Tuesday, March 29, 2016

At The Existentialist Cafe

“To philosophize is to learn how to die.” (Cicero)

There are books we remember all our lives.  We remember where we first read them, the way they made us feel, the way the world seemed so fresh, so colorful, so new when we finished the last page.  We remember how we never wanted them to end.

I had that experience reading Sarah Bakewell’s At The Existentialist Café:  Freedom, Being and Apricot Cocktails (Other Press, 2016).  I knew Bakewell was good—I reviewed her book on Montaigne a few years ago—but this is a masterwork of biography not just of a person, but people, places, a philosophy and a way of life.  In fact, early on, she calls Existentialism more a mood than a philosophy and traces its lineage back to Job and Ecclesiastes in the Bible, up through St. Augustine and Blaise Pascal, to Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Edmund Husserl, Karl Jaspers, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty.  The last seven names are the focus of her volume along with the twentieth century and its rapid changes in technology, weaponry, and thinking.  These writers wanted to ask the most important question:  what does it mean to be?  Or even, what does it mean to be in this time?  What they discovered was that existence precedes essence, and that life must be savored and consumed.  Always, always, moving forward; that was the way Sartre thought of it.  And he did just that with his life partner and open marriage aficionado Simone de Beauvoir.

And how could the twentieth century not be an exciting and dangerous time?  The view of these writers was shaped by genocides and wars and weapons of mass destruction.  Sartre saw all of this and realized, human beings must now decide if they want to live.  It was no longer a fact of birth that one lives when we can destroy ourselves over and over again.  We can, and do, destroy at will.  So why do we want to live?  Why do we want to be?  Finding the answer to those questions was Sartre’s mission.

As for place, there is Paris, specifically Saint-Germain-des-Pres hotels and cafes where Sartre and de Beauvoir lived and wrote and entered into intense discussions about ideas, about how to live.  Bakewell is so good at bringing us into the Flore, the Deux Magots, the Bar Napoleon, the café society, and putting us into the middle of an exhilarating age.  She describes cocktails and styles of dress and yes, those open relationships about which Sartre and de Beauvoir told each other everything.  Indeed, it seems almost a private pornography of sorts, this accounting of love making with the Other.  Yet, they remained life-long companions and now rest in ashes co-mingled together in a Montparnasse cemetery.  They had no children, no property or estate, they never truly lived together at all, Bakewell tells us.  They wrote and talked and argued together, a true marriage of the minds and occasionally, bodies.  They created and edited journals and magazines, including the infamous Les Temps modernes.  They never accepted academic appointments, choosing instead to live by freelance writing and school teaching.  They simply wanted to write, to explore ideas, to live on the intellectual frontier, and they were not interested in riches or fame.  In fact, Sartre rejected all prizes for his work, including the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1964.  Awards for his work went against his belief that a writer must remain independent.  That he wrote like a novelist was the evaluation of both advocates and critics.  But he wanted to capture the sensations of the world, the phenomena, the tiny details of richness so inherent in daily life but often ignored or overlooked.  He wrote, quite simply, about what it meant to be free.  His philosophy, and that of his colleagues, concerned how to live and experience life.

From early on, Sartre disavowed the existence of God, and in fact, the Catholic Church was often a target of his work.  He regularly appeared on the Index of Prohibited Books, Bakewell tells us.  Sartre’s views about the absence of a God were formed early on—he came to the realization at the age of eleven.  On other ideas, he was not opposed to changing his mind should life give him ample evidence of another possibility.

Indeed all the writers profiled in the book were integral to the movement, even in controversy.  There is Heidegger, a brilliant thinker and a Nazi, a paradox he did not escape nor apologize for in his lifetime.  Bakewell spends a considerable portion of the book thoroughly examining his life, his work, and his dark side.  She delves into the Algerian influence on Albert Camus’ work, and his conflicts and discussions and antagonisms with both Sartre and de Beauvoir.  These are writers who worked within the palpable context of anxiety, freedom, the absence of a God, all of the things human beings have struggled with throughout history, and continue to wrestle with today.  That was one of the unexpected joys of the book—this is a tome about how to live now even though its subject is a biography of a group of philosophers writing in a different century.

Bakewell also weaves in some of her own memories of reading these texts and these writers.  She shows us where she made connections, where her thinking was fertilized by these pungent words and personalities.  And of course, the book has no shortage of revelations:  Alberto Giacometti catching de Beauvoir staring off into space:  “How wild you look,” he tells her.

“It’s because I want to write and I don’t know what,” she replies.

Writing was everything to these philosophers.  Sartre even reached the point where he stopped revising or rewriting, believing it was more important to get the ideas down on paper and out there.  This led to some bloated and difficult first drafts in print, but it also allowed him to create steadily as he raced his growing blindness and health maladies.

What is different here from Bakewell’s writing on Montaigne, a writer who knew how to navel-gaze, is that she insists that these philosophers were adamantly not navel-gazers.  De Beauvoir believed in the notion that “adults who withdraw from the world soon get bored.”  No, they wanted to engage the world, not hold themselves above it or withdraw out of it, even with the bloody wars and destructive weapons.

For a book exploring the biography of a philosophical movement and those who practiced this way of living, the writing here is anything but dry.  The conclusion for each of the main characters is draped in tragedy and the eddies of time.  Bakewell takes us through each ending, including the circumstances of the death and in most cases, in what cemetery the philosopher now resides.  Richard Wright, the ex-patriot African-American writer may have been assassinated by the CIA, she tells us.  Heart attacks befell many of them.  Hannah Arendt is “overgenerous” in her final image of Heidegger:  she compares him to “the Greek philosopher Thales, an unworldly genius, who fell into a well because he was too busy looking at the stars to see the danger in front of him.”  That may be the final, and best, epitaph for his Nazism.

Simone de Beauvoir outlived Sartre and wrote that all of the thinking, the discussions, the in-fighting, the life, “there is no place where it will all live again.”  Bakewell characterizes Jean-Paul Sartre, the true hero of this book, as a “profound atheist, and a humanist to his bones.  He outdid even Nietzsche in his ability to live courageously and thoughtfully in the conviction that nothing lies beyond, and that no divine compensation will ever make up for anything on this earth.  For him, this life is what we have, and we must make of it what we can.”

Sarah Bakewell has brought those long ago Paris days and nights to life.  The story is rich and sad and poignant and alive like no book I’ve read about Existentialism or any other philosophy.  If as Cicero says, philosophy is about learning to die, first we must learn how to live.  She demonstrated how Montaigne did just that in her first book; here, she further expounds on this theme in the Existentialist café with Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus, and the others, ghosts of another time and life.  Pull up a chair, brew the coffee dark, and settle in.  The gang’s all here.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

How To Write A Research Paper

To write a research paper—one that includes peer-reviewed journals, books, and other sources gathered together and analyzed to come to some specific conclusions about the subject studied—one needs a research question.  The question is everything because it kicks off the search for information and evidence, and it will later become the paper’s thesis.  I ask myself, what do I want to know?  What intrigues me?  To write research one has to have an inquiring mind.  It is not a passive act.  Even in the most esoteric subject, the writer must find something of interest, some way into the research.  If it is an exercise to fulfill a requirement, it will read like an exercise to fulfill a requirement.  So, the research question is the equivalent of the Big Bang of a writer’s journey to write something true and meaningful and intelligent.  It is the all-too-crucial starting point.

I usually wind up rewriting my research question and thesis many times over before I am satisfied.  With a draft of my research question, I start digging for sources.  I log into library sites and other databases to find material.  I like to read academic papers on the subject which contain a wealth of information, graphs, charts, statistics and, best of all, a bibliography that might lead me to more sources.  I really like this stage of the process, too, which helps, although there is always a point where I must tell myself to stop researching and move on to the writing stages.

I work a specific way with articles from databases.  I print them, if possible, so I have hard copies.  This might be cost-prohibitive if the article is 30-plus pages, but if it is under ten pages, I go for it.  If it is too long or there is some other reason I cannot print it, I convert it to a PDF and save it on my computer.  I always find it difficult to locate the article again if I do not save it, or at least bookmark it.  I also copy the citation details into a Word document so I have an informal list of sources saved there.  Once printed, I begin to highlight and annotate the text (you can find some tips how to do this here).  I select specific quotes I want to use from the text and make sure to document page numbers so I can refer to them in my citations.  Once I have my materials, I make out a rough schedule of deadlines so I can finish on time.  If necessary, I also revise my thesis depending upon the research.

My first writing step is to outline.  The outline structure that works the best for me is to write out the first paragraph, the opening with the thesis.  I make notes for each body section, specifically the points I want to cover as I construct my analysis or argument.  Then I write out the final paragraph.  The opening hooks the reader and the closing leaves him or her something to think about, and because of that importance, I spend a lot of time revising and rewriting the opening and closing.

The method that works for me when drafting my paper is to make voluminous notes and outlines before I write.  Structure is key.  Notes and outlines give you the final piece, as the great writer Joan Didion tells us in her Paris Review interview.  All of this material is usually handwritten on legal pads or in notebooks.  When I reach critical mass with notes and outlines, I type my first draft on the computer straight through without stopping.  I just need to get the ideas down on paper and typing is much faster to catch those ideas.  Going in, I know this draft will suck, but it is all about capturing the ideas now.  I do include citations and quotes, direct and paraphrased, because I find it too easy to forget to add them later.  I also put in the bibliography at the end.

Now comes revision.  I print out my draft, mark it up, put the changes into the computer, and print another draft.  Lather, rinse, repeat.  Over and over again.  I do not save each individual draft under a different name on the computer, but I do print them so they are in the folder and I can access them easily should I want to put something I cut back in on a later draft.  Writers can often tell you how many drafts it takes to get the piece right.  For me, it is four to five drafts; David Foster Wallace has talked about being a five draft man.  Ernest Hemingway has quoted different figures, claiming he rewrote the ending to one of his stories twenty or thirty times.

Once I feel I am simply going around and around, putting back in commas I took out, it is time to let the bird fly off into the world.  I proofread, distinct from revision in that I am looking for typos and other formatting errors I missed when revising.  Once this is done, I print a clean draft—one for my files and one for submission, or I submit it electronically, which is more common these days.  If I submit over the internet or as an email attachment, I try to check with the recipient later to make sure it arrived in the digital mailbox.

At the conclusion of writing a piece, I make sure to save all notes, outlines, drafts and source materials for reference.  This is proof of my research and helps with fact checking the piece before publication.

Is this the only way to write a research paper?  No.  The process of writing is unique to each person, and one must find the way that works best.  I do like reading how other writers I admire do it, and I have borrowed from them extensively in my own process and in teaching students.  In the craft, the final piece should look like it was composed effortlessly in a voice that is clear and concise, but to do that, like any good builder, one must hide the seams and structural supports to make the architecture sound as well as beautiful.  That is the goal of all writers.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Good Death

“There is no good death, I now know,” writes Ann Neumann at the end of The Good Death:  An Exploration of Dying In America (Beacon Press, 2016).  “It always hurts, both the dying and the left behind.”  What comes before this apt and powerful conclusion is a personal and ethical pursuit of the truth on the part of Neumann inspired by the slow decline and death of her father.  Her exploration of the truth about end of life issues is not pretty even as it is also wise and eloquent, a contradiction—a good death with all the sights, smells, and fearful symmetry of how we end.  This is the one constant in human existence:  death comes, no matter how much science and medicine work to stave off the inevitable.  Death comes.  So we ask ourselves:  are we ready for the inevitable?

“Grief, I learned, is a journey,” she writes in the midst of witnessing her own father’s end.  “The work of mourning is easier to explain than the emotion of it.”  Her father’s ghostly figure bookends her research in a profound and moving way, forcing her through to the wisdom of experience.  This is not an academic study, although it could be that.  It is not a personal essay, although those elements are in place on these pages.  It is a quest, an effort to understand what we can barely comprehend:  the end of us.

Early on in the book, Neumann focuses on hospice care and the right to die movement.  She traces the history of end of life definitions:  long ago, it was the cessation of heart beat and breathing that spelled the end; now, it is primarily focused on the silencing of brain function, a flat line not on the heart monitor but on the electroencephalogram.  Hospice care originated with a British nurse by the name of Cicely Saunders in 1967.  An American nurse named Florence Wald followed her example and opened a U.S. hospice in Connecticut in 1974.  This type of care ushered in a new era in medicine, one where the patient was made comfortable on his way to the other side rather than being subjected to procedures and interventions that had little measurable success and came with a lot of pain and distress.  Neumann, herself, volunteers as a hospice worker to see firsthand what the process entails and how it impacts both the caregiver and the patient.  Those stories are some of the most moving pages in the book.

The questions raised by her research are troubling.  Are we prepared for the indignity of dying?  Her patients must make peace with the loss of privacy, the loss of independence, as well as the fact that they will die sooner rather than later, as hospice care is formulated for the short term.  Approximately 1.5 million people die in hospice each year.  A patient and her family must determine, in consultation with the health care team, if the situation is terminal and if further procedures would be futile.  Along with that, patients must face their fear of death.  “Not just the physical pain of death,” she writes, “but of everything surrounding it, too, like abandonment of loved ones, the loss of physical control, the end of the world as we know it.”

This issue of hospice care, the right to die, the facing of our own mortality, continues to dog us as the baby-boomers age.  In 2009, Neumann writes, there were 39.6 million people in the U.S, 65 and older; that number will jump to 72.1 million by 2030.  The cost is also a factor:  Americans spent $2.6 trillion on medical care in the year 2010, which is 17 percent of our gross domestic product.  Health care is expensive.  Dying is expensive.  Funerals are also expensive, as Neumann notes when citing Jessica Mitford’s book, The American Way of Death, the expose of the funeral industry in this country first published in 1963.

Neumann specifically goes after the Catholic Church in the book as a roadblock to a patient’s right to die and end of life care.  She brings Thomas Aquinas into the discussion with the principle of “double effect,” where an act may have two different effects, one intended and the other not.  Aquinas argues that it is not the outcome we should pay attention to but the intention.  The means determines the end, so to speak.  In the area of terminal illness, a doctor might offer a patient medication for pain, even to the point where that patient may die from an overdose.  However, the intention of the physician must be to mitigate the suffering, not to help the patient commit suicide.  Neumann tells us that this double effect is questionable since the physician should know that increasing the dose of pain medication or sedative could lead to the patient’s death.

The Church, though, has a history of preserving life at all costs, and since Catholic hospitals and clinics are ubiquitous in the country, one must consider the consequences of receiving treatment at one of those institutions.  Neumann writes that Catholic health care providers “prohibit their staff and doctors from discussing medical treatments like abortion and aid in dying.”  People can be force-fed through stomach tubes if they choose to stop eating and drinking in an attempt to end their lives.  This intervention occurs even when the person has a clearly-worded advanced directive prohibiting such measures.  Neumann tells us that only two institutions can and will force-feed patients entrusted to their care:  the Catholic Church and the American prison system.

She devotes considerable space in the book to a discussion of the Terry Schiavo case.  It is an enlightening and thorough account that perfectly illustrates the battle between patients and those who speak for them versus institutions and courts of law.  In today’s world of medicine, many treatments and interventions are possible.  Doctors can keep people alive even when they are technically brain dead, but is this ethical?  Neumann discusses other cases similar to the Schiavo case, such as the plight of Jahi McMath and her family.  McMath was a young girl who underwent a tonsillectomy but was left brain dead after a hemorrhage during surgery.  Her parents fought the declaration of her death to keep her on life support even after the doctors issued a death certificate for the child.  She remains physically alive today with greatly diminished brain function in a persistent vegetative state.

Neumann also devotes ample time to a discussion of the death penalty in America, and the controversy over the way a convict is executed.  She interviews several prisoners, some of whom are suffering terminal diseases.  Is the execution of a convicted killer ethical?  What is the future of public executions when many of the drugs used to kill the convict are no longer available either because they are not made in America or the countries where they are manufactured refuse to sell them to U.S. prisons?  And what of the terminally ill inmate who simply wants to die and attempts to end his life by stopping all food and drink?  Does the prison administration have the right to force feed him?

The narrative of how we die and how we face our end is an important story to write, and Ann Neumann does an excellent job here of bringing us into the discussion and leaving us much to think about once we finish.  However, “Books, words, the act of writing can aim to capture detail—the true story—but they will always fail,” she tells us.  “History is always inexact, incomplete.”  Ultimately, as she walks through her dead father’s empty house at the conclusion of the book, she circles back to the only thing she knows to be true:  death comes for us all.  It is final.  “There is no good death,” she says.  “That is what I told myself as I wandered my father’s quiet house the first days and weeks after he died.”

She does offer one glimmer of hope:  “But there is a good enough death.  It is possible to look it in the face, to know how it will come, to accepts its inevitability.  Knowing death makes facing it bearable.”  That is the consolation we carry with us until we, ourselves, come to our end and it is time to let go.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Sex In Perplexing Times

At 176 pages, Making Love Just:  Sexual Ethics For Perplexing Times (Fortress Press Ebook, 2012) by Marvin M. Ellison takes us through the history and culture of sex and sexual ethics mainly through the filter of Christianity and western thought and ideas.  What follows after is a succinct yet detailed “ethical inquiry into sex and sexual values.”  Ellison wants to ask “perplexing, even discomforting questions.”

He begins, as many books do in this area of discussion, with describing how sex is treated  as a problem.  The question must be asked:  why is sex a problem?  Ellison uses the same wide brush to paint man as the dominant over the female submissive as other writers on this topic do, and this runs the risk of stereotyping.  Not all men are rapists; not all men use sex as a weapon.  While true that this occurs all too frequently in our world, and major adjustments in thinking are critical, we have to be careful about the tendency to lump people together by race, sex, or what seems to be common behavior.  Ellison says that “Guilt, shame, and repression mark the dominant Christian tradition’s moral response to sexuality,” and he attributes this to the “Constantinian establishment” and its views on “pelvic philosophy” and need for “sexual control.”

One cannot escape the basic human design of men as penetrators and women as the penetrated.  This does not mean that all men take by force to fulfill sexual needs or use sex as a weapon against a perceived weaker person.  To change the perspective and move beyond the physical constructs, the thinking must change.  The philosophy must change to mutual sexual power-sharing.  What is even more true is that the Church hierarchy must surrender the need to control what happens in the bedroom.  Ellison quotes Catholic theologian Daniel Maguire who observed “that the church turned increasingly to sex in order to define both orthodoxy and clerical authority” after the Council of Elvira in 309 CE and therefore, he labeled this response the “Elvira syndrome.”  This imperial approach relies on the past to dictate moral truth, renders this truth in the abstract, and fosters deep suspicion of advocates who suggest other views.  Ellison asserts that “sexual justice requires recognition of and respect for sexual difference.”  He goes on to suggest there are more important topics within sexual ethics to focus on, namely race, gender, sexual and economic oppression and sexual violence, and this book gives ample space to each of those concerns.

Along the way, Ellison delineates the common unreasonable and unfounded sexual views in our society and culture, such as the racist misconceptions of blacks and their sexual behavior as animalistic.  The discomfort American society has with inter-racial marriage and black sexual stereotypes continues today, although significant gains have been made to dispel and one day eliminate these erroneous, harmful ideas.  Sexual stereotypes also exist for the disabled and mentally handicapped.  It seems difference is what upsets the recognized view of what is sexual and acceptable to society.  This must change, as Ellison makes clear, namely because sexuality and gender are fluid in our society and culture today.  Ideas of beauty and sexual behavior are also in flux.  Old views, misperceptions and stereotypes no longer have a place in our modern world.

But the question must be asked, who controls sexual justice?  Who is it, exactly, that has to change?  Church?  Culture?  Society?  Ellison points to those who commonly wield the dominant sexual power:  white males.  This reflects the patriarchal notions of Christian tradition as well.  For those who are not white males, victimization and vulnerability are the burden they must carry in the sexual arena.  I agree with Ellison that the white male hierarchy and the Church must divest power while shifting focus  to more democratic sex norms.  These normative relations must be equally shared with women, gays, lesbians, transgender and queer individuals as well as with people of all races and economic levels.  All must share in the sexual power norms for society to be truly just and equal in sexual ethics and behavior.  Is this even possible?  We do not have the luxury of the question.  It simply must be.  We must lose the guilt, we must end the ostracizing of the Other, and most importantly, end rape culture.  The term “rape” is now used for humor by comedians and in social media.  It is a buzzword in society, thrown about without consideration, and when words are used so callously, they lose their power.  Rape is rape and nothing to laugh at or take lightly.  In the end, though, we must change white male entitlement in the sexual arena.  The forces that work for change are outside forces, argues Ellison, consisting of social and natural sciences and embodied in the social justice movement.

Ellison takes us through a history of sexual ethics as a sociological and cultural force.  He includes both modern, historical and scientific views, and details how these areas interconnect with each other.  His keyword is empowerment—who is empowered in sexual behavior, and how do we empower all people to take control, indeed, exercise their human right to control their own sexuality?  He traces the linage of sexual mores, different from sexual morals, back to Augustine and the Church father’s pro-marriage yet sex-negative position.  Augustine encourages husbands and wives to quit being sexual once they are out of their “youthful passions.”  This is absolutely ridiculous.  Part of the partnership found in marriage is to become one, which means the joining of two bodies both physically and spiritually.  This is what is meant by sexual congress within marriage and it is for life.  It is well within the purview of the married couple, although it should not be weighted more heavily for the male need over the female.  Ellison quotes Mark Jordan, who is himself commenting on Augustine’s view, that Christian marriage theology promotes sex without eroticism.  This seems disingenuous to me as a concept; there is more eroticism in the Church mystics and the mortification of the flesh than in the sexual joining within marriage.  Sex in a marriage is a life-long joining of two in one; it should never be relegated to “shameful and youthful excess.”

Ellison presents a more inclusive and democratized view of sexual behavior and ethics.  Any discussion of modern sexual ethics must include the LGBTQ community, divorced people, those who use birth control or who have had abortions, etc.  Even the “conventional ethic of ‘celibacy for singles’” is no longer viable.  He goes on to argue for broadening “access to marriage rights, benefits, and responsibilities” especially to acknowledge “the humanity of gay persons.”  To do this, we must decenter marriage and heterosexuality.  “In the midst of this cultural crisis,” he writes, “ the Right has cruelly played the race card and the sex/gender card, again and again, to scapegoat vulnerable groups and divert attention from the real source of our cultural woes, runaway capitalism and the collapse of democracy.”  Is this not our current Republican presidential contest for the 2016 nomination in a nutshell?  The sexual innuendo in the last debate alone represents centuries of white male stereotypes and preoccupation with genital size.  This is where Ellison’s wide brush is appropriate.

By far, the most interesting part of the book for me is the statistics on the use of birth control, especially abortion among Catholic women.  This area is most problematic for the Church.  The spreading Zika virus has again, like in the cases of Ebola and HIV/AIDS, raised the question of using condoms to save lives among an infected and at risk population.  The bishops of the Church insist no exceptions will be allowed, but the pope seems, in informal statements, to go against that position.  In any case, the official word is not clear, and lives are at stake.  In the book, though, Ellison makes it clear the Church has a problem with using birth control to do what it is designed to do:  allow a woman to control her own reproductive capability.  This is a problem that will not go away.  It is clear from the statistics that Catholics are not following the Church in this area.  The question remains:  how does the Church support women who exercise their reproductive rights while also opening the doors to the LGBTQ community whose members now sit in their pews each Sunday and who register their children in Catholic schools and institutions?  Ellison gives a potent and spot-on answer:  “Theological insight and ethical wisdom must adapt and change in order for Christianity to remain a dynamic, living tradition that can address real life in a constructive rather than reactive manner.”  That is, in a nutshell, a critical need in 21st century Christian sexual ethics.