Dec 10, 2013
Posted on Sep 26, 2013
By Lewis Lapham, TomDispatch
The farmer’s wife nursed him back to life with soup and soap and Calvados, and by the time he was strong enough to walk, he had lost half his body weight and undergone a change in outlook. He had been born in 1883, descended from a family of New England Quakers, and before going to Europe in the spring of 1918 was said to have been almost solemnly conservative in both his thought and his behavior, shy in conversation, cautious in his dealings with money. He returned from France reconfigured in a character akin to Shakespeare’s Sir John Falstaff, extravagant in his consumption of wine and roses, passionate in his love of high-stakes gambling on the golf course and at the card table, persuaded that the object of life was nothing other than its fierce and close embrace.
Which is how I found him in the autumn of 1957, when I returned to San Francisco to look for work on a newspaper. He was then a man in his middle seventies (i.e., of an age that now surprises me to discover as my own), but he was the same vivid presence (round red face like Santa Claus, boisterous sense of humor, unable to contain his emotions) that I had known as a boy growing up in the 1940s in the city of which he was then the mayor.
A guest in his house on Jackson Street for three months before finding a room of my own, most mornings I sat with him while he presided over his breakfast (one scrambled egg, two scraps of Melba toast, pot of coffee, glass of Scotch) listening to him talk about what he had seen of a world in which he knew that all present (committee chairman, lettuce leaf, and Norfolk terrier) were granted a very short stay. Although beset by a good many biological systems failures, he regarded them as nuisances not worth mention in dispatches. He thought it inadvisable to quit drinking brandy, much less the whiskey, the rum punch, and the gin. At the bridge table he continued to think it unsporting to look at his cards before bidding the hand.
My grandfather’s refusal to consult doctors no doubt shortened his length of days on Earth, but he didn’t think the Fates were doing him an injustice. He died in 1966 at the age of 82 on terms that he would have considered sporting. The grand staircase in his house on Jackson Street was curved in a semicircle rising 30 feet from the entrance hall to a second-floor landing framed by a decorative wooden railing. Having climbed the long flight of stairs after a morning in the office and the afternoon on a golf course, Roger Dearborn Lapham paused to catch his breath. It wasn’t forthcoming. He plunged head first through the railing and was dead—so said the autopsy—before his body collided and combined with the potted palm at the base of the stairwell. He had suffered a massive heart attack, and his death had come to him in a way he would have hoped it would, as a surprise.
About the presence of death and dying I don’t remember the society in the 1950s being so skittish as it has since become. People still died at home, among relatives and friends, often in the care of a family physician. Death was still to be seen sitting in the parlor, hanging in a butcher shop, sometimes lying in the street. By the generations antecedent to my own, survivors of the Great Depression or one of the nation’s foreign wars, it seemed to be more or less well understood, as it had been by Montaigne that one’s own death “was a part of the order of the universe… a part of the life of the world.”
For the last 60 or 70 years, the consensus of decent American opinion (cultural, political, and existential) has begged to differ, making no such outlandish concession. To do so would be weak-minded, offensive, and wrong, contrary to the doctrine of American exceptionalism that entered the nation’s bloodstream subsequent to its emergence from the Second World War crowned in victory, draped in virtue.
Military and economic command on the world stage fostered the belief that America was therefore exempt from the laws of nature, held harmless against the evils, death chief among them, inflicted on the lesser peoples of the Earth. The wonders of medical science raked from the ashes of the war gave notice of the likelihood that soon, maybe next month but probably no later than next year, death would be reclassified as a preventable disease.
That article of faith sustained the bright hopes and fond expectations of both the 1960s countercultural revolution (incited by a generation that didn’t wish to grow up) and the Republican Risorgimento of the 1980s (sponsored by a generation that didn’t choose to grow old). Joint signatories to the manifesto of Peter Pan, both generations shifted the question from “Why do I have to die?” to the more upbeat “Why can’t I live forever?”
The substituting of the promise of technology for the consolations of philosophy had been foreseen by John Stuart Mill as the inevitable consequence of the nineteenth century’s marching ever upward on the roads of social and political reform. Suffering in 1854 from a severe pulmonary disease, Mill noted in his diary on April 15, “The remedies for all our diseases will be discovered long after we are dead, and the world will be made a fit place to live in after the death of most of those by whose exertions have been made so.”
His premonition is now the just-over-the-horizon prospect of life everlasting bankrolled by Dmitry Itskov, a Russian multimillionaire, vouched for by the Dalai Lama and a synod of Silicon Valley visionaries, among them Hiroshi Ishiguro and Ray Kurzweil. As presented to the Global Future 2045 conference at Lincoln Center in New York City in June 2013, Itskov’s Avatar Project proposes to reproduce the functions of human life and mind on “nonbiological substrates,” do away with the “limited mortal protein-based carrier” and replace it with cybernetic bodies and holograms, a “neohumanity” that will “change the bodily nature of a human being, and make them immortal, free, playful, independent of limitations of space and time.” In plain English, lifelike human heads to which digital copies of the contents of a human brain can be downloaded from the cloud.
The question “Why must I die?” and its implied follow-up, “How then do I live my life?,” both admit of an answer by and for and of oneself. Learning how to die, as Montaigne goes on to rightly say, is unlearning how to be a slave. The question “Why can’t I live forever?” assigns the custody of one’s death to powers that make it their business to promote and instill the fear of it—to church or state, to an alchemist or an engineer.
For 40 years during the Cold War, the American government, both Democrat and Republican, deployed the shadow of death (i.e., the constant threat of nuclear annihilation) to limit the freedoms and quiet the voices of the American people. The surveillance apparatus now waging the perpetual war on terror is geared to control a herd of trembling obedience.
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