Lapham’s Quarterly: Death
Introduction by Lapham
01. [after contracting a deadly illness as a teenager] I hadn’t been planning any foreign travel, and yet here I was, waiting for my passport to be stamped at the once-in-a-lifetime tourist destination that doesn’t sell postcards and from whose museum galleries no traveler returns.
02. If it’s true that the universe consists of atoms and void and nothing else, then everything that exits–the sun and the moon, mother and the flag, Beethoven’s string quartets and da Vinci’s decomposing flesh, is made of the elementary particles of nature in fervent and constant motion, colliding and combining with one another in an inexhaustibly abundant variety of form and substance. No afterlife, no divine retribution or reward, nothing other than a vast turmoil of creation and destruction. Plants and animals become the stuff of human beings, the stuff of human beings food for fish. Men die not because they are sick but because they are alive.
03. Death…the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that when we are, death is not yet, and when death comes, we are not. — Epicurus
04. 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 sixty 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.
05. 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?’ assigned 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 forty 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.
Letters to a Young Poet by Rilke
-01- [A young man has sent two of his poems to Rilke and asked for a critique; Rilke’s response:] …Do not write love-poems; avoid at first those forms that are too facile and commonplace: they are the most difficult, for it takes a great, fully matured power to give something of your own where good and even excellent traditions come to mind in quantity. Therefore ave yourself from these general themes and seek those which your own everyday life offers you; describe your sorrows and desires, passing thoughts and the belief in some sort of beauty—describe all these with loving, quiet, humble sincerity, and use to express yourself, the things in your environment, the images from your dreams, and the objects of your memory… Try to raise the submersed sensations of that ample past; your personality will grow more firm, your solitude will widen and will become a dusky dwelling, past which the noise of others goes by far away. And if out of this turning inward, out of this absolution into your own world verses come, then it will not occur to you to ask anyone whether they are good verses. Nor will you try to interest magazines in your poems: for you will see in them your [???] natural possession, a fragment and a voice of your life… Therefore, my dear sir, I know no advice for you save this: to go into yourself and test the deeps in which your life takes rise… Perhaps it will turn out that you are called to be an artists. Then take that destiny upon yourself and hear it, its burden and a greatness, without ever asking what recompense might come from outside. For the creator must be a world for himself and find everything in himself and in Nature to whom he has attached himself.’
The Lobotomist: A Maverick Medical Genius and His Tragic Quest to Rid the World of Mental Illness by Jack El-hai
001. Today’s neuroscientists see the frontal lobes as a gatekeeper of sensation and a regulator of emotion, the hub of decision making and planning. Humans have the most fully developed frontal lobes in the animal kingdom, and recent studies have demonstrated that people with frontal lobe damage suffer harm to their insight and their recognition of their own defects.
002. Freeman writing: “I wrote that what the teacher had to say did not have to be important, indeed did not even have to be true, but it had to be interesting.”
003. For hundreds of years of Western medicine, a progression of practitioners who concerned themselves with illnesses of the mind—spiritualists, alienists, neurologists, psychiatrists, psychoanalysts, and psychologists—had debated whether mental disease originates in malfunctions of the brain or in an individual’s imperfect adjustments to life events and traumas. The two camps have battled each other without pause with one and then the other scrambling to the top.
–Insight is a terrible weapon and few people know how to use it constructively. When we realise, really get to know, what stinkers we are, it takes only a little depression to tip the scales in favour of suicide. –Walter Freeman
004. Freeman’s garrulous personality and his refusal to take criticism personally probably also contributed to the antagonism of Poppen and other critics. In he spring of 1948 at a cocktail party during the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association in Washington, Freeman approached psychoanalytically oriented opponent Henry Stack Sullivan with the greeting, “How goes it, Harry?” Sullivan’s response shocked Freeman. “He raised his fists overhead, contorted his face, thoroughly enraged, saying, “Why do you persist in annoying me?”
The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil by Phil Zimbardo
-001- The prosecutor and judge refused to consider any idea that situational forces could influence individual behavior. Theirs was the standard individualism conception that is shared by most people in our culture. It is the idea that the fault was entirely “dispositional,” the consequence of Sergeant Chip Frederick’s freely chosen rational decision to engage in evil.
-002- A full understanding of the dynamics of human behavior requires that we recognize the extent and limits of personal power, situational power, and systemic power.
-003- Changing or preventing undesirable behavior of individuals or groups requires an understanding of what strengths, virtues, and vulnerabilities they bring into a given situation. Then, we need to recognize more fully the complex of situational forces that are operative in given behavioral settings. Modifying them, or learning to avoid them, can have a greater impact on reducing undesirable individual reactions than remedial actions directed only at changing the people in the situation. That means adopting a public health approach in place of the standard medical model approach to curing individual ills and wrongs. However, unless we become sensitive to the real power of the System, which is invariably hidden behind a veil of secrecy, and fully understand its own set of rules and regulations, behavioral change will be transient and situational change illusory. Throughout this book, I repeat the mantra that attempting to understand the situational and systemic contributions to any individual’s behavior does not excuse the person or absolve him or her from responsibility in engaging in immoral, illegal, or evil deeds.
-004- A set of dynamic psychological processes is outlined that can induce good people to do evil, among them deindividuation, obedience to authority, passivity in the face of threats, self-justification, and rationalization. Dehumanization is one of the central processes in the transformation of ordinary, normal people into indifferent or even wanton perpetrators of evil. Dehumanization is like a cortical cataract that clouds one’s thinking and fosters the perception that other people are less than human. It makes some people come to see those others as enemies deserving of torment, torture, and annihilation. Preface
-005- For those suffering the mortal malady called cupiditas, whatever exists outside of one’s self has worth only as it can be exploited by, or taken into one’s self.