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How We Die, How We Live

Richard Goldstein in The Nation complains that Joan Didion's celebrated The Year of Magical Thinking and Philip Roth's latest novel, Everyman tell us "that death is an insular experience that transcends social circumstance. This ultimately conservative message is part of the same process that has put self-obsession front and center in American politics." We middle and upper-middle class Americans have a "hermetic approach to dying." He adds that during the 1980s AIDS crisis in the U.S. "each casualty was situated in a suffering community." As it is in Africa now.

Agreed? And how does this view -- very much from the cultural left -- agree or disagree with Catholic understandings of death?

About the Author

John T. McGreevy is the I.A. O'Shaughnessy Dean of the College of Arts and Letters and Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.



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John,I am not prepared to subscribe to another magazine just to read Richard Goldstein, but from the excerpts I would say he is rather insular and has a hermetic style which which leaves me puzzled. So much for humility. I have nothing much to say about Philip Roth. I suspect all his books are about Phllip Roth, and this might lead to suspicions of self obsession. But then all of Dickens'books, or almost all, seem to be about Dickens, and he carries it off. Obviously death most affects the deceased. I think we all agree about that. Thereafter it most affects those closest to the deceased. On the whole I think that is natural. I cried recently at the funeral of someone I met once, but I did know his parents. I suspect the reasons why I did that are complex. There was a sense of community, but more than that. In the Iliad the slave women that belong to Achilles lament for his dead friend Patroclus who was kind to them but the poet say they also wept for themselves. I don't think that Joan Didion's reaction to a very bad year can be fairly described as self-obsession. And her making a book out of it all was natural. She is a natural writer with a flair for choosing the right words. The more I think about Richard Goldstein, the less I am inclined like the idea that I would agree with him about anything none trivial.


Didion and Roth (and I'd include Tom Wolfe in the group) are among a class of writers who look at life--and death--with the kind of detached scrutiny that makes you go "ick!" at everything they show you.I'd say these writers reflect an impulse to hermetic living in our culture. Lord knows there are days I'd rather use the ATM, the self-serve gas pump, the auto-checkout, or online shopping instead of having to put on my "public" face and deal with a live person. And if we have a tendency to find other people inconvenient when they're alive and kicking, how much more inconvenient are they when they're losing their mental and physical faculties to death?To what extent do we want to go to Mass on Sunday because we want to do what Jesus said, and love each other? And to what extent do we go in order to separate ourselves from the "impure" world of nonbelievers and update our fire insurance?

I can't help being struck by the contrast between Goldstein's comment that Didion and Roth paint death as an "insular experience" with no greater social purpose, and the insular Amish community that grieved privately and then transcended their grief, and the tragedy of the school girls' deaths, by immediately turning the focus on forgiveness and the well-being of the gunman's widow and family. I can't think of a more powerful recent expression that death is anything but an insular experience lacking in social consequence. Of course, as Christians, we know that Christ's death reaches out to all people and across eternity, as do the deaths of those who died in His name. When death is not the end and merely the portal to everlasting life, there is no need to approach it "hermetically."

Bill,I take your point but while I think there is a contrast between the Amish, of whom I am in awe, and Goldstein's rather jaundiced portrait of Didion, I do not see a Didion as Goldstein does, or seems to. I find his attitude venomous and repellent. I wonder why I feel so strongly.

What is there to understand?We live, and then we die.

I'm glad Jean Raber mentioned Tom Wolfe. I found his "The Painted Word" (along with Evelyn Waugh's "Scoop" and "Decline and Fall") to be one of the funniest books I ever read. Detached and hermetic he may be, but his eye for the absurdities of the various modernist movements was dead on. And Waugh. A devinely gifted man.I love Andre's elegant formulation! He only left out that life is what happens while you're making other plans...

Wolfe is an odd bird. He always seems to be saying, "Lookit me, the iconoclast of the iconoclasts! In my affected white suit!"Wolfe (and Roth and Didion) manage to capture something that looks true but doesn't really get beyond the surface horror. Just finished "I am Charlotte Simmons," and I vividly recognize some of the my former students. The descriptions are on target. And there are moments of truth but the whole just doesn't stand up as a complete picture.Wolfe elected to portray the worst underbelly of student life and make them all look like a generation of swine (thanks to Hunter S. Thompson for that moniker).I see Waugh (and Muriel Spark, who might be Waugh's female counterpart) as something a bit different. I saw them not so much trying to explain life as pointing out the lengths we'll go to deceive ourselves. A discussion of death and literature has to include Waugh's "The Loved One," and it's send-up of the notion that in order to face death, we must see the dead ... and make them look as attractive and un-dead as possible.

Speaking of Waugh and "The Loved One," here's something right from today's news: Themed sports caskets and urns. possibilities for your relatives to make a loving memorial to your favorite earthly things are endless.I will certainly go easier to my Reward knowing my final public appearance could function as a free advertisement for, say, Godiva chocolates or The Simpsons.Sorry for hogging this thread.

There is an excellent film of Decline and Fall, but the last time we looked we clould not find a DVD version.

Joseph Gannon:Bless you for letting us know about the film of "Decline and Fall"! I had no idea it existed! If I find a DVD (or even a video) I'll post it here. Thanks again!

There's supposed to be a film version of "Vile Bodies," but with a title different from the book. I tried searching for Waugh on Netflix, but couldn't find it.Anybody know about this?

Apparently, the "Decline and Fall" film was named "Decline and Fall of a Birdwatcher", and Joseph Gannon is correct; there is no DVD out there.By the way, speaking of death, there is the story of the man who used to go about saying that he would rather be dead than live in Philadelphia. After his passing, his tombstone read, "All things considered, I'd rather be in Philadelphia". At least that's the way I heard it, but others say its based on a true story. At any rate, as someone trying (not too successfully) to practice the Christian religion, I can definitely relate to the sentiment expressed.

The film of Vile Bodies (anybody besides Mr. Gannon know where that comes from?) is called Bright Young Things, which I believe is a quote from the book, but it's been more than thirty years since I read it.

There was a very well received adaptation of Waugh's Sword of Honour on British TV a few years back. It stars Daniel Craig - the actor who is to be the next James Bond. I'm English and it was repeated here a few weeks back (and I somehow managed to miss it again!). I've just checked and it is available on DVD at American amazon. There are both negative and positive comments about it at the British amazon website which a prospective purchaser/renter might want to check out. Really enjoy this blog and Commonweal more generally. Makes a nice companion to the Tablet.

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