Simon Duffy

Thoughts, Bemusements & Arguments

Tag: death

Two Kinds of Collaboration

…a man has no significance in a totalitarian state. The only thing that matters is the inexorable movement of the state mechanism. A mechanism needs only cogs. Stalin used to call all of us cogs. One cog does not differ from another, and cogs can easily replace one another. You can pick one out and say ‘From this day you will be a genius cog’, and everyone else will consider it a genius. It does not matter at all whether it is or not. Anyone can become a genius on the orders of the leader.

Dimitri Shostakovich from Testimony (conversations with Solomon Volkov)

This statement is taken from a book which is still treated with suspicion by some – they think either that Volkov fabricated these exchanges or that Shostakovich himself was guilty of re-inventing his own past.

It has been interesting to read Ian MacDonald’s The New Shostakovich, a book which explores the process by which the composer, like so many others, was made to collaborate with a communist regime that he loathed. MacDonald argues, persuasively, that the horror, tragedy and vicious pettiness of communism is reflected in many aspects of his music – if you have the ears to listen.

This book also reminds us how many of us in the West were willing to suspend disbelief in the crimes of communism. The dream of a utopian, state-controlled future was enough to lead many intellectuals to simply disregard the uncomfortable truths that kept emerging Soviet Russia.

Shostakovich’s own collaboration can be understood. He had to try and protect himself, his family, his friends, and his music. He was threatened with death and he saw many of those he loved and respected led away to death. But how can we excuse the collaboration of Sartre, George Bernard Shaw and so many other Western intellectuals, who simply didn’t want to admit that they were wrong? Their own collaboration helped to perpetuate the largest system of mass murder in human history and their only excuse was that it might have been a little embarrassing to admit that they were wrong.

Death Comes Softly Shod

The law’s been passed and I am lying low
Hoping to hide from those who think they are
Kindly, compassionate. My step is slow.
I hurry. Will the executioner
Be watching how I go?

Others about me clearly feel the same.
The deafest one pretends that she can hear.
The blindest hides her white stick while the lame
Attempt to stride. Life has become so dear.
Last time the doctor came,

All who could speak said they felt very well.
Did we imagine he was watching with
A new deep scrutiny? We could not tell.
Each minute now we think the stranger Death
Will take us from each cell

For that is what our little rooms now seem
To be. We are prepared to bear much pain,
Terror attacks us wakeful, every dream
Is now a nightmare. Doctor’s due again.
We hold on to the gleam

Of sight, a word to hear. We act, we act,
And doing so we wear our weak selves out.
We said “We want to die” once when we lacked
The chance of it. We wait in fear and doubt.
O life, you are so packed

With possibility. Old age seems good.
The ache, the anguish – we could bear them we
Declare. The ones who pray plead with their God
To turn the murdering ministers away,
But they come softly shod.

Euthanasia (1980) by Elizabeth Jennings

The poem imagines the psychological damage done by permitting euthanasia: the old and infirm now realise that the role of the doctor is not just to protect them from death. Suddenly – with kind and good intentions – the doctor has turned into a murdering minister.

And of course, we are all old and infirm (only not just yet) and so we all begin to realise that our life is suddenly going to be much more conditional on the judgement of these compassionate professionals. Certainly, important rules will be put in place to keep us safe (or so they say): (a) we must really will our own death, and (b) there must be no hope of recovery. We can even hope that these new rules will be followed – most of the time.

But this new right – the right to be hurried to death – completely changes our moral status. We used to be sacred beings. It was wrong for others to kill us and it was wrong to kill ourselves. But in this new world we will merely be containers for experiences – shopping bags, ready to be filled with a variety of goods – of varying quality. Too many low grade experiences and we will be ready for death, but if we can maintain our experiences at a sufficiently high grade – well we have nothing fear – at least not yet.

Who judges the quality of these experiences? Well I am sure we still be allowed at least one vote on this; but it seems that others will now be asked to decide whether we are having ‘a life worth living.’ And if we are a little confused, if we lack capacity to cast our own vote, then what happens to our vote? Can we be out-voted? It would seems so irrational to protect the irrational from the fair and pleasant death that is now on offer – and after all – by definition such a life is hardly worth much. [Although again the question of whose definition does not always seem to get raised by the euthanasia enthusiasts.]

There is no recovery from life. Death is where we are all going – so what is wrong with hurrying things along a little when things get difficult? And although you may be happy now, you may be sad tomorrow – and vice versa. Nothing removes uncertainty like death.

In this new world death will come softly shod – but it will change everything.

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