Since 1965 when I was 16, thoughts of dying have never been far away: panic attacks re-structured my habitus; I was now dominated by fear and anxiety, any possibility of sweet, comfortable slumber driven out. Where once I could experience joy in living now I was obsessed by my physical vulnerability, over-sensitive, over-vigilant and isolated. But 50 years ago today when Dad was killed by cancer, I witnessed dying as something real. What I find terrible about people who have died is their cold hard silence. Until then all you have known is noise. Then quickly, suddenly they are quieted for good, their cold hard silence immediate and palpable, all questions from now on left unanswered. Fear of dying is a noisy, feverish, living experience; real dying is about cold hard lonely, unrelenting silence. They have gone – now live without them. Dying is a problem for those who are alive. I strive to make what I can of what he gave me till I too am silenced.
Me dad would have been 94 today. At 18 he was firing railway locomotives. At 22 he was an RAF bomber pilot: quite a progression for a lad from Middlesbrough who grew up without privilege or connections. War opens up all sorts of opportunities to live and die fast. On his 44th birthday he was in hospital dying very quickly and with little fuss, ravaged by cancer: me mam, two brothers, sister and I gave him a shaving mirror that he hardly used. I have missed him grievously over the last 50 years and love him still!
Nation states such as Britain, France, USA, Germany, Italy, Spain, Russia, China and so on were not forged by democratising processes but through tyrannical, authoritarian, violent oppression when democratising processes were weak and people other than elites had little influence. Their victims have never forgotten and continue resisting: groups of Irish, Scots, Welsh etc. We are members of a union of European peoples not forged in violent oppression and war that speaks of generations of our predecessors’ fight to bring more democratic processes to bear on our lives. Please don’t betray their struggle against tyrannical oppression by damaging a European project for greater democracy that facilitates us doing business rather than killing each other. To leave our European cousins is to call a halt on greater democracy and personal autonomy and to reject what those who gave their lives to deposing tyrants from Charles I to Hitler died for.
You were among the kindest, decentest of men. I had the privilege of sharing much of my young manhood with you: women and big-engined cars, music and .. We lost touch, I’m not sure how, probably women, the need to make a living, moving away – I have always missed you. I was excited about renewing our presences soon: I would apologize again for monopolizing the socket set we purchased jointly pooling our Embassy coupons and for forgetting to pick you up that night on our way home when my mind was too full of ….. – you know. But you are gone the other day, forever. Cruel existence means that I will now miss you forever, or at least till the day I die.
I am fond of Hume who was quite rightly sceptical of system builders who make jumping to conclusions so much easier with their massive unjustified claims – Marxism the secular religion. Where does Darwin fit with this?
It’s funny but I’ve been lecturing this week on a group of philosophers who were trying to explain the failure of Marxism. One of their main points comes from Max Weber whose whole sociology can be seen as the analysis of rationality. Weber is very pessimistic about the ultimate application of rational models which he sees as removing our humanity: emotion and tradition. Technology (science) in this sense becomes a tool for domination: Marcuse and Habermas. There’s good reason to be worried about being rational.
I’m afraid we can see universities as part of the technology of control and do not operate for the benefit of students, especially since 1979 when Thatcher and her allies moved us away from ‘education’ to ‘training’. For training critical skills are problematic as they foster questioning rather than doing what those in authority want. Hopefully, Cambridge and Oxford have enough influence to resist.
I would like to see a more measured approach to neuroscience: neuroscientists make outrageous claims in their over-confidence and are in danger of trivializing their own findings. We are discovering some wonderful new evidence by way of the new scanning technology. However, I don’t believe we are justified in thinking that morality can be boiled down to neural processes? Without experience neural processes are useless: it’s the chicken and egg dilemma. To my way of thacting there is no point searching for an origin or an end, i.e. causality beyond very limited examples in physics and chemistry is very difficult to establish. As you move along the scientific continuum from simple matter (physics) to lifeforms (biology) and then into social science it becomes more and more complex and difficult to find causal explanations. Thus, I use interdependencies. As we are only now beginning to realise, experiences mould our genetics just as our genetics mould our experiences: yes they are right there cannot be experience without genetics – there must be a genetic component in my love for my mother. However, my love for my mother is what triggers certain processes to switch on and be structured accordingly, which would otherwise remain dormant and probably atrophy – I’m thinking here of deprivation studies such as Genie. Neural processes are useless without social processes, neither explains the other, they co-exist interdependently and change together and should be researched as such. Thus, it may be that we need to go beyond notions such as nature-nurture that owe their existence to ancient unscientific philosophical dichotomous conventions which break things up rather than bring them together. Specialism is both a virtue and curse.
The test of time is I think a good way of working out what is significant. Certain people, music and words never lose their facility to warm me. Recent birthday wishes on Facebook took me back to my days as a student in Leeds when I came across the ‘sacred and profane’ in the great French sociologist Emile Durkheim’s analysis of religion. As with most I guess, so much of my life has been spent working to keep in control of mundane, profane existence. However, interspersed in this process of getting by, have been the much rarer sacred experiences that make it all worthwhile. In this sense sacred experience is about profound closeness with special people whether through direct contact or music or words; it is a feeling of being at home. Even an atheist like me can be warmed.
Whilst listening to The Listening Project on the radio this morning, the wonderful Fi Glover conversed with a man who described the difference between ‘stress’ as something normal and ‘distress’ as something pathological. They are at root the same word but describe two very different levels of experience. Recently a man who I’d known since we were lads playing football together on the field next to The Firth Moor pub quite reasonably committed suicide after a series of terrible events. I wish I’d understood his distress!
Suzanne O’Sullivan, a consultant neurologist, made a very simple but profound point yesterday on the significance of two words: disease – illness. To paraphrase – disease is an illness, but an illness is not necessarily a disease. I found this rather comforting as someone who has felt ill throughout my life with little evidence of disease.