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The Death of American Exceptionalism—and of Me

On the changing American idea of mortality

| Tue Sep. 24, 2013 2:33 PM EDT

An Immortal Human Head in the Clouds

About the presence of death and dying I don't remember the society in the 1950s being so skittish as it has since become. People still died at home, among relatives and friends, often in the care of a family physician. Death was still to be seen sitting in the parlor, hanging in a butcher shop, sometimes lying in the street. By the generations antecedent to my own, survivors of the Great Depression or one of the nation's foreign wars, it seemed to be more or less well understood, as it had been by Montaigne that one's own death "was a part of the order of the universe… a part of the life of the world."

For the last 60 or 70 years, the consensus of decent American opinion (cultural, political, and existential) has begged to differ, making no such outlandish concession. To do so would be weak-minded, offensive, and wrong, contrary to the doctrine of American exceptionalism that entered the nation's bloodstream subsequent to its emergence from the Second World War crowned in victory, draped in virtue.

Military and economic command on the world stage fostered the belief that America was therefore exempt from the laws of nature, held harmless against the evils, death chief among them, inflicted on the lesser peoples of the Earth. The wonders of medical science raked from the ashes of the war gave notice of the likelihood that soon, maybe next month but probably no later than next year, death would be reclassified as a preventable disease.

That article of faith sustained the bright hopes and fond expectations of both the 1960s countercultural revolution (incited by a generation that didn't wish to grow up) and the Republican Risorgimento of the 1980s (sponsored by a generation that didn't choose to grow old). Joint signatories to the manifesto of Peter Pan, both generations shifted the question from "Why do I have to die?" to the more upbeat "Why can't I live forever?"

The substituting of the promise of technology for the consolations of philosophy had been foreseen by John Stuart Mill as the inevitable consequence of the nineteenth century's marching ever upward on the roads of social and political reform. Suffering in 1854 from a severe pulmonary disease, Mill noted in his diary on April 15, "The remedies for all our diseases will be discovered long after we are dead, and the world will be made a fit place to live in after the death of most of those by whose exertions have been made so."

His premonition is now the just-over-the-horizon prospect of life everlasting bankrolled by Dmitry Itskov, a Russian multimillionaire, vouched for by the Dalai Lama and a synod of Silicon Valley visionaries, among them Hiroshi Ishiguro and Ray Kurzweil. As presented to the Global Future 2045 conference at Lincoln Center in New York City in June 2013, Itskov's Avatar Project proposes to reproduce the functions of human life and mind on "nonbiological substrates," do away with the "limited mortal protein-based carrier" and replace it with cybernetic bodies and holograms, a "neohumanity" that will "change the bodily nature of a human being, and make them immortal, free, playful, independent of limitations of space and time." In plain English, lifelike human heads to which digital copies of the contents of a human brain can be downloaded from the cloud.

The question "Why must I die?" and its implied follow-up, "How then do I live my life?," both admit of an answer by and for and of oneself. Learning how to die, as Montaigne goes on to rightly say, is unlearning how to be a slave. The question "Why can't I live forever?" assigns the custody of one's death to powers that make it their business to promote and instill the fear of it—to church or state, to an alchemist or an engineer.

For 40 years during the Cold War, the American government, both Democrat and Republican, deployed the shadow of death (i.e., the constant threat of nuclear annihilation) to limit the freedoms and quiet the voices of the American people. The surveillance apparatus now waging the perpetual war on terror is geared to control a herd of trembling obedience. 

The settled opinion that Americans don't deserve to die—not their kind of thing—protects the profits of the insurance, healthcare, pharmaceutical, and media industries, puts the money on the table for the cruise missile, the personal trainer, and the American Express card that nobody can afford to leave home without.

"I Am Ready to Depart"

My grandfather didn't shop the markets in immortality. Neither did my father. Although markedly different in character and temperament (his turn of mind was contemplative, his sense of humor skeptical), he shared my grandfather's scorn for the wish to live forever. What for? To do what? To suffer the trauma of modern medicine and endure the mortifications of the flesh in order to eat another season of oysters, go south for one more winter in the sun?

He had earned his living as the president of a steamship company and the vice chairman of a bank; he had devoted his leisure to the study of history and the reading of literature. He didn't believe in miracles or magicians, as wary of divine revelation as he was of economic forecasts and predictions.

In his late seventies he wrote a will stating that his life was not to be artificially prolonged. The hospital machinery he regarded as sophisticated instruments of torture, up to the standard of the Spanish Inquisition. He would have agreed with film director Luis Buñuel that "respect for human life becomes absurd when it leads to unlimited suffering, not only for the one who's dying but for those he leaves behind." He also understood, as had Thomas Jefferson in a letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush in 1811, that "there is a fullness of time when men should go, and not occupy too long the ground to which others have a right to advance."

During the last three years of his life, my father began to show signs of bodily malfunction (arthritis in his hands, forgetting where he put a letter or his hat), but on the weekends when I drove up from New York to his home in Connecticut, he never once complained of his afflictions. He spent his time planting the property with the seedlings of white oak and red maple trees and rereading the authors who had been his lifelong boon companions, many of them the ones whom I had met in college.

Our conversation was lighthearted and anecdotal, my own reference to Aeschylus having been killed by a turtle dropped on his head by a clumsy eagle topped by my father being reminded of Seneca's observation that "death is a punishment to some, to some a gift, and to many a favor." It wasn't hard to know in which categories he placed himself. Among the poems he admired was the one composed by Walter Savage Landor on the occasion of his 75th birthday:

I strove with none for none was worth my strife.
Nature I loved, and next to nature, art;
I warmed both hands before the fire of life.
It sinks, and I am ready to depart.

And so was Lewis Abbot Lapham on the night he died in December 1995 at the age of 86. A snowstorm had delayed my usual time of arrival in Connecticut, and when I sat down in the chair next to his bed, he greeted me with what proved to be his final remark, "It's a hard life, Doc, and not many of us make it out alive." For the next two hours I sat there holding his hand, neither of us saying anything, listening to wind play upon the windowpanes. He had packed his bags, checked out of the hotel, and was waiting in the lobby for the car to take him to the airport.

I neither hope nor expect to be among the chosen few who make good their escape from the wheel of fortune and the teeth of time. Or that having been granted a 60-year extension on the deadline for a last noteworthy thought or phrase I'll have reached the serenity of soul to which Thomas More gave a last and living proof while mounting the scaffold to his execution and saying to the headsman with the axe, "See me safe up, and for my coming down let me shift for myself."

If my luck holds true to its so far winning form, death will drop by uninvited and unannounced, and I'll be taken, as was my grandfather, by surprise, maybe in the throes of trying to write a stronger sentence or play a perfect golf shot. If not, I'll hope to show at least a semblance of the composure to which many of the authors in the latest issue of Lapham's Quarterly bear immortal witness. Certain only that the cause of my death is one that I can neither foresee nor forestall, I'm content, at least for the time being, to let the sleeping dog lie.

Lewis H. Lapham is editor of Lapham's Quarterly and a TomDispatch regular. Formerly editor of Harper's Magazine, he is the author of numerous books, including Money and Class in America, Theater of War, Gag Rule, and, most recently, Pretensions to Empire. The New York Times has likened him to H.L. Mencken; Vanity Fair has suggested a strong resemblance to Mark Twain; and Tom Wolfe has compared him to Montaigne. This essay, slightly adapted for TomDispatch, introduces "Death," the Fall 2013 issue of Lapham's Quarterly, soon to be released at that website. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from TomDispatch.com here.

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