42 On art (poiesis) and the search for meaning in my life.

[I started writing this at 4:30 this morning. I don’t usually get up before 7:30, but my chemo meds keep me awake sometimes. I’m on a dexamethasone high. In other words I’m stoned. Let’s see how well this comes out. Well, I’m no longer stoned. It’s now 6 PM, and looking it over, I. think it’s fine, but I’ll let you be the final judge of that. It’s only a coincidence that this is the 42nd blog post in this series.]

Over the past few months, since I was diagnosed with cancer I have been on a search for the meaning of my life. I haven’t always recognized that in myself or acknowledged to myself that that’s what I was actually doing, but that is in fact what I have been doing pointedly and with urgency. There is probably nothing more capable of focussing the mind than facing a firing squad or a hearing a physician’s determination that one has an incurable cancer. The problem with the firing squad scenario is that there is no time for any reflection on the meaning of life before the bullets put an end to all reflection. At least with a cancer diagnosis, there is time for reflection. I have limited time left as a human expression in the biosphere, so I intend to use that time fully as a mortal in reflection on the meaning in my life, but more importantly as a generator of art, what Plato called poiesis.

In my life I was able to go to university and a get important post-graduate degrees in Sociology. Those years of study and reflection were exciting, stressful and tinged with contradiction at every turn and I got through them in spite of the system and not because of it, as I was fond of telling my students repeatedly over the years. I was able to learn many ‘things’ but the most important result of all of those years was my license to teach, to engage in an important aspect of my art.

Licenses are important. They are society’s way of legitimizing and concretizing in a title the fact that in the past one has acquired sufficient knowledge and capacity in a field of study or work to pass it on to others, operate equipment or on people, fix our plumbing and in a myriad of other situations. Over the years, my teaching was my art, although it was also my way of making a living and that contradiction was a constant source of irritation for me, and for people around me too, especially my long-suffering loved ones, Carolyn and the kids. During that time, though, I also engaged in the ‘plastic’ arts, in drawing, painting, and eventually in sculpture and printmaking. For most of my life I considered those latter pursuits the artistic part of my life. However, more recently, with my new sharpened mind engendered by my cancer diagnosis, I have been able to look back on my life and conclude that I was always an artist. I may have been born that way, but I think it was more an inadvertent result of my upbringing and the circumstances surrounding my birth and early years. I know now that my parents were also artists in their own ways. I know for a fact, because I worked with him at times, that my father struggled his whole working life with the contradictions he had to face every day having to earn a living doing things that were averse if not actually an insult to his inherent creativity. My father was a master craftsman, inventor, blacksmith and planerman. He was functionally illiterate too. My mother had a grade eight education and could read and write quite well. She had ten children, all still alive and kicking. Can we question her creativity? Definitely not her biological creativity, but she was creative in other ways too. She could sew up a storm and knit, cook like a pro and bake. Mygawd, could she bake! Later in life, after all the kids could look after themselves she took over my father’s workshop and started building all kinds of things out of wood. I still have a table by my bed that she built. It means a lot to me. Then, my father decided to sell the house and move into an apartment. That was the end of woodworking for my mother. She pretty much lost interest after that and it wasn’t long after she got Alzheimer’s dementia and that was that.

I feel I really need to explore in writing what my parents must have gone through during the time I was born and for some time after, and how that shaped who I became and am becoming still. I feel this exploration, my writing here, is part of my legacy, part of what I leave behind for you to learn from or simple contemplate as you would a painting on the wall in your living room, if you are fortunate enough to have a living room that is. My aim is that it engenders creativity in you, its beholders.✿

In any case, I was born on January 4th, 1947, which means I was conceived sometime in April of 1946. My parents were married on January 28th 1946. My father’s first wife, Yvonne Gaucher, died on June 22nd, 1945, seven months before my mother and father married. She died in childbirth after having five daughters. The baby, if it had survived, was to be called Roger, and I would not be. As the fates have it, he died and I was born 19 months later and they named me Roger. Can you imagine the stress my father was under? And my mother? My father had five daughters to look after. He made a call to my mother’s family in Alberta and my mother agreed to come help, look after the children and do all the domestic work. My mother and father had known each other in Alberta before he moved here with his family in 1937. Apparently my mother and dad’s first wife knew each other quite well. A short time later they were married. I can’t imagine what he was going through and we never talked about it.

Of course I was treated like a little prince. Not only was I the first boy in the family, but I had survived childbirth and so had my mother. I don’t really know what to make of my early days, not really. My mother soon had more children so my special status was soon eroded, but not much because my mother then proceeded to have four daughters in a row right after me leaving me the only boy with nine sisters. She had three more sons, interspersed with a couple more daughters.

So I have fourteen siblings in all, one of the older ones dying a few years ago of cancer. The rest of us are all still alive and kicking although a couple of my brothers-in-law have died last year. Many of my siblings are what I would call creative or artistic in work and in play. Five are afflicted with MS or another autoimmune disease. An altogether crazy bunch, but I love them all. What influence they’ve had in my life I can’t really say although they have been supportive when I needed it. And I really needed it when I was in my late teens and early twenties, depressed and suicidal. I could always count on my family. There was always a place for me at the table and a shoulder to cry on. Now I can say that I’m neither depressed, nor suicidal and I haven’t been for some time. Some people might argue that I have a right to be depressed, but I know now what depression is and it’s a waste of time. I don’t need it.

Alright, so what do I make of my life? Well, I’ve made it clear in a number of recent blog posts that I’m not chasing immortality. I’m a happy mortal kind of guy, but that doesn’t mean I’m looking forward to dying. My myeloma is being managed successfully and I may live for another ten years, who knows. When it’s my turn to die, that will be just fine. We all come to the end of the line. Songs have been written about it.

Still, it took a cancer diagnosis and what I thought was imminent death from an incurable cancer to ask the question: What meaning did my life have? What meaning does it have? In the face of death, is there any meaning? These are questions Tolstoy was preoccupied with. As Ernest Becker reports in Escape From Evil: “When Tolstoy came to face death, what he really experienced was anxiety about the meaning of his life. As he lamented in his Confessions: ‘What will come of my whole life…Is there any meaning in my life that the inevitable death awaiting me does not destroy?””

My answers to these questions came to me slowly at first over the last few weeks, then more pointedly only in the last few hours. I got answers by reading writers I knew would not fail in helping me answer these questions. The first was Ernest Becker and his book Escape from Evil (1974). Becker always knows the right words to say. He reminded me of the cultural significance of the fear of death and its significance for my personal encounter with death. Norbert Elias I read carefully. His book What is Sociology (1970) reacquainted me with my own discipline in a new, fresh way, a way of locating myself in time and space in a cultural project of criticism which clearly preceded me and will continue without me. But what of my career as a teacher? Recently I picked up a book that had been sitting in my library for thirty years untouched. It’s a book by James P. Carse called Finite and Infinite Games (see the note below). This is the book that triggered my recent reflections on my life as an artist. One section of his book deals specifically with art and culture and the relationships that we have with art as artists. I could have re-read Otto Rank’s Art and Artist but Carse does that for me. Rank’s book is always close to hand but it’s falling apart do to the handling it’s received over the years. Carse argues that the greatest struggle for any society is not with external enemies, but within itself. In society, we strive for titles, recognition for past achievements. But poietai (artists, inventors, storytellers, makers, etcetera according to Plato) are makers of possibilities. He writes (and this is a long quote):

The creativity of culture has no outcome, no conclusion. It does not result in art works, artifacts, products. Creativity is a continuity that engenders itself in others. [quoting Rank] ‘Artists do not create objects, but create by way of objects.’

Art is not art, therefore, except as it leads to an engendering creativity in its beholders. Whoever takes possession of the objects of art has not taken possession of the art.

Since art is never a possession, and always a possibility, nothing possessed can have the status of art. If art cannot become property, property is never art-as property. Property draws attention to titles, points backward toward a finished time. Art is dramatic, opening always forward, beginning something that cannot be finished.

Because it is not conclusive, but engendering, culture has no established catalogue of accepted activities. We are not artists by reason of having mastered certain skills or exercising specified techniques. Art has no scripted roles for its performers. It is precisely because it has none that it is art. Artistry can be found anywhere; indeed, it can only be found anywhere. One must be surprised by it. It cannot be looked for. We do not watch artists to see what they do, but to watch what persons do and discover the artistry in it.

Artists cannot be trained. One does not become an artist by acquiring certain skills or techniques, though one can use any number of skills and techniques in artistic activity. The creative is found in anyone who is prepared for surprise. Such a person cannot go to school to be an artist, but can only go to school as an artist.

Therefore, poets do not “fit” into society, not because a place is denied them but because they do not take their “places” seriously. They openly see its role as theatrical, its styles as poses, its clothing costumes, its rules conventional, its crises arranged, its conflicts performed, and its metaphysics ideological.

So, if my life has been about engendering engendering creativity in the beholder, I think I’ve done that, at least to my satisfaction. Obviously, the best judgments of my impact on people must come from them. Ask my former students and people who contemplate my art embodied in the works I have created and you’ll get varying answers. All I can say is my objectives in my classes and in my paintings, prints, drawings and sculptures have always been to engender a surprise and a new commitment to creativity. Therein lies some of the meaning in my life. I’ve been fortunate to have more. My children, grown women now, are the pride of my life and both creative in boundless ways. I could take credit for that, but Carolyn is largely responsible, I’m afraid, as I was absent a lot as they were growing up. Carolyn, in her own right, is a talented artist. She uses her garden as her main palette, but her skills as a cook are unsurpassed. I can’t take credit for anything they’ve accomplished as individuals, but as a family I think we rock!

That is all.

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✿This concept comes from a book by James P. Carse entitled Finite and Infinite Games, (The Free Press, 1986). Carse is a great inspiration to me, a true artist. I will review his book and its significance for me in a separate blog post soon.

41 – Plugged in!

Time to reëvaluate! (yes, an umlaut is traditional on the second e in this word). Call me a linguistic traditionalist. So, I’ve posted over forty entries in this blog directly or indirectly on my experience with myeloma. That’s over forty-five thousand words. That’s a lot. Now, the novelty of my daily chemo grind is wearing off and even though I’m thoroughly exhausted most of the time, I’m getting restless. I may force myself to draw this afternoon. There’s some lovely forsythia outside the living room window that I admire every day. Right now it’s vivid yellow, like the daffodils coming up here and there in the yard. I’ll see if I can draw them, if I can steady my hand enough.

With the SARS-2-Cov Novel Corona virus nipping at our heels, it’s tempting to move on to discuss Corvid-19 and leave my myeloma stuff on the back burner. Well, that’s not going to happen. I’m not keen to add anything to the overwhelming internet chatter on the pandemic. You won’t find any tips or suggestions on how to deal with it here. So, I’m going to move on to some extent. I’ll still post entries on my myeloma experience if they’re relevant and new and I will post material on myeloma and Covid-19 if that’s relevant too. For instance, there was a Webinar yesterday organized by Myeloma Canada specifically about myeloma and the pandemic. It didn’t add much to what I already know. In a few minutes the local Myeloma Support group is having a round table by Zoom. We’ll see how that goes. I’ll report back. Reporting back: well, that was interesting. Zoom is unknown territory for most people so it took some time to get the teleconference off the ground. But once launched, we got to see people we had only previously communicated with by email or on the phone. Some interesting conversation around drugs and dosages along with tips on navigating the medical system. Some discussion around what people are doing to stay safe in the face of Covid-19. Physical distancing seems to be the main strategy. I went to the hospital this morning (Monday, March 30th) to get bloodwork done. Chemo patients were supposed to be segregated from the others in the waiting room but somebody didn’t get the memo because that didn’t happen. There was one woman in there who coughed the whole time. At least she was wearing a mask. So was I, for that matter.

This is a great time to be a sociology, not such a great time to have myeloma, but then what would be a great time to have myeloma?

I’ve been re-reading What is Sociology? over the past few days giving me a renewed appreciation of Norbert Elias’ work. His language is different from conventional sociology, particularly functionalist sociology, and it’s a bit of a challenge to work with concepts like ‘figuration’,’ interweaving’, and ‘interdependencies’, language I’m not that familiar with. I get a lot from his work. I have a challenge for you too based on it.

So many of us, following the dominant capitalist morality in our world have a strong commitment to individualism and individuality. We crave to be ‘different’ from everybody else and we downplay our dependencies on others while we extoll the virtues of self-sufficiency. We laugh at people in their late teens and early twenties who still live with mommy and daddy and who obviously haven’t achieved the level of independence expected of them. I used to challenge my students. So, I’d say, “you think you’re self-efficient and independent. Well, think about this: Think about unplugging your home. Think about no more water lines, no electricity coming through the wires you never think about until it’s time to pay the bill. No sewer connection. No internet. No phone. No mommy and daddy wallet. Nothing. Now do you still think you’re self-sufficient? Now, shut down the grocery store to anything not grown or produced locally. I don’t mean just the food, I mean the packaging, the jars, the plastic milk containers. All of these things are produced in factories all over the world. You are connected to every worker in the banana plantations of Ecuador, the battery factories in Mexico, the food processing plants all over the world. You depend on them every day. Do you think about that when you peel a banana or put batteries in your headphones? What if we shut down Home Depot, Canadian Tire, Home Hardware, etc. The tools you buy there: Where do you think they are they made? Mostly China these days, in factories contracted by American corporations looking for cheap labour, and escape from Labour and Safety laws, and taxes. These corporations have exported their pollution to China. Not that that was ever a consideration in their decision-making. I could write a book on globalization and how we tend to misunderstand it based on old ways of thinking about the nature of countries, their sovereignty and their relations with other countries. Now the shit has hit the fan, and the whole globalist agenda is under question. But I don’t want to get into that right now. Instead, I want to challenge you in another way.

So, we tend to see ourselves as ‘substantiates’ (an Elias term), which means we see ourselves as things separate from other things. We contrast ourselves with larger things like ‘the environment’ or ‘society’, both we think of as real. Well, what if you asked yourself: What is it about me that is essential for my survival as an organism? Then, what is ‘outside’ of me that is essential for my survival? To start, let’s think about our biology.

Our survival depends on organismic integrity. That means that our bodies have to hang together. Of course, we don’t often think in those terms. It seems self-evident that our bodies hold themselves together, so to speak, with connective tissue, skin, bone, and various fluids. That said, our bodies soon cease to ‘hang together’ if we don’t incorporate ‘things’ from the outside to ensure this process continues. So, what ‘things’ from the outside of us are critical for our survival? Or put another way, if we didn’t ‘have’ these things, how long would we survive? One ‘thing’ we often take for granted is air. Suffocation is probably the quickest way of killing someone outside of blunt force trauma or other form of violence. No air=death in minutes. Again, passively speaking, the lack of water is probably second on the list of things the absence of which produces death fairly quickly. Probably food after that, although shelter, that is critical protection against extremes in temperature and weather, is also critical.

So, in summary, it’s fair to say that the human organism generally hangs together fairly well in the absence of blunt force trauma, evisceration, and amputations of various sorts. It cannot survive for long, however, without the right environmental conditions, air, water, and food. Nor can it survive without the means of waste evacuation. It’s really quite absurd, then, to think about ‘ourselves’ as independent of the ‘things’ out there that we need for survival. We don’t exist without them. See if you can imagine yourself ‘plugged in’. Imagine tubes entering your mouth for water and food, into your nose for air, attached to your butt for evacuating solids, and a catheter for you know where. The fact is that ‘you’ and ‘I’ extend far beyond the boundaries of our bodies. The way we see ourselves as independent things opposed to other independent things flies in the face of reality. So, yeah, we live in an illusory world.

Of course, the picture is much more complicated than even that. When we are conceived, at that moment, we begin to transform the world around us, into us using the ‘food’ available coming through the placenta and umbilical cord. That process continues after birth at an accelerating rate for many years before it slows down in early adulthood in an arc towards death. That’s where I’m at, on the arc towards death. Entropy rules. It’s no fun, but it rules.

In my next post I address the way we are socially connected over generations, in time, and in space. If Covid-19 is doing anything it’s highlighting our interdependence and mutual interests. Will we finally take our connections seriously?

Beware of Dr. Vendedor de Aceite de Serpiente.

On my very first post in this series on my experience with cancer, the last paragraph reads:

Please don’t suggest any treatments or diets or whatever. I won’t be going to Mexico for any heroic treatments. (If and when I feel better we may go to lie on a beach though.) I’m not desperate. I won’t be buying a juicer either and I’ll continue to eat the great, wholesome mostly unprocessed food that I currently eat but my body will follow, as it must, the second law of thermodynamics. I’m okay with that.

I still feel that way. I’ve clearly decided to go the chemotherapy route so I won’t, in desperation, try on some homeopathic ‘treatment’ or ‘cure’ for the myeloma that is my curse for the rest of my life. Neither will I do anything to boost my immune system. It’s my immune system that is partly responsible for spreading my bone marrow cancer to distal regions of my body by facilitating the movement of the myeloma protein in my blood via macrophages (if I read that right). No. My immune system is fine for dealing with outside sources of infection, but it can’t do anything about preventing internal insurrection by oncogenes and the like.

Lately, I’ve had a couple of other bloggers read my posts, bloggers with agenda. Barbara Gannon has a blog called Cancer is not A Death Sentence and another is by Brian Shelley and it’s called CANCER WARRIORS. I believe both Gannon and Shelley are sincere and well-meaning. Not only that, they display a passionate belief in what they’re doing. Gannon has found alternative dietary and medicinal ways of dealing with cancer. Shelley found God. The battle metaphor is the same for both bloggers. If you’ve been following my blog you’ll know that I am not likely to be convinced by either approach to dealing with my cancer. For one, we are all individuals with very different bodies, different genetic makeups, at different ages, with different genders, and different underlying physiological and anatomical dynamics. Cancer, although it is basically pathological mitosis, is expressed differently in each of us. What works for you in response to any given cancer at whatever stage it’s at may not work for me. Some people argue that cancer is cancer and it can be beaten no matter what. I don’t subscribe to that perspective. Some people may be misdiagnosed so it’s no big surprise when their situation improves. It was probably nothing to start with. Some cancers in certain people may go into spontaneous remission. Cancer and its various treatments are highly complex and I’ll go with science in dealing with it as much as I can. Anecdotal evidence just doesn’t cut it for me.

That said, conventional Western research science, medicine, and pharmacology are not perfect. Scientists, medical doctors, and pharmacologists are human and have human ambitions, needs, and varying moral standards. Some even cheat. Still, I think the scientific research protocols are the best way of finding out what’s going on in the world. All claims of miracle cures for cancer that I’ve run across are based on anecdotal evidence: The “I beat cancer. You can too.” type of thing. I’m not saying these claims aren’t real, only that they can’t be generalized and applied to everyone who has cancer. One problem I find difficult to deal with is the absence of ongoing scrutiny of the claims of miracle cures. I had a friend and colleague who tried everything to survive his cancer a few years ago, including juicing and trips to Mexico, but nothing worked and he died. But, again, that’s anecdotal evidence pertaining to one case only.

Of course there are huge ethical issues when doing double-blind scientific research on the effectiveness of treatment protocols. Siddhartha Mukherjee in his book The Emperor of all Maladies deals with many of the ethical issue in oncology. Recruiting people with cancer for a clinical trial, then assigning half to a treatment group and half to a placebo group is ethically charged. The placebo group is definitely at a disadvantage if the treatment works. The question then is when to switch them into treatment while still maintaining the integrity of the research project.

Nutritional studies are notoriously difficult to conduct in any kind of scientific way. This website addresses that issue and notes that some nutritional studies have been very successful, like the one finding that sailors died of scurvy because of vitamin C deficiency. But, overall, nutritional studies are notoriously difficult to carry out and are almost impossible to conduct using the standard double-blind protocol. The website ends with a statement garnered from a meeting of several nutrition researchers who find that a balanced diet is the best diet. They also note that: “Anyone who tells you it’s more complicated than that — that particular foods like kale or gluten are killing people — probably isn’t speaking from science, because, as you can see now, that science would actually be near impossible to conduct.” More on nutrition below.

Naturopathic cures and treatments.

I have no problem with naturopathy for some kinds of issues and treatments, but I have been highly sceptical of some of their diagnostic protocols, especially things like vega testing. This website debunks all kinds of naturopathic and other diagnostic protocols. The website Science Based Medicine is always a good place to check out whether or not a claim for this or that treatment is effective from a scientific perspective. Noting that here may betray my bias for science, but I have no issues with that. However, I also acknowledge that science based medicine is now being challenged more and more by what’s called evidence-based science. There are huge issues with evidence-based research, not the least of which a lot of it is funded by industry with serious conflict of interest consequences.

My interest is mainly in cancer research and treatments. This article from the Fred Hutch Cancer Research Centre provides a fair analysis of how oncologists can address patients who are reluctant to undergo chemotherapy because of the side effects. It argues that if a patient wants to go an alternative route they should still maintain contact with an oncologist who can monitor their ‘progress’.

This website called Nature Works Best highlights the research and findings of Dr. Colleen Huber, a naturopath who’s clinic offers alternative cancer treatments. I read her article detailing her work with 379 individuals with cancer. She claims a very high rate of success from 92% for the low-hanging fruit (as I call it) and as low as 29% for patients in advanced stages of certain types of cancer. She seems to have the most success with breast cancer patients who have already had surgery. It’s hard, then, to figure out where to ascribe responsibility for remission. Thirty-two of her patients died after following her protocols. She claims that many of the other ‘failures’ (deaths) are due to patients not following her advice, especially to not eat sugar, which she claims feeds cancer cells. Her table looking at each of the 379 patients is telling. I read it very carefully, and frankly I can’t see how she can boast a 92% success rate. One of the problems is that there are twenty or so varieties of breast cancer. She doesn’t tell us which or these varieties she’s actually treating. And ‘treatment’ like I said is often post-surgery.

She has had four myeloma patients and one MGUS (describing a sort-of pre-myeloma condition. She claims that one of those patients travelled a lot and eventually died of pneumonia. Another died after leaving treatment against her best advice. A third she reported in remission but now having problems (“R, then recent elevated blood labs”). This patient reported extreme fatigue with no change due to treatment. The fourth, she reported is in apparent remission (“AR Imp quickly; could not afford to continue treatment. Then recurrence; then stem cell tx. R”) So, the stem cell transplant seems to have done the trick. I can’t see how her treatments helped at all. Myeloma is incurable by all reports so it’s disingenuous to not be clear on that point in her documentation. Her table doesn’t mention the age of the patient. That’s a critical piece of information, in my mind.

Snake oil salespeople and over-the-top woo.

You could always get a coffee enema. There are clinics nearby. Read all about it! Then you can read what Science Based Medicine has to say about it. Or you can try medical marijuana as a treatment. Here’s what the American National Cancer Institute has to say about that. It suggests that there is no evidence that cannabis or any cannabinoids can treat cancer. It does note, however, that THC may be useful for advanced cancer patients in dealing with pain and issues around appetite. Alternatively, you could try an alkaline diet. See what Robert David Grimes has to say about this in a 2017 article in The Guardian. Grimes has a lot to say too about other alternative therapies too. Check out his article if you’re interested. You can always try juicing, but even the alternative of alternatives, the Oasis of Hope hospital in Tijuana, Mexico, doesn’t advocate juicing carrots: too high in sugar. To be clear, the Oasis of Hope does use chemotherapy as a treatment, but it’s much better known for alternative therapies.

What I’m not arguing here.

I’m not suggesting here that a proper diet, not smoking, drinking in moderation, etcetera are not important. They are. However, nutritional or dietary strategies for cancer treatment are largely unfounded.

I know that there are herbalists who have a strong commitment to assisting us in our drive for healthy living and I respect that. But when it comes to cancer, the Cancer Council of Victoria in Australia has assessed the contribution of herbs in cancer treatment and says:

Herbal medicines are often used to help with the side effects of conventional cancer treatments, such as lowering fatigue and improving wellbeing. Evidence shows they should be used in addition to conventional therapies, rather than as an alternative. AND

Although herbs are natural, they are not always safe. Taking the wrong dose or wrong combination or using the wrong part of the plant may cause side effects or be poisonous (toxic). Also, herbs used with chemotherapy, radiation therapy and hormone therapy can cause harmful interactions. All herbs should be prescribed by a qualified practitioner.

I was cautioned not to drink green tea as it counteracts the effects of bortezomib, one of the meds I’m on. There are other contraindications too. And just because indigenous people have used some plants to treat all kinds of ills, it’s probably not a good idea for us to apply indigenous strategies willy-nilly. For example, cedar tea although very high in Vitamin C can be very toxic but people are drinking it and I expect they are not always in full knowledge of its effects on the short or long term. Carolyn and I have used products from Harmonic Arts and from a local herbalist to good effect but not specifically for treating my myeloma. That said, there is ongoing promising research. There is evidence that curcumin, a compound found in turmeric, can act as a proteasome regulator, and could work with drugs like bortezomib to suppress the growth of cancer cells in some types of cancer. A report in MyelomaCrowd notes that curcumin needs to be modified to stay in the body longer if it is to be effective against cancer cell proliferation.

I’m all for caution when it comes to my cancer treatment. I’m not happy being on chemotherapy but I don’t see any alternatives out there that are trustworthy or based on more than anecdotal evidence. I think I’ll stay the course. That said, I will continue to eat well, have the odd beer, rest but also get some exercise (as much as my condition allows me to).

Stay safe out there!

Two Days in my Diary

8:00 AM Thursday, March 19th.

On Wednesday we went to the hospital to see my local oncology GP. We reviewed my lab results and my progress to date and he was very positive about how things are going. It looks like more chemo for me until at least September, then off of them for three months after which I get bloodwork done again to see how things are going. If everything is okay we carry on for another three months. If the myeloma is again active, they’ll put me on another course of chemotherapy. He said that we should consider my disease more like a chronic disease, diabetes say, rather than as a virulent, deadly one. So, that’s all good, but I still have lots of chemotherapy ahead of me and that’s no cake walk.

In this post, I want to give you a blow-by-blow idea of what happens to me after I take my chemo meds on Thursday and Friday. I would love to hear from any of you who have had chemo so as to compare our experiences.

I have just made it so that anyone can comment on my posts. You don’t have to be a registered WordPress user to comment! Yay! Give it a try please!

Today is a good day so far. That will change in a while when I get my chemo meds. Oh, I have some joint pain and fatigue, but that’s my new normal anyway.

11:15 AM

Off to the hospital to get my chemo meds for the next four weeks along with a bortezomib shot.

1:20 PM

This time they wouldn’t let Carolyn come with me to the Cancer Clinic so she waited for me in the car. That’s because she had a cold and they’re rightfully paranoid about Covid-19. We drove home from the hospital carrying my load of pills to take for the next four weeks. I take 13 cyclophosphamide and 5 dexamethasone once a week on Thursdays. We had a bit of lunch a while ago and I’m starting to feel the effects of the meds, but not intensely yet. Tingling body is always where it starts. Today I decided to sleep off the afternoon hoping to cut off some of the worse effects of the meds.

4:30 PM

I’m actually feeling pretty good after sleeping for most of the afternoon. I’m lightheaded, that’s for sure, more than yesterday, so it’s started. The dexamethasone is starting to take effect. I’m feeling tingly all over. It’s still too early to assess how dex will affect me today. The dex effect has changed over the past few weeks. My body seems to be tolerating it better. I’m not getting the crazy twenty coffee high I was getting earlier during the first two cycles of treatment. My stomach is unsettled as it has been for the duration of my treatments. It’s a very odd sensation. Urination is still a problem although not as severe as early on in my treatments, so we’re thinking that the antibiotic might have done something, but we’re not sure. I checked to numbers from my last blood tests and my ferritin levels have dropped from over a thousand to now under six hundred. That’s great news because it does indicate that any inflammation I have had is decreasing. That said, my Lambda Free Light Chains (you have them too) are increasing and I’m not crazy about that. We’ll see what my next lab tests show. If they go up some more, I’ll be really pissed.

8:00 PM

Dex is starting to do its thing. ‘Sleep’ will be interesting tonight. I just took my usual bunch of pills but I’m taking two Benadryl tablets to counteract the usual itching and swelling around my bortezomib injection site. I’m also taking a Dulcolax tablet to counteract the constipation that comes with hydromorphone. That seems to be working. The burping has started but isn’t severe yet. That will come tomorrow. I’ll save more entries here until tomorrow. I’ll be in bed soon in any case.

8:00 AM Friday March 20th

So, last night was a dex sleep meaning that it’s a sort of sleep or at least a state akin to sleep. It’s hard to explain. I feel that I haven’t slept at all. Looking at the clock every fifteen minutes or so seems to confirm that but I may be dreaming all of that. I don’t know. I think the Benadryl is helping me counteract the dex, but I can’t be sure. I’m wide awake this morning having got up at 6:45 after Princess (the cat) came to me screaming for food. I ignored her, but it was too late. No point in staying in bed. I’m having very interesting experiences with pain lately too and this morning is no exception. I have pain spiking here and there but nothing constant. It usually comes when I move so I just sit still a lot! I know I have to get up and move around, and I do, but I then pay for it later. Last night I had no issues with my peripheral neuropathy (extremity pain and numbing) which is unusual. Usually peripheral neuropathy keeps me awake or tossing and turning. I’ll do more stretching today to see if that helps with that in the coming week. I’ve been doing a fair bit of stretching for my neck and back pain and that seems to help my peripheral neuropathy. Burping has resumed. Fuzzy head…not too severe yet, blunted by the dex. I find it fascinating to observe what’s happening to my body as I go through cycle after cycle of chemo. The effects change every time, sometimes drastically, sometimes almost imperceptibly. The interactions between the various meds I’m taking make it difficult to trace drug to effect. I’m trying to relax as much as I can. Stress doesn’t help. I think I’m doing okay on that front.

10:30 AM

The dex is starting to really kick in now. Elevated pulse rate and feeling very lightheaded. Overall, though, because I know what to expect I’m not getting stressed out. I feel it’s so important for people in chemo to very carefully track the effects. It’s so important to read the information sheets that come with the various drugs we take. In the case of my urinary issues, I called my GP with what are classic urinary tract infections (UTI) symptoms but only after Carolyn read the information sheets urging us to call in if we have signs of UTIs. We have to keep on top of it because I can’t afford to get an infection of any kind. Now I’m getting the shakes too. Par for the course. Time for tea.

12:25 PM

Well, the dex has kicked in with a vengeance. My cheeks are flushed, I’m hyper yet exhausted, unsteady on my feet, but we’re going to have lunch up by our pond. Yes! I can still write, but who knows about later today or tomorrow. Then, I may be good only for watching YouTube videos about people rebuilding their old sailboats, or doing woodwork, sometimes both. It’s all very exciting. I haven’t seen any videos yet on watching paint dry, but it came close on a video about somebody applying bottom paint to their sailboat a couple of hours before it was to go back in the water after being on dry land for weeks.

8:00 PM

Dex is still with me but now I’m feeling really exhausted so I may sleep better tonight. I generally sleep quite well. Dex nights (Thursday nights) are exceptional. I’ll be taking my meds now: Hydromorphone, Benadryl, and Dulcolax. It still burns when I pee and I have to pee often. My eyes are burning but that’s probably as much an effect of age as it is of the chemo. I’ve got the shakes still, probably until well into tomorrow. Pain is manageable. Exhaustion inevitable. I’ll go to bed in an hour or so, do a bit of reading then sleep (I hope). Goddamn burping! So annoying.

AND please comment! Especially those of you who have had chemo treatments in the past. You can do so now without being a WordPress user.

While Covid-19 has me bottled up…

Covid-19 has the whole world in an anxiety attack. The appearance of this special strain of Coronavirus is a direct but obviously unintended consequence of globalization. I spoke with Marika and David this morning and we collectively concluded that the appearance of Covid-19 in particular is pretty much due to the rapid expansion of global air travel some forty years ago created partly by the needs of globalization. The shipping container was a major factor in globalization as was the internet, but air travel brought warm human and humid bodies from one end of the planet to the other ripe for the spread of this kind of virus. Wow!

What a world transforming situation we are in at the moment. I don’t think it will have a long term effect on global capitalist production because it would cost hundreds of billions of dollars to re-tool ‘Western’ countries that have for some time now created a commodity-production system based on a complex of independent, unconnected factories producing individual parts for products that are then assembled in a factory designed to do just that. Wuhan, in China is a place where thousand of contractors and factories work for American and Western corporations in general making bits and pieces of everything to then be assembled in factories there or here for our consumption as hardware such as drills, heaters, washing machines, television sets, baby cribs, etcetera, as well as clothes, blankets, and sundry other wearables and that sort of thing. Of course, China isn’t the only place where this happens. Name a country in South Asia or South East Asia and the same thing is happening there. Viet Nam actually specializes in nails and fasteners for the construction industry, or to put it differently, Western corporations have chosen Viet Nam for this role. Bangladesh does clothes, so does Sri Lanka. But they all dabble in a range of products depending on the deals they can arrange with corporations who crave the absence of taxes, low wages and the dearth of health and safety regulations in the export processing zones set up specifically for this purpose in these countries.

As far as I’m concerned, Covid-19 has just made it so that I’m even more isolated than I was before. I’m at the pinnacle of vulnerability. I’m over sixty-five, I’m immuno compromised, I have an underlying illness and I’m fighting off some kind of bacterial infection at the moment that the docs are still trying to identify. If I get Covid-19, my chances of survival are slim to none. Well, something’s going to kill me. I’d like to wait a bit though to find out what that will be and I hope it’s not this virus.

I have a lot on my mind at the moment. I mean, what else have I got to do with my time but sit here and think? The reality of my own death is always close to mind and is stimulated constantly by programs like the recent one on the CBC White Coat Black Art program that deals with end of life care and how we as a society deal with it, or more precisely, don’t deal with it. Check it out here.

Most of you are way too young to have seen the movie Fantastic Voyage when it first came out in 1966, but this movie with Raquel Welch and Stephen Boyd was an inspiration for a generation of special effects techs to come. So, get this: a famous scientist is sick. He has a problem with his brain. A group of intrepid (they’re always intrepid) colleagues of his and some other brave adventurers get themselves shrunk in a special ‘ship’ that then is injected into the bloodstream of said sick doctor. Mayhem ensues of course as well as the necessary redemption. The trailer says it all.

The movie is hugely fantastical, but intriguing too. I imagine a little ship in my own veins going into my bone marrow to see what all the fuss is about and maybe do battle with the evil forces that are invading my body intent on killing me. It’s all fun to think about. The movie is a hoot. Thinking about what’s going on in my bone marrow, not so much.

I’m also thinking about life and death in general, following the last three blog posts I put out there for your reading pleasure. Serendipitously, Maria Popova, the immensely creative force behind the website ‘brain pickings‘ put out a piece on the work of John Muir (1838-1914). It’s well worth having a read through. It pretty much expresses in highly poetic prose what I wish I had written about the way I see the universe and our place in it. Popova quotes Muir:

One is constantly reminded of the infinite lavishness and fertility of Nature — inexhaustible abundance amid what seems enormous waste. And yet when we look into any of her operations that lie within reach of our minds, we learn that no particle of her material is wasted or worn out. It is eternally flowing from use to use, beauty to yet higher beauty; and we soon cease to lament waste and death, and rather rejoice and exult in the imperishable, unspendable wealth of the universe, and faithfully watch and wait the reappearance of everything that melts and fades and dies about us, feeling sure that its next appearance will be better and more beautiful than the last.

It’s only the last line I have any issue with because I don’t think there is any guarantee that the new will be better and more beautiful than what came before. But that’s really a quibble. The continuity of the biological world, and of the social world, make them seem eternal, immortal. No wonder we tend to deify them. For the BaMbuti of the Ituri forest (as reported by Colin Turnbull in the book The Forest People) before colonialism completely annihilated them, the forest was their mother. They didn’t deify the forest but they recognized that life emanated from her every pore. For other cultures, those living under the threat of imminent disaster, deification was common, something that Weber recognized in his Sociology of Religion a hundred years ago as did many others before him and since then.

Well. that’s all I can squeeze out of this poor brain of mine for the moment. Enjoy your social distance and get out into the sunshine.

Me, my Body and I: Part 3

It’s time to wrap up this diatribe. Like I said at the end of my second post in this series, I’ve strayed a long way from the usual content of this blog. After this post I have to reconsider my work here. I’m getting into the long stretch of road in my chemotherapy treatments. I’m getting tired and you must be getting tired of reading this stuff. The end of this part of my road is at least six months away. Things are looking good according to my lab results, but who knows. Every day brings something new which may be fodder for this blog, maybe not. Whatever. I do have to tell you about a recent weird experience I’ve been having, but that will be for my next post.

In this post, the third in the series about what will happen to ‘me’ after “I” die, I want to suggest that our conception of our selves, especially our idea that we are beings composed of mind, body and soul, is socially-constructed. In a sense though, it matters not where these ideas come from if they have a real impact on my life.

By way of an example, if I have a stroke, for instance, I may attribute it to a curse put upon me by a disgruntled recently past relative for a purported wrong that I did him. However, it’s far more likely that my stroke was brought on by a busted artery in my brain. Nonetheless, the stroke and its consequences are what they are never mind their provenance. Durkheim stated that no religion is false. By that he meant that, in my example above, the stroke is real no matter where and how we think it originated. A more contemporary sociologist who wrote extensively on religion, Peter Berger, argues that much of what we call religious behaviour and even religious thinking and hypothesizing cannot be understood by deduction or reduction. He proposes that we use induction to figure out the ‘reality’ of religious experience, that we start with how we feel and experience in real terms, in our living beings, and acknowledge those feelings as real before we attempt any kind of explanation of them. This kind of fits with Unamuno’s views, although Berger is much more prosaic than Unamuno the poet-philosopher.

The provenance of the ‘soul’ is interesting and there is much speculation about it as originating in our dreams, for instance, or during hallucinogenic experiences, but once a belief in the ‘soul’ is socially established it, it has real world consequences.

Today, I intended to address the work of Emile Durkheim and Ernest Becker with maybe a little Max Weber, Karl Marx and Norbert Elias thrown in for good measure but I’ve decided not to do that in any formal sense. I have come to accept the futility of trying to summarize very complex arguments from a number of writers and how they interconnect at least in a relatively short blog post. I’m not here to convince you that I’m right anyways.

That said, all the above characters were sociologists except for Ernest Becker and he would definitely qualify as an honorary sociologist. They all conclude that religion and all ideas concerning souls, demons, angels, gods, and various other supernatural beings originate in society (i.e., in the family, school, church, law courts, governments, etcetera) defined very broadly. However, whatever their origin, religious, metaphysical ideas have real world consequences according to these guys. That’s clear.

Before getting any further into this post, I want to tell you a little story. You might be shocked to learn that I wasn’t always the model son. Sometimes I could be downright annoying and troublesome for my mom, and she didn’t deserve any bullshit from me. But she got some anyway. I remember one time (of several) when I was particularly obnoxious and teased my poor mom relentlessly.

I said to my mom: “Ma, if you had been abandoned on a desert island as a baby and were raised by monkeys, would you still be the same person you are now.”

“Yes,” she says, “of course.”

I retorted: “But what language would you talk? Would you talk monkey talk? What things would you believe? Would you believe in God?”

She replied something along these lines: “I would believe in God and I’d be the same person I am today. I don’t know any other languages besides French and English and why would I believe anything different than I do now?”

That was my mom. She wasn’t stupid by any measure, but she was ignorant in many ways mostly because she was busy raising a pack of kids and she was way too tired to be very curious and she couldn’t read metaphysics. By her answers to my questions she demonstrated a naïveté that ran deep but that allowed her to live her life in relative contentment. If my mom was ignorant in some ways, she was very knowledgeable in others. She raised tons of children, made bread like a pro and was a dedicated member of her church (although she didn’t know much about Catholic theology beyond what was in the Sunday missal). Later in her life she took up woodworking and was good at it, that is until my dad decided to sell the house and the shop from under her. After that, she fell into dementia and never recovered. I think she lost her appetite for life at that point. I loved my mom, I really did, and I regret teasing her. That’s one of my big regrets in life.

So, what was it about my mother’s responses that is significant for me here? I guess I was shocked by her very strange idea of her personhood and her unstated notion that ‘she’ was an unchanging, unchangeable being regardless of her surroundings and upbringing. It’s plain to me and I expect to most people that everything we know we’ve learned from others, either directly from other people in our homes, schools, churches, and from books or from any number of other sources. Of course, that includes any kind of ‘spiritual’ ideas we may have as well as our sense of immortality. Elias argues that we are not the individualists we think we are. He says humans are really interdependencies and interweavings. No human ever stands alone given the richness of the sources of our ‘selves’. The language(s) we speak, our gender, our cognitive skills, intelligences, values, religious/spiritual beliefs, etcetera are all learned, that is, socially derived.

It’s clear to me that my mother denied the influence of any possible ‘foreign’ source of her personhood. Obviously, there is no way my mother could know of her Catholic God if she was raised by monkeys on a desert island. The concept of God, like of language, and table manners is learned. How would my mom learn about the Catholic God? Many societies have concepts of God or gods or some such supernatural beings. There are hundreds (and there have been thousands) of religions on the planet, each with its own unique conception of immortality and supernatural beings (if they conceive of any). Babies born into those societies learn the rules and values of their specific communities. Why would my mother not realize that her position was untenable? I would suggest that her commitment to her beliefs outweighed any sense she might have had about the logical inconsistency of her position. She was like a Trump supporter in that sense. She may have been yanking my chain, but I doubt it.

Which god do you worship (if any)? Well, if you do still worship a god, probably the one your parents do (or did). These days, however, there is a movement towards more individualistic, personal forms of spirituality, a trend which fits in nicely with capitalist morality, individualism and consumerism while allowing people to retain a belief in the immortality of the ‘soul.’ It’s also true that significant numbers of people are now defaulting to atheism or agnosticism in greater numbers than ever before, a movement also compatible with capitalist morality. There is still a great deal of intergenerational retention going on today even if there are obvious exceptions. So the frontier mentality of rugged individualism and fending for yourself is still a thing in the Twenty-first Century. Of course, as individuals, we can be creative, and come up with new ideas and ways of doing things but we always do so using materials, processes and relationships that already exist. How else could it happen?

The truth is, we, none of us, can conceive of anything absolutely new under the sun. Everything we invent, think about, or imagine has roots in our interactions and interdependencies with other people via our social relations, past and present. The present is always built on the past. Inventions are generally new conceptions of how to use and combine already existing technologies or ideas. That means that new religious denominations or churches are invariably modifications on past ones. How many variations on Christianity are there? Lots…I haven’t counted them. Which one is the ‘true’ variant?

As I note above, one perspective all the writers and thinkers I mention above have in common is that they all agree that religion and our ideas of personhood originate in society as does the belief in immortality. Durkheim, for example, argues that the concept of God is actually a personification of society, a personification that can then be used to judge the behaviour of adherents still living. Elias in his book What is Sociology? builds a conception of individual/societal interaction by using a metaphor of a card game. In his metaphor, a card game is happening with four or five players. The game has rules, of course, to which all players must adhere. Then, one person decides to leave the game and another person joins in. That change of players does not affect the game, nor the rules. The new player must adhere to the rules like the drop-out did. The game is a metaphor for society. We are born into society, learn all the rules, then leave (die). Society goes on. The game goes on. Society, seen from this perspective, is supra-human. It exists above and independently of any individual yet has control over all individuals and circumscribes the parameters of possible ideas and decisions individuals can make. No wonder we come to think of it as divine.

Because society is supra-human and veritably invisible to most people, it’s not a stretch to understand why people ascribe to it a supernatural existence disconnected from their individual lives. Because it IS disconnected to their individual lives in a real sense. As Elias would say, the game goes on no matter what individuals do as players. To which Durkheim would add: the individual ‘soul’ is in the game but is actually a piece of the collective, social SOUL. Therein lies our idea of its immortality. Society exists before us and after us. It’s virtually immortal. Our souls are immortal because they are a piece of the greater social SOUL.

Durkheim defines religion as: “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden — beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.” (from Elementary Forms of Religious Life, 1912) For Durkheim, sacred things are by definition social things and the sacredness of things can change with changing social conditions.

Ernest Becker goes much further than Durkheim when he argues that culture as a whole is sacred. For Becker there is no distinction between profane and sacred. It’s culture as a whole that promises people immortality. In fact, he argues that “Each society is a hero system that promises victory over evil and death.” (from Escape From Evil, 1975, page 124)* Of course, no society can promise such a thing. Becker writes:

But no mortal, nor even a group of as many as 700 million clean, revolutionary mortals, [in reference to China] can keep such a promise, no matter how loudly or how artfully he protests or they protest, it is not within man’s means to triumph over evil and death. For secular societies the thing is ridiculous: what can “victory” mean secularly? And for religious societies victory is part of a blind and trusting belief in another dimension of reality. Each historical society, then, is a hopeful mystification or a determined lie. (EFE, page 124)

Marx would have agreed with Becker here but he concluded that religion was the opium of the people, a salve to soothe the savage treatment that most people received under capitalism (as one might find depicted by Charles Dickens.) He found that religious beliefs were instrumental in mollifying the masses and having them accept class inequality under capitalism. Weber also recognized the class basis of religion although his definition of class was not the same as Marx’s. Weber, in his Sociology of Religion, addresses the early rise of religious behaviour in human interaction with drastic natural events like floods, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, tornadoes, etcetera, the ‘soul’ in its various iterations and manifestations, and ritual. He argues that the forms of gods varies depending on natural and social conditions.

In conclusion, I just want to re-emphasize the notion that according to the sociologists I mention here as well as countless other sociologists and social scientists I don’t mention, ‘society’ is the source of our beliefs about the immortality of our person by way of our ‘souls.’ There is no ‘supernatural’ teacher that teaches us our values around immortality, and any ideas we have around these notions come from notions already just laying about out there waiting to be picked up and incorporated into our world view. In other words, our ideas around the immortality of the ‘soul’ do not result from perceived connection to an immortal God or gods, but from the immortality of society.

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*There is no substitute for reading Becker because his argument forms a cohesive whole. Pulling a quote out of his book, although provocative, is probably not helpful although I do it. I can’t help myself. If it spurs people to go read Escape From Evil so be it. Many of my early posts on this blog constitute a review of EFE. That would be a place for you to start in trying to understand his work. Just type Becker in the search box in my blog and you’ll find the relevant posts all numbered and everything or you can start here: https://rogerjgalbert.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post-new.php?post_type=post&jetpack-copy=874. You can then work your way through the archives on my blog site.

Durkheim (Elementary Forms of Religious Life) and Weber (The Sociology of Religion) both have sections of their books on the soul. Do a bit of research if you’re curious. Dr. Google is full of stuff on these guys and I’ve got all the books for local people to borrow if you’re interested. Elias is great. His book The Civilizing Process is well worth the read.

Me, my Body and I: Part 2

To begin I want to dwell for a minute on Sigmund Freud’s ideas about the human personality. It’s a secular formulation, not surprising as Freud was an atheist. I’ll get to more religious formulations in a bit but Freud shows how personality can be conceived as being made up of three ‘parts’: the id, or libido (sexual energy), the ego, and the superego. The ego, in this scheme of things as I understand it, is the part of the personality where the needs of the id and the superego are negotiated and worked out. The superego is that manifestation of the human personality that accounts for social norms, values and morality. The fact is that the id, ego, and superego are not really ‘parts’ of the human personality, but manifestations of the various and often contradictory needs inherent in the id and superego. In other words, they are not things and can only really be identified by what they do or manifest.

For example, the id of a young man (I can attest from personal experience) may be consumed, or at least, pre-occupied with thoughts of sex, sex and more sex. The superego, on the other hand says, wait up there cowboy, you can’t have sex with anyone or anything at any time. There are social rules around these things. Listen up! NO sex with your sisters, brothers, or your mother, nor with sheep, goats, or monkeys! You hear? The id counters by arguing: well, what am I supposed to do with all this energy? You tell me I’m not even allowed to masturbate! That’s not fair! In these ‘debates’ sometimes the id wins, more often the superego does. There are people who have no social conscience or social ‘brakes’ to their behaviour. We call them psychopaths or sociopaths. People with rampant, out-of-control ids can be very dangerous as sexual predators and can be uncontrollably violent. Freud’s scheme has to be considered along with other aspects of what it means to be human such as bodily integrity, intelligence, and upbringing. Personality is very idiosyncratic if you haven’t noticed. It’s all very complex but it’s what accounts for our individuality.

What Freud’s personality scheme does for my purposes here is to highlight the fact that we can easily conceive of our personalities made up of semi-independent parts. This idea is integrally important to the religious, spiritually-minded, and Christian (certainly) notion that we are made up of body, consciousness, and soul, different aspects of us that are related but have a life of their own, so to speak. To think of the soul as immortal, it’s critical to separate it from the body which dies although some religionists, especially Darbyists* (who would probably find the 1991 film Rapture right up their alley), would prefer to go to heaven with their bodies intact. Rapture (the film) depicts end-of-time second coming of Jesus and the ascension of the human body and soul to heaven. Some religionists are very keen to see their physical bodies live eternally but they’ll settle for their consciousness or soul carrying on after their bodies die.

This is the position of Miguel de Unamuno, the Spanish Basque scholar who was for a long time the don of Salamanca University in Bilbao. I introduced you to Unamuno in one of my recent posts. I refer to Unamuno here because he is such a keen advocate for the immortality of the soul. He published The Tragic Sense of Life in 1920. It’s a rambling poetic rant and an impassioned plea to realize the limitations of reason in coming to grips with the most important problem he reckons facing us all and that is the immortality of our souls. For Unamuno, the longing for the immortality of our souls is what makes us human. He writes:

“That is to say that you, I, and Spinoza wish never to die and that this longing of ours never to die is our actual essence. Nevertheless, this poor Portuguese Jew, exiled in the mists of Holland, could never attain to believing in his own personal immortality, and all his philosophy was but a consolation which he contrived for his lack of faith. Just as other men have a pain in hand or foot, heart-ache or head-ache, so he had God-ache. Unhappy man! And unhappy fellow-men!” (from “The Tragic Sense of Life” by Miguel de Unamuno, Kindle Edition, page 43)

According to Unamuno, except for a few minor and aberrant individuals and groups, humans have throughout history consistently believed in the immortality of the soul. That commitment and longing for immortality that is at the very core of our beings and is effectively an instinct of perseverance as Unamuno sees it is our membership card in humanity. If we don’t believe or if we insist on finding a logical, reasonable explanation for the immortality of the soul then we are evil, wicked people who refuse to be a part of the human community. Unamuno can surely be called a hero in the social imperative of death denial. He finds atheists and non-believers of all sorts abhorrent. “If consciousness is, as some inhuman thinker has said, nothing more than a flash of light between two eternities of darkness, then there is nothing more execrable than existence” writes Unamuno. Life, for Unamuno is absolutely meaningless if the immortality of the soul is not the prime human fact and goal. Unamuno is very keen to separate reason from life. He says reason cannot prove one’s immortality, only life can, and it’s a question of faith. The soul has primacy in Unamuno’s scheme of things and is his ticket to immortality. Interestingly, he’s not as concerned with the existence of God as he is in his own immortality.

A more contemporary aficionado of the immortality of the soul is Ram Dass who just died recently. He believes that the soul must exist and it must be immortal because otherwise our earthly lives are meaningless. He writes:

“To be here for fifty to eighty years only to be annihilated at the end just doesn’t make sense. Nothing else in the universe is that inefficient. We have to be here to learn; otherwise our difficulties are truly meaningless. For the Ego, the roles we grow into and the positions we hold at the pinnacle of aging are the culmination of life. For the Soul, learning is the culmination. When we expand our self-image to include the Soul, we notice a marked shift in our personal consciousness, a liberation from the small egotistical self into a far more spacious context. From this Soul level, we are able to view our Egos from the outside in. This allows us to observe our minds and bodies in ways that will seem new and surprising, as if the trapdoors of the “self” have been opened and we can finally step outside, enjoy the view, and put a welcome distance between who we are (from Soul’s perspective) and the suffering we experience at the level of body and mind. Thus, with practice, we cultivate the tremendous healing of knowing ourselves as spiritual beings, too.” (from “Still Here: Embracing Aging, Changing, and Dying” by Ram Dass, page 28)

Well, I see a lot of problems with Dass’ non-sequiturs to start off . Why doesn’t it make sense that we are annihilated at the end of lives? And ‘nothing else in the universe is this inefficient’? What kind of silliness is this? Efficiency as a criterion for the immortality of the soul is ridiculous. Dass would be much better off just borrowing arguments from Unamuno than putting forward illogical ‘reasons’ for the immortality of the soul. Furthermore, he argues that we can see ourselves from “this Soul level”. Magical thinking indeed! But Dass appeals to a large audience of people intent on believing that when they die, they don’t really die because their souls carry on into eternity. I can seriously say that I’ve explored the implications of this idea through years of study, introspection and meditation, including, like Dass, the use of hallucinogens. Frankly, I just don’t see the point in adding a fictitious construction called the soul to our personalities. In a way (and I’m sure I’ll get up some people’s noses for saying this) it strikes me that believing in the immortality of consciousness or the ‘soul’ requires a great deal of collective narcissism and chutzpah. Where do we get off thinking we’re so special under the sun that we get to live eternally and no other life forms do? Note that I write ‘collective’ narcissism. As individuals we have no reference other than social ones to decide what to believe. We can be the humblest of individuals yet still be trapped in the overarching cultural imperative for apotheosis via immortality.

Of course I DO argue that in a sense we DO live eternally, just not in our current human configuration or through the ‘soul’. I know that I’m now a long way from discussing myeloma and my daily grind under its treatments. That is so. However, it’s important for me, as I approach my inevitable death whether it happens in six months or ten years, to clarify my point of view. There’s a certain amount of catharsis going on here, no doubt. Most people want to live forever. Not me. I’m perfectly happy to see my consciousness evaporate when my heart stops and at that point all the atoms and molecules that made up my body will be free to go. Have fun, little buddies!

In the third post in this series coming up shortly, I reflect on the works of Emile Durkheim and Ernest Becker. Both worked as social scientists. Durkheim died in 1917, Becker in 1974. Both had a lot to say about the soul and the sacredness of society as a source of the personal sense of immortality. Both have played a large part in my intellectual life but Becker sticks with me much more viscerally than the cerebral Durkheim. Both argue in their own way that the power of religion lies in society.

Stay tuned.

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* “Though Darby may have burned his bridges, his message gained a larger and larger following. Today his dispensational premillennialism is the view of many modern fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals.” From: https://www.christianitytoday.com/history/people/pastorsandpreachers/john-nelson-darby.html