes for a rending read:

Kant gave his last official lecture in 1796. By that time his faculties had begun to decline and a sombre melancholy had replaced his former gaiety. Fichte describes him as seeming to lecture in his sleep, waking with a start to his half-forgotten subject matter. Soon he lost his clarity of mind, his ability to recognise old friends, even his ability to complete simple sentences. He faded into insensibility, and passed from his blameless life on 12 February 1804, unaccompanied by his former intellectual powers.

Kant died at the age of eighty. Suppose that he'd died at the age of seventy. Would he or anyone else have lost very much? And if so, then what, exactly?


A common way to dismiss this would be to say, "These reflections only indicate a fear of aging." Yes, in part they do, but this misses the point. The conventional social response, the 'obvious' voice, is precisely the one which says - all of this is only considered by people who are afraid of becoming old. Even if there is some truth in it (and there is, of course), you must stop to consider that the statement is reversible. A Viking would say that we're only considering the alternative because we're afraid of death. Everyone would like to choose the path of courage, if that's a possibility, but once you strip away the clich├ęs, the question remains of what is really courage, here. This is not a rhetorical question. Is it to shun the cold of solitude and pain, and by the bold decision to find death before both strength and mind are lost? Or is it to endure with patience the conclusive ride, and pay the debt of nature while enjoying the final skies? The whole point of these reflections is that the dilemma cannot be taken for granted. Yes, our society today says the second option is the right one. But others before it said different things. We cannot determine the answer simply by looking at what all the other people do (or are doing).


So if one is done with his/her 'purpose' or interest by the elder age, and if s/he also doesn't have a family, what then? Is the dilemma of suicide then opened? Alas, no. Regrettably, this is where things get more rather than less complicated, and where the whole edifice of suicide is mined in its foundations, and it goes to show what we were saying from the outset: that a 'philosophy of death' is untenable from its inception.


Planning your death involves a series of round-about psychological fuck-ups. For instance, it makes sense to plan on spending the last few years in hedonistic debauchery, throwing to the winds any money you don't intend to leave to charity. But as we mentioned, the hedonistic perspective doesn't work, even in such micro-versions. The moment you abandon yourself to pleasure with the justification that your imminent mortality allows it, the justification itself spoils the fun: you can't have fun without thinking that you're going to die. And then there's no fun. The agency contaminates the performance.


Another example. It would make sense for a writer or poet to produce his/her final works when s/he knows s/he's going to die: the knowledge of death would inspire very acute meditations on the subject (and from a cynical point of view, it would sell if s/he killed him/herself right after). We've seen it in everyone from Seneca to Sylvia Plath. So I could say, 'geez, I'll reach the age of 55, then write my last collection on the subject of death, then kill myself.' But the moment you start writing it, the act itself fucks you up: you become aware that you then become compelled to kill yourself to 'respect' the statement you're making, otherwise you're a charlatan. And this deterministic pressure is bound to have such horribly burdensome effects as to make the years under them not worth living, which defeats the point you were killing yourself for in the first place. The fact that you are, in a way, binding yourself, leads you to struggle against those binds, in the same process by which you originally struggled against the 'binding' of a death you did not like. It may even dissuade you from actually killing yourself - which makes the writing a waste of time, because if you hadn't planned on killing yourself, you wouldn't have written that which deterred you from killing yourself anyway!


And so we come back to the original paradox: that you can't speak or think of death because any philosophy of death is a philosophy of life. It only holds, and it MUST be held, until you reach the point of executing it in practice. You can't plan the actions of your end, because if you end, there are no actions, and therefore whatever you're planning is not the end.


It's impossible to have a philosophy on death, but it's also impossible NOT to have one, simply because we cannot make our choices in life unless we are thinking of how we want it to end. To be alive necessarily implies to think of death (even if you say, 'I do not think of death,' you are already thinking of death), but in order to truly think of death, you would have to be dead. This is the inescapable paradox on which all thoughts of death must depend. The ethics of suicide are valid and sustainable, at least as much as those behind natural death, but the fact of death itself makes these ethics performative rather than descriptive - they are something that we *do,* not something that is right or wrong. (And I suspect all ethical systems may be like that, in truth). The irony is that society spends so much of its energy into condemning suicide, which is something that we can't implement anyway. At least not until we have no choice. And then it isn't really suicide, or at least, it doesn't have the same ethical weight.


I expect several other of the philosophies and systems that we use to bear us forward, those which speak not just of death but of the meaning of life, are based on equally intangible foundations - paradoxes which cannot be sustained, yet simultaneously cannot be demolished. It is incredible how effectively they hold us together.


For the rest, nothing has changed. For the rest, you are immortal for as long as you're alive.


...the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.

Monday, 7 February 2011

Death and what comes after (historically)


The story goes that we originally believed in heaven and hell, but since we evolved away from superstition and towards scientific enlightenment, we developed this view that there's nothing after life. Actually, the belief that there's nothing after life is far, far more ancient than the belief in heaven and hell. Homer held to this view, painting the afterlife as no more than a shade of what passed before it, and so did the Old Testament of the Bible. Pindar's Elysian fields and Plato's reincarnation theories came much later, as did Christ and his vague mentions of 'a reward in heaven.' Usually, societies need to become quite complex before they conceptualise a genuine system of reward and punishment to follow death. Homer doesn't send Achilles to any heaven, but Virgil, in the more intertextual Roman society, gives an accurate description of what the Roman paradise is like. The author of Beowulf, writing in the dark ages, makes no compromises about its hero surviving, but Dante, at the shores of the Late Middle Ages (about six-hundred years later), produced the most sophisticated portrayal of the afterlife you can imagine. As for the Bible, there's no mention of heaven and hell in the Old Testament, and even the canonical gospels aren't exactly precise on the subject. The Gehenna is meant to be 'hell,' but the literal meaning of the term is a valley outside Jerusalem, disreputed for being a site for apostates (there's one liberal translation if I've ever seen one!). Heaven and hell, for all of their eternal duration, are really rather young.


Anyway, the most interesting and incisive text on death by the ancients came a thousand years before either Homer or the Bible. The epic of Gilgamesh tells the following story, more or less: Enkidu, the best friend of Gilgamesh, dies. Gilgamesh, baffled at this final reality, goes on a quest to figure out how to become immortal and avoid the same thing happening to him. He finds and conquers a flower of immortality, but this is stolen from him (by a snake) while he sleeps, and he is left to weep over his loss. He comes back to his village to live the rest of his life, and there he sculpts the story of his journeys. His act of inscription is crucial to his tale, to the point that it's foregrounded as early as in the first tablet, as the epitome of his presentation as a character: "He carved on a stone stela all of his toils, / and built the wall of Uruk-Haven, / the wall of the sacred Eanna Temple, the holy sanctuary."


This is the point, and Gilgamesh goes to show just how ancient it is. The fatality of termination leads us to want to 'build' something with our lives - this is how we respond to death. And this is what leads us to the old idea that life must have a meaning - that is to say, essentially, *something which can be translated into an inscription,* and therefore written down. Though that still doesn't save Gilgamesh, or ourselves, from the inevitability of death.


What is the 'meaning' that, once invested on life, redeems it from death? Right. Like I'm going to get into that one.


Anyway, what the specific 'meaning of life' is, is not really that important. It always has the same function of transcending the temporal limitations of our beings. Also, I don't want to discuss it now because it's a topic which deserves its own series of meditations. It really can't be reduced simply to 'a construct used to respond to death,' even theoretically. The representation which we refer to by the expression 'meaning of life' is far more complex than that, planting its roots directly in our sense of identity, in our philosophical quest for purpose, in the values of our society (and the tension between determinism and autonomy), and in the nature of our personal spiritual journey. I think it's necessarily plural, in the sense that there isn't a *single* meaning of life to be sought, but it flourishes into different shapes and forms according to the contingencies and individuals (though there's always a collective drive, theistic but also cultural, to reduce this polyfunctional quest to a single Word). Precisely on account of its multifarious quality, it transcends the teleology of this discussion, which shall therefore now return to its single topic. That is to say, death.

Still a few more things to say. Part IV is upcoming.