Commentary Magazine


The New Thanatology

To the Editor:

“O Death, Where Is Thy Sting-a-Ling-a-Ling?” by Leslie H. Farber [June] caused me to think back on the deaths in my own family and to try to see where the new death-liberationists could help me. The few works I have seen in this new how-to arena have offended more than comforted me. . . .

What is most upsetting in this fad is the emphasis on understanding the death process in a rational manner. This stress leaves out, as Dr. Farber understands very well, the real importance of life, which is not so amenable to simple, rational analysis. . . . The stages and responses to dying are viewed, but the essentials of life, which give meaning to death, are slighted. What we are in reality liberated from is not death, but life. . . . Thanks to this research, we have not been comforted . . . but deceived into thinking we have obtained understanding. . . .

Robert Blumstock
Hamilton, Ontario

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To the Editor:

Leslie H. Farber’s essay would have been more persuasive if he himself had not permitted the grotesque non-Jewish funeral of his own old, immigrant father. Dr. Farber was an agent, thereby, of the very falsification of death which he decries.

Samuel Menashe
New York City

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To the Editor:

Leslie H. Farber’s critique of the new death cult is witty, wicked, and often wise. But as a teacher of a psychohistory course, “Americans in the Presence of Death,” I should like to suggest some qualifications to his argument. . . .

American college education should be in part an exercise in brainwashing of a therapeutic kind—an effort to wash out of young minds a part of the trivializing nonsense put there with great skill by the mass media. There should be an attempt to remind young people of the fundamental things—birth, love, suffering, death. To a disturbing degree Americans see themselves as the advertisers, their real gurus, picture them; they are consumers. Arthur Miller makes the point well: “Years ago a person he was unhappy, didn’t know what to do with himself—he’d go to church, start a revolution—something. Today you’re unhappy? Can’t figure it out? What is salvation? Go shopping.”

Obviously the contemplation of one’s own death provides an avenue of escape from becoming totally a creature of the commercial culture with its conventional wisdom. There is something unconditioned and very lonely in the idea of death. E. M. Forster noted: “Death destroys a man, but the idea of death saves him.”

A second reason for courses on death is to escape from the overwhelming burden of modern knowledge. There should be room for a “higher dilettantism” in the college curriculum; a few courses might be halfway between a bull session and a regular college course with its massive body of scholarly learning. Ernest Becker, in The Denial of Death, . . . writes: “I would . . . run the risk of simple-mindedness in order to make some dent in the unintended imbecility brought about by specialization and its mountains of fact.” Dr. Farber finds Becker’s book simple-minded, perhaps because of his own rather laconic, pragmatic temperament. . . . But reasonableness is not the only answer; the hell-benders and heaven-stormers, like Maslow, Rank, Becker, et al. are useful citizens too.

Richard Birdsall
Connecticut College
New London, Connecticut

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Leslie H. Farber writes:

To Samuel Menashe: In my account of my father’s Americanization, I omitted, in an excess of tact, perhaps, what we all know: that not all the difficulties to be endured in that process sprang from the Gentile community. Always to be contended with was the insolent and condescending piety of those fellow Jews who would, whatever the circumstances, measure a man by his rituals. (Mr. Menashe outdoes the new thanatologists in his prescriptive presumption.) My father at the end of his life was old, yes, and immigrant, no; he had, with courage and against great odds, both become an American and remained a Jew.

To Richard Birdsall: Perhaps this is another “question of language.” When I am asked to entertain “therapeutic brainwashing” in the cause of a “higher dilettantism,” I simply tend to lose my bearings. I would remind Mr. Birdsall that it is not necessary to make a purchase to qualify as a consumer. Ideas, too, have their currency in the marketplace, and he is trading in some of the trendiest. It’s not quite as obvious to me as it is to Mr. Birdsall that “the contemplation of one’s own death provides an avenue of escape from becoming totally a creature of the commercial culture with its conventional wisdom.” Perhaps the reverse, in fact. As E. M. Forster would surely have said, if given the opportunity, “The idea of death may save a man, but not if he gets college credit for it.”

As for Becker and Maslow being hell-benders and heaven-stormers—what? Those page boys of the Zeitgeist? At this point I fear we have abandoned a common tongue.

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