Roy Scranton published his book Learning to Die in the Anthropocene: reflections on the death of a civilization in 2015 before Donald Trump was elected and Steve Bannon, his disrupter pal moved into the West Wing. Scranton predicted that working and middle class electors facing economic stagnation would react violently to the “cruel optimism” of the system, which never fulfills its promise. Willy Loman’s Death of a Salesman was solitary and self-destructive. Like many Americans, he had put his faith in sports and particularly his son’s success in football. That didn’t work out. Willy got fired instead of retired and the fridge broke down just as they made the last payment. .Like other teachers, I taught the play to seniors as the death of the American dream. Scranton predicted that once the angst of these classes could not be contained by sports, the social fabric would tear and the U.S. would be subject to rioting, rebellion and civil war.
He saw that the daily transmission of feeling, the instant and constant feedback system of television and social media would heighten fear, rage, envy and hatred while not providing the political leverage to effect change. And so President Donald Trump and his groupies, senators, Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, serving military and police launched their assault on the Capitol on January 6th, 2021, otherwise known as Epiphany -coming of the Wise Men – or St Nicolas Night. The immediate gift was the desecration of the building sacred to democracy, even to non-Americans like me. Five people died that day, 140 were injured, many law enforcement people, and two police committed suicide in the aftermath. All of this to support the entirely debunked lie that the election had been stolen.
To stop the destructive domino effect, we have to stop. Scranton turns to the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk who says, “we must let the stress conductor die in us by refusing to pass it on. Instead, we can interrupt the stressor, quietly seeking to understand it. Such an interruption practices dying.
Philosophers from Cicero to Montaigne have said that accepting our end is the beginning of wisdom. Being wise comes down to not being afraid to die.
I began this series of posts when my 92-year-old friend nearly died on Christmas Eve. https://115journals.com/2021/02/13/learning-to-die-5-practicum/ She was incoherent, unable to move and praying vehemently in tongues. Clara practiced meditation and belonged to a humanistic religion, but hadn’t attended church in years and her religion did not practice speaking in tongues. In previous family emergencies, she had arranged for thousands of believers to pray for us. My daughter Julia concluded that all we had ever needed was Clara. In the morning, Clara slept. Waking up, she asked what was for breakfast. She was hungry.
Thanks to six weeks of round the clock nursing in her home and good food, Clara began to sit up, walk and eventually to move to a long term care facility when her care proved to much for her son and daughter-in-law. https://115journals.com/2021/02/14/learning-to-die-6-practicum/ Her outrage at that indignity and the long, boring halls have got her up and walking. At present, she is not going ‘gentle into that good night’.
Dying is easy. Dying well is hard.
When I registered at MacMaster University, I chose Philosophy and English, one to earn a living and one to help me understand why bother. Coincidentally, for the next three months, I was Joyce in the daytime and Anouilh’s Antigone in the evening in the tower room where we rehearsed. The chorus began the 1944 play by introducing the characters. He said of Antigone, “Another thing she is thinking is that she is going to die”. True to form, I got roughed up by the guards and King Creon every time and walled up in a cave by the end. Antigone lived and died for her principles. Nothing futile about that life.
Hannah Arendt is quoted from her book, On Revolution: “the inherent futility of life is negated by the study of certain concepts, certain guideposts for sheer reference which arise out of it”. That has been the lasting effect of my education, which continued as I taught, and read for pleasure. Hundreds of lines of poetry are, for example, at the ready to spring forth for strength and comfort.
Scranton uses the ancient narrative poem, Gilgamesh to illustrate this point. It is an encapsulation of the race’s progress from hunter-gather to agricultural and the rule of the tyrant. It is about the taming of the wild man and yet the need for him. In Baghdad during his service there, Scranton met an Iraqi rock group that eventually made an album called Gilgamesh. By doing so, they used mutual support and decency rather than aggression to connect Iraq and the United States.
By my last year, we philosophy majors had dwindled to 8, 7 tweedy, pipe-smoking guys and me. They had been chortling about Hobbes’ idea that “life is nasty, brutish and short” since we were freshmen. I didn’t get the joke. Our last semester was devoted to Logic. Every single time, the prof called on me, they swiveled in their seats and stared, “What IS she doing here anyway?” I finished the exam in record time and fled to the Dean of Women. Who made me lie down in a darkened cubicle. The professor graded my paper as the men finished writing theirs. The Dean brought back the news. I got 66%. But I didn’t get joke until just lately.
As I enter my old old age at 85, I find I am living in what Scranton calls the photohumanism era. Homo Sapiens as a race passed through the clay tablet era, the papyrus, the paper, the printing press and the powered printing press era until now I can sit at my desk, write and print. And send what I write far and wide. Instantly. With pictures. I can follow the thoughts of important thinkers and respond – if I dare. The trouble is that we are like the horses I knew on the farm, “biologically reactive, easily panicked, all to easily stirred to hate.” Horses will run as a group back into a burning barn. So we read something outrageous, deeply troubling, unjust, abhorrent and we retweet with comment. In short order, we have a large number of people believing that a decent, courageous, educated CNN reporter, who has just introduced his new son to the world, actually eats babies. We live in “networks, webs and hives” (not to mention pods and bubbles.), so that we become vulnerable to the sudden, dangerous empowerment of the hive mind”
This happened in the early days of radio, when Hitler was able to harness the hive mind and its attendant madness. Trump had a much more powerful instrument, Twitter.
To prevent the inevitable hysteria, riot and social breakdown, according to Scranton, we must learn to die. In other words, stop. Don’t react. Don’t amplify your own reaction by passing it on. Suspend the stress chain by pausing, taking time to assess the information, to question the source, to debate, to place it in the framework of cultural history, to “rework the stock of remembering”, to let go.
Well, sure, that pause might prevent another assault on the Capitol, but what does it have to do with the death of a civilization? Scranton isn’t promising a rose garden. He told us in the beginning that we are past the point of saving the world from global warming, although he acknowledges that some of our race may survive the end of civilization and whatever tyrant arises from it as long as we don’t “abandon the memory of the dead”.
To echo James Baldwin, we need to negotiate our passage through life as nobly as possible for the sake of those coming after us. How should I live and die to honour the dead as well as the unborn?