Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Garrison Keillor: Midwestern Enigma


Cedar Falls SUPPERCLUB              
Delivered November 18, 2014 by G. Scott Cawelti

Garrison Keillor, writer, radio personality, humorist, satirist, all-around enigma, and I come from the same cohort—born eleven months apart, he in August, ‘42 and me in July, ‘43, graduating from high school in ‘60 and ‘61, respectively—he in Anoka, Minnesota, and me in Cedar Falls, Iowa, 235 miles South-Southeast.   We both played in high school rock bands, he in the Pharaohs of Rhythm and me in the Ramrods. 
We both loved Buddy Holly’s singing and his songs—“Peggy Sue,” “Every Day,”  “That’ll be the Day,” “Not Fade Away.”  Indeed, we both performed them.   And we both grew up in the fifties—in Midwest small towns, the heart of the heart of the country.  Our hometowns were both originally settled by Scandinavians—Norwegians for Anoka, Danish for Cedar Falls.   He majored in English with a strong side interest in music.  I majored in Music with a strong pull toward serious reading, and eventually jumped the fence into English.
To get really personal, Keillor remarried for the third time in 1995, and I remarried for the third time in 1996.  
We have so much in common, including radio punditry and political outlook, that, except for degrees of fame and fortune, we’re kindred spirits.
So over the years I’ve been drawn to his work in recognition, admiration, and—yes--envy.   
As a matter of fact, years ago I met Garrison—I can’t call him Gary— when I performed with Robert Waller on the KUNI version of Prairie Home Companion.  He brought his cast and crew to Lang Hall in the late seventies, not for broadcast—we weren’t ready for prime time—but as a KUNI fundraiser.   He was unhappy with us for playing an extra song, and didn’t seem interested in any personal connection whatsoever.
I didn’t take his distance personally, but felt surprised that his real self wasn’t the downhome, warm and fuzzy persona he projects on air. He was cold, distant, even angry that we played an extra song. That ended our Prairie Home Companion career and our fifteen minutes of fame.  
(Mine, anyway; Waller went on to untold riches and notoriety.)

Still, I followed his career like I would a brother’s, and this paper represents a culmination of my examination of Garrison Keillor as an enigmatic personality. 
For the past few months I’ve been reading Keillor monologues, novels, memoirs, a book of jokes, and his recently published book of poems, O WHAT A LUXURY:  VERSES LYRICAL, VULGAR, PATHETIC, AND PROFOUND.   If nothing else, Garrison Keillor seems utterly untroubled by writer’s block.   
Our hero is a gathering of contradictions:  mellow but angry, poor but rich, depressed but funny, angry but beloved, a successful performer and writer who lives like a Republican but thinks like a Democrat. 
He’s shy and reclusive, resenting intrusions on his privacy in the form of questions about his marriages, his affairs, and his wealth.  His net worth approaches 1.5 million, and that doesn’t square with his downhome, egalitarian Democrat folksy persona.  Yet that’s a persona that he cannot abandon without forsaking millions of fans, who take him as the archetypal Midwesterner. 
What redeems him from every flaw, hypocrisy, crankiness, and mood swing, is his storytelling.  A master storyteller captivates listeners and readers so skillfully that personal failings are forgotten or ignored.   
Garrison spins Lake Wobegone tales impromptu, giving them an aura of spontaneity and freshness.  I’ve watched and heard him unfold extended and coherent stories onstage, with never so much as a nod at a notecard or prompt.  He glances around the audience stoically inscrutable; occasionally a sly smile will cross his features, but he never breaks out into a guffaw or even a chuckle; I’ve never heard or seen him actually laugh.   He’d make a great poker player. 
I’ve compared written versions in his collections with spoken monologues with the same titles on CDs, and they’re quite different—evidence that he makes them up as he goes along.  He’s told audiences that writing is a process of discovery, and he’s always discovering as he talks—on radio, in front of a live audience.   It’s a verbal high wire act. 
The only comparable radio personality I know of is Orson Welles, who had an equivalent pillowy resonant baritone voice, and a similar gift for making up compelling stories on the spot.  Of course, Welles was a genuine genius, and Keillor is not, but damn close at times.  
His monologues begin and end with the same phrases, signaling that we’re entering and leaving his imaginative re-creation of life in a small Minnesota town:    “It’s been a quiet week in Lake Wobegone, my hometown . . .” and ends with “And that’s the news from Lake Wobegone, where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” 
Between those phrases he engenders serious laughter, and a lot of it. That’s his trifecta:  story, delivery, and humor.   “Prairie Home Companion” tickets regularly sell out, and millions tune in weekly.  It began on July 6, 1974, and is still going strong from the Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul, and all around the country during various tours; you might have noticed that it originated from Des Moines recently. 
As of last July, that’s 40 years.  GK, as he’s known in Robert Altman’s 2006 film, Prairie Home Companion, began the show when he was a lad in his early thirties.  He’s now 72, refusing to retire after a couple of scares—a heart problem that required open-heart surgery and a minor stroke.  He took two years off in Copenhagen in the late 1980s for a second marriage to a Danish woman he met in high school when she attended Anoka High School as a Danish foreign exchange student.  Incidentally, his current third and longest marriage (1995) is to violinist Jenny Lind Nillson, who also grew up in Anoka. 
Now, back to that trifecta:  story, delivery, and humor.  These go a long ways toward explaining his immediate appeal, but not his longevity.
Two other elements assure both longevity and even posterity, since Keillor’s fans keep creating new fans, his books assure continuance in print form, his monologues keep getting play on car radios, and Robert Altman’s film made him recognizable as a screen presence.  He’s the utter center of that film, by the way—it all revolves around him, minus the uncinematic monologue. 
Those two other elements?  Horatian Satire and Norwegian Bachelor Farmers, i.e. the Scandinavian ethos that undergirds all his writing and performing.   These are the fourth and fifth essential aspects of Garrison Keillor’s ongoing appeal.   
Horatian satire is so named because of the Roman poet Horace, who made gentle fun of his fellow Romans’ follies and foibles, revealing them in all their contradictions and silliness.   Horace’s odes are lighthearted, gentle, and his literary heirs are Chaucer with his Canterbury Tales, Jonathan Swift with his Gulliver’s Travels, Matt Groening with his Simpsons.  And Garrison Keillor with his strong women, good-looking men, and above average children.  It’s not topical, it’s not slapstick, it’s not gross or physical humor—fart jokes excepted—instead, it’s gentle ridicule of somebody’s mostly inadvertent but inescapable foibles—shy, mute, reclusive, almost invisible people who suppress most evidence of having an ego.  
Ridicule is not necessarily that appealing if you’re the one being made fun of.   In fact, it can be a nasty weapon in the mouth of a bully.  But if it’s done in the Horatian manner—that is, gently and with the clear understanding that it applies to everyone, including the speaker or writer, it can be effective and hugely entertaining.
Keillor insists that he’s one of us, insecure, geeky and nerdy growing up, downright ugly (I have a face that’s made for radio, he insists) and morbidly shy, except when he’s performing for millions.  There’s that enigma again.
He tells the story of being completely smitten with one of his beautiful female classmates at Anoka High but never having the courage to speak to her.   One day on a field trip, she was sitting next to a vacant seat on the school bus as he climbed aboard. 
He dared to sit beside her—it took all of his courage—and then—ever so secretively and gently—put his arm behind her, not really touching her.  She paid no attention, just looking out the school bus window and treating him as though he were elsewhere.   Then his hand grazed the back of her shoulder, and she turned and looked straight at him.  He gazed straight back, hoping for a smile or at least an acknowledgement of his existence, if not a trace of affection, and she said: “What?” 
He says he’s been looking for the answer to that question his whole life.  
This self-denigration gives him leeway to make fun of his tribe—that vast subset of Americans from Ohio to Wyoming, Minnesota to Missouri.  And they all seem to be Lutheran. 
Keillor insists that everyone in Minnesota is a Lutheran.  The Catholics are Lutheran.  So are the Baptists and Episcopalians.  Even the atheists are Lutheran—“The God they don’t believe in is Lutheran.” 
He grew up among Lutherans, even though he was a member of a tiny fundamentalist sect—the Plymouth Brethren—they too were Lutherans in their behavior and outlook.  They lived extremely quiet, bland, retiring, virtually ego-free lives, and though they were generous, it was mostly to other “Lutherans” of their sect.   
Their closed society was a way of making sure every one stayed Lutheran.  When someone strayed, they were quietly and subtly shunned, made to feel there was something wrong with them.  Lutherans passively and quietly exercise this form of social control, and many of Keillor’s stories and novels concern characters who broke free, who dared to dance and raise hell and smoke and drink and have wild sex and even leave town to move to Florida and California—only to return for visits—and leave as quickly as possible, sensing they’re no longer welcome.  A Minnesota saying:  “There’d be more suicides in Minnesota if it weren’t for what the neighbors would think.” 
He jokes about the Lutheran shipwreck survivor who disappeared for twenty years, then miraculously found on a tiny island. They pick him up, and he gladly agrees to leave his lonely patch of land.  As he’s getting into the rescue boat, they notice a small hut with a chimney for his home, and another hut with a cross over the door. And yet a third hut, unadorned, further back.    “So that’s your home,” they notice, “and there’s your church—what’s that other building back there.”  “Ah, yah—that’s the church I used to go to.”  
Lutheran sects sprung up like weeds, constantly and everywhere, due to disagreements over—well, anything and everything.  That’s Keillor’s oft-repeated assertion. 
These are the good citizens of Lake Wobegone—or rather, that portion of them that really live and breathe the “Jante” laws of Scandinavia.
Norwegian\Danish writer Aksel Sandemose wrote a novel, A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks, published in 1936, in which he posits a small Danish town, Jante, where everyone without fail follows ten rules. 
These “Jantelovian Commandments” have become a satirical indictment of the Scandinavian ethos, best exemplified in GK by his Norwegian Bachelor Farmers:  
1.     You're not to think you are anything special.
2.     You're not to think you are as good as we are.
3.     You're not to think you are smarter than we are.
4.     You're not to convince yourself that you are better than we are.
5.     You're not to think you know more than we do.
6.     You're not to think you are more important than we are.
7.     You're not to think you are good at anything.
8.     You're not to laugh at us.
9.     You're not to think anyone cares about you.
10.                        You're not to think you can teach us anything.
Note the 8th law:  you’re not to laugh at us. That’s the one that Keillor has broken from the very beginning, and has asserted that he actively set out to alienate Lutherans by making fun of them. 
Keillor knows that successful satirists must remain outsiders, and his ridicule of Lutherans certainly helped that along. Incidentally, he does go to church—the Episcopalian—having long ago given up on the Plymouth Brethren.  He loves Episcopalian rituals and songs, he says, though I doubt that he’s a genuine believer. 
Now here are samples of his writings, illustrating his satire and that Scandinavian ethos:
FROM LAKE WOEBEGONE DAYS: (p. 22)   “I crossed Main Street toward Ralph’s and stopped, hearing a sound from childhood in the distance.  The faint mutter of ancient combines.  Norwegian bachelor farmers combining in their antique McCormacks, the old six-footers.  New combines cut a twenty-foot swath, but those guys aren’t interested in getting done sooner, it would only mean a longer wait until bedtime.” 
From “Aprille”—a Lake Wobegone monologue:
“Spring has come, grass is green, the trees are leafing out, birds arriving every day by the busload, and now the Norwegian bachelor farmers are washing their sheets.” 
From GOODBYE TO THE LAKE, monolog:  Rain fell all morning and everyone was in a festive mood, the Chatterbox was packed for dinner.  A bunch of Norwegian bachelor farmers piled into the back booth and had mushroom soup and liverwurst sandwiches.  “Looks like this may keep up all day,” one said. “Yeah, that’s what they’re sayin.”  If a drought were to kill off his crops, a bachelor farmer might be forced to contemplate marriage, the last refuge for men unable to fend for themselves, just as poor Mr. Hauge did in the drought of ’59.  He married a Saint Cloud woman and died six months later and not from excitement.  To them, rain means that life continues, and they cleared their throats like happy lions, Braaagbbbbb.” 
And from LAKE WOEBEGONE DAYS this fuller description, beginning with Mr. Berge and how he blew his nose: 
Other residents (of Lake Wobegone) come to mind as people who if you were showing a friend from college around town and you saw them you would grab his arm and make a hard U-turn, such as Mr. Berge, not because he might be drunk but because whether drunk or sober he might blow his nose with his index finger the old farmer way.  Farmers still do this in the field, though most of them know that town is a different situation, but not Mr. Berge and his friends, the Norwegian bachelor farmers.   Their only concession to town is a slight duck of the head for modesty’s sake.  To them, the one-hand blow is in the same league with spitting, which they also do, and scratching in the private regions.  They never learned the trick of reaching down deep in your pocket and feeling around for a dime until you solve the problem.  When ill at ease, such as when meeting a friend, they are apt to do all three in quick succession, spit, blow, and scratch—pthoo, snarf, ahhhh—no more self-conscious than a dog. 
          ‘Tis better to apologize than to ask permission,” says Clarence, arguing for greater boldness in life.  The bachelor farmers, however, do neither.  On a warm day, six of them may roost on the plank bench in front of Ralph’s, in peaceful defiance of Lutheranism, chewing, spitting, snarfling, and p-thooing, until he chases them away to the Sidetrack Tap (they’re bad advertising for a grocery store, the heftiness of them seems to recommend a light diet) and then they may not go.  Mr. Munch may just spit on the sidewalk, study it, and say, “I don’t see no sign says No Sitting.”  “You get up, I’ll paint one for you,” says Ralph.  They may wait a long time before they go.
          “Tellwiddem,” says Mr. Fjerde, “Tellwid all ovum,” says Mr. Munch. 
          The Norwegian Bachelor’s password:  Tellwitcha. 
          We are all crazy in their eyes.  All the trouble we go to for nothing:  ridiculous.  Louis emerging from his job at the bank, white shirt and blue bow tie, shiny brown shoes, delicately stepping across the street for lunch:  Dumb bastard.      . . .
          .. . in their hearts, the bachelor farmers are all sixteen years old.  Painfully shy, perpetually disgruntled, elderly teenagers leaning against a wall, watching the parade through the eyes of the last honest men in America:  ridiculous.  Clarence mentioned this when I was eighteen and complaining about my father’s lawn compulsions—grass is meant to get long, it’s part of nature, nature is growth.  “You should talk to the Norwegian bachelors, you have a lot in common,” he said.
          I said to myself:  ridiculous.
That’s Garrison Keillor:  not only does he make fun of the Scandinavian Jante ethos through Norwegian Bachelor Farmers, he’s one of them. 
At bottom, all of Keillor’s monologues and much of his other prose seems to have been written by the quintessential Norwegian Bachelor Farmer—a  painfully shy (now elderly) teenager who out of his own insecurities finds most everyone and everything just plain ridiculous, and therefore worthy of ridicule. 
Take Clarence Bunson, who went to church without any cash.  So he had to write a check to put in the collection plate—you can’t leave church without leaving a donation—what would the ushers think?  But he wrote it for $300 instead of what he intended--$30, so his dilemma became whether he could go downstairs and ask the ushers for his check back.
Oh, the humiliation, and oh, the necessity, since $300 was more than he had in his account.
Finally, a few of his poems, where he truly shines as a Minnesota’s bachelor farmer poet laureate. 
First,  “Lutheranism Explained” LOCATION 1598
I was raised in Iowa, went to St. Olaf, /Norwegian, I’m proud to say./ Thirty years a member of Zion Lutheran,/ I’m there every Sunday. /Always sit in the back of the church, /Always in the same pew. /I like the folks who sit back there, /They’re Norwegian too. /We are a modest people /And we never make a fuss /And it sure would be a better world/ If they were all as modest as us./ We sing the hymns, listen to the sermon, /Go up front and commune, /Drop in the money, shake hands with the pastor /And we’re out by a quarter to noon. /Episcopalians are proud of their faith, /You ought to hear them talk./ Who they got? /They got Henry the 8th /And we got J. S. Bach. Henry the 8th’d marry a woman/ And then her head would drop. /J. S. Bach had 23 kids /Cause his organ had no stop. /We got a female associate pastor /And she’s nice, don’t get me wrong,/ But the boots she wears are what I’d call sexy / And the skirt’s not what I’d call long./ She’s single and she smiles a lot/ And she sure does like her beer/ And I’ve been talking to some of the others /And we trust she’s gone next year. /Here at Zion Lutheran Attendance seems to be down /And that’s because most of the membership /Is six feet underground. /We don’t go for long-term planning, /No need to look that far. /Luther said we’re saved by grace/ So we’re good enough just as we are. /If you come to church, don’t expect to be hugged, /Don’t expect your hand to be shook. /If we need to know who the heck you are, /We can look in the visitors book. /I was raised to keep a lid on it, /Guard what you say or do. /A Mighty Fortress is our God/ So He must be Lutheran too. 
Read “Minnesota Rouser” LOCATION 993 
Let winter come and walk roughshod /With sleet and freezing rains. /We fear it not, we trust in God /And jumper cables and tire chains. /We’re prepared for the good fight, /We shall be cheerful though the blizzard blows. /Though it is ten below, a long cold night, /We trust in coffee and warm clothes. /From Worthington to Grand Marais, /From Lake Vermilion to Red Wing, /We thank God for the coldest day/ And offer up our suffering. /From Bemidji to Anoka, /From Rochester to Roseau, /Winter makes us finer folk, a- /Las we’re modest and can’t say so. 
And  “Times Square” LOCATION 840
I was born with an affliction, /A disposition or mood /Of silent introspection, /A tendency to brood. /I brood about good people I knew/ In the bygone time gone by/ & what I should’ve done & didn’t do /& won’t before I die. /But I come to New York (boom boom)/ & the razzmatazz, hullabaloo & jazz. /The guy with a snake wound around his chest /The anti-fur protest /A street-corner preacher and the quack quack man/ Boys beating on a garbage can /The river of taxis and the quiet roar /Of ambition. And I don’t feel sorry anymore. /Henry Thoreau went to Walden Pond, /Sat at a table in a straightback chair. /I’d rather be in Times Square /& look at that six-story blonde /On the billboard wearing black underwear. /And a lady out of a fashion magazine /A lady in black, her lips bright red /How did she ever get into those jeans /A beautiful woman, so I’ll just drop dead /New York—(boom boom) when all is said / Is where I go to get out of my head. 
Finally, the summing up poem: 
Where the temp gets down to thirty below
And it’s perfectly flat, miles of snow,
And you ask why I live in this desolate spot.
Why? Because you do not.
You in loud clothes
With lacquered hair
And monster pickups
And not much upstairs,
Who whoop in church
And worship the Word,
For whom evolution
Has not yet occurred.
The men shoot gators Out in the marsh, While the women stay home And hang up the warsh.
It’s all about rifles
And the Second Comin’
And wave the flag And down with Gummint
And up with football
And the G.O.P.
Now what if those people Lived next door to me?
And the only thing That keeps them away
Is the fact it will hit Minus thirty today? 
Winter’s a challenge But it can be faced
When you’re among people
With brains and good taste. 
Garrison Keillor, the Norwegian bachelor farmer, feeling secretly superior, yet suffering guilt about it, happy to be living in a state that so many want to leave—and which he can happily leave whenever he wants for his posh NYC Apartment--to find refuge from himself.  An enigma indeed. 
Yet he always returns to making fun of Scandinavian Midwesterners who still delight in his warm and gentle ridicule.   
At least someone’s paying attention to them—and to him.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Nagel and Scheffler on Existential Pessimism.
By Fred Hallberg
For the Town and Gown Supper Club,
Ferrari’s Ristoante,
Cedar Falls, Iowa, October 21, 2014.

I. Introduction: Consciousness and despair.

            The human talent for discursive reason has always been a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it enables us to recall what happened in the past and to project what will probably happen in the near-term future. These capabilities have given us enormous power to manipulate and control events in ways that have made us the predominant creatures on this planet. On the other hand, this same set of abilities have made us aware that we have a natural span of life just like any other animal.

            Consider my experience with pet dogs. Our pets generally age much more rapidly than we do, so we can see the process happening before our eyes. My last Yellow Labrador Retriever exhibited unmistakable signs of senescence when he became about 10 or 11 years old. We then “mercifully” had him put down. But humans also exhibit such a natural span of life. A Biblical Psalmist, writing perhaps 2300 years ago, observed this natural span of human life to be “Three score and ten years, or four score if you are strong.” (See Psalms 90:10.) Some two hundred  years of strenuous effort devoted to modern medical research has pushed this naturally occurring span of human life upward by about a half dozen years. But the Psalmist’s early estimate has remained remarkably accurate over time. No one lives to be 120 or 130 years old.  

            This creates a problem for our efforts to live self-consistent and rewarding lives. We need to maintain a positive attitude toward our efforts and projects in order to live well. But the objective structure of our lives is that of a condemned prisoner on death row. There is no possibility of escaping our fated mortality. We will either die an early death by the functional equivalent of being run over by a big truck, or else we will die closer to the end of our natural life-span by becoming progressively more infirm and incompetent, until the biological functions of our bodies collapse entirely. How can we maintain an affirmative attitude toward our life projects in such a hopeless context?  

II. Thomas Nagel on Why our Lives are Essentially Tragic.

            Philosophers have attempted to articulate verbal solutions to this problem since the very beginning of our literary tradition. These attempts usually consist of efforts to show that dying is not all that bad, so we shouldn’t be especially concerned about it. I will make another such an attempt near the end of this paper, but I should warn you these efforts have, in the main, turned out pretty poorly.

            Consider the Greek philosopher Epicurus, who wrote about 300 BCE, He argued that the good or bad in our lives consisted of our experiences of pleasure or pain. He also argued that our existence as a conscious being depends the detailed organization among the atoms of which we are composed. When we die these atoms will disperse, so we will no longer be identifiable or even be able to be conscious. When dead we will be feeling neither pleasure nor pain. Since we will be feeling nothing when dead, the dispersal  of our atoms which death entails will be neither good nor bad for us. That is why the only consistent attitude toward our posthumous non-existence should be one of detached equanimity.

            This is a nice try, but I have never met a person who felt reconciled to his mortality by such considerations. Thomas Nagel, a contemporary  American analytical philosopher, has gone further and argued that such efforts at reconciling us to our mortality can never work, because dying is an objectively bad event. We are all fated to die. So an honest assessment of our basic situation requires us to admit that a bad end is in store for all of us. If we sometimes feel happy and carefree, that simply shows we do not fully appreciate our basic situation. The cheerful among us are simply self-deluded souls who are whistling their way past the graveyard. (See Thomas Nagel, Mortal Questions, 1979, pp. 1-10.)
            Nagel backs up his pessimism with what I believe are some pretty good arguments. His opening question is, “What is required to attribute good or bad fortune to an identifiable

person?”  Good or bad fortune, for Nagel, is the realization or failure to realize our self-conceived positive projects. He shows this by asking, first,  “How do I identify myself to another?” I identify myself by telling the other stories about my efforts at past positive projects which either succeeded or failed.  Identification of myself also requires that I describe at least some of my current, and as yet unrealized, positive projects or efforts. Together, these narratives about my past and present positive projects will adequately identify who I am. Good or bad fortune then, consists either of my succeeding, or of my failing to succeed at such affirmative self-selected commitments or projects.

            Nagel’s analysis has the advantage of clarifying certain puzzling issues about the goodness of being alive and about the badness of dying. Consider the problem of a completely painless death supposedly caused by a poisoned apple. The wicked witch in Walt Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,  concocted such an apple, which when eaten by Snow White, would  have caused her to go to sleep forever. If Epicurus were right about the good of living being the experience of pleasure, and the bad of dying being the experience of pain, feeding Snow White the poisoned apple would have been a morally neutral act. But we all know it would have been a terribly wrong thing to do. Were Snow White to have succumbed to the apple’s effects, she could never have completed her projects of knowing the love of the handsome Prince, and of living with him for ever after.

            Nagel’s analysis also explains why the death of an animal is never tragic, the way the death of a human person usually is. Animals experience pleasure and pain, so an unnecessarily painful death is a bad thing for an animal. But a painless death is never a misfortune for an animal the way it is for a human being. That is why I was not guilty of doing harm when I had my faithful Labrador “put down.” As described above, misfortune requires identifiable persons as subjects, who have the linguistic ability to conceive and enact positive, life-constituting projects. No sub-human animals have such self-conceived life-constituting projects. So their deaths never constitute a tragic misfortune the way a human person’s death does.
            Nagel even applies his analysis of what constitutes good or bad fortune for an identifiable person, to the issue of whether abortion is a misfortune for a fetus.  A fetus subjected to a late term abortion may feel pain, like a dying animal. But an early term fetus does not have the nervous apparatus necessary to feel pain. Neither can it be the subject of a tragic misfortune, as can a fully functioning human being. It can not be the subject of misfortune, according to Nagel, because a fetus has neither a history of projects attempted in the past, nor a suite of projected but as yet unfulfilled future projects which would be shut down by death. Legislators and judges may claim fetuses are full fledged persons from the moment of conception. But they do this by a process of verbal legerdemain, in which they switch back and forth between the concept of physical identity appropriate to animals on the one hand, and the sort of active project-identity appropriate to self-conscious persons on the other.

III. Contrary Facts.

            I find Nagel’s analysis of how good or bad fortune is assigned to an identifiable person to be surprisingly powerful and consistent. My problem is that his conclusions about the tragic character of our lives doesn’t comport at all well with my experience of how persons actually go through the dying process. I am now 79 years old, so you will not be surprised to learn that I have been quite close to more than a half dozen persons who have gone through the process of dying. So far as I could see, not one of them exhibited the existential anxiety and pessimism about their situation which would have been  required to consistently own the awfulness of their death as analyzed by Nagel. Neither did they exhibit the signs of inauthentic self-deception attributed to cheerful people by existential philosophers like Jean-Paul Sartre or Albert Camus. My elderly friends and relations did not complain that human life is a futile passion, as did Jean-Paul Sartre (See Sartre, Being and Nothingness, 1956, Part 4, Ch. 2, III.)  Nor did they exhibit any desire to shake their fist at God, as did Albert Camus’ character of Sisyphus in his essay The Myth of Sisyphus (See Nagel, p. 22.)               

            Nagel does criticize Sartre and Camus for being overly dramatic and self-pitying in their expressions of existential pessimism. He says, by way of contrast, that strong and mature men should  follow the more admirable example of the 18th Century Scottish philosopher David Hume. Hume was very clear about the verbal tricks by means of which many people hide from themselves the uncertainties and  risks which continuously threaten their lives. Nagel implies most people are simply not strong enough to face up to such hard truths about the often meaningless contingencies affecting their lives. Some individuals like Hume are tough enough to live without such illusions. They simply play along with the illusions of  common folk, but do not actually buy into them. They do not avail themselves of the cheap and easy comforts utilized by common folk, says Nagel, and they do not hide from hard truths about our vulnerability. That is why, according to Nagel, such thick-skinned persons are worthy of our respect.

            Nagel is right about the exaggeratedly romantic and self-pitying character of Sartre’s and Camus’ attitude toward their mortality. But the same could be said of the detached and ironic life-style which he endorses. Why is it so admirable to live using an attitude of detachment as a kind of self-administered anodyne to protect against the pain of living? Isn’t the detached and ironic life-style of David Hume just as inauthentic as the attitude of simple denial  which Nagel attributes to common folk?

IV. Are Common Folk Really Self-Deluded?

            So while I acknowledge the logical force of Nagel’s arguments, his conclusions fly in the face of what are for me undeniable observational facts. Not one of my friends or relatives whom I have watched undergoing the process of dying, ever denied their time on earth would be short - a matter of hours or days at the most. Neither did they rage against God or the fates for having made them mortal. All managed to achieve, without evident effort or drama, what Elizabeth Kubler-Ross has called the fifth stage of the dying process. They all achieved an attitude of affirmative acceptance toward their basic situation. (See Elizabeth Kulber-Ross, 1969, On Death

and Dying. The “five stages” of dying are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.) None of them verbally shook their fists at God, nor did they exhibit David Hume’s attitude of hard-shell and ironic detachment. (Although a couple of my relatives did on occasion drop off into a depression, from which they bounced back fairly quickly.)

            This attitude of acceptance must not have been terribly difficult to achieve, or given the very common character of my friends and relations, it is doubtful they would have gotten there at all. Their apparently easy achievement of the “fifth stage” of the dying process suggest their situation must not have constituted the sort of terrible misfortune Nagel describes. Why not? Perhaps because their positive projects would not have been entirely obliterated by their soon-to-occur departure from the earth. But how could they depart without their projects departing with them?

V. The Secret of an Ordinary Person’s Good Death.

            Suppose our projects are social in character, rather than being purely personal. If I am contributing to OUR projects, rather than exclusively to MY projects, there is no reason our common projects could not be continued in my personal absence.

            This is where Samuel Scheffler takes the ball from Nagel and runs with it. Scheffler was a student of Nagel’s who taught ethics for many years at City College of New York. He wrote a book published last year, which was largely critical of Nagel’s views on death and dying. It was entitled Death and the Afterlife. Unfortunately, Scheffler himself became ill while his book was being completed, and he died later that same year (2013). Nagel then wrote a graciously positive review of Scheffler’s book for the January 9, 2014 issue of The New York Review of Books.
            Scheffler plays a trick on his readers with his title, Death and the Afterlife. He does not mean by “the afterlife” what we usually mean, namely, the life of immortal souls who have ascended to heaven to take their place among the communion of saints. What he means by way of contrast, is all those who are living after we are gone, who will be carrying on the myriad projects of maintaining and enhancing our society and its culture. He argues that little if anything we do would have meaning or value apart from our participation in such open-ended, community-enhancing, projects.

            Consider the values embodied in the project of creating and supporting a family. Plato had an imaginary female wisdom figure named Diotima, in a dialogue called The Symposium,  assert that young  people who are grappling with one another in the throes of sexual passion, do not really know what they are about. They may  think they are trying to possess the beauty of the other person, but what they are really grappling for is immortality. How so? The natural consequence of sex is reproduction, and by creating and nurturing children, a fertile couple is engaging in a project which plainly extends beyond the reach of their earthly existence. Biological parents are supported  in turn by all those teachers, coaches, and other mentors who transmit the spiritual dimensions of a culture, such as its art, religion, science, and philosophy. Virtually everyone is engaged in such projects of cultural maintenance and enhancement, which extend across generations into the far future. None of these projects need end with the life of a particular self. (See Plato’s Symposium, Sections 204-207.) No wonder elderly persons on their death bed, who are surrounded by sober, grieving, children and raucous, carefree, grandchildren, so often exhibit an attitude of acceptance toward their situation. Most of the positive projects which have defined them as individuals will be very long lived, if not literally eternal. There is no reason to fear that the positive social projects to which they have been committed, are going to be quickly dispersed upon their death, the way the elements of their physical bodies are going to be dispersed. Such long-term significance for our socially relevant projects provides at least a partially effective antidote to the misfortune of adult death.   

VI. Whence Existential Anxiety?
            If what I have said in defense of Scheffler is correct, what are we to say about philosophers like Sartre, Camus, and Nagel when writing in their pessimistic  moods? Scheffler’s claim is that their unhappiness with the basic structure of their lives is entirely self-created by a kind of narcissistic egotism. We must be careful not to identify certain arguments these writers float, and certain characters they create, with the writers themselves. Writers are always more than the arguments or characters they create. But the weight of the evidence in the case of Sartre is so strong that I think we can make the judgment that he suffered from a deep personal flaw. He seems to have been unable to become comfortable with emotional closeness to anyone, even with his life-long companion, Simone de Beauvior. (It was an open secret that he was never faithful to her.) Camus really does seem to be angry with God when writing The Myth of Sisyphus, but he showed he was open to other possibilities in his later work (such as his novel The Fall), and he may have died too young to have developed a way out of the pessimistic dead-end he portrayed in The Myth of Sisyphus. Nagel redeemed himself, in my view, by the way he treated Scheffler’s posthumously published book.

VII. Can Christian Immortality Provide an Effective Solution to Nagel’s Problem?

            Why have I chased around the barn in search of a solution to the problem of existential anxiety and pessimism, when an answer supposedly lies right here in front of me? All I need do is to accept Christ as my Lord and Savior, and I will be granted a kind of immortality which is promised to remove the sting of death. (I Corinthians, 15:54-55). .

            The problem for me is that the Christian doctrine of resurrection and immortality (especially as expressed in I Corinthians 15: 51-55)  is shot through with conflicts and incredulities. First of all, are we talking about the BODILY RESURRECTION Paul describes in I Corinthians 15: 51-55, or which he describes even more graphically in 1st Thessalonians 4? Or are we talking about the sort of VISIONARY EXPERIENCES Paul lists as evidence for resurrection earlier in the same chapter (in I Corinthians 15: 3-8.)?  But visionary experiences are usually accepted as evidence of immaterial entities such as ghostly souls, not of substantive, enduring,  three dimensional objects required for bodily resurrection. I accept (at least grudgingly) that visionary experiences ought to be taken seriously as evidence of immaterial soul-travel resurrection, because such experiences cannot yet be explained by the physical sciences, and because they do not require belief in levitating material bodies. (For the difficulties involved in the attempt to explain consciousness by reference to the dance of the atoms in the void, see Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos, and Galen Strawson, Consciousness and Its Place in Nature.) This failure of contemporary science to explain the existence of conscious action and experience provides a theoretical  “gap” within which theologians are free to speculate about the intentional acts of immaterial entities. No such “gap” exists concerning our ability to explain the causal connections among material bodies. That is why I choke on claims about bodily resurrection. I admit this leaves me suspiciously close to the heresy of docetism (the belief that the risen Christ was a mere “appearance,” not a material reality). If honesty requires heresy, well then, I say so much the worse for orthodoxy. I do wonder, however, whether the more orthodox among us really do own up to how strange are their orthodox doctrines of bodily resurrection? 

            My deepest complaint about the more orthodox accounts about how the idea of resurrection is supposed to function as a solution to the anxiety and grief engendered by death, is a practical one. I do not believe it is capable, in practice,  of solving the problem it supposedly addresses. Consider the situation of my older cousin who adopted an infant girl when he was middle-aged. He and his wife raised their adopted daughter for about 9 years. He then died suddenly and unexpectedly from a burst aneurysm. The girl had been very close to her father and was crushed by his death. I recall the funeral at our family church in a small community in Western Minnesota. She was sitting in the front pew with her mother and other family members.  The somewhat bombastic minister gestured toward the sky, and said that God had taken her father away to be with Him in heaven.

            She hunched down in the pew as if she had received a blow. She did not want her father to be taken away to heaven. She wanted him to be right there beside her, in the usual place where they always sat. If the losses engendered by death involves an intimate relationship with another, the loss of the other to someplace in heaven is just as devastating as the loss of the other to a material grave underground. The doctrines of individual resurrection and immortality provide no protection at all against such sources of grief among the living.

            I conclude that the pain and grief engendered by death cannot be eliminated. But it can be significantly ameliorated among adults by their commitment to positive communal projects which can endure beyond their material existence. There plainly is an “afterlife” in Scheffler’s sense of that term, and our participation in it by means of our life-time social service activities is a kind of “project” which endures beyond our earthly existence.