January 20, 2008

Reason as religion (and the war on mortality)

David Rieff writes about his mother, Susan Sontag, who died of cancer in December 2004 (wow...3+ years! Feels like a couple at most!):

My mother loved science, and believed in it (as she believed in reason) with a fierce, unwavering tenacity bordering on religiosity. There was a sense in which reason was her religion. She was also always a servant of what she admired, and I am certain that her admiration for science (as a child, the life of Madame Curie had been the first of her models) and above all for physicians helped her maintain her conviction -- and again, this, too, was probably an extrapolation from childhood -- that somewhere out there was something better than what was at hand, whether the something in question was a new life or a new medical treatment.

I found the above excerpt in a review of David's book Swimming in a sea of death, in which Thomas Lynch writes:
"Swimming in a Sea of Death" is Rieff's brief record of how high priests of the body and blood sort -- whether oncologists or monsignors -- must so often disappoint. And how they disappointed his mother. In the end, neither science nor medicine, reason nor raw intellect, "avidity" for life nor her lifelong sense that hers was a special case -- nothing could undo her death. Susan Sontag "died as she had lived: unreconciled to mortality." And there is the sadness at the heart of Rieff's testimony: that mothers die, as fathers do, regardless of what they or their children believe or disbelieve. It is our humanity that makes us mortal, not our creeds or their antitheses.

All of us swim in the one sea all our lives, trying to stay afloat as best we can, clinging to such lifelines and preservers as we might draw about us: reason and science, faith and religious practice, art and music and imagination. And in the end, we all go "down, down, down" as Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote, "into the darkness," although she did not approve and was not resigned. Some lie back, float calmly and then succumb, while others flail about furiously and go under all the same. Some work quietly through Elisabeth Kübler-Ross' tidy, too hopeful stages; others "rage, rage" as Dylan Thomas told his father to. But all get to the "dying of the light." Some see death as a transition while others see it as extinction.
(Emphasis mine. Loved that sentence.)

Read the review in its entirety. Well written and kind of timely for me in some ways as my wife and I are dealing with some health issues with our own parents this month.

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