Thursday, June 22, 2006

6.22.06 Two Short Book Reviews

Franky Scale: 6-plus, but I'm still sliding into the day, give it time. Compared to last week this time, I'll take it gladly.

Remember a number of books I mentioned about two weeks ago? Well, I’ve made it through half or so, of that group of five or so and wanted to offer my opinions. The book by Steven Levine called A Year to Live is a completely new age, pseudo-“Eastern” spirit quest, a manual for how to live the fullest life you possible can by pretending you’re going to die and then meditating, singing spirit songs, being “positive,” and forgiving everybody around you so the spirits of the universe harmonize, blah blah blah. Another way to put it, it’s a crock of shit. The long and short of it is that dying and confronting one’s death, or living the last undefined period you’ll ever have to live, is serious business; as a friend of mine said early on during this experience, “That’s why they say ‘Serious as cancer.’” Levine’s book is not, nor can it be. The premise is “Imagine / pretend /fantasize / whatever that you only have one year left to live, then do the make believe.” It doesn’t work, it all comes across as flippant, and far too feel-goody, and I’m already ill-disposed to spirituality so this kind of new age spirituality does not fulfill my needs. (I do agree with Pascal, that, to put in his own terms, "Kneel and move your lips like you believe, and you will believe." Don't understimate what he calls custom. But Pascal's not really trying to get over on anyone. Granted I don't know Levine's intentions, but.)

There’s one contemporary philosopher-critical theorist who calls these Levine types the New-Age Obscurantists. Accurate as I see it. Peace, love, and understanding (but weak versions, with no plans and far too much idealism). (And don’t get me wrong, I love the song, at least the Costello version . . .) . . . but the crystals, power songs and power animals, spirit quests, aura-chakra (sp?)-yoga blah blah blah and the reading of Carlos Castaneda as if all of his writings are factual anthropology rather than fictions and enriched imaginings, this group I can do without. And when I’m in the process of dying, books like the Levine book insult me. I gave it a fair shot, read about two-thirds of it before returning it for a gratifying money-back guarantee, and then leaving the store wondered what the hell I was thinking.

“Let’s pretend you have a year to live, and that will give you insight into a fuller life.” The proposition might actually be true to a certain degree — however, the proposal, or the plan, itself is impossible. You CANNOT pretend to die. You cannot pretend you’re really feeling the pain, that you know how to cope with the psychology of what Frarella (in a comment) posted just over a week ago: How long does it take every morning from when you wake up until you first “Oh fuck, cancer!”? That’s the reality of all this. There is no new-agey solution and peaceful zazen posture for that! Nor for the physiology that dictates incessant pain that will not abate at all until you get out of the bad and take your, now, 30 mg of oxycontin. Crystals and spirit animals, don Genero and power songs don’t do it either. (And I’m a big mushroom fan so I could hang with don Genero, just not to save my life.)

Racism is often just nasty and pretty straightforward, though there are ironic versions such as Orientalism too. The irony here, with the Levine Posse, is that these figures seem to love all things “Eastern”: Buddhism, especially zen / sôn forms and esoteric practice, the loose clothing oft times, the teas, the herbs and alternative medicinal techniques, the whole cultural sensitivity to a fetishized form of ancient wisdom pulled out of an old Tide laundry detergent commercial on 1970s TV.

Why am I saying this? In the Levine book, you can find at least one such racist error (sure it’s only a mistake, but it’s curious that it only happens with regard to a non-white group and therefore no one seems to mind, e.g., author, proofreaders, editors — can you imagine someone saying "In the European language the word is ----"?). The author is discussing some type of sitting meditation or some other “very Asian” technique and the use of a special type of pillow to situate under yourself while you do it. He goes on to tell us that “in Asia they call this the pigae [hypothetical word].” In where? They what? So, we have misguided petouli adoration for “Eastern” culture, mixed with a racist misunderstanding of the complexity and history of scores of cultures and peoples and hundreds of languages. All the billions of people, all the cultures, all the histories, all the traditions, all the literatures, etc. etc. and “there is one word in Asian for …” Argh. In the Asian language we might call this “Big-nose syndrome.” Just my opinion, of which you’re probably heard enough for one day; and like one commenter reiterated: “Opinions are like assholes, . . .”

Kubler-Ross’s book is not a joke, it is sensitively done, and I believe she’s well qualified to deal with her subject matter; the main problem for me is that the book is expressly written not for patients or for the terminally ill but for those around them. That said, I would recommend her main book, On Death and Dying, to anyone else who’s not terribly ill, and she’s got a slew of other books that look helpful (after a skim on my part). The one issue that sticks in my craw a little is a continual return to the idea of “after life” in her writing. By definition death is the country from which no traveler returns, didn’t Joseph Smith say that? ☺ Difficult to write about when no one returns. Near death experiences are problematic, but I think the “return” of the patient disqualifies these individuals from speaking bout “what death is like” with full authority — they failed at dying. Sure, that’s the goal for most all of us, we don’t want to successfully die. But if I’m going to get good advice on what it’s like to be dead, well . . . I’m going to have to realize that personal desires don’t always conform to the world of the possible. That’s it. If you don’t mind the after life idea and if you know someone who’s terminally ill, read Kubler-Ross. She reads like she is very serious and sincere about it all. Points to her.

The problem remains is that there is nothing I’ve found yet that explicitly addresses these issues and questions — all the new ones that dominate my brain — in a manner that’s compatible with a materialist world view, with someone who is simply non-religious, with someone who doesn’t necessarily want to read about “happy” “fun” “finding peace” etc. — just get some explanations about psychologically what to expect, how to cope effectively with those around you, how to be a “good” terminally ill person.


spacely said...

they're are there!!! Ali and her mom and dad...yeah!!!!!!!!!!!

[disenchanted princess] said...

ugh! so appalled at the censorship!!!

haha, j/k. maybe i'll have to test this filter . . . are you censoring for pornography?? =)

btw . . . this isn't a real comment!

david said...


This may seem glib but I do not mean it to. There are beliefs and belief practices, and as noted, that's some other thing. There is the Confucian phrase, Sa mu ya, Conceptualize without desire; think of things without desiring to possess them, I suppose. There are belief systems, and notions of a spirit living on in a next world. I suppose I am one of that belief group, and at one point some years ago realized I don't 'know' 'what' 'form' 'I' will have, if 'any,' when; so it will not be like walking into a bar and finding a bunch of friends there, crowded 'round a bunch of highly spiritual martinis. So if not,then what?
The books today's post addresses or engages are books, one of them apparently a pretty straight no tricks attempt to get at things for 'those around them,' but not otherwise 'about' the terminally ill; the other just a crock of bullshit. Racist to boot. Dumb as well.

I just haven't read as much on any subject as our guy mr. j, and definitely not on this one. I've thought about it, I've written sort of around something maybe like what Kubler Ross was up to. (One might also mention the pornography of Mel Gibson's recent stuff, tho there of that too I have to confess I have not seen it. I am extrapolating from his epic piece of crap about those wacky fellas running around in kilts then through what I have read about his most recent movie about the death of Christ.)
But what I am getting to, what we all feel, I am sure, is that this is the book, being now written before our very eyes and minds and hearts by this remarkable brave and clear mr j.