Thursday, July 22, 2010

A book to die for

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, philosophy

What can I say, the book is about death. It is about attitudes toward it, particularly as expressed by philosophers and theologians, but not just Kant, Heidegger, Tillich and the rest. Your definition of philosopher must also include Woody Allen and Groucho Marx. You get them all, and more, in Heidegger and a Hippo Walk Through Those Pearly Gates: Using Philosophy (and Jokes!) to Explore Life, Death, the Afterlife, and Everything in Between by Thomas Cathcart and Daniel Klein.

The book is in seven sections, though four of the sections are a chapter apiece. The authors really do present succinct, witty accounts of many philosophers' attitudes toward death and any afterlife they may have believed in. They also tickle our funnybone with jokes, stories and asides, and explore the attitudes of the rest of us. Can anyone react with more indifference to death than Lena?
Ole the fisherman had died, and his wife Lena went to the newspaper office to post an obituary. She told the clerk, "Just put, 'Ole died.'" The clerk expressed his condolences, but asked, "Is that all? You were married fifty years. There are children and grandchildren. Isn't there more you want to say? If cost is an issue, the first five words are free." Lena thought a moment, and said, "OK, put, 'Ole died. Boat for sale.'"
PS: Any jokes I quote are paraphrased. I use a briefer delivery than the authors.

Would we live differently if the only way any of us could die is by accident? Would we get a bunker mentality? Or would we live like teenagers, who can't really believe even an accident can kill them? A movie like The Bucket List would garner no viewers, and probably couldn't even be made. Who would write the screenplay?

The authors, who both admit to being "a bit" beyond the Biblical threescore and ten, had plenty of background to scour as they gathered the best (put that in big quotes in a few cases) of past writings. The Heidegger and Hippo joke you'll have to look up for yourself; it comes near the end of the book. It turns on Martin Heidegger's inability to write a sentence anyone else can decipher. He is popular with a certain set of folks who can make free with almost any interpretation, because nobody knows what he meant anyway.

But Marty H. comes in the middle. Exploring the soul for example, they start with Plato and Socrates, cruise through Descartes, and land squarely in the camp of Otto Rank, rare among modern philosophers in thinking that the soul really is more than some "mind" program running on the brain's hardware (or wetware). Which leads to a survey of Heaven, or of different concepts about it. Two genres of Heaven emerge: the leafy glade (Eden) and the cloudy castles, sometimes gated by "pearly gates". (Another PS: Look at your book of Revelation again: The holy city with pearls for gates is clearly stated as coming down from heaven to reside on Earth. I guess before that happens, Revelation's author would side with the castle in the sky).

Face it, though, we're mostly just scared of death, and do our best not to think about it. Christians, such as I, might say, "Death doesn't scare me, but I am afraid of dying." Considering that dying is usually painful, it makes sense. I'd like to find a way into resurrection life that doesn't involve a trip through the death-and-resurrection process. This aspect didn't make its way into the book, but what did was Woody Allen's comment, "I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve immortality through not dying."

But what if we (or our doctors and scientists) achieve genuine physical immortality? If you think there is a population problem now, what about then?! This is the subject of the next-to-last chapter of the book (The subject of the last, and thirteenth, is "The End", appropriately enough). The authors have a preface to the chapter, called "Stop the Presses!". It refers to the requirement to reduce the birth rate to match the death rate. This has been the subject of many pieces of fiction; things like, nobody is allowed to have a child until someone dies to "make room"; all kinds of political infighting take place to determine who has the opportunity to have that child.

But if we were really immortal, barring accident, would we care that much? Aren't all our children "hostages to fortune," our hope to send something of ourselves into a future we won't, personally, inhabit? I am really into genealogy, and have tracked down about 1,000 ancestors. I have only one living ancestor, my father. He has six grandchildren. It seems likely he'll have living descendants at least through the 21st Century. What hopes and dreams are deposited in the living by their ancestors! Suppose all those 1,000 were living, then what? Some would be 600-700 years old. Now that would sure screw up the Social Security system!
The doctor said, "Which do you want first, the good news of the bad news?"
The patient said, "The good news."
"The tests indicate you have 24 hours to live."
"That's the good news??? What's the bad news?"
"I forgot to call you yesterday."

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