Hand can erase laws, but can't erase human dignity
BY C.S. MORRISSEY
Whatever the Supreme Court of Canada may have intended to accomplish with its ruling, nonetheless, as an unintended consequence, the loneliness and alienation of modern life has only been intensified.
Whenever euthanasia is legalized, not only do the dying find their fear and suffering increased. The living also feel more and more disconnected from the people around them.
The modern secular state’s effort to secure maximum autonomy and freedom for individuals paradoxically results in the burden of personal isolation. Even while surrounded by others, the modern individual is enabled to feel ever more intensely alone.
Friends and family can be kept at a distance, experienced as strangers, as modern technology increases one’s own control over how much of one’s self is open to others and in what way one is to be perceived by others.
The musician Steven Wilson explores this theme of isolation in the midst of others on his new album Hand. Cannot. Erase. Although scheduled for release at the beginning of March, I have had the good fortune to listen to it in an advance copy, and I am astonished at its sensitive reflections on some of the saddest situations of modern life. In particular, its musical depiction of inner emotional states, which belong to the characters whose stories it tells, is stunningly beautiful.
Wilson invents his own main character as the focus for the album, but she is based upon a real human being, named Joyce Vincent, who died alone in her London apartment in 2003. Shockingly, Joyce’s death remained unknown until 2006. Her body was in such an advanced state of decomposition, not much more than a skeleton remained. Her skeleton, surrounded by Christmas presents wrapped and ready for other people, was sitting in front of a television still turned on.
Joyce was only 38 years old. She had slipped away, and her family and friends hardly noticed. This disturbing, true story was the focus of a haunting documentary film, Dreams of a Life, which Wilson saw in 2011. The unsettling story stayed with him. Joyce’s fate seemed emblematic of the loneliness of modern life, where all the technological comforts of city life conspire to isolate people from each other.
The title track, Hand Cannot Erase, which is already available, explores the theme of the transcendence of love. Significantly, it is a hopeful affirmation, albeit a fragile one, offered amidst the brokenness unflinchingly explored by the album’s other songs.
Perfect Life, for example, depicts the main character’s ecstatic discovery, at the age of 13, of a sister she never knew. They become best friends, but their “perfect life” together lasts only for six months.
The narrative relates how their family life is again shattered. Once more, brokenness eclipses the moments of bliss: “For a few months everything about our lives was perfect. It was only us, we were inseparable. Later that year my parents separated and my sister was rehoused with a family in Dollis Hill. For a month I wanted to die and missed her every day.”
Wilson’s album also includes a lengthy track, Ancestral, that to my mind offers the most frightening sonic depiction ever rendered of the weight of original sin, of the weight of the guilty dragging down the innocent. Remarkably, Wilson’s song cycle ends by presenting the main character’s death in the luminous context of a celestial boys’ choir breaking though a rainstorm. There is a return to the happy sounds of innocent children playing in a playground, sounds first heard at the beginning of the album.
As I was listening to Wilson’s gripping musical testament to the anonymous pain and suffering of modernity’s forgotten victims, my colleague Brett Salkeld reminded me of the French Catholic thinker René Girard’s trenchant observation in The Girard Reader (1996): “The experience of death is going to get more and more painful, contrary to what many people believe. The forthcoming euthanasia will make it more rather than less painful because it will put the emphasis on personal decision in a way which was blissfully alien to the whole problem of dying in former times. It will make death even more subjectively intolerable, for people will feel responsible for their own deaths and morally obligated to rid their relatives of their unwanted presence. Euthanasia will further intensify all the problems its advocates think it will solve.”
Girard notes how the “neopaganism” manifested in euthanasia opposes the Christian spirit that shaped Western culture. First, neopaganism self-righteously accuses Christianity of hypocrisy and persecution and oppression. Then, in the name of human liberation, this neopaganism retrogressively revives archaic “pagan practices” like “abortion, euthanasia, sexual undifferentiation, Roman circus games galore.”
This alleged liberation, says Girard, in fact plunges individuals back into the archaic state of extreme vulnerability, of which human beings had painfully common experience before the hard-won achievements of Christian civilization. Of assisted suicides, “the suspicion will linger that they are not” really suicides, “and the fear of being murdered is going to merge once again with the fear of dying.”
As Girard observes, “our supermodern utopia,” despite the best intentions of its technocratic architects, is an oppressively alienating place for both the dying and the living. With euthanasia, death simply becomes one more disconnection in a lifetime of urbane disconnections.
The crucifix offers a salutary protest. Hand cannot erase the human person who suffers at the hand of an unjust system.
C.S. Morrissey is an associate professor of philosophy at Redeemer Pacific College.