Tag Archives: Simon Critchley

Generosity in the 20s

So we all enter a new decade. I haven’t written recently, in part because of enjoying the holidays, and in part because I’ve been working hard to assimilate Simon Critchley and Jameson Webster’s The Hamlet Doctrine (now reissued as Stay Illusion). I finally read this book just as my article “‘Who’s There?’ A Vulnerable Reading of Hamlet” appears in Literature and Medicine (37.2, Fall 2019, 396-419, currently online). If I’d read Critchley and Jameson earlier (the book appeared just as I submitted the manuscript), I would have written a different article. Which may be what makes Hamlet perennial: more than maybe any story, it never stops opening into different understandings. C&J read Hamlet very differently from Harold Bloom, but they left me thinking that Bloom’s title gets the point of it: Poem Unlimited. But that’s an apology and update, not what I want to write about today.

Everybody writes an op-ed on what to expect in the coming decade. I’m trying to hold together two back-pages stories that have been in my newspapers during the last month and one recent experience. The first news story was about the city of Vancouver levying a 12% increase in property tax, with most of the money going to infrastructure upgrades in anticipation of weather emergencies. Especially increasing storm sewer capacity. Not dramatic, until you need it, which I believe they’re correct in assuming they will. That, to me, exemplifies good government. Second, on my first visit of the new year to my doctor’s office, I was offered a petition to sign; it will be forwarded to the Alberta Medical Association, to present to the provincial government. The details are complicated and will change anyway, but the bottom line is that the Province wants to cut billings in primary care by 30%, at least as their opening bargaining position. So maybe they’ll eventually settle for a 15% cut. Whatever, it’s a lot of clinical time, and it’s indicative of social care budgets in the coming decade. The third story gets at what the Province is more worried about, which are “orphan wells”. These are oil wells of various sizes that have been abandoned by the companies that drilled them. Many of these companies are no longer in business. The wells are leeching toxicity into the ground; they need cleaning up. The bill is one of those unthinkable amounts of money. Allowing this situation to have happened exemplifies bad government. But the bill is coming due. Nobody wants to run for office on the slogan of making Alberta more toxic again, but it is becoming more toxic.

Welcome to the 2020s, and I’m sure each reader, wherever you are, has your equivalent local stories; well, maybe a few live in the more privileged countries that still escape having equivalent stories. It’s hard to imagine that the 2020s are going to be like the “roaring” 1920s; more like what Albertans call the dirty thirties. I keep thinking of the Alberta songwriter Ian Tyson’s line, “The good times now are gone.” I think about the question so many editorialists and commentators have asked in the recent years: how to avoid despair?

That takes me back to Simon Critchley, but this time to his earlier book, Infinitely Demanding. Critchley begins with how the 19th century framed its despair, which was Nietzsche’s question of how to avoid nihilism. Critchley divides the problem of nihilism into two responses: passive and active. Active nihilism is expressed in acts of terror, in which I’d now include the apparent acceptance of governments carrying out extra-judicial assassinations with full acknowledgment. “Rather than acting in the world and trying to transform it, the passive nihilist,” Critchley writes, “focuses on himself and his projects for perfecting himself” (p. 4). Critchley elaborates a list of such projects, and I wonder whether my project of vulnerable reading belongs in that list. Of course the passive nihilist doesn’t accept the dichotomy of changing the world or perfecting oneself; instead, the latter is understood as necessary, to save the former from becoming the forms of violence that do change the world, but for the worse. I emphasize this is only the bare beginning of the more complex argument Critchley proceeds to develop–I plan to engage that argument elsewhere.

The perpetual risk of vulnerable reading is that it can become a project of passive nihilism, retreating from the need to effect good governance in the face of overwhelming demand, due in large part to past acts of collective imprudence. Blame should be apportioned for that imprudence, but blaming won’t clean up the orphan wells. Neither will reading Shakespeare.

But perhaps in reading Shakespeare, and others, we can find ways to live in despairing times without either the violences of active nihilism or the withdrawal of passive nihilism. By living with his stories, we can find new ways to tell our story so as to make it habitable. At least that seems a reasonable goal for those of us who are too old to dig storm sewers. In our present crisis of how to avoid nihilism, vulnerable reading is not a project of self perfection. Rather, it’s the work of group reincorporation, which may be what theatre has always been about. Changing the world may need to begin with a firm recognition that only the outward manifestation of our problems is new. We need respite from the present in order to return to it, and an active form of respite is seeing ourselves reflected in old stories. The good times have always been fleeting and poorly distributed. Looking back can be one form of moving on.

Age as Illness, Illness as Tragedy

When my father was about my present age, he used to ask me whether I thought that old age was an illness. We went round on that question, which doesn’t admit an easy answer. Old age is heavily medicalized, and health care is organized around categories of pathology. In the last few weeks of caring for my father, and trying to arrange for others to care for him, one of my most consistent problems was that his ongoing need for professional care is not based on illness; he’s not sick. But on the threshold of turning one hundred, he is increasingly vulnerable and in need. At least in the United States, that puts him outside the categories that qualify a person for insurance and other benefits, or at least on the margin of qualification.

That raises a second question. Old age is not a tragedy, but rather it’s an expected stage of life. Not reaching old age is conventionally described as a tragedy. But I constantly felt the tragic dimension of my father’s situation. Now, the world is good in the sense that help comes to us when we need it, and on returning home, I began reading Simon Critchley’s Tragedy, The Greeks, and Us (2019). Critchley has written about topics that always interest me, but I admit never being able to connect with his earlier books. With Tragedy, it’s as if Critchley had been watching me for the last weeks and writing the commentary that I could not articulate without his help. That, I believe, is what health humanities ought to do: Give people words that articulate what they feel but cannot yet say for themselves. It’s the work that this blog tries to do.

Among the many voices that keep clamouring in my head from the last weeks, the most poignant is that of someone whom I never saw. When my father was in the hospital, we heard, all day and I gather most of the night, some lost soul who as far as I could tell was in a room diametrically opposite to my father, on the other side of the circular corridor of the hospital floor. I can’t imagine being a room closer to his. His main cry was “Help me”. He was too exhausted to scream it, but loud enough for the whole unit to hear him. Sometimes he would say a bit more, including calling out a woman’s name. My father claimed he simply tuned out that voice after a while, and I think he did. So, I think, did the medical staff. What I now want to ask is the cost of that tuning out. Because you don’t select one voice for tuning out; you tune out a category of unhearables. You tune out part of the reality around you, and you pay a price, because what you tune out you still hear, on some level. It’s still there.

Simon Critchley would call that voice lamentation. He tells us that ancient Greek had at least thirteen different nouns for grief, lamentation, mourning. Our language is comparatively impoverished. Critchley as a philosopher is interested in how the project of philosophy defined by Plato has been about silencing lamentation. Philosophy, he writes, “appears to be committed to the idea and ideal of a noncontradictory psychic life”. Where he writes philosophy, I read medicine. Medicine also is “premised on the exclusion of a range of experiences that we can call tragic”. As I watched so many different healthcare professionals interview my father and interact with him, only the lowest paid and least credentialed seemed able to recognize the fundamental sadness of his plight, which is being someone who does not fit.

Critchley articulates my father’s situation most perfectly when he writes that “tragedy is the art form of between times, usually between an old world that is passing away and a new world that is coming into being”. My father’s sense of how things should be–of rightness as I’ve used that term–is grounded in a world that was already passing away fifty years ago. He is being cared for according to the values and customs of a new world that is coming into being, although much of it was predicted by Marx and Weber with prescient accuracy, although they didn’t realize quite how far it would go. For my father as for Hamlet, time is out of joint. His lamentation is quieter than the fellow around the corridor, but he too is saying help me, and the terms in which help is conventionally offered don’t fit.

These weeks with my father took me back to where I started in this work in the late 1980s after my own illnesses. We need to witness what happens to people–how care is sometimes generous and how it is often indifferent or denied. We also need to change the parameters in which people construct and utilize categories such as illness and old age. We need a health care that dares to be tragic, to hear and to join with the voices of lamentation.