September 28, 2009

1. Life After Death

I read a little 80-page book by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, On Life After Death. It’s made up of four independent essays. I thoroughly enjoyed the first essay, “Living and Dying,” which is 11 pages long. The other essays, however, often repeat what was said in the first essay, and the prose is mediocre. Kubler-Ross isn’t a literary person, and she makes no attempt to create a literary work.

The question, Is there life after death? is a question of the first importance, and Kubler-Ross deals with it concisely, clearly, and passionately. She has a wealth of experience — she worked with terminally-ill patients for decades — and she has collected numerous accounts of near-death experiences (out-of-body experiences).

She argues that, when people die, they meet loved ones who have died already. She mentions a young girl, an only child, who encountered a brother during a near-death experience. When the girl described the experience to her father, her father said that she did indeed have a brother, but he died before she was born, and she was never told about him. Kubler-Ross also mentions a woman who encountered her father in a near-death experience — a father who was still alive, as far as she knew, but had in fact just died.

If these near-death experiences were just wishful thinking, people would see those they were closest to — their parents, etc. — but instead they always see those who have already died. If these experiences were purely imaginary, people would see those whom they knew were dead, but instead they see those who they didn’t know were dead, but were in fact dead. Kubler-Ross concludes that these near-death experiences are authentic visions of the after-life. Kubler-Ross believes that the “dead” dwell in a state of harmony, bliss, love. There is no suggestion, in this book, of damnation, suffering, hell-fire; nobody suffers “till the foul crimes done in my days of nature are burnt and purged away.”

In an earlier issue, we discussed Jung’s near-death experience. Like those that Kubler-Ross describes, Jung’s near-death experience was a blissful experience, and Jung returned to his mortal body with reluctance. Hemingway had a near-death experience after being wounded in World War I, and mentions it in his Farewell To Arms. Near-death experiences are the basis of Jack London’s novel, Star Rover.

London’s protagonist is a prisoner suffering harsh treatment. Kubler-Ross says that near-death experiences can be caused by various kinds of suffering; as Wikipedia says, “Many NDE reports... originate from events that are not life threatening.” Kubler-Ross says that we have

the ability to shed our physical body — not only at the time of death but in times of crisis, in times of exhaustion, in times of very extraordinary circumstances, and during a certain type of sleep. It is important to know this can happen before death.1

Kubler-Ross says that a near-death experience often involves moving through a tunnel, or over a river, or through a mountain pass, and then encountering a bright white light. Such experiences are discussed by Raymond Moody in Life After Life; also by Betty Eadie in Embraced by the Light; also by a film called Beyond and Back, and a film called Experiencing the Soul: Before Birth, During Life, After Death. A Bosch painting from about 1500, Ascent of the Blessed, depicts a tunnel and a bright light.

Kubler-Ross says that, when we have an out-of-body experience, we can see and hear the doctors working on our body — even blind people can see every detail, and describe these details later. Out-of-body experiences can be created and studied in a laboratory. She herself had such an artificially-induced experience.2 She also had a mystical experience without going out-of-body, an experience of “cosmic consciousness”:

I was in total love and awe of all life around me. I was in love with every leaf, every cloud, every piece of grass, every living creature.3

Kubler-Ross says that death can be a positive experience. She says that none of her patients wanted to end their own life prematurely, even though they were terminally-ill and bed-ridden. She recommends keeping the dying at home.

If your dying ones can be kept without pain, dry and nursed with care, and you have the courage to take them all to your homes — I mean all, if possible — then none of them will ask you for an overdose.4

When my father died in a nursing home, I wished that we had been able to keep him at home. Once he entered the nursing home, he declined rapidly.

Kubler-Ross’s view of death is much like Thomas Wolfe’s, which we quoted in an earlier issue:

To lose the earth you know, for greater knowing; to lose the life you have, for greater life; to leave the friends you loved, for greater loving; to find a land more kind than home, more large than earth.

Just as Wolfe anticipated his death, so Kubler-Ross’s patients had a hunch when death was approaching.5

Does Kubler-Ross make a convincing case for life after death? I found her somewhat convincing, but not as convincing as those psychics who actually communicate with the dead, and receive information that must have come from the dead. I’m inclined to believe that there is some sort of existence after the death of the body. Such an existence is a stumbling-block to the rational-scientific mind.

People who are receptive to the occult will be fascinated by Kubler-Ross’s On Life After Death, especially the first essay.

2. Selling Philosophy

My new book is printed! Realms of Gold: A Sketch of Western Literature. You can order a copy from Amazon, or save the shipping charge by ordering from me.

The cover was designed by Elliott Banfield. When I showed the cover to my artist-sister, she had this reaction:

I like the book cover a lot. That is my honest reaction. It is both graphic and bold and modern and ornate and baroque at the same time, so it says “then and now” in a simple, easy-to-see, design. I think Elliott did a great job.

Another person to whom I showed it said, “I love the book cover! It is so classic. I am curious who did such a nice job.”

3. Holmes and Howells

I often confuse Oliver Wendell Holmes and William Dean Howells.

The first thing to be said about Oliver Wendell Holmes is that there are two of them: father and son, Senior and Junior. Senior was an eminent physician and a professor at Harvard Medical School; he invented the term “anesthesia.” Junior was an eminent lawyer and Supreme Court Justice. Senior was a man-of-letters who knew many New England writers, wrote a biography of Emerson, and a prose miscellany called The Autocrat of the Breakfast-Table. Senior was also a well-respected poet; Poe said that his poem “The Last Leaf” was one of the best in the English language. Junior, on the other hand, wasn’t a man-of-letters, and confined himself to legal writing. Senior was over 50 when the Civil War broke out, and didn’t participate in the war, Junior was in numerous battles, and was wounded several times.

William Dean Howells was the son of a newspaper editor, and he was a published author at an early age. In 1860, when he was just 23, Howells wrote a campaign biography for Lincoln, and when Lincoln won the election, Howells was rewarded with diplomatic posts in Venice and other European cities. Howells is chiefly remembered for his realist fiction. His best-known work, The Rise of Silas Lapham, describes “the rise and fall of an American entrepreneur in the paint business.”6 Howells championed realism in the pages of Atlantic Monthly, which he edited in the 1870s. He was a close friend of Mark Twain, and wrote a book called My Mark Twain: Reminiscences.

4. Irving Kristol

Irving Kristol died recently at the age of 89. As I read the obituaries, I was struck once again by the uncanny similarity between him and his son, Bill: the same Republican enthusiasm, the same sunny temperament, the same knack for team-building, the same skillful prose, the same penchant for writing journalism rather than books, the same combination of peacemaker and fighter, the same admiration for Leo Strauss, etc., etc.

Irving Kristol had the usual Straussian respect for traditional religion. But, as is common among Straussians, his own religious beliefs were ambiguous, and he made no attempt to clarify them. He seemed to think that religion is a murky subject, and it should be left alone. According to the New York Times,

Mr. Kristol saw religion and a belief in the afterlife as the foundation for the middle-class values he championed. He argued that religion provided a necessary constraint to antisocial, anarchical impulses. Without it, he said, “the world falls apart.” Yet Mr. Kristol’s own religious views were so ambiguous that some friends questioned whether he believed in God. In 1996, he told an interviewer: “I’ve always been a believer.” But, he added, “don’t ask me in what.” “That gets too complicated,” he said. “The word ‘God’ confuses everything.”7

In my view, the individual needs clarity on the Ultimate Questions, and civilization also needs clarity on these questions. We can’t pass over these questions just because they’re difficult and confusing.

“But the case of Irving Kristol shows that one can have a good life without having clarity on these questions.” One individual doesn’t prove that, just as we can’t say, “I know someone who smoked cigarettes, and lived to be 90, therefore smoking is okay.” Clarity on the Ultimate Questions is helpful to the individual, and confusion is harmful. What I call The Philosophy of Today offers answers to these questions that are both intellectually satisfying and emotionally satisfying.

5. Vitalism

Still reading Isaac Asimov’s New Guide To Science. Asimov often criticizes vitalism — that is, the theory that living things are fundamentally different from non-living things, insofar as living things possess a mystical “vitality”, an Élan Vital. Asimov says that an 1897 experiment showed that living yeast cells could be ground into a juice (a non-living juice), and still perform their task of fermentation: “It was one more breakdown,” Asimov writes, “of the vitalists’ semimystical separation of life from nonlife.”8

It seems to me, though, that living things are fundamentally different. A mystical viewpoint isn’t, in my view, a false viewpoint; for me, the term “mystical” isn’t a pejorative term. I subscribe to Freud’s theory of life- and death-instincts — indeed, I built my theory of history on Freud’s theory. The theory of life- and death-instincts sees a sharp distinction between living and non-living, insofar as it ascribes two basic instincts (a life-instinct and a death-instinct) to living things, but not to non-living things. In short, Freud’s theory says that living things have two instincts, non-living things have no instincts, therefore living things are fundamentally different from non-living.

I tend to side with the vitalists — with Schopenhauer’s Will to Live, with Bergson’s Élan Vital, etc. I tend to reject the view that life is just a chemical process, or just a mechanical process.

Indeed, I go further than the vitalists, and ascribe a mystical energy, a kind of consciousness, not only to living things but also to non-living. In this respect, I’m prepared to erase the distinction between living and non-living.

Asimov says, “the vitalists are wrong, there’s nothing special about living things, it’s all just atoms, just chemical reactions.” I believe, on the contrary, that even non-living things are more than just atoms and chemical reactions, even non-living things have a mysterious vitality or energy or consciousness. And if this is true of the non-living, it’s even more true of the living. The only mystical urges that I ascribe solely to living things are the life- and death-instincts.

I started out as a Vitalist in the Schopenhauer-Freud tradition, but now I’ve become a Super Vitalist, insofar as I ascribe a mystical energy not only to living things, but to all things. Thus, I’m the opposite of Asimov (and many of today’s scientists), since Asimov is an Anti-Vitalist. But even though I’m no longer a “mere Vitalist,” no longer a “classical Vitalist,” I still think that the old Vitalists were partly right — more right than their rational-scientific critics.

6. Alternative Biology

As I read Asimov’s description of proteins, enzymes, genes, etc., I’m struck by the complexity of all this. How could such complex things arise? Could they arise by the blind, mechanical process of mutation and selection? Or is it more plausible that mutation and selection were supplemented by some occult force, some mystical urge, some quasi-intelligent energy?

The more complex life is, the more difficult it is to believe that it arose by random mutation and survival of the fittest. I’m not suggesting that we throw Darwin over-board; rather, I’m suggesting an enhanced Darwinism. I’m not saying that mutation and selection don’t occur, just that they don’t tell the whole story, they need to be supplemented.

I don’t believe in Intelligent Design. Rather, I believe that a kind of intelligence exists in things themselves, in the universe itself, even in inorganic matter. This isn’t a designing intelligence, an architect’s intelligence, this is a spontaneous, unconscious intelligence — the kind that quantum physics finds in subatomic particles. And if we find this intelligence, this mystical power, in particles, and human beings, and animals, if we believe that the whole universe is knit together by occult connections, then why shouldn’t the same powers, energies, and connections play a role in evolution?

Since Darwin, many thinkers have argued that some Force or Spirit must be at work, in addition to the mechanisms that Darwin identified. And Jungians have suggested that something akin to synchronicity may play a role in evolution. Arthur Koestler argued that evolution is more than mutation and selection. Just as there’s a non-rational philosophy, and an alternative medicine, so there’s a non-rational, alternative biology.9

7. Miscellaneous

A. Thanks to Elliott Banfield, I discovered two writers:

  • John Derbyshire has written two well-regarded books on the history of math: Unknown Quantity: A Real And Imaginary History of Algebra, and Prime Obsession: Bernhard Riemann and the Greatest Unsolved Problem in Mathematics. Derbyshire is a controversial conservative who writes political commentary for the National Review and other publications. He has also written two novels.
  • George Gamow wrote several well-regarded popular-science books. Gamow was also a leading scientist in his own right. Among Gamow’s books are Gravity and Biography of Physics. Gamow was born in Russia in 1904. In 1932, Gamow tried to escape from the Soviet Union by kayak — first by paddling over the Black Sea to Turkey, then by paddling from Murmansk to Norway. Both attempts were foiled by bad weather. He eventually defected while attending an overseas conference.
For his popular-science writings, Gamow received UNESCO’s Kalinga Prize. Other recipients of this prize are Karl von Frisch, the expert on bees, and Gavin de Beer, a British biologist who specialized in embryology. De Beer was more than a scientist: he wrote travel books and historical books, such as Edward Gibbon and his world, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his world, and Hannibal: the struggle for power in the Mediterranean. Perhaps de Beer’s chief love was The Alps; he wrote several books about The Alps, and he wrote about people connected to Switzerland and The Alps, such as Gibbon, Rousseau, and Hannibal.

B. I also discovered a French writer named Henry Corbin, who specialized in Islamic philosophy, especially the Hermetic-mystical side of Islamic philosophy. One might compare Corbin to Gershom Scholem, who specialized in the Hermetic-mystical side of Judaism.

C. In earlier issues, I discussed a surgeon, Sherwin Nuland, who became a popular writer on medicine and other subjects. A similar writer, from a later generation, is Atul Gawande. Gawande is a Boston surgeon who has written two popular books, Complications and Better. The essays in these two books were originally published in The New Yorker and Slate.

D. I discovered a writer named Viktor Frankl. Born into an Austrian-Jewish family in 1905, Frankl studied psychiatry, and was influenced by Freud and Adler. Frankl specialized in depression and suicide, and he was put in charge of people who were inclined to commit suicide. When he was sent to a Nazi concentration camp, he counseled suicidal prisoners. After the war, Frankl wrote a well-known book about his camp experiences, Man’s Search For Meaning. He argued that even suffering has meaning.

Frankl was interested in near-death experiences, out-of-body experiences. He noticed that these experiences transcend time and space — that a person who falls in the mountains, for example, can review all his past life during the two or three seconds of his fall.

According to Wikipedia, “Frankl is thought to have coined the term Sunday Neurosis for a form of depression resulting from an awareness in some people of the emptiness of their lives once the working week is over.”

E. I discovered an Irish writer, Walter Starkie, who specialized in Spanish literature and Gypsy culture. According to Wikipedia, Starkie “spoke fluent Romany, the language of the Gypsies.” Starkie wrote several books about his travels in Europe, including The Road to Santiago: Pilgrims of St. James. (There are countless contemporary books about The Way of St. James, such as Jack Hitt’s Off the Road.)

There’s a public-radio show about world music called Sound and Spirit. If you look under Episodes, you’ll find “The Road to Santiago,” a one-hour show that discusses The Way, and music connected to it. The first thing you learn is that Compostela means “field of stars” (from campus = field, plus stella = star), because pilgrims followed the Milky Way westward (the term “Milky Way” suggests a road or route). Each star in the Milky Way was thought to be the soul of a pilgrim who died before reaching the shrine. Santiago means “Saint Iago.” Iago — like Diego, Jacob, and Jacques — is a version of James. There’s more than one Way: there are five pilgrimage routes in Spain, the most popular of which is called the French Way. The French way is 650 miles from the French border to Santiago. Click here for an article about a coastal route (Camino del Norte).

If you’re thinking of hiking along The Way, visit

If you reach the shrine and still have energy left, you can go another 40 miles west to Finisterre (“the end of the land” or “Land’s End”). There’s also a Finistère in northwest France, and a Land’s End in southwest England.

F. I learned that the website SnagFilms has an extensive collection of documentaries that can be viewed free of charge. Click here for an essay on SnagFilms by the computer journalist Walt Mossberg.

G. The website offers discussions of science, philosophy, politics, etc. Click here for a debate on the existence of God. Click here for a science discussion between John Horgan and George Johnson (Johnson has written several works of popular science, such as The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments).

The Hoover Institution, a conservative think-tank, has a web-page with interviews; it’s called Uncommon Knowledge, and the interviewer is Peter Robinson.

H. A website called The World has public-radio broadcasts, and various news stories. A website called The Writer’s Almanac: with Garrison Keillor offers “poems, prose, and literary history.”

I. Here’s a little puzzle for you:
The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. Actually, the sun doesn’t move — the earth rotates from west to east, creating the illusion that the sun is moving from east to west. If you drop a coin from the top of the Empire State Building, and there’s no wind or air resistance, the earth will rotate a bit while the coin is falling, so the coin won’t fall directly below the point where you released it (won’t fall at the “true vertical”). It will fall slightly to the west, right? That is, it will have a “western deflection.” Why, then, do websites like this one say that the earth’s rotation gives dropped objects an eastern deflection?

8. Shakespeare’s Greatest Hits: Sonnet 130

In this famous sonnet, the poet says that his mistress doesn’t have the ideal beauty that poets are wont to sing of, doesn’t fit the well-worn metaphors, but nonetheless is as beautiful as any real woman:

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound.
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground.
    And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
    As any she belied with false compare.

In the last line, “any she” means “any woman,” and “belied with false compare” means “falsely depicted with untrue metaphors.”

This sonnet doesn’t, in my view, lend support to The Oxford Theory or to The Prince Tudor Theory or to The Monument Theory, nor does it cast doubt on those theories. It isn’t an intensely personal sonnet; rather, it plays with poetic conventions.

Who is the black-haired mistress? Perhaps one of the several women with whom Oxford is known to have had liaisons, perhaps a generic woman who suits his literary purpose.

© L. James Hammond 2009
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1. Third essay, p. 52 back
2. Third essay, p. 64 back
3. Third essay, p. 68 back
4. First essay, p. 18 back
5. First essay, p. 9 back
6. Wikipedia back
7. September 19, 2009, “Irving Kristol, Godfather of Modern Conservatism, Dies at 89,” by Barry Gewen back
8. Ch. 12, p. 572 back
9. I discussed this topic in the June ’08 issue. back