Slowly Falling Apart

For this post, I decided to create a collage of quotes and commentaries from books I’ve been reading lately. They range from comments on death and dying to philosophy, culture, and the future. So far in this blog, I’ve refrained from commenting on American Congressional politics, but I just may go there soon. I told my sociology students year after year throughout my college teaching career that the American empire would fall, as all empires fall, not from external conquest but from implosion due to unresolved, long standing conflict. The American empire, specifically, will fall because of commodity production that depends on longer and more complex supply chains and failing profits. America is falling on its own sword of profits. Supply chains and economic processing zones in a plethora of ‘developing’ parts of the world have been an issue for decades while only recently making it onto mainstream media commentary and news. I’ll explain in a future post.

US politics has to wait. It’s a mess down there but it’s a mess everywhere on the planet at the moment. Let’s move on.

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Robert Sapolsky is one of my all-time favourite guys. He has a number of his Stanford University lectures on YouTube. He’s a neuroscientist who specializes in stress. He worked in the field for many years with Olive baboons in Africa. I have a video in which his work with the baboons is featured. On the topic of the human condition he writes:

“we are now living well enough and long enough to slowly fall apart. The diseases that plague us now are ones of slow accumulation of damage—heart disease, cancer, cerebrovascular disorders.” (from “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers: The Acclaimed Guide to Stress, Stress-Related Diseases, and Coping (Third Edition)” by Robert M. Sapolsky)

Now, ain’t that the truth! If you check out Stats Canada’s vital statistics you’ll find out that cancer is the leading cause of death in Canada. Actually, life is the leading cause of death everywhere, but as far as the observable evidence of bodily decay and death goes, cancer is determined to be the immediate major causes. Writing this makes me want to go back and binge watch Sapolsky on YouTube. Not only does he have a lot to say, but he says it in such an engaging way that binge watching is entirely feasible. I’ll be sharing more from Sapolsky later, but now on to another very different writer.

This is a quote from another book I’m reading that I want to share with you. Talk about falling apart! Robinson is a contemporary novelist writing in the sci-fi genre with dystopian tinges. He writes:

“Say the order of your time feels unjust and unsustainable and yet massively entrenched, but also falling apart before your eyes. The obvious contradictions in this list might yet still describe the feeling of your time quite accurately, if we are not mistaken. Or put it this way; it feels that way to us. But a little contemplation of history will reveal that this feeling too will not last for long. Unless of course the feeling of things falling apart is itself massively entrenched, to the point of being the eternal or eternally recurrent individual human’s reaction to history. Which may just mean the reinscription of the biological onto the historical, for we are all definitely always falling apart, and not massively entrenched in anything at all. 31 India” (from “The Ministry for the Future: A Novel” by Kim Stanley Robinson)

Most of this quote will be difficult for you to fathom because it’s out of context. It’s the last sentence that really matters. To help you out a little with the context of this quote, the ‘order of your time’, in the first sentence means that in the course of your life you feel out of control. You can’t go back, you can’t stay still. You can only go forward towards your death. This applies not only to us as biological entities but also to our cultural and social constructs which also are bound to come and go in a generally disorderly way. We cannot be ‘massively entrenched’ in life because daily existence makes a lie of any attempt to avoid moving toward death.

Now, more from Robinson in another of his sci-fi novels set far from Earth on a ship and a moon.

“Existential nausea comes from feeling trapped. It is an affect state resulting from the feeling that the future has only bad options. Of course every human faces the fact of individual death, and therefore existential nausea must be to a certain extent a universal experience, and something that must be dealt with by one mental strategy or another. Most people appear to learn to ignore it, as if it were some low chronic pain that has to be endured. Here in this meeting, it began to become clear, for many of those present, that extinction lay at the end of all their possible paths. This was not the same as individual death, but was instead something both more abstract and more profound.” (from “Aurora” by Kim Stanley Robinson)

Robinson is not a great writer in terms of composition, but he is a very perceptive commentator on the human condition. His novels are all about the fragility of humanity in the face of evolution and death, both on an individual and social level. Death denial is a consistent theme in human history and as a goal, has engendered a mass of immortality tales with “supernatural” characters as diverse as Zeus, Jesus, Shiva and a mess of lesser gods. These characters are our heroes who will save us from death if only we believe in them. But then we come face to face with evolution and biology which care not a wit whether we believe in them or not, and which just carry on.

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So, what about falling apart?

It’s clear that average death rates have risen consistently over the decades on the planet although in the US they’ve been falling for some demographics. Falling or not, on average we live well into our seventies. In fact, Stats Can tells me that if I live to be seventy-four I can expect to live another fourteen years. These are average life expectancies, of course. Millenia ago, living to thirty-seven years of age was considered average. People died of things then we seldom die of these days (such as appendicitis).

Sapolsky understands that the longer we live the more things can go wrong in our bodies. That’s self-evident the longer we live. If we get injured while young we can expect to heal and then just get on with things. As we (I) get older the healing process slows down.

There are a few very fortunate people, especially in the world’s richest parts, who suffer very little as they get old. I don’t think I know any of those people (well, maybe one or two). That said, there is an inevitable decline in capacity as we age. That doesn’t mean we should stop living and simply prepare for death because we know it’s going to happen. For me, I have much reduced capacity. At seventy-four I have maybe a quarter of the capacity I had at fifty. But a quarter is better than nothing. I still have shit to do! I’m falling apart, yes. In fact, I can’t fall much farther, but that’s fine, I still have a way to go.

And the beat goes on…

Yes, it does. Sonny and Cher knew what they were singing about what seems like a lifetime ago now. I don’t know why, but the fact that Sonny died slammed up against a tree on a ski slope in Lake Tahoe the day after my birthday (January 5th) 1998 has my current attention. I guess it’s because his is a good example of a quick, unpredictable, death. Sonny had no time to sweat it. Death just happened to Sonny. No time to ruminate about it. Go Sonny go! I must confess that in some ways I envy Sonny his quick release.

Moving on, in my last post I told you that there was no longer any trace of multiple myeloma in my blood. I’m happy about that, but I must attach a disclaimer to that fact. The multiple myeloma will return. As I’ve repeated over and over, multiple myeloma is incurable although it is treatable. My oncologists have suggested to me that myeloma is a lot like type 2 diabetes in the way that it is treated by the medical profession. 

So, I can reasonably expect to make it to my eightieth birthday, although, frankly, longevity is not the holy grail here. And, of course, the six years from now until my eightieth year are not years owed to me. They are purely hypothetical time, years I might live, and years I might not. Moreover, as far as I know, after I’m dead, I won’t be able to regret anything about my life, how I lived it and for how long. “I” will not be so it’s ridiculous to speculate on what “I” might do after “I” am no longer. After I’m dead, “I” enter my immortality stage. 

I was not going to explore the whole business of mortality in this post, but I changed my mind. Bear with me. I just want to introduce here some ideas that I’ll come back to it in an upcoming post. These are not simple concepts to grasp, but, if you make the effort, it may help you understand life and death as I see them. So, here we go:

Humans are mortal, but only as long as we’re alive. To be blunt about it, it’s only when we are alive that we can die. Once we die, we are no longer mortal, we now become immortal, that is, we no longer change, and we consist only of what others remember of us. Our lives are complete. Simply put, immortal means not mortal. Well, once we’re dead, we are no longer mortal, by definition. We’ve arrived! We’ve become immortal! That doesn’t mean that we will live on forever in some form or other as defined by most of the religions that exist on this planet. No. “We” exist, after our deaths, only in the minds of others. 

My definition of immortality is clearly not the one espoused by most religions. The Abrahamic religions, for example, get around the problem of death by coming up with the idea of the soul. According to Christianity, the soul is the immortal aspect of human existence and is continuous before and after death. The body may return to the planetary store of compounds, atoms, and molecules, but the soul, well, the soul lives on in some kind of ill-defined relationship with a deity, “God” in the case of Christianity.  My definition of immortality does not acknowledge the bicameral nature of the person as consisting of body and soul. I see no evidence for the existence of a soul. Therefore, it does not ‘fit’ into any explanatory scheme I concoct. 

I could go on and on about death and dying as most of you well know, and as I promised I’ll get back to it in a subsequent post, but for now I’ll drop the philosophizing about immortality, death and dying and take up an issue that I’m currently faced with given the fact that we’ve tamed my myeloma. 

A few months ago, while I was still struggling with active myeloma, the pain in my bones was severe, and it was compounded by peripheral neuropathic pain. At that time a priority for me was pain relief. It still is to a large extent, but now, my priority is to see how far I can go in weaning myself off pain medications that were crucial for me for the time I was under the full effect of myeloma.  Now, I’m on two prescription pain medications and I take acetaminophen when I think of it. I was on three prescription pain meds until just recently, but I quit one of the medications cold turkey. Along with several annoying side effects, one of the more insidious side effects of that medication is dry mouth. My sense of taste was affected. I could barely taste some of my favourite foods and some I could not taste at all. I was anxious to try life without this med and as it turns out I’m quite confident that I’ll be fine without it. 

That leaves me with two pain meds. Gabapentin is a med I take for neuropathic pain. I’m currently cutting back on it to see how it goes. I’m not going cold turkey on Gabapentin, but I am determined to eliminate it from my pantheon of drugs. Hydromorphone is the drug that is the backbone of my pain treatment. I take it in slow-release form twice a day to deal with the daily predictable pain I get from myeloma’s excavations of my femurs as well as from sciatica and degenerative disk disease. I can also take hydromorphone in what’s called a pain breakthrough mode. That is, if the slow-release form of hydromorphone isn’t doing the job, I can take a more fast-acting form of the drug in any amount I feel is needed. I have taken breakthrough hydromorphone, but only sporadically, and as a last resort. I take as little of this drug that I feel will do the job. Taking more than a few milligrams of breakthrough hydromorphone leaves me hallucinating, not something I enjoy.  

The problem is that I’m seventy-four and at my age, the degenerative process is well under way. There’s no stopping it, and it’s not satisfied until it’s done. At my age, just about everybody has back pain and sciatica. These are conditions endemic to the species. It serves us right to have evolved from an arboreal species to one that is bipedal and an upright walker. Monkeys don’t have back problems. 

So, my challenge at the moment is to reduce my intake of pain meds to the point where I get pain relief without experiencing all the negative side effects of the various meds involved. So far so good. We’ll see how it goes.

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I’m writing this post on one of the hottest days of the year so far with tomorrow promising to be even hotter yet. Thankfully we have air conditioning, so the house is staying at a very acceptable 24.5˚C. Outside today, according to our weather station, the temperature has topped out at around 40˚C. Tomorrow, the prognosticators have promised us temperatures of 40˚C at mid-afternoon, so the beat goes on. 

I’m not complaining about the weather. The weather is what it is. It doesn’t respond to our needs, but instead requires that we respond to it if we’re not happy with it. Good luck with that. On to the next post now. Maybe I’ll take less time to get it out than it took me to get this one out. No promises. 

Check out this article Carolyn found for me. It’s a great discussion of chronic pain:

https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2021/jun/28/sufferers-of-chronic-pain-have-long-been-told-its-all-in-their-head-we-now-know-thats-wrong?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other

#86. ???????

I woke up this morning at seven twenty three and got out of bed at seven twenty eight. In that five minutes between seven twenty three and seven twenty eight I had a couple of thinks1. These were little thinks, nothing momentous or earth-shattering. They were thinks about what I would do today. I decided on a couple of things to work on, writing a blog post is one and the other is going down to my studio to continue a clean up I started some time ago in preparation for some work I want to do.

Today is the day after my Daratumumab infusion at the hospital. That’s a bi-monthly event for me. We get to the hospital for a nine o’clock appointment. I grab a coffee after being logged in at the Wellness Centre then make my way to the Cancer Care Centre. After getting settled in they hook me up to an IV drip and then call the pharmacy to tell them I’ve arrived and that they can prep the Dara. Yesterday it took over an hour for the pharmacy to get the Dara to the Cancer Care Centre. I waited patiently but with a little frustration, I must admit. After about ten fifteen they released the Dara starting the infusion. I read my book for a bit but soon fell asleep. I woke up at eleven forty five. Cool. The infusion was almost done. It generally takes about one and a half hours. At about twelve twenty, Carolyn picked me up and we came home.

Along with the Dara, as you well know, I take dexamethasone and lenalidomide. These are the chemo drugs. Dara is not a chemo drug, but a monoclonal antibody. Click on the word Daratumumab in the paragraph above for some good information about Dara. Dex and Lena are very different drugs that do different things in the blood. Dexamethasone is a steroid and has some annoying side effects like interfering with sleep. That it did last night. I slept in fits and starts and got maybe four hours of sleep total. I won’t get much sleep until Monday.

My life these days is organized around my chemotherapy. Of course, my Dara infusions predominate, but the dex has the most immediate and dramatic effects aside from the hydromorphone. I most often go to bed before nine o’clock in the evening. I rarely go to sleep right away, however. Yesterday, I did fall asleep after going to bed at eight thirty. I woke up about forty-five minutes later with a start. I had gone to sleep with the cat laying between my legs. I dreamt that the cat had been joined by my brother. I woke up with nobody on the bed with me. I was startled when I woke up but relieved too because I find it uncomfortable to have the cat sleep with me. I mean, I could easily get her off the bed, but I’m a sucker for the cat. She rules.

A preoccupation I have these days relates to the purpose of life and how to determine what to do with the time I have left to live. I have all kinds of time every day to think about things so off I go. Obviously there will be some physical restrictions that hamper the kinds of activities I can do; after all, I am seventy-four years old. One serious big think I’m having these days is coming to grips with the kinds of activities I am still capable of doing amongst the many I did during my younger years. I don’t want to simply lay back and avoid any activities that would require of me exertion that might tire me or leave me incapable of doing anything for a couple of days afterwards. I’m still strong enough, but I’m not as well coordinated as I used to be. I’m learning that I have to strike a balance between what I want to do and what I’m really capable of doing. There is a slew of activities I did when I was younger that are beyond me now. I have to be realistic about these things. I cranked up the chainsaw the other day and chopped a bit of wood. That was fine. I could do that. But what I want to do in terms of sculpture would require that I use saws and chisels for a sustained period of time. I don’t know if I have the sustainability to sculpt, but I know I can paint and draw. Whether I have the desire to do these things is another question.

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1 This is a verb being used as a noun, but it’s probably not original.

The questionable quality of longevity.

Lately I’ve been reading books from the 90s. The books by Kim Stanley Robinson, especially the Mars Trilogy are, not surprisingly, set on Mars and span a period of several hundred years. It seems Robinson is not inclined to write about earthly events and characters, focussing his attention instead on Mars, her moons, and the asteroid belt that he has also transformed by technology to support human life. The book of his I’m currently reading is called Aurora and is about the travels of humankind outside the solar system for the first time. Their destination is the Tau Ceti e system some twelve light years from the Terran Solar System. It takes them many generations and 170 years to get there, a scenario packed with angst about life and death.

In an earlier work, Robinson confronts mortality straight on. He concludes about the characters in The Mars Trilogy that:

A long life is not necessarily a good life.

Their lives were long, very long indeed if they took “the treatment”. They could not yet know just how long they could live because few of them had died of causes relatable to an ordinary life, of ‘natural causes’ not that they were invincible. It’s true that most inhabitants of Mars were over two hundred years old. Two had died in an explosion, one had died by violence, another by being swept into a roaring river of ice into the depths of a swift moving glacier. In his Mars Trilogy Robinson has cleverly endowed his protagonists with very long lives. However longevity does not equal high quality and death will not be denied.

“There were all kinds of madness, evidently. Ann wandering the old world, off on her own; the rest of them staggering on in the new world like ghosts, struggling to construct one life or another. Maybe it was true what Michel said, that they could not come to grips with their longevity, that they did not know what to do with their time, did not know how to construct a life.”

from “Blue Mars (Mars Trilogy Book 3)” by Kim Stanley Robinson.

Mars colonists may not know what to do with their two hundred or more years of life. What about us? How do we decide what to do with our lives? How do we construct a life whether we have a month left to live or two hundred years?

This is really an unfair question given the vast range of possible answers along a plethora of trajectories. But it’s a question that can generate some critical thinking about our lives and how we live them. For that reason I feel justified in asking it. Still I think that narrowing the focus of the question could be valuable.

The questions that interest me the most concern our relationship with death and immortality. These are ‘intellectual’ questions that have nothing to do with the material requirements of life. Of course, no matter how we look at it, life means movement. Death implies stillness. That may be why so many of us are gripped with the need to do…something…anything. Doing justifies living. Stillness or inactivity reminds us of death.

Me at a very young age. Don’t know exactly how old.

This photo is of me at a very young age, not sure exactly how old. That said, I am not the person you see in the photo. In fact, although arguably I am the person depicted in this photo, I have very little in common with that person. I could say that in the photo you see an embryonic version of me and that may well be true. We, the little dude in the photo and I, are obviously related; we share a life trajectory. But there is not one molecule in my body now that existed in the little dude back then. And the little dude hadn’t read Marx or Darwin. According to Milan Kundera in Immortality little dude would be in the happy first stage of life. The second stage is the preeminently active stage when we realize that death is real and that it is hounding us. To fend it off we must do, build a career, a family, a community. The trajectory in this stage is characterized by growth and the morality of the time expects material production from us. I am in the third and final stage of life, or at least I can be found transitioning into the final stage, the WTF stage, I call it. It’s the stage when strength is fast being replaced by fatigue and exhaustion. Kundera writes:

“Fatigue: A silent bridge leading from the shore of life to the shore of death. At that stage death is so close that looking at it has already become boring.”1

I’m bored, but only to tears, not to death. I’m just now standing on the crest of the bridge but I can easily make out the shore of death on the horizon which is becoming clearer and more distinct every day. According to Kundera, this third stage is where freedom can be found. If I knew what freedom was I might be more eager to actively pursue it. The third stage will come or I will die in angst fussing over the quality of my life experiences and my immortality which, of course, can only exist after my death.2

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1 Kundera, Milan. 1990. Immortality. New York: Harper Perennial. page 71.

2. Kundera considers immortality as that view that encompasses an entire lifetime but is also restricted to it. It is a fixed entity that has no place except in the memories of those left behind. It is not soul based unless you can think of the soul as the totality of what we leave behind. It is not eternal life but the memory of a whole life lived. Death completes my life.

#78. LIFE vs My little life.

LIFE in capital letters is life writ large. It governs all manifestations of individual life. It goes on merrily as individuals live and die generation after generation. Ironically LIFE needs death to make more life. After all, we eat dead things, don’t we? Of course all plants and animals follow the same pattern. They come and go, often by being consumed by other living things. It’s almost March and the property here is getting ready to burst into life after the long period of die-off and dormancy that is winter. Flowers are appearing even with freezing temperatures.

The early ones are aconites, snow drops, early crocuses, and maybe violets. They express life briefly then give way to the grasses, the ferns and the flowers of spring. The pear, apple, plum and cherry trees will soon display their flowers in preparation for the fruit that will follow as long as the pollinators do their thing. The birds are into mating season and we’ll soon have baby robins, finches, nuthatches, flickers, thrushes, jays, hummingbirds, and chickadees hassling their parents, fluttering their wings and demanding food.

The sun is shining right now. It wasn’t supposed to according to the weather forecasters, but there ya go. Living and dying under the sun. That’s what’s going on. My adult life has been informed by the scholarship of life and death, that is, of life and death as considered by philosophers and scientists. The thought of my own dying hasn’t occupied very much of my time except when my mother, father, and sister Denise died, and then only briefly. Being diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer that is incurable but treatable, changed all of that. Myeloma kind of sets the stage for end-of-life considerations. There’s no escaping myeloma’s trajectory. It will kill me eventually if I don’t die of something else first. Now, I have a hard time not thinking about my dying.

For most of my teaching career I used Ernest Becker’s work (The Denial of Death, Escape From Evil) to discuss the role of the fear of death on our cultural institutions. The fear of death and the promise of immortality and their overriding presence in institutions such as patriarchy and misogyny have shaped our social relations and created the conditions necessary for human contest and eventually homicide on a grand scale and war.*Related to our fear of death is our propensity to cut deals with deities. Humans have invented thousands of gods (and related semi-gods or supernatural entities) over the millennia. We assign responsibility to those deities for natural disasters, crop success or failure, floods, earthquakes, volcanoes, and the like. We even put faith in God for winning a football game or a war. We barter with the gods. We make sacrifices. We tell the gods: “Look, we are sacrificing this young woman for you by throwing her into this volcano, now you must reciprocate by ensuring our crops grow well next year.” A life bartered for more life. That’s largely the story of countless religious (and political) invocations over the millennia. Priests and politicians constantly urge us to make sacrifices so that the future will be better.

Modern medicine is an elaborate institution for the denial of death. It’s all about ‘saving’ lives, and it’s willing to go to extreme measures to accomplish that goal. Of course, ‘saving’ a life means little more than postponing a death. Obviously, I’m personally invested in modern medicine and pharmacology. I’m hoping that chemotherapy and radiation treatments will buy me time, effectively giving me more life and postponing my death. Chemotherapy and radiation treatments are not cheap. Just one of the drugs I’m taking will cost over $100,000. One of the pharmacists at the pharmacy in Victoria that dispenses the drugs I use told me over the phone recently that they have some million dollar patients out there, patients that have used these drugs for many years. I attend the Cancer Care Centre at the local hospital and I’m impressed by the technology and the expertise of the many staff nurses and doctors that work in that facility. That can’t be cheap either.

Modern medicine will go to great lengths and expense to treat patients hoping to extend their lives. It must do so otherwise it fails in its sacred mission to safeguard life and battle death, the ultimate enemy. As Becker notes, in our culture death and disease are the twin pillars of evil. Disease prevents us from enjoying the pleasures of life while death cuts them off summarily. So, we are willing to invest a great deal to save an individual life yet we are also willing to gleefully pile corpses in great heaps during war or in the context of ethnic cleansing, that vile excuse for murder, rape, and pillage as in Rwanda, 1994 or in any countless examples of such celebrated mass murders. We gladly kill for US, for our people because THEY(the enemy) are obviously responsible for our misfortune and distress. If we eliminate THEM our problems will be solved. That is the big lie. As Becker notes, we need a THEM with whom to enter into contests to show our prowess and to show our God (gods) how powerful and deserving of eternal life we are. Why do we spend so much time, energy, and money on organized sport? Sports reflect our constant need to show how deserving we are of life and more life. We win, we go to heaven. The gods are obviously on our side. We lose and we face shame and rejection. This analysis can easily be applied to American politics now too.

I’m rambling now. I guess I’m trying to avoid writing about the finitude of my life, my little life. In the face of LIFE and its overarching grip on the process of life and death, my little life doesn’t amount to much…but it’s all I’ve got really. Maybe I can celebrate my insignificance. Maybe I can celebrate the entirety of my life from beginning to end. In a way end is as necessary as beginning in the scheme of things. Let’s see what I can do with the little bit of life I have left.

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*The need for an opponent or an enemy (THEY) is based on our need to prove our worthiness in competition for the good things in life and for eternal life. The winner takes all! Very early on in human history, tribes split in two called moieties so that there would be contestants to beat proving the prowess of the winners and their qualifications for immortality.

37 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.

What’s So Scary About Women? They’re Devils, That’s What.

Or, they ‘commune with the devil’, i.e., have sex with him. That’s not much better.

For men who dream of immortality, women, who are so clearly associated with Eros, with the  pleasure principle (as psychoanalysis would have it) are a clear and present danger. God is always associated with light, the devil with darkness. It’s a sad state of affairs that men, as long as they’ve been men and not ‘merely’ animals, have felt that women are a major source of their downfall. In fact, Aristotle and many others considered that the ‘vital’ factor in making children rested solely with the male. Women were simply the receptacle for the fully formed life in the sperm. The sperm was where it was at. Aristotle never considered the fact that women might have eggs, embryos that are at least half of the picture in fertilization and mitosis. We can forgive people in the past for not understanding how babies come about but it’s still a mystery for some people apparently.

And procreation is all mixed up with pleasure and sexual desire. Sex is not just about making babies even if the Abrahamic religions denied the notion that orgasm or pleasure were anything more than a distraction from the main goal of sex. Pleasure in sex was always bad, evil, because it drew attention away from the ultimate goal of humankind in bartering with God for access to eternal life. Symbolically, God is spirit, the Devil is body, earth, dirt. Spirit leads to eternal life, the Devil leads to death, eternal death. Our bodies are our own worst enemies. Women just add a double jeopardy to the situation. The equation of women with the devil is clearly derivative of the kind of logic behind original sin, a logic that has prevented equality between men and women for as long as we know.

Historically, artists have not shied away from depictions of women consorting with the devil or as the devil themselves. Look at this image. It’s from a book called On Ugliness edited by Umberto Eco (Rizzoli, 2007).

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It’s on page 190 in a section called The Demonization of the Enemy. The image is from Thomas Murner and is entitled: The pastors of the Lutheran Church make a pact with a buffoon or a madman and the devil. (in Von der Grossen Lutherischen Narren, 1522). Now, that’s pretty weird in itself, but the image contains one representation that is of specific interest to me here. Look at the picture of the devil. Do you see what I see? Breasts and a vulva?

It’s pretty hard for me to escape the idea that Murner had it in his mind that the devil is a woman, dragging men into sins of the flesh by her vile seductions. Poor men! How can we resist the temptation? Well, we can’t. Why? Because we’re animals. No matter how stridently we try to deny it, we are animals and we have all the animal urges needed for a sexually  reproducing species, urges that can be diverted to aims of pure pleasure in any number of ways. Simple. Well, not so simple for a species that wants to live eternally. We see or know of  animals dying all the time, hit by cars, in slaughterhouses, on farms. That couldn’t possibly be our fate. So denying our animal nature is, well, kind of natural for a big brained animal like us. To gain access to heaven we need to deny our animal nature.

According to Murner (and he has a lot of company), women are the source of the fall of man. Original sin was perpetrated by a woman when she convinced poor Adam to eat forbidden fruit. Seductress! Devil woman who leads man into sin, into death, the death of all living things! The only way ‘man’ can convince himself that he deserves eternal life is by denying earthly existence and by putting all his energy into cultural forms of death-denial often in the form of institutions that depict nature as dangerous and deadly to be dominated and tamed at all costs. Include women in the definition of nature in the previous sentence and you have the perfect recipe for misogyny.

The photo below also from Eco’s book reproduces a painting by Franz von Stuck. It’s called Sin and was painted in 1893. The painting is of a young woman wrapped in a huge snake, an obvious reference to Satan, the same one who was the culprit in all the nastiness that went down with Adam and Eve. So, in one stroke, von Stuck clearly associates women with the devil. The snake is a most consistent symbol for the penis in all of human history. So, Von Stuck, the consummate misogynist suggests that this woman may very well be having sex with the devil. So bad! So evil!

sin

Well, it’s all fine and dandy, but in my world, the devil doesn’t exist, making it difficult for women to have sex with him. That didn’t stop The Doors from putting out a song called Woman is a Devil or Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels from releasing a song called Devil with a Blue Dress On.

 

 

That said, there’s no way I could even begin to scratch the surface of historical and modern depictions, in the visual arts, literature, poetry, and other cultural forms, of women as devils, as evil temptresses, out to seduce us poor men thereby denying us a life of eternal bliss in heaven with God.

More to come. Stay tuned. Why aren’t men and women equal?

 

The Azure window collapse and ‘social ills’: a view from a ‘right wing’ website.

I realized  that there is no link here to the original article. Here it is: http://theduran.com/collapse-maltas-azure-window-can-teach-us-social-ills/

This is an interesting article with many Beckerian twists and turns. The basic argument is: Don’t sweat it because you die, we all die, and that’s just the way it is. We don’t need to be sentimental about species extinction or environmental protection.

So, should we be concerned about death, animal suffering, species extinction, climate change, the disappearance of viable forests and any number of other issues as being catastrophic and unacceptable?

I wanted to post this, but I’m not ready yet to comment yet in any detail. Soon. This is such an important moral question.

Why do we so often refer to sex as dirty?

My next post was supposed to be about morality and that will be the subject of a number of future posts, but I was listening to the CBC this morning and the guest host of the morning program was interviewing a comedian and talking about his upcoming show. That tweaked my interest as I sipped my coffee. The host asked the comedian if his show was going to be clean. The comedian responded that for the most part it would be but that it would also be dirty at times. Well, I just had to weigh in. Morality will just have to wait a bit.

By dirty I know, and you know, that the host and the comedian were referring to the use of  swear words like fuck and shit and piss in his routine. He was not, however, going to make specific reference to the sex act and have some fun with that. That would be too raunchy. After all, you’ve got to keep it safe for a regular audience or they won’t come back to see you again. Swearing, it seems, is fair game. It’s okay to make fun of your wife or yourself in a comedy routine, but it’s not okay to talk explicitly about what went wrong or right the last time you had sex. That will be okay in the not-too-distant future, I expect.

It’s quite telling that in English swearing is almost exclusively sex based or has to do with genitalia or bodily functions of one sort or the other. In French Canada, swearing is entirely different, or at least it was when I was a kid. In French swearing relates to religious things although it can stray into combining sex or bodily functions with objects or persons of religions significance. For instance, a great swearing line in French refers to the ‘holy cream of an old nun.’ It’s probably changing now to a more ‘cleanly’ sex-based expression. Tell me if you know. I’m not up on Québecois swearing behaviour these days. In English, of course, fuck is the word or choice in a number of expressions not at all related to sex, but the word clearly relates to coitus or the sex act. For instance we might exclaim upon seeing a cute cat video: “Wasn’t that just the cutest fucking thing you’ve ever seen?” Or, listen to George Carlin classify people into three categories. He says that there are stupid people, people who don’t give a shit and people who are just fucking nuts!

So, what about this sex is dirty thing? Well, Ernest Becker (in his many books, but especially The Denial of Death and Escape From Evil, concludes that it all goes back to our fear or terror of death,* which also has a lot to say about how women are so often poorly treated in our world and in times past.  So what does considering sex as dirty have to do with our fear of death and the way women are so often (mis)treated?

It’s a bit of a truism to say that we all live and die. Yes, we do, but we don’t necessarily like the dying part so we concoct all sorts of cultural mechanisms to help us deny  that fact. One way we do that is to separate ourselves linguistically from other animal species by referring to ourselves as ‘human’ and to those other things as ‘animals.’ Of course, we are animals and it’s hard to deny that because we’re obviously not plants or rocks, but that doesn’t matter. We deny anyway. That kind of attitude allows us to treat animals in all kinds of nasty ways, because, well, they aren’t human and God did say that he put them here on earth for us to have dominion over. We are spiritual beings, animals aren’t. Enough said.

More significantly however we also take great care to separate ourselves into male and female classes. Yes, I say classes because that’s what’s happening. Just as we consider ourselves spiritual beings and animals as spiritless, we have also contrived historically to consider men as spiritual beings and women as physical beings. In many parts of the world in every time in history women have been considered a lesser species than men.

There’s a simple, yet devastating reason for this. Women remind men at every turn that they are mortal. Women exude blood on a regular basis. Babies are born between shit and piss in an orgy of blood. You lose blood, you die. Men have gone to extraordinary lengths to deny their physicality, their animality, and emphasize their spirituality to the detriment of women. Men in some cultures wear anal plugs to show that they don’t need to shit. They are above that. Menstruating women are often shunned for fear that they might contaminate something or other. Men denigrate women at every turn. Not all men, of course, but our culture and many in the past have built massive institutions that denigrate women. The pornography ‘industry’ is a good example of that. It’s popularity attests to how important sex is to us, but how important it also is to objectify women and treat them as sexual objects and as not quite human. Generally speaking, women are way more important to men for their genitals than for their brains. Hillary Clinton is facing this fact right now in the U.S. Many men just can’t see the president of the United States being fucked. Tell me it ain’t so.

Sin, in Christian, Muslim and Judaic mythology often refers to succumbing to the temptations of the flesh, female flesh that is. The flesh is the territory of the devil. If you want to live forever  in the light of God then stay clear of unauthorized sexual pleasure. “Unauthorized’ here is a critical element in the preceding sentence. Although constantly being revised and rethought, when and how sex gets authorized and becomes okay is strictly defined in cultural precepts. That’s fodder for another blog post.

Oh, we take sex very seriously in our culture, in our time, but we have very contradictory ideas about it. Yes, the sex act is fun and all that, but it also brings us clearly into the physical world and that’s a dangerous place to be if you want to be immortal.

In my next post, I’ll consider how sex and our animality fit into our broader moral world.
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