George Saunders Contra Rational Suicide

George Saunders Contra Rational Suicide September 10, 2018

I am afraid of dying.

Not death. Dying.

Death is short, you see. But dying, that might take a while.

I’m not the only one. I’m thinking about that a lot on this day, the tenth of September, which has been delegated World Suicide Prevention Day. I’m not typically a “World Something-Something Day” type. For this I make an exception. Partly because this article is on my mind. The topic is “rational suicide”: suicide when you are not clinically depressed, when you are not mentally ill. Suicide when you are getting old and you can see what’s coming and you think, “Right. No thanks.”

Among those quoted in the article is bioethicist Dena Davis. From the abstract for her paper on the new vistas opened up by pre-testing for Alzheimer’s Disease, I quote:

Before the availability of these presymptomatic tests, even someone with a high risk of developing AD could not know if and when the disease was approaching. One could lose years of good life by committing suicide too soon, or risk waiting until it was too late and dementia had already sapped one of the ability to form and carry out a plan. One can now put together what one knows about one’s risk, with continuing surveillance via these clinical tests, and have a good strategy for planning one’s suicide before one becomes demented.

If you’re looking for someone to help you think well about death and dying today, it would seem Ms. Davis is not the person to ask.

Fortunately, I have an alternative for you. But I don’t want to talk too much about him, because I want his art to speak for itself. Some kinds of art, if you talk and talk about it you just ruin it. I don’t want it said of me that I ruined George Saunders’s “Tenth of December” for someone who hadn’t read it before. But I can tell you at the center of it is a man who is very, very afraid of dying.

He remembers how his stepfather died: badly. Very badly. A kind, soft-spoken man laid low by a particularly vicious form of dementia that left him screaming obscenities at his loved ones. The c-word in particular, which always came out as “KANT!” thanks to “some weird New England accent.” Or “KANTS!” plural, in those moments when mom and son glanced sideways at each other to figure out who was KANT this time. At times he simply stared, the sad, old, gentle eyes wordlessly pleading: “Look, go away, please go away, I am trying so hard not to call you KANT!”

Now it’s happening to him too. Or starting, at least. He’s not there yet. He’s not THAT yet. And Don Eber is hereby resolved: No. No, no, no. Not this. Not THAT.

Oh, let me not be THAT!

Sweet heaven, let me not be…

“I could spare them,” the thought came one night. Them being his wife and two grown children.

“Spare them?” the voice asks. “Or spare you?”

“Get thee behind me. Get thee behind me, sweetie.”

You stare into the prose of George Saunders, and the truth stares back. It is hard and sharp like an icicle. Clear and cold like an ice mirror. You don’t want to look. You don’t want to see. But you have to look. You have to see.

You don’t just see dark and sad things though. You see other things too. Like “a sequence of linear snow puffs” blown down by a breeze. Like a cardinal zinging across the day. Like memories of small things, small, random, lovely things that linger even when you’re old, and sad, and confused, and you can’t remember if your kids are grown or 4 and 6. Things like the bird feeders you hand-painted in college. Like frozen banana chunks broken up and chocolate poured over them. Like the presentation on manatees you did that you worked so hard on, that he liked so much.

Things that whatever you do you must not think about when you are absolutely, positively sure you want to die. Must not think about lovely things. Must not think about wife and kids. Or, rather: Must think only about wife and kids in scenes where wife and kids are doing humiliating tasks for you, shrinking back in pity and revulsion from you, looking at each other to figure out which one is KANT today. This is probably your only chance to end this thing with dignity. Don’t screw it up.

I leave the reader to find out if Don Eber screws it up or not. But rest assured that you are in very good hands. And give thanks for the poets who can still make us see that glimpse of truth for which our bioethicists have forgotten to ask.

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