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How Ought We Die?

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Secular medicine’s original exclusions prevent us from understanding the process of death.

Imagine the dying patient today: sitting in the intensive care unit, hooked up to a ventilator that artificially pumps their heart and a feeding tube because they can no longer eat on their own. The patient could be on several drugs or antibiotics, hooked up to devices that keep an eye on every bodily function, or even need hemodialysis because their kidneys have failed. All the while physicians scramble about doing everything in their power to keep this patient alive as long as they possibly can, even when they know that time is limited. Why? Because this person is a patient in a hospital and everyone knows you go to hospitals to get better, not to die.

Lydia Dugdale gives such a description in her Hasting’s Center Report article “The Art of Dying Well.” Dugdale claims that American society is ill equipped for the experience of dying. Instead a physician’s focus is solely on perpetuating life as long as possible, and the family often times desires the same thing. According to Dugdale, today’s focus on continued life doesn’t make dying any better than in the mid-fourteenth century in Europe during the Bubonic plague epidemic. Then, the constant presence of death turned society’s attention to ensuring that the dying would receive a good death.

To aid laypeople in giving their loved ones good deaths, the Catholic Church created a text called Ars Moriendi, the Art of Dying, in 1415. It guided the layperson through the dying process by teaching them the appropriate prayers, preparations, and listing questions that the dying person should consider and answer about their life as a way of confirming that they lead a repentant and righteous life. But one could start considering what it meant to die well just by being in close proximity with the dying. By encountering the prescribed preparations, others involved were able to think critically about death and the inevitable end of their own lives. The Ars Moriendi in time expanded into its own genre, with numerous religious authorities reinterpreting what it meant to die well and promoting their own texts. These guidebooks were written for centuries after.

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Cleaning Up

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As a cleaner, I was prolonging the illusion that writing is and should be a living.

1.

I’ve felt like a fraud at every job I ever had. For my first job, at 13, I would bicycle over to the neighborhood butcher with a school friend, a freckly kid who never stopped smiling and was obsessed with Alex P. Keaton from Family Ties. We convinced the owner to let us sweep the floors and polish the glass case in front for a few bucks. I went mostly to hang out with my friend, and the hour or two we’d spend cleaning felt like a waste of an afternoon together, only when we were through we’d each have a five-dollar bill to spend. Having money at that age felt like freedom, in the same way that pizza felt like food — a simple pleasure that was impossible to rank against any alternatives we could imagine.

Every job I have had since — even as a writer, the identity that’s mainly supported me for the past seven years — has presented the same triangulation of the private desires, the public value of the thing produced, and the set of make-believe ethics bridging the two. Which is not to say that all work is the product of fantasy, but the transubstantiation of labor into a lifelong identity overrides immediate material needs. Work sacrifices the present to tie it to an overarching structure that makes sense of time and space, future and past. Writing is no different, a professional mirage built on the promise of doing something materially unnecessary. In the same way that cleaning isolates objects from the totalizing filth that seeks to reclaim them, writing divines which ideas might be lustrous once liberated from the entropic morass of reality.

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Death and the Maiden

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Freud’s theory of the death drive also gives us a way to think about gender.

Walter Benjamin remarked of the people who experienced the First World War:

A generation that had gone to school in horse-drawn streetcars now stood in the open air, amid a landscape in which nothing was the same except the clouds, and at its center, in a forcefield of destructive torrents and explosions, a tiny fragile human body.

What this body could mean was newly in question. Benjamin discusses economic depression, technological innovation, moral uncertainty, and violence, but the First World War also provoked a crisis of masculinity. Men died, were wounded, and later found themselves unemployed in unprecedented numbers. Meanwhile women, as Sarah M Gilbert and Susan Gubar argue in No Man’s Land, “seemed to become, as if by some uncanny swing of history’s pendulum, even more powerful.” Tiny fragile human bodies threatened to detach themselves from their traditionally assigned gender roles. At this historical moment, death collided with gender.
Confronted with a profusion of patients shaken by traumatic dreams in the wake of World War I, Sigmund Freud had a theoretical as well as therapeutic problem. He had previously asserted that every dream is the fulfillment of a wish, but the repetition he encountered in traumatic dreams contradicted this claim. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920) he asked, Why repeat something unpleasurable? Why return to the site of trauma?

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Made for China

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As US audiences tire of big budget spectacle, Hollywood designs its blockbuster product for the ever-expanding Chinese market

It matters that Superman is a white man, even though he’s not human but an alien from the planet Krypton. It matters that Batman, Spiderman, Iron Man, Wolverine, Thor, and Captain America are all white men—even though most of them are only kind of human. It matters that when we sit silently in a movie theater, reverently observing the glowing screen with our thirteen dollar tickets and buckets of popcorn in hand, we watch white men saving the world again and again.

It matters too, then, that quietly, without fanfare, the race of one of the mutants in X-Men: Days of Future Past was changed. Blink is white in the original comic books. In the movie, she’s Asian, played by Chinese actress Fan Bingbing.

Twentieth Century Fox made a calculated decision when they cast Fan. Although unknown to Western audiences, Fan is the most famous working actress in China. She has topped the Forbes China Celebrity 100 list for the past two years. Her movies have broken China’s domestic box office records and she serves as the face of L’Oreal and Louis Vuitton in China.

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Poems From Guantanamo

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A new book of poems about Guantanamo Bay detainees raises the prison’s specter of placelessness. 

There are few more painful ways to get inside Guantanamo than reading through the mental deterioration and suicide of Adnan Latif, a Yemeni man who—at around 25 years old—was among the first prisoners brought to Guantanamo from Afghanistan in 2002. Latif maintained he had gone to Afghanistan for treatment for a head injury; the government insisted he had gone to train with Al Qaeda. A federal judge ordered him released in 2010, but another court vacated the decision, saying the government record implicating him must be given “a presumption of regularity.” By 2010, Latif’s lawyers were making the case that the government was holding a sick man. Latif sometimes wore a sheet as a cape and did backflips on his cell wall, ate shards of glass, and threw feces and blood at his lawyer and guards. He committed suicide in the fall of 2012 with an overdose of pills he had somehow managed to hoard. After his death, Latif’s body was held in limbo in Germany for months, before finally being returned to his family in Yemen.

I reported on Latif’s death and the circumstances around it, reading all the available documents and speaking to his lawyer. His story affected me as much any tragedy: his suffering was painfully incidental to the Obama administration’s political maneuverings regarding the future of the prison.

770 men have been in Guantanamo since the prison was opened; today there remain 149, some of whose stories are as pathetic as Latif’s, some of whose are more incriminating. Their details – well, some of them – are laid bare in transcripts of the initial “combatant status review tribunals” that the U.S. government granted Guantanamo detainees when the Supreme Court determined, in 2004, that they must have some chance to challenge their detention. And these transcripts have also become fodder for the French poet Frank Smith’s 2010 book Guantanamo, released in July by Les Figues Press in a terse and effective translation by the poet and conceptual artist Vanessa Place.

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