A Gloomy Anthropomorphic Trawl

by Gautam Pemmaraju

HadrianCapitoline2Type6 copyIn Marguerite Yourcenar’s masterful Memoirs Of Hadrain, a “valediction to a world that has pleased him” written as a letter to the 17 year old Marcus Aurelius, the dying Roman emperor imagines parts of his life to be like “dismantled rooms of a palace too vast for an impoverished owner to occupy in its entirety”. The corporeal body, its passions and strengths, its appetites and tempers, diminish with time, the sage old man reflects in this fine and complex survey of the ‘landscape’ of his days, and as fevers and fatigues take over, he begins “to discern the profile of my death”,

Like a traveler sailing the archipelago who sees the luminous mists lift toward evening, and little by little makes out the shore…

The emperor, in the “meditations of a sick man who holds audience with his memories”, is no more than “a sorry mixture of blood and lymph”; he is laid bare before his learned physician Hermogenes, who concernedly, and devotedly, administers herbs, mineral salts and reassurances. His body has ‘served him well’, Hadrian informs his young ward, and it occurs to him that although it has been his “faithful companion and friend”, more steadfast than his own soul, it may well be “only a sly beast who will end up devouring his master”.

All men’s days are numbered; such is the nature of things. When, where and under what circumstances is entirely another matter but it is immutable that one must go, be it by disease, “a dagger thrust in the heart” or “a fall from a horse”. Hadrian confronts his imminent demise with great wisdom, reflecting on his accomplishments and failures, his friendships and loves, his excesses and his abstentions alike. In hoary, “marmoreal” prose (see here; see also Mavis Gallant’s Limpid Pessimist, NYRB 1985), Yourcenar invests the emperor with generous, layered thoughtfulness, a pansophy, wherein the unraveling of a successful life is richly intertwined with fine, dexterous observation. It is such an exercise that affords Hadrian “the advantage for the mind (and also the dangers) of different forms of abstinence….when the body, partly lightened of ballast, enters into a world for which it is not made, and which affords it a foretaste of the cold and emptiness of death”.

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Waging War on Christmas, to Save Thanksgiving

Blackfriday Weeks before Halloween, Christmas decorations started appearing around town. At the local department stores, mannequins of witches and zombies were crowded by Santa’s elves. The Christmas season has, it seems, overcome Halloween. Halloween is a charming holiday, so this is lamentable to some degree. But given the relatively stable interest children have in candy and play-acting, Halloween is not in danger of extinction. The constantly-expanding Christmas season does not threaten to undermine its spirit.

Sadly, the same cannot be said for Thanksgiving. When pitted against the aggressive encroachment of Christmas and the corresponding shopping season, Thanksgiving, our most humane and decent holiday, doesn’t stand a chance.

Unlike Halloween, Thanksgiving is a holiday of human significance. Though it is occasioned by the mythology of Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians, the point of Thanksgiving is not that of rehearsing or commemorating that original event. In this respect, Thanksgiving differs crucially from other holidays. The Thanksgiving gathering is not a means to some other end, such as memorializing the signing of a document (July 4th), observing an ancient liberation (Passover), celebrating the birth of a god (Christmas), or honoring the bravery and sacrifice of soldiers in war (Veterans Day). The point of Thanksgiving is rather to gather with loved ones, to reaffirm social bonds, to enjoy company, and to appreciate the goods one has. To be sure, the Thanksgiving celebration is focused on a meal, typically involving large portions of turkey and cranberries. Still, the details of the meal are ultimately incidental. The aim of the Thanksgiving gathering is not to eat, but to be a gathering. The coming of people together is the point– and the whole point– of Thanksgiving.

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Let’s Keep God out of Ethics

ScreenHunter_03 May. 10 12.24 When a television network has a porn channel in the pipe-lines voices of outrage sound. When a television-series mocks a dead religious figure, knives are being sharpened and fingers are being shaken. Picketing outside abortion clinics, fighting against end-of-life alleviation, marching against free expression (do they never see the irony?) – we can usually count on the faithful to raise an outcry, on our behalf apparently, for things they consider to be sinful and, therefore, immoral. But what is sinful is not necessarily immoral. They appear to have some insight we do not about morality and ethical deliberation. But upon critical scrutiny, we soon discover that all the noise is a mask for shallow deliberation.

When did we hand over our moral autonomy – that is our ability to look critically for ourselves at moral dilemmas – to the lecherous hands and myopic vision of religious leaders? When did we say that we wanted guardians stationed in moral outposts, peering into the world with outrage-telescopes and hysterical megaphones? I certainly did not and I hope, regardless of your belief in god, you didn’t either. Ethical deliberation is something we all must face as part of our epistemic duty in this world, filled as it is with problems and a continuum of moral actions. To ask simply whether something is good or evil is often to trivialise ethical dilemmas: they are often not simply about choosing between right and wrong, but between two conflicting attitudes which are both apparently the right thing to do. Do we kill the fat man to save the lives of five others? Are we obligated to each sacrifice one kidney, which we don’t need, to save others who do? Do we give up eating meat, which we do not need for survival, to end the suffering of other animals?

These dilemmas are secular, in that anyone can come to them regardless of religious belief, and find in them a moral problem. However, with the blurring between morality and religion in today’s world, some “moral” problems become problems merely because of the arrogant bullying by religious groups who claim to “know”, better than the rest of us, what is moral. Homosexuality, women’s rights and abortion would most likely not be such hysterical moral dilemmas if not for tawdry metaphysical beliefs on the part of the believer. A good case can be made for any of these being moral dilemmas in purely secular terms, but it is unlikely that death or violence would ensue because of disagreement. The ferocity and vernacular of the dilemma would not be one spurred on by self-righteous believers who are defending god’s laws; or defending “babies” from evil, pincer-wielding doctors; or trying to maintain “family values” because of the “moral decline” in society. A lot of these dilemmas could be carefully deliberated upon in a safe, public platform, using the weapons of words and the shield of a podium, rather than bullets and knives to make one’s point felt. We have given into the worst reasoning to justify moral decisions, that is: raising your voice and making the loudest noise. And best of all if you can use god as a backing – since this still has moral force today, though it should not. Just because so many people are outraged by gay-marriage does not make it immoral anymore than everyone believing the earth flat would alter our planet’s shape. Turning something immoral merely because the majority view it as such is part of John Stuart Mill’s notion of 'tyranny of the majority'.
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