Thou thalt not kill; but need’st not strive
Officiously to keep alive.
—Arthur Hugh Clough
(March 1-2, 1971)
NYR: What are your thoughts about the new euthanasia movement, Mr. Stravinsky?
I.S.: First of all, I noticed on their appeals that the two leading promoter organizations share the same building as The New York Review; which, I hope, affords you a little cold comfort now and then. I hope, too, that they are merely passing the hat around, and that the contribution they want is not me.
Surely many or most of us believe that when we lose control, it would be better not to come in from, but rather, like Eskimos, to go out into the cold. The rub is that we also lose control of that belief. A friend of mine, a lifelong proponent of “voluntary death,” was stricken some years ago by paralysis which, however, apart from some speech impairment, did not cripple his faculties. His friends, knowing his state of awareness, expected a quick surrender, since he obviously could have given up the ghost, and was in the first place, or so it seemed, possessed by a “death wish.”
But was he? Is he now? And can we ever know very much about the life incentives of people in his condition? The American Sociological Association reports that deaths decrease in the month before a birthday and increase in the month after it, and people appear to postpone their deaths until after an election, or other event of general, even if possibly quite trivial, interest. No doubt the moon landing kept many people alive; and I might even derive another few years myself from further shortcuts, such as Cambodia and Laos, to the end of the war.
“I want to die with dignity,” the euthanasiast says. And, “I don’t want to leave my family with the image of deterioration”; which sounds like the speaker’s fear of deterioration. But these are present sentiments, and future ones are not predictable. Deterioration, moreover, is insidious, and the lines shift or become indistinct. What if, after committing someone else to draw them for us, we feel ourselves to be less concerned about our dignity than about even a very little more life? I once thought that my own criterion for a proper time to pull the plug would be the moment when my more and more furtive memory had retreated to a point where I could no longer recollect which of my coevals was alive and which dead. But I have long since passed beyond that, and now simply, and on the whole correctly, assume that they are all dead.
Finally, the “modesty” of some of the proposals of the right-to-die lobbyists is as horrifying as Swift’s. One doctor has stated that “anyone over sixty-five should not be resuscitated if his heart stopped.” (But Schoenberg dramatized his own resuscitation by a needle directly into the heart, at an age well beyond that, in his String Trio.) And another…
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