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Death, Dying and How We Care About It

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A little political interlude:

     Today is the last day, in most states, when you can register to vote in the upcoming Presidential election. I’ll probably go into the who and why of what I’m voting for eventually, but for today I’d just like to say that it would be a good idea, if you’re not registered, to go do it.  One way or another, this election is going to make history.  I think you should go make history with it.  


So, back to detective novels, and mythic archetypes, and all the rest of it.

I said yesterday that narratives did not require mythic archetypes, or any kind of “real” characters at all.  Mythic archetypes, on the other hand, almost always need narratives.  And unlike narrative, which seem to last in their most basic forms from one millennia to the next without any but cosmetic changes, there are real changes in mythic archetypes.  There are even new ones.

Well, at least, there are quasi-new ones.  This gets complicated, precisely because it isn’t, really.  The DSM-II lists dozens and dozens of forms of “mental illness”–the scare quotes are deliberate–but even those are mostly embellishments on a few old themes. 

So, why is it, anyway, that mythic archetypes change so much, and narratives change so little?  Part of it has to do with the fact that man is only partially his genetics.  The rest of him is created when his environment acts on those genetics. 

And the human environment has changed, drastically, since the eighteenth century.  It has of course changed politically–with the rise of democracy, for instance, and the growing separation of church and state–but it has also changed physically, and in ways it is hard for those of us now alive in Western countries to understand.

Consider the fact that almost every person reading this blog thinks that he will live at least into his seventies, and probably into his eighties.  What’s more, every one of us also feels that somebody who has died before his seventies–especially before his late seventies–has somehow died “too young.”  What’s more, we react instinctively against the idea that someone could die “young” without somehow being at fault for his own death.  I had an aunt who died of lung cancer at seventy-eight, and the entire family clucked along with, “If she hadn’t been such a smoker, she’d still be alive today!”

The days of a man’s life are three score and ten, the Bible says, but in the days when those words were written most people didn’t make it all the way to seventy, and the fact that they didn’t was considered nothing if not normal.  Consider a world without antibiotics, without a clear understanding of the way germs cause disease (or even the knowledge that germs exist), without modern technqiues of surgery.  Consider a world in which most women who died “before their time” died in childbirth, and a lot of them died in childbirrth.  Consider a world without effective refrigeration, so that meat was constantly going bad and E-coli poisoning was a daily possibility.  Consider a world where there was nothing special about dying suddenly and dying young.

Modern people cannot understand, on any gut level, the way people of the Elizabethan period thought about death and dying.   When I teach more advanced classes, I assign a fair amount of John Donne.  he’s a good poet to illustrate the sonnet form, and his use of language is complex and nuanced.  Every time I do assign him, however, I have to get past the instinctive reaction of students:  why is this guy so obsessed with death?  Most of my students have come to Donne knowing little or nothing about death on a personal level.  Most of their grandparents are still alive.  Most of them have never known anyone who died young except from something that could be considered ” their own fault.”

Not only do most of us assume that we’re just supposed to be alive until our late seventies, if not longer.  Most of us further assume that if we do not make it, it will be because somebody, somewhere, did something wrong.  And it goes further than that.  We’re not just supposed to survive.  We’re supposed to survive intact.  Disability of any kind is egregious on every level, and just not fair.

The oddness that these assumptions create are truly remarkable.  I was married for thirteen years to a man named Bill DeAndrea.  He wrote books, too, and I met him in a bookstore.  He won three Edgars, the only person ever to do that for three adult books.  He was a nice man, and he died at forty-six of a form of cancer so rare, there are no known risk factors for it.

Now, think of that.  There are no known risk factors for it.  It’s not known to be genetic.  It doesn’t seem to run in families.  Fat people and thin people get it.  Old eople and young people get it.  It’s not known to be connected to smoking, exercise or diet.   That’s what “no known risk factors” means.

And yet, all through Bill’s illness, and the years sense, the most common response I’ve had of people to his disease has been to cast around desperately for the “why.”  What did he do, exactly, that caused him to die so young.  He must have been a smoker!   Nope, Bill never smoked anything in his life.   It must have been his weight, then!   He was a heavy man.

In the beginning,  feeling indignant on his behalf, I used to try to counter this nonsense.  Weight is not a risk factor for this cancer.  Most people who get it are not overweight.

I gave up, eventually, because being overweight is one of those things we know consider to be self-evidently “bad,” and since Bill had been guilty of a self-evidently “bad” thing, that had to explain his cancer.  We never give up trying to find the “bad” things dying patients have done that will explain why they are dying.  Even children with cancer are subject to speculation by the adults around them–obviously they couldn’t have done something “bad,” so their parents must have.  They must have been brought up around “bad” behavior, and that must explain their cancer.

Part of the reason we do this is simple fear.  Dying is a frightening thing.  In the generations before us, and especially before the eighteenth century, people tended to deal with the fear by contemplating it.  That was why Donne was “so obsessed with death.”  In a world where anybody could go at any time, where “dying young” was not an abberration but a certainty for a good segment of the population, where women had ten children in order to make sure three of them survived, it made little sense to stick your head in the sand and pretend that death didn’t exist.   It was all around you, all the time.

We expect to live, not to die:  that’s a change.    We are further sure that we can do that because there is something called Science, which involves thinking rationally about things and then applying those thoughts to the real world.  Most of us don’t really understand Science, mind you.  We couldn’t do a scientific experiment to save our lives, we can’t read experimental protocols and evaluate them, and our understanding of statistics resembles a two-year-old’s understanding of quantum mechanics.

Still, we’re sure that there’s something called Science, and that it can do anything.  There is no reason why anybody should be sick, or disabled, or even unhappy.   There’s no reason why anybody should be saddled with bad habits.  They’re not habits, really, they’re “addictions,” and there’s a science called Psychology that can fix them.

Arthur C. Clarke once said that, at a certain level, science is indistinguishable from magic.  I think for most people, science is magic. It’s just magic with a much better success rate than the old kind.  “Abracadabra” didn’t work all that well.  It failed more than it succeeded.  “Science” works much better.  In fact, it works almost all the time.  That means that when it fails, it must be because scientists are refusing to give us what we want, need and deserve.  

It takes a twentieth century man to file a ‘wrongful life” suit, to sue the obstetrician that brought him into this world because in being so brought he had cerebral palsy.  The doctor should have known and counseled the mother to have an abortion.  Nobody should be required to live with a birth defect.  To require the plaintiff to do so is contrary to all modern morality, and somebody has to pay for it.

Okay,  I’m sort of blithering here, but my point remains:  modern people have a different relationship to death and dying than any people that came before us.  And because we do–because we do not expect death to come at any moment, without warning–we have assumptions about the world that are different than all those that came before us, too.

We assume that the world must be a rational place, where problems can be worked out by thinking them through and acting on what we discover and decide.  We assume that logic and reason are the right way to go, almost all the time, and that the seemingly inexplicable can be explained if we put our minds to it.  We assume that death is an anomaly.

And it is only with all those assumptions that we could have invented the detective story, and the almost-new mythic archetype–the Great Detective–who came along with it.

Written by janeh

October 6th, 2008 at 5:11 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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