No Country For Old Men is an Anti-Sacramentarian Screed

Some Advent Musings

“Are you going to kill me?” the accountant asks, plaintively.

“Do you see me?” answers Anton.

People, we’re dealing with God here.

Spoilers Follow

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Memento Mori

You will die.

The Duke graced us with a pair of heart-wrenching tales. In them, forlorn old women find themselves in the winter of life bereft of the comforts of family. They will die anon. They will die to the indecorous rhythm of a saline drip and a heart monitor if modern medicine has its way, or they will die to the fainter, harmonious beat of the celestial spheres spinning in the firmament if nature claims its inevitable tax by its own inexorable will. But both of David’s gentle ladies shall, like you when ’tis your turn, perish from this chill earth.

Unlike David’s dowagers, you may still have a choice: a choice to build a clan, to form family bonds, to while away the postscriptum years with the chatter and stomp of your descendants, be they spawned or adopted. Upon which margins ought you carve your legacy?

With all due respect to my beloved co-blogger, let me forward the proposition that the sample from which he drew his pair of case studies is not representative of the general population. As such, the conclusion that it was the state provision of old-age transfer payments that led to the clipping of a magazine photograph to stand in for a family absent since Nixon was muttering invective into White House tape recorders does not follow from the evidence. I will agree that David’s story is possibly informative, but it is also an empirical claim, and as such, subject to testing.

Unfortunately, there are to the best of my knowledge, no clean natural experiments in large-scale public provision of old age benefits that occur over a long enough time line to produce clear econometric results. Even in the cases where there are pension vs OASDI differences (rail workers, eg), random selection and assignment are next to impossible to achieve. There are, however, a few not-too-shabby substitutes. I knew several expat Russian widows living in Klaipeda who might help shed some light on the role of expected public pensions on folks’ propensity to invest in relationship capital. Of course, the control group has yet to mature, so the jury’s going to be out for a while, but we might look at age 30 fertility between cohorts or some such jiggery-pokery, but let me suggest to you that there does exist at least one reasonable alternative hypothesis that could explain why Americans may be at greater risk of dying alone than people from otherwise comparable cultures.

And that is, for lack of a better term, respect for the grave. Apart from pitying the plight of the several Russian widows peppered throughout the apartment complex I dwelt while in the lovely Klaipeda-by-the-sea, I could not help but taste the local culture, including many of the ancient (and by ‘ancient’, I mean ancient in the European sense, not in the “1776 was a, like, suuuuuper long time ago, you guys” sense) rituals, rites, and habits of the local people. Specifically, the habits of death. Twice a year, rain or shine, like it or not, you hike your rear end out to visit those family members you planted in the ol’ potters’ field. Likewise, you must, as in iron-clad MUST, pay honors to the dead before marrying. It seemed a bit odd to me, taking a trip to the boneyard before tying the knot, but only for a moment. If the lineage is indeed important, it’s perfectly consistent with Western traditions of faith, hope, and love, to respect all three at such an important time. Communing with the dead is an act of faith.

It’s an act of faith largely lost in our sanitized, blisteringly hopeful colony. We drape our dead tastefully, yet we cover them obscenely (I am still grateful that I was at sea when the press vultures began circling the corpse of the fallen Princess Diana). The departed are interred far from the wandering eye and buried under well-maintained lawns, out of sight but for long-unused roadside yards in rickety old New England. Even the grand National Cemetery in Arlington is on the south side of town, tucked away, discreet, with lousy parking and well-worn paths between the Tomb of the Unknown and the one and only Audie Murphy.

We don’t have to have drop-bed gurneys to transport the deceased. We don’t have to have a one-and-done funeral, after which the dead are remembered ad hoc and casually only when it comes up. But that, compared to Lithuania anyway, is generally what we do. And the out-of-sight-out-of-mind attitude that naturally accompanies this treatment could at least plausible contribute to individuals’ tendencies to neglect the elderly as Malach HaMavet hobbles his slow way up the garden path.

My maternal grandmother passed away this weekend. She was either lucky enough to have loving family close enough to hold her hand through life’s final ordeal or she had the good sense to refrain from excessively alienating her three daughters and their progeny. But she knew what we all know, deep down: you will die. How the dead are respected, how they are remembered, how they viewed, spoken of, handled, and honored is of no matter for them. Death is always for the living. Atrophied respect for the dead leads to faithlessness, to unmoored myopic individualism, to impotent fury over being able to move rattletrap real estate above cost.

If my competing hypothesis that intemperate, faithless attitudes towards death is responsible for both the weird way the media treat coverage of dead people, and higher rates of senior neglect, perhaps it’s worth considering what we might do in our own lives to hedge against the specter of aged loneliness. Here, David and I come to many of the same conclusions: have kids, love them, instill in them virtue to the best of your ability, including the faith of family and the hope of the hearth. Love them that they shall love in turn. Breed in them courage, temperance, prudence, and champion justice wherever you can. As for the rest of your society, don’t feed the trolls. Block, ignore, unsubscribe, unfollow—these, my dear friends are your tools to harry and needle the disrespectful rabble among us who would utter ill of the dead or who would promote vice above virtue. They can squawk till their temples burst and their throats bleed, but you always retain the right to abstain from listening. Give it a try sometime, you just might find yourself ever so slightly happier.

R.I.P. C. Shrack. You’ve earned it.

Heraclitus Fears Not The Reaper

To get to Heraclitus’ hovel, drive east, way east, and onto some back roads, back to about 500 B.C.E., hang a right toward the Mediterranean, which belongs to Persia at the moment, and look for the sun-blessed property with the open-aired architecture gilded with flames overlooking the sea, and you’re there. When I went to visit, the only radio station I could coax into my ox-cart was some hippie-rock music, blaring Edwin Starr’s version of “War.” What is it good for? (Primal and thrusting grunt), absolutely nothin’; say it again! That was provocative enough, I think, to fetch the old man, and he came storming down the stairs from his deck-patio, bounding over his novelty river to walk at too brisk a pace for my comfort straight at me, shouting to be heard over the radio:

War is for the common good, and strife is the right order of things. In fact, all things come to pass according to strife and are actually made useful.

“All things?” I asked. At that very moment (let the reader understand that I swear by all that is holy and good: what I’m about to tell you really happened), “War” came to an end, yielding to John Lennon’s “Give Peace A Chance.” Before I could manage to switch off the radio, the old man spoke:

If I didn’t already know that justice comes from injustice, I would drown myself in my own river for despair.”

“Yeah,” I said. “We all really hate that song.”

“All of you?” he asked.

“Well, only the dead like it.”

ancient-greek-warfare-3

“Indeed,” he said, perking up.

The immortal are mortals, the mortal immortals, by actually living the death of those and by actually dying the life of the others.

I stared at him, and the blankness of my mind became apparent on my face. He showed mercy to me, saying, “Wanna come in?”

We climbed atop his hovel which staved off the sea and invited in the air, sat down together around a fire pit, and he handed me a skin of wine. “You know,” he said. “You can never drink the same wine twice.” He chuckled at his own joke while I took a drink, staring at him while he stared at the sea. “Bowdlerizing my hard work,” he mumbled. “There’s lots more wine where that came from.”

“It’s good,” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “Life is good, if you’re willing to die like that grape. Taste how good it is! You are that grape.” He leaned over to me, whispering, “Be the grape.” I began to suspect he had had a skin or two already. “That wine,” he continued, “will dry out your soul; then you’ll be ready to live the death of those who are mortal.”

“That shouldn’t be too difficult, with a headache like that.”

“No more difficult than standing in front of an advancing army.”

“So we’re back to that again,” I said.

“Oh,” he said, waving his hand toward the sea. “Everybody gets so upset about war, the cruelty of it all, the pain, the destruction. Generally speaking, however, you’re on one side of the advancing army or the other. You can’t have a life without strife. Now, most of us enjoy a life in behalf of someone who died. Hopefully our army was able to make more live per death than their army, but cruelty, pain, destruction–the injustice of war–burns away infestations of injustice so that justice is born anew.”

“So we should wish for war?”

He sighed, “It’s a metaphor, dummy. Warfare and strife is a part of every day life. ‘Real’ warfare is a pedagogue, a headmaster of pain and inevitability, to teach us what it is we are experiencing from the moment our dreams cease until they commence again. And then we lie down to sleep forevermore, joining the chorus of the waters.”

“War is just a metaphor?”

“Just?” he repeated. “Aren’t you listening? The little indignities of this daily life gather themselves up until they are an army marching from town to town, turning over every stone, smashing down every door, and burning every stump and every field of stubble. Thus it must be; if it is not so, the little indignities persevere, as blight perseveres in the soil over the coldest and cruelest winter. Only all-consuming fire restores the garden. This town, in fact, is built upon heaps of rubble and ash, great kings whose names are forgotten causing men to throw down every stone and every skull because of some forgotten injustice. How much more beautiful are the sunsets from these heights, thanks to the cruelty of war, like the time I accidentally smashed a potted plant at the marketplace!”

“Potted plant?”

“You’re the one who thinks that war is just a metaphor,” he said. “In my own mind I was entirely justified to knock down the potted plant. She had it placed in too precarious a spot, and I refused to replace the pot–neither the plant, be it damned to everlasting perdition–nor did I apologize to that gap-toothed, gray-bearded old lady, wretched beast. She had the nerve to drag me before the magistrate, whereupon I argued my case that I ought to have been able to have had the freedom to move my elbow to acquire the necessary silver from my coin purse in exchange for some delicious dates–and I used every other kind of wince-inducing syntax to make the case that I was too dignified to be brought so low by such a waste of vapors, this market-making she-monster. The magistrate looks at her, looks at me, and says, ‘I find in favor of the plaintiff; moreover, your recalcitrance earns you the opportunity to pay her court fee as well as yours.’ Oh, the indignity!”

“What did you do?”

“I paid the fine,” he said, “and the court fees. What else was I gonna do?” He looked over at me. I was looking at him, waiting for him to impart some profundity. “Drink your wine,” he said. I lifted the skin to my mouth and swallowed. He turned his chair toward me, saying, “Do you get it?”

Continue reading “Heraclitus Fears Not The Reaper”