How About A Game Of "Let's Pretend"?

I see that Diana Schaub’s frank admission of her Trekish philosophical influences has been winning mindshare across the blogosphere.

The show has "left me receptive to the view that mortality is, if not precisely a good thing, then at least the necessary foundation of other very good things," she wrote in an article last year. "There is something misguided about the attempt to overcome mortality."

All to the good, I say. And clearly, Ms. Schaub has the sort of impish humor that delights in mild naughtiness, motivating her to season her rich scholarly gravy drippings with the occasional spicy infusion of purest rat-madness. Or so I surmise.

Before someone starts citing statistics about the number of dog bites per year (and the breeds most involved), let me say that, yes, the number of reported dog bites has greatly risen over the last 30 years. My hunch is that feminism is largely responsible.

Among the chatterati, as in the blogosphere, a memorable quote can be life’s breath itself. Certainly her dead-tree book hasn’t been doing so well. I refer to “Erotic Liberalism: Women and Revolution in Montesquieu’s Persian Letters”. Well gosh, what was she thinking? Am I alone in thinking a better title might have helped? Truth be told, the contents don’t exactly grab me either. But still…

Now, if she had written “Jim Kirk’s Hidden Loves: A New Fanfic Perspective” she could have tapped into the Trekkers and quintupled her sales. At the very least! Better yet, she should go after the Harry Potter fans. They’re young and impressionable and have disposable income. Too bad that Meilaender guy already has a lock on the Narnia market

Aslan sends Digory on a journey beyond the borders of Narnia, into the Western Wild...Digory is to “pluck an apple” and bring it back to Aslan, who intends to use it to plant the Tree of Protection that will keep Narnia safe from the evil witch Jadis for many years.
Digory finds the garden and the tree, picks an apple, and puts it in his pocket. The sweet smell of the fruit is so ravishing that he is tempted to take it for himself...a far more powerful temptation then faces him. Jadis has come to the garden...Why, she asks, take the apple of youth to the lion Aslan? Why not eat it himself and live forever?...Why not take the apple for his mother?
Use your Magic and go back to your own world. A minute later you can be at your Mother’s bedside, giving her the fruit. Five minutes later you will see the color coming back to her face. She will tell you the pain is gone...Next day everyone will be saying how wonderfully she has recovered. Soon she will be quite well again. All will be well again. Your home will be happy again.
Digory gasps, realizing that “the most terrible choice lay before him.” Aslan’s instructions had been clear...And Digory must choose what sort of person he will be, whether the meaning of “compassion” is governed by any other moral goods. He resists, returns with the apple, and hears Aslan’s “Well Done.”

In my book, Mr. Meilaender can go pound sand, but perhaps I am doing Ms. Schaub an injustice. When read in context, her giddy insights actually make sense, a little. And she likes Pit Bulls! It’s distinctly unfair of me to clip out her “funny bits” and leave the rest hanging. Well, our motto here at Classical Values (for today only) is “Fairness…Up To A Point”. Let’s look at the larger Schaub, the Schaub most people don’t know.

So, to anyone interested in these issues, I strongly recommend Star Trek, the original series, of course, not any of the second-rate might expect that the show would be gung-ho for the conquest of nature, including pushing the envelope of our human nature. In fact, however, episodes of Star Trek repeatedly confirm the needfulness of human limitations...
Many episodes of the show dealt with issues of mortality and immortality. Let me mention just two, an episode entitled "Miri" (a name intentionally reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Miranda who delivers the famous line "O brave new world that has such people in’t!") and an episode entitled "Requiem for Methuselah"...In the first episode...the crew happens upon the results of a Life Prolongation Project that went disastrously awry...All the adults on the planet are dead...The planet is populated entirely by children, who are hundreds of years old...As a result of the Life Prolongation Project, they age one month for every one hundred years of real time, until reaching puberty at which point the virus causes them to age rapidly and horribly.
The show raises some important considerations...Perhaps most fascinatingly, the episode is premised on the connection between mortality and fertility-a connection highlighted by the Council’s report. Apparently, in the research conducted thus far, the most common side-effect of age retardation is sterility or reduced fertility. It seems as if, in pursuing an ageless body, the balance between the individual and the species is altered. When we choose vastly longer life for the individual, the propagation of the species is sacrificed...In a sense, the virus is the internal truth of their project, for the virus makes impossible the succession of the generations. Fertility brings with it an immediate sentence of death...Without any power of regeneration, this society of perennial youngsters is slowly dying. "Miri," for whom the episode is named, is a girl on the cusp of adolescence, fearful of growing up, but also drawn to the adult world and especially Captain Kirk with whom she falls in love. Fittingly, it is her love for him that eventually allows the crew to intervene and reverse the effects of the Life Prolongation Project.
The other episode, "Requiem for Methusaleh," examines another sort of immortality, lest we think that perpetual maturity would be better than perpetual youth. The Enterprise encounters Flint, a 6000 year old man...He was born in 3834 BC, inexplicably endowed with the capacity for instant tissue regeneration. He has lived a thousand different lives...Over the centuries, he has amassed wealth and knowledge. And yet, he is now as cold and unyielding as his name, Flint. He is quite prepared to kill the whole crew of the Enterprise in order to protect his privacy...His longevity has rendered him misanthropic...In the end, Flint learns that in leaving Earth’s atmosphere, his immortality has been compromised. From now on he will live out a natural lifespan. This knowledge of his mortality immediately improves his character, as he resolves to devote the remainder of his now precious days to helping his fellow man.
My years watching Star Trek have left me receptive to the view that mortality is, if not precisely a good thing, then at least the necessary foundation of other very good things, and that there is something misguided about the attempt to overcome mortality. Still, one can’t help but wonder "what if…?"...We are told in Genesis that the earliest generations of men, through Noah, had lifespans closer to a millenium than a century. We also know that things ended rather badly for them. While Star Trek’s "Methuselah" reforms, the Biblical Methuselah was done away with in the Flood. Would greater longevity for modern man result in the same incorrigibility?...Antediluvian man was unfamiliar with death. Perhaps our sense of mortality is sufficiently well-established to allow us to delay the actual blow...if time still presses us, won’t the salutary human responses to death perdure?

Okay, maybe it doesn’t make sense after all. But full props for using "perdure" correctly in a sentence. At least two points leap out at me immediately.

Point one. She is not being faithful to her sources. When she says “not the later, second-rate shows” she’s trying to stack the deck. While she doesn’t take it to the same wretched excess as Jeremy “I am a cherry picker” Rifkin, she does choose her examples rather carefully. I wonder where she learned to do that? Let’s not go invoking “science fiction” as our star witness without invoking all of it. A brief cross-examination would seem to be in order.

Point two. She attributes archetypal wisdom to popular entertainment. This is by far the more serious mistake. I love science fiction, always have, and I agree that at its best it can provide unique insights and new perspectives. But I never lose sight of the fact that it’s not real. It’s fiction, and I read it for fun. I would be embarrassed to stand up in front of an audience and cite “To Live Forever” as a source of philosophical inspiration. Ditto “Brave New World”. And as for “Star Trek”? Please, just shoot me.

Perhaps this confusion of art with life is a characteristic endemic to bioethicists as a group. Remember Meilander and Narnia. And Mr. L.R. Kass of Chicago writes as though in some ill-lit cranny of his classics-loving brain, he considers “Brave New World “ to be a real place. Hey Leon! Gilbert! They’re just made up stories!

At least Art Kaplan has his head screwed on straight, which I suppose invalidates the entire hypothesis. Damn.

Since today’s theme is “Let’s Pretend” let’s tackle the sillier, shallower point first.
Ms. Schaub manages to disregard much countervailing evidence from the very people that she claims inspired her. Note that I use the more accurate term “people”. Not “Science Fiction”, not “Speculative Fiction”, not even” The Jungian Collective Unconscious”. People. Science fiction is people. If you don’t believe me, just ask Charlton Heston.

Science fiction in its entirety is a wildly various assemblage of often contradictory notions, written by individuals, expressing their individual opinions (and sometimes not even that). Remaining ever mindful of these facts, let’s see what her “original sources” have to say. Hey, if it works for Atlantis Studies it should work here, right?

Take Leonard McCoy. As a matter of “fact” he lived to be at least 137. And the specious old series/new series dichotomy doesn’t even apply in this instance. The “fact” came from Gene Roddenberry himself, not Berman or Braga. Perhaps we should take "Miri" as a wash, nullified by Roddenberry's vision of the ancient McCoy.

Take a look at “The Deadly Years”. Subjected to a lethal “fast-forward” agent, Kirk, Spock, McCoy and company experience decades of aging in mere days. The earthmen are reduced to doddering wrecks in short order. Spock, with his Vulcan biology, fares far better, acquiring a touch of gray at the temples and a reduced tolerance for cold. Though he’s in fine shape for “any Vulcan on the high side of a hundred”, he finds his mild cognitive deficits objectionable. You might argue that Spock isn’t a human being, but you would be wrong both “factually” and morally. In the limited, technical sense of the word, he was half human, born of a human mother. If “Dolly was a sheep,” then Spock was a man.

In the larger sense, Spock was an intelligent being in a galaxy of many such, and thus fully deserving of “personhood” regardless of his genetic heritage. His father Sarek, a full-blooded Vulcan, looked to be about 45 years old when he was 103 (“Journey to Babel”). Now, Sarek is generally acknowledged by most Star Trek fans to be an accomplished and moral character. He is admirable. And it would surely be a clumsy stretch to say something like “It is in the nature of Vulcans to live for 200 years. What is right for them is not right for humans.” Star Trek was always about breaking down barriers. Hey, if you can marry a human babe and father a human baby, I think you’re as human as you need to be. In Roddenberry’s universe, the Vulcans are much longer lived than humans but not thereby less admirable. Of course, they did need to loosen up a bit.

What about “Requiem For Methuselah”? I’m glad you asked. It was written by Jerome Bixby. So when you turn to Star Trek for ethical insight, in this particular instance you are turning to Mr. Bixby, a not bad screenwriter with a not unimpressive body of work. Some of you may remember the Twilight Zone episode with Anthony and the cornfield. Terrific wasn’t it? He wrote that.

That is, he wrote the short story it was based on, which is available here, absolutely free. If you’ve only ever seen the televised version by all means check out the original. It’s really quite good.

Anthony looked across the lawn at the grocery man--a bright, wet, purple gaze. He didn't say anything. Bill Soames tried to smile at him. After a second Anthony returned his attention to the rat. It had already devoured its tail, or at least chewed it off--for Anthony had made it bite faster than it could swallow, and little pink and red furry pieces lay around it on the green grass. Now the rat was having trouble reaching its hindquarters

Now, I don’t want to disparage Jerome Bixby’s contribution to civilization. Far from it. To my mind it’s been way more positive than Diana Schaub’s, and is likely to remain so. But I am very dubious that his opinion on these matters is any more relevant to the questions at hand than those of Irwin Allen, or Robert Heinlein. Or for that matter, Lois McMaster Bujold, whose books and opinions I recommend highly to Ms. Schaub, particularly “Memory” and “Komarr”. Please, revel in their Regency Romance lushness, all the while enjoying her frequently biology driven sub-plots. Sample some of her quotable quotes here.

This one is a particular favorite of mine…

Experience suggests it doesn't matter so much how you got here, as what you do after you arrive.

Here’s another…

His mother had often said, When you choose an action, you choose the consequences of that action.

But enough with the Bujold plug, let’s get back to the wisdom of Star Trek. A point that should be remembered is that we don’t really have Jerome Bixby’s opinions. What he truly thought about any of these matters is an open question. He was a writer, and a good one, practicing his craft in Hollywood, the land of make believe. But for matters such as these, he’s just another citizen. I’d like to think he would be amused. The same can be said for Adrian Spies, who wrote "Miri".

This ties in nicely with my second point. Most people aren’t going to look to Star Trek for life-defining wisdom. Nor should they. Who in their right mind would turn to ANY part of Hollywood for advice on living the Good Life? Try to imagine such a world, or worlds. “Dallas-world,” or the “Dynasty-verse”. The mind reels…

Should popular fiction inform our ethical deliberations? I’m pretty sure that it would be ill advised. Better to stick with the Iliad and the Bible, though in this case not by much.

Does Star Trek argue against extended human life? The honest answer would surely have to be…yes and no.

A small irritating point remains, the rhetorical abuse of Dr. McCoy’s nickname.

"Star Trek" episodes repeatedly confirm the needfulness of human limitations and, indeed, revel in the self-imposed acceptance of those imitations. Interestingly, this attitude is embodied most in the ship's chief medical officer, Doctor McCoy, whose nickname is "Bones," a nickname that forcibly reminds us of the limitations of the medical art: The bodies doctors attend upon will die.

Nonsense. Nobody called him “Bones” to provide 21st century bioethicists with a poetic talking point. I always figured “Bones” was a contraction of “Sawbones”, an old slang term for a surgeon. Nineteenth century military men and twentieth century railroad men used it, to give just a couple of examples. Pretty simple, really. How can our distinguished Professora not know that? Clearly, more research is called for. It can begin here, with these pictures of nineteenth century medical equipment. Feast your eyes. Imagine yourself looking at that as a potential patient. We’ve come a ways, no doubt, but we can still do better.

Time to throttle back a bit, and start wrapping up. I’ll close with a pet peeve.

Some bioethicist/philosophers are irredeemably committed to endless talk. They see far, far too much in terms of complex symbolism, which represents the deeper, less accessible truths they crave. And then they want to tell you about it. Hand them a saltshaker and they see eternity. Ask for more wine and they’re off on Arthurian Grail Lore…

It can be maddening, this special way of thinking, and apparently not just for us. Reportedly, Leon Kass has had dreams (nightmares?) of embryos. And they talk to him. They ask him “How are you going to help me today?” I am not making this up. Take a vacation, doctor. Go somewhere tropical. Catch up on your bird watching.

For him, the invisible world is expanding into his outer reality. Not a good sign. Meanwhile, vaporous ruminations of little or no intrinsic merit are solemnly presented as deep excursions into the true nature of life and man.

He’s not alone in that scary place. Here is one of Ms. Schaub’s contributions to the genre.

On the cover of Human Cloning and Human Dignity: The Report of the President’s Council on Bioethics is the image of a fingerprint. It’s an inspired choice, for the fingerprint, as the Council’s Chairman, Leon Kass, explains in the Foreword, “has rich biological and moral significance.” The fingerprint is at once emblematic of our common humanity and our individual uniqueness... As Kass points out, fingerprints are the marks left by our grasp on things—a grasp that is sometimes illicit. This is why the police know as much about fingerprints as scientists do. And it is why the decisions to be made about cloning are properly political decisions. It belongs to citizens and legislators to police the bounds of the human grasp...Let me suggest another metaphoric image that comes to mind while reading the Report: not the fingerprint but the navel, and especially the exercise referred to as “contemplating your navel.”

Fingerprints. Bellybuttons. These people could find equal significance in just about anything. Color me unimpressed. I could say much the same things about a bookcase, with equally little meaning. In fact, just for the hell of it I think I will…

The vertical members betoken the male, upright societal principles, providing overall structure and a firmly clasping support to the horizontal female elements, or shelves. Encouched upon these uplifting yet supportive planes of well-finished wood (a material itself starkly revealing of the organic and therefore ultimately transient nature of humanly acquired knowledge and its origins) we find the ontological reasons for this embodied integral unity, the books themselves. Yet I am not sure of these books. I just don’t know if they (if such can be said to constitute a they) can be said to articulate a reason in and of themselves. Nestled warm and snug (much like eggs in a nurturing ovary, themselves symbols rich with meaning) upon their shelves, they are revealed as deeper symbols of humanity, or more accurately, humanity’s focused volition, or more accurately yet, of volition itself, which leads me to a sober meditation upon why I didn’t just say that to begin with.

It’s a gift. I can spin this stuff out by the yard, without even thinking about it, which is perhaps why I hold it in such low esteem. Want another? Sure you do. Just give me a minute here…

The mystery of the vacuum bottle is concealed within a smoothly reflective shell, giving nothing to the outside observer by giving back everything. Concealed within this cool paradox is the yet more paradoxical core of hot dark nutriment. Former life pressed into the service of current life, death enabling growth, it waits decently hidden, behind a curtain-wall of mirrored glass, which is itself encircled and protected by an aegis of tough sheet metal, perhaps with a decorative plaid pattern. Such a pattern harkens back to older days and ways, when pastoral peoples wove their own garments and slaughtered their own provender, thus remaining mindful of nature’s given order. When one reflects upon the ancient Greek root word (one need merely think of Thermopylae, the “Hot Gates”, where the oiled and glistening youths of Sparta formed a muscular, nude bulwark against swathed Persian aggressors) one sees the rooted wisdom of the inventors. They named their contrivance for the essential quality of that which is carried within it. Therm. Thermo. Thermos. There is a satisfying fittingness to it. And yet, a thermos can also keep things cool…

It won’t make you the life of the party, but there it is. We don’t get to choose our gifts. However, we do get to choose whether or not to work on them. Remember, it all sounds much better after you’ve had a few. None of which addresses the main question. Am I in the wrong line of work? Perhaps I, too, could be a bioethicist…

posted by Justin on 03.25.05 at 02:12 AM


"Plastics, Justin, plastics."

Seriously, Death is necessary for Creation. I am serious, but maybe will have to resort to plastics, also, in the end.

I believe death is necessary for thought creation, too, or seeing through thought. Seeing through thought eternally would make us God or identical with the Universe, which are impossible, to my way of thought. So why worry about it?

In my schema, you in fact can't worry about it, because it at least starts to not make any sense as a question. Yet my answer is The Mystery, the loss of the question of meaning in the mystery, which somehow you can see anyway. But, again, you cannot become The Mystery anymore than you already are. Seeing it cannot be becoming it in toto. Or so I argue.

Therefore, "Tough shit, Sherlock", the epitome of all bioethical insight. You must die.

"Plastics." "Colors" or "Spectrums"?

n.b.: "The Mystery", stolen from "The Great Mystery".

J. Peden   ·  March 25, 2005 8:30 AM

Hey what if you find death repugnant?

I mean repugnance is wisdom, right?

Regarding the "Justin Schaub" drag.... All I can say is that it's mahvelous, dahling! Your GRASP of these things is positively illicit. YOU REIGN!

This is why it belongs to citizens and legislators to police the bounds of humans who grasp like you!

Obviously, it's high time someone "reigned in" this Justin Schaub's malignant, grand guignol repugancy.....

Eric Scheie   ·  March 25, 2005 10:06 AM

Great essay. I have two comments:

First, Justin uses the phrase "Hand them a saltshaker. . ." just a few sentences after discussing Dr. McCoy. Is this a subtle reference to the fact that the medical scanner/tricorder prop commonly used by the good doctor was actually a saltshaker?

Second, is Justin aware that his paragraphs "deconstructing" a bookcase and a thermos bottle, properly submitted, qualify him for a graduate degree in Sociology at most major universities?

Sean   ·  March 25, 2005 1:21 PM

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