Archive for August 1st, 2010

Immortality, poetic and otherwise

Sunday, August 1st, 2010
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Abraham Verghese reviews Pulitzer prizewinning author Jonathan Weiner‘s curious book about a more secular brand of life everlasting, Long for this World: The Strange Science of Immortality, in the New York Times here:

“We get old because our ancestors died young,” Weiner writes. “We get old because old age had so little weight in the scales of evolution; because there were never enough Old Ones around to count for much in the scales.” The first half of life is orderly, a miracle of “detailed harmonious unfolding” beginning with the embryo. What comes after our reproductive years is “more like the random crumpling of what had been neatly folded origami, or the erosion of stone. The withering of the roses in the bowl is as drunken and disorderly as their blossoming was regular and precise.”

I wondered if Weiner had ever studied Carl Jung, whose description of purpose during our long path on the descending arc of life is somewhat less glum, and makes more and more sense to me as the years progress.  The book concludes:

“The trouble with immortality is endless. The thought of it brings us into contact with problems of time itself — with shapeless problems we have never grasped and may never put into words. Our ability to exist in time may require our being mortal, although we can’t understand that any more than the fish can understand water. What we call the stream of consciousness may depend upon mortality in ways that we can hardly glimpse.”

Provider of grace notes

Most people don’t seem to know much why they’re alive, so I’ve always wondered why more-of-the-same has always held such allure. Leave it to the eloquent Dr. Verghese to supply the grace note:

As a young physician caught up in the early years of the H.I.V. epidemic, I was struck by my patients’ will to live, even as their quality of life became miserable and when loved ones and caregivers would urge the patient to let go. I thought it remarkable that patients never asked me to help end their lives (and found it strange that Dr. Kevorkian managed to encounter so many who did). My patients were dying young and felt cheated out of their best years. They did not want immortality, just the chance to live the life span that their peers could expect. What de Grey and other immortalists seem to have lost sight of is that simply living a full life span is a laudable goal. Partial success in extending life might simply extend the years of infirmity and suffering — something that to some degree is already happening in the West.

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Finally.  Finally.  A biographer is thoroughly exploding the Myth of Amherst.  Emily Dickinson is not the Belle of Amherst … the Dickinson siblings struggled with volcanic emotions, as anyone exposed to Austin and Mabel can attest.  But was she epileptic?  Lyndall Gordon explores the possibility in Lives Like Loaded Guns: Emily Dickinson and Her Family’s Feuds (reviewed by Christopher Benfey) in the New York Times here.

I discussed the tormented Dickinson family in a Times Literary Supplement article, “Letter from Amherst,” in 2003.  Alas, it is behind a paywall now, never to be seen again except to subscribers.

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Patrick Kurp considers Helen Pinkerton‘s “Redtailed Hawk,” a poem she wrote for Kenneth Fields, at the blog “Anecdotal Evidence” here.  Patrick had his own encounter with a somewhat similar bird:

“The kestrel flew around the room close to the walls like a bat, in a tight orbit of disciplined panic. Moths bump off walls and lamps but raptors are always predators. Their competence is savage, even the kestrel’s, a small hawk with a songbird’s voice. He had escaped a park ranger readying him for visitors. …”

Read Pinkerton’s poem, from her collection Taken On Faith here.