End-of-Self Help | The Nation


End-of-Self Help

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About the Author

Alexander Provan
Alexander Provan, a writer living in Brooklyn, is a founding editor of Triple Canopy and contributing editor of Bidoun.

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In December 2007, at the annual World Congress on Anti-Aging Medicine in Las Vegas, Suzanne Somers, the actress and bestselling author of Ageless: The Naked Truth About Bioidentical Hormones, delivered a rhapsodic keynote speech in praise of hormone replacement therapy. "I go to these parties sometimes with all these successful men who've really achieved in their careers," she told the enthusiastic, middle-aged crowd. "Seventies, eighties, and they're out of gas. They're just so out of gas! They all sit there, they're drooping--their face, their body's drooping--they've all got deep belly fat, they're all kind of grumpy.... And I look at them and I think, 'This out of gas doesn't have to be!' You know this. I know this. It's hormones!"

Thanks to modern science, the grail of enduring youthfulness--if not eternal youth--is within the grasp of middle-class Americans, for whom the road to senescence is now paved with restorative procedures and rejuvenating formulas. You can be young again, at least until you're dead. And while Somers is still a ways from a National Institutes of Health appointment, the government and its bedfellows in the private sector are enmeshed in life extension of the more pedestrian variety. Sustaining people in the last two years of their lives consumes a third of Medicare's budget, and of the 16 percent of the country's GDP that is now spent on healthcare, an ever growing proportion is dedicated to treating a range of diseases that would have been death sentences half a century ago. Medical advances have pushed back old age--the duration of the average American life has increased by a decade since 1950--and turned the final years into a series of expensive encounters with corpse-maintenance machines.

And this may be only a prelude. There are those who say we are not even beginning to approach the horizon of mortality, and that death may be delayed another twenty, thirty, even fifty years. Aubrey de Gray, a biogerontologist who is perhaps the foremost scientific proponent of life extension, argues that through cell therapy and the deceleration of metabolism, we'll be able to "eliminate aging as a cause of death this century," allowing people to live as long as a thousand years. Much to the chagrin of so-called bioconservatives, we are redefining what is "humanly possible," as well as what is human.

Death has always been feared and eternal life sought, but for most of human history anxiety about death was resolved through the promise of an afterlife--hence the treasure-packed burial chambers of the pyramids, the human ash clogging the Ganges and the catacombs of Rome. Why? "People didn't live half so long in the old days," as the novelist Julian Barnes points out in Nothing to Be Frightened Of, his memoir of mortality. "Forty was doing very well, given pestilence and war, with the doctor as likely to kill as cure. To die from 'a draining away of one's strength caused by extreme old age' was in Montaigne's day a 'rare, singular and extraordinary death.' Nowadays we assume it as our right."

The ancients lived in much greater proximity to death, which may explain the Greeks' sober estimation of Hades, lord of the underworld: "He was unpitying, inexorable, but just," according to the classicist Edith Hamilton, a "terrible" but "not an evil god." Today's obsessions with everlasting youth and life extension are spurred by our cognitive distance from death, as we have ever more reason to defer our contemplation of its icy embrace. And yet if the task of philosophy is, as Cicero put it, "to learn how to die," it's a wonder there aren't more Wittgensteins among us: now the golden years stretch on and on, stinking of death, and so they also provide ample time for considering it.

Of course, contemplation of death is not restricted to seniors, though extra years may grant us more time to steel ourselves for the moment when our organs cease functioning, the mind becomes muddled and the hormonal bank is cashed out. And there is plenty of evidence that fear of death will survive the longevity economy it begat. How else to explain that the most popular nonfiction book of our time is not a get-rich-quick guide or legal thriller but a memento mori: The Purpose-Driven Life, by Rick Warren, with more than 30 million copies sold to date. "You may feel it's morbid to think about death, but actually it's unhealthy to live in denial of death and not consider what is inevitable," Warren writes. "Only a fool would go through life unprepared for what we all know will eventually happen. You need to think more about eternity, not less." The megachurch magnate's tract alloys the metaphysical concerns of classical philosophy and the tautologies of evangelical Protestantism to create a millennial "anti-self-help book," guiding readers away from questions about their success, status, self-worth and virility, and toward an understanding of why God has placed them on earth and what they are meant to do here--meaning how they are meant to serve Him.

To Warren, mundane reality is "the staging area, the preschool, the tryout for your life in eternity. It is the practice workout before the actual game; the warm-up lap before the race begins." It is, in the words of Thomas Browne, "but a small parenthesis in eternity," and it is impossible to live well without reconciling oneself to this fact.

According to Simon Critchley, a philosopher at The New School in New York City, there's a simple explanation for the anxiety afflicting readers of Somers and Warren: "What defines human life in our corner of the planet at the present time is not just a fear of death," which is normal enough, "but an overwhelming terror of annihilation." Critchley's Book of Dead Philosophers, a survey of nearly 200 philosophers' views on mortality in relation to their own lives and deaths, attempts to show how embracing the ideal of the philosophical death can help us vanquish this terror without recourse to the promise of a great beyond.

All philosophy positions itself in relation to death, and the foreknowledge of divine judgment was once its great consolation. But ever since Averroës declared philosophy independent of theology in the twelfth century, that consolation has heartened the religious alone. It's no surprise that, for Warren, "revelation beats speculation any day." He has little use for modes of thinking that emphasize inquiry over knowledge. What the minister offers is assurance that God is not dead, and that the medieval understanding of death as a continuation of one's service to God ("your birthday into eternal life") is still valid. Philosophy provides much colder comfort. At its most frank, there is Schopenhauer: "We begin in the madness of carnal desire and the transport of voluptuousness, we end in the dissolution of all our parts and the musty stench of corpses." At its most astringent, there is Seneca: "You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire." At its most agnostic, there is La Rochefoucauld: "Nothing proves as well that philosophers are not as convinced as they claim that death is not an evil, as the torment they go through in order to establish the immortality of their names by the loss of their lives."

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