Of Death and Transfiguration

by Theodore Dalrymple (Aug. 2008)

One of the advantages of rehearsing your thoughts (or, more accurately, some of your thoughts) in public is that you often enter into friendly correspondence with interesting people. Of course, you also expose yourself to cranks and pedants, the latter ready to pounce upon the slightest error either of fact or grammar in what you have set down. They who have never published a word seem to read solely for the pleasure of finding something over which to pull authors up. (They would defend themselves, of course, by quoting Doctor Johnson on the right of people who never made a table nevertheless to criticise a table.)

Actually, I am aware of the temptations of pedantry myself: as an occasional book reviewer, nothing gives me greater pleasure than to spot a mistake, the smaller and more arcane the better. Whether I refer to it or not in my review depends upon my overall attitude to the book. If I agree with or approve of the book in general I overlook it, but if I think the book is wrongheaded in a serious or reprehensible way I am sorely tempted to emphasise it beyond its intrinsic importance as a way of calling attention to the author’s deficiencies. Only a vestigial attachment to fairness, and the fear that readers might consider me pedantic, restrains me.

The pedants of the world do serve a useful function, however: they instill a respect for facts among those who might otherwise be inclined to play fast and loose with them. (Does the latter sentence contain any facts, I wonder? Even thinking about pedants causes one to reflect upon what one writes.) Cranks, though, are another matter entirely: there is nothing to be said for them.

I started writing in the days – which I can now scarcely recollect, though in fact they make up the great majority of my earthly existence – before the internet, when cranks could not e-mail to you. Instead, they sent you letters, the madness of whose contents was often deducible by their envelopes alone. A fair proportion of the world’s cranks, for example (at least of the kind that wrote to me), are extremely parsimonious, and recycle envelopes, blanking out the name and address of the original addressee with a black felt-tip pen, and the re-addressing them in unusual-coloured inks, violet being a particular favourite. As if this were not enough, they try to save envelopes – or is it the planet? – by cutting them in two and sealing them with sellotape.

I am not sure whether access to the internet has increased the number of cranks or whether it has merely increased the ease with which they can express themselves. Writing a letter requires a degree of determination and even forward planning that sending an e-mail does not. Since most human characteristics grow more marked when they are expressed than when, for whatever reason, they are denied expression (contrary to the hydraulic model of self-expression that was fashionable for a time), it is possible to surmise that the internet has increased the prevalence of cranks in society.

But what of correspondents of the other kind? Two or three years ago, I started to receive letters from a doctor in California in his late eighties who was still in part-time practice (his specialty was not a physically-demanding one). He was clearly an erudite and witty man, something of a classicist in fact, for he often quoted – wholly appropriately, I might add – the Latin poets. He wrote of this and that, often of modern follies that he dissected with detached amusement rather than bitterness, for of course he had experienced a lot of folly in his time and he knew that life continued, usually with enjoyment, in spite of it. I looked forward to his letters.

Two weeks ago, I received another letter from him, alas the last I shall ever receive. It was, in a sense, a letter from beyond the grave. He wrote it to be sent to all his friends by his widow in the event of his death. This occurred suddenly and (I hope) without suffering

It was an admirable letter, again full of the poet Horace (everything worth saying about life in general has already been said, it is just – the salvation of writers – that we forget). He spoke of his own exit from the world calmly, with no rage at the dying of the light. He had had a long and interesting life, and he had no wish that it should be prolonged for ever, beyond the age at which he could make a contribution. Oblivion held no fears for him.

I was reminded of the death of David Hume, who also met his end with complete equanimity, one might almost say with an amused equanimity. Of course, Doctor Johnson thought it was all affectation, that no one died like that, but Doctor Johnson, admirable as he himself was, might have been wrong on this occasion. Humanity is broad enough to include a few non-pathological souls who look on death without terror.

The doctor from California said in his letter that he was leaving his body to science, or at any rate for medical students to dissect (which is not quite the same thing, of course). And then he said something with which I could not agree, however much I liked and respected him. He said that his body was worthy of no more consideration or veneration than a rotten pork chop.

I would dearly have loved to take him up on this subject. It seems to me that it is necessary to venerate human remains in some way, and this (I admit) is odd because I am not religious, and do not believe in the immortal soul however much I would like to do so.

As the doctor knew very well, medical students do not always treat the bodies of those they dissect with veneration or respect: on the contrary, they give them nicknames and even play with body parts. This seemed to please him, as it was for him a sign of rationality. Man is a physico-chemical being and nothing else, and when the physics and chemistry break down, there is nothing, or rather nobody, left to venerate or respect.

Although I do not think man will ever be able fully to explain himself fully in physico-chemical terms, and I think the mystery of consciousness will continue to elude us, scientistic philosophers who are forever jumping the gun notwithstanding, it does not follow that I think that man is something more than a physico-chemical being, such that his soul leaves his body on death as a butterfly emerges from a chrysalis. In other words, I do not believe in an afterlife, unlike (for example) some of those adolescents who attempt suicide, imagining that they will attend their own funerals in some ethereal way and observe all those grieving for them who took insufficient notice of them during their lives.

Yet, at the same time, I cannot agree with the rotten-pork-chop view of human bodies. Thinking back to my own time as a medical student at the dissecting table, I think our irreverence was in fact an inverted form of reverence. The fact that medical students by tradition were plunged on arrival straight into the dissecting room, as a kind of rite de passage, establishes this.

Doctors have to be involved in the lives of their patients, of course, and must be compassionate; but at the same time they must be objective and detached. (That is why there have been so many good doctor-writers.) They cannot break down with every tragedy they encounter, otherwise their careers would last not more than a week or two. How is the necessary detachment to be brought about?

In dissecting a human body, medical students have to overcome a strong initial revulsion against what they are told, and what they know, they have to do. The social pressure to exhibit sangfroid is great; the irreverence of medical students is (except for those few among them who are psychopaths) an attempt to persuade themselves that, in breaking a taboo, they are doing no evil. Their lack of respect is inverted respect.

Likewise, the mutilation of bodies after a battle appalls us. It strikes us as more savage than the killing in battle that is, alas, sometimes justified or necessary. We would not expect the mutilators to behave well in other circumstances; if you knew a man who had behaved like this, you would instinctively keep your distance from him, though you would not keep your distance from a man who had simply shot someone dead in battle.

Of course, there have been primitive peoples (if one is still permitted to use the term primitive to describe anyone) who have made a thing of mutilating their enemies killed in battle. But this is also an inverted way of demonstrating that a human body is not just a rotten pork chop, that its significance is much greater. You do not go to the trouble of mutilating something that you consider of no account.

If I think that man is no more than a physico-chemical being, or at any rate that there is no firm reason to think that he is, why do I nonetheless think that his inanimate remains ought to be treated with reverence? The answer exposes the reason why rationality is not enough in human life.

We have to live as if some things were sacred, for if we do not we become savages, or rather beings without limits. We cannot (or at least ought not) to condone necrophilia, for example, merely because no one is harmed by it, because the body on which it is practised is inanimate and has neither interests nor wishes, and is therefore not the kind of being that can give or withhold consent.

The precise boundaries of the sacred are always disputable, but we cannot do without an awareness of the sacred, even when we know that sacredness is not a natural quality, that it is not just ‘there’ in the way that natural qualities such as weight and density are, that it does not inhere as a natural quality of anything, that it is imposed upon the world by us in a way that other qualities are not. And that is part of the reason why a purely scientific attitude to life is both undesirable and impossible.

Unfortunately, people have often tried to adopt an impossible attitude to life. The mere fact that the attitude is impossible doesn’t mean that the attempt is without effect, quite the reverse. Attempts to desanctify human life in the name of rationality have, in my view predictably, resulted in the most terrible of crimes.

If I am right, we also have an explanation of why art that consciously attempts to be transgressive or to break taboos is unlikely to be any good, either morally or aesthetically: because the impulse to break taboos, irrespective of what they are, and merely because they are taboos, is a very bad one, indeed it would hardly be going too far to call it evil. This is not to say that under no circumstances should taboos be broken: but they should be broken for reasons other than that they are taboos.

Doctor Johnson knew this: he said – in his life of Swift – that a man who obeyed conventions was more moral than a man who broke them, unless he was better. In other words, conventions may be wrong, but we cannot therefore do without them; and they should be broken only with good reason.

I mean no disrespect at all when I say that the letter from beyond the grave of my much-revered correspondent contained something in it that I consider deeply and profoundly wrong. He was the kind of man who would have welcomed a discussion on the subject, and I think was open to argument even at his advanced age. That is high praise of a man indeed.

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