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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.)

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 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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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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