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DEATH IN AMERICAN EXPERIENCE / Vol. 39, No. 3 (Fall 1972)

Arien Mack, Editor

The authors hope to extend the analysis, and narrow the focus of an earlier article, entitled “Death in American Society.” The “extension” consists in going considerably deeper into the background of current American orientations towards death and its meaning in the Judeo-Christian religious tradition than was attempted in the earlier paper. The “narrowing” consists in trying to focus on the institutionalization in America of the promotion of health and the care of illness, with special reference to the medical profession and its ethical orientations.

The young people of the counter-culture now obsessively use the terms “life” and “death” to make political, moral, racial, and even generational distinctions. Thus, “life-loving,” “life-enhancing,” or “of the camp of life” are used to refer to those who are young, black, left-wing, or proletarian; while “the camp of the death” includes the bourgeois, the white-skinned, the politically liberal or conservative, and the middle aged. This rhetoric is further analyzed.

The author seeks to contrast the visions of death in British and American poetry, and though I will take my instances of both free-style, I will keep coming back to a central poet of each tradition and a central text of death in each poet.

This essay is written in the conviction that the assumption of secularity is diagnostically false. Modern culture reeks of religion and those who want contact with the modern world will need to acknowledge this fact. Our attitudes toward death are a case in point.

The complexities of the essay’s topic arise, inter alia, from two major, paradoxical considerations, the one historical and the other dogmatic. As the plural word “traditions” indicates, we are confronted on the one hand, by discrete ideologies that have developed in contradistinctive ways over lengthy periods of time. The second, is the declaration that human beings are penetrated by morality, that death stands arrayed as the conqueror and ineluctable end of human life, and yet, that death is not the end.

Death breaks the back of imagination and produces a spate of metaphor. True experiential phenomenology is almost impossible; societies shuffle these philosophical possibilities to arrive at stereotyped public attitudes manifested in architecture and ceremonial as characteristic. But within these institutional stereotypes, individuals must still come to terms with their own deaths and imagine themselves in nullity.

Basic to understanding the problem of caring for the dying an awareness that with all its mysteries and ultimate questions death is a concrete event, mostly smelly and mean, preceded by a following pain. In the physician, who regularly attends dying, the conflict finds constant, if subliminal, expression and is responsible for much of what trouble him in the care of dying patient.

In recent years, anthropologists were consulted--and often gave prefuse advice- on such vital American problems as war with exotic societies, or aid to exotic societies; rural and urban poverty; the intricacies of ethnic identity; ecology and the use of drugs; marriage, divorce, and promiscuity; or simply the future of the species. In many instances, societal interests, expressed in patterns of funding for research, were quickly translated into conceptualizations and theories and have in some cases given rise to subdisciplines and professional alliances of the secret society type.

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