Thou shalt 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 doctor has argued that our already overstrained medical resources should not be wasted on anyone over eighty and very ill. (But I was both when I wrote my Variationsand Canticles, and they are superior, I think, to some of the music I was writing in my early seventies.) And why not increase the medical resources, even at the cost of diminishing some of the military ones? Or slow down on Project Methuselah? For the fifty-year increase in life expectancy by the end of the century, thanks to anti-oxidents such as BHT, and hormone rejuvenators such as prednisolone, is surely the grisliest of all the fates in store for the future beneficiaries of our current medical miracles. In short, gerontological retrogression is as important as euthanasia, if ounces of prevention are worth their proverbial weight in cure.
(March 6-10, 1971)
NYR: Is your interest in new medical developments largely the result of the disasters that have befallen you in that line?
I.S.: It certainly got a boost from them. Thus an unfounded prognosis, a year and a half ago, of atypical tuberculosis naturally aroused my curiosity in the whole subject of atypical diseases. Thus, too, my interest in fluorocarbons and synthetic blood substitutes may be attributed to years of contradictory and conflicting treatments of my own blood disease. And thus my confinement last year in a cardiac unit—the wrong department for the illness from which I was actually suffering—greatly stimulated my interest in auxiliary hearts, and in defibrillators, pacemakers, vitallium mitral valves. The latter are not yet soundproof, and the man who has one installed, like the crocodile with the clock in Peter Pan, is unable to hide himself—or, worse, from himself—though undoubtedly the thought of this tell-tale heart is more distressing to a metronomically minded musician than to other people.
But while countless unsuccessful experiments with behavior modification drugs have had a deleterious effect on me, they have not shaken my faith in that boundless domain. The effectiveness of lithium in constraining our manic friends during their cliff-hanging phases has already been demonstrated, after all, and probably more of our other friends than we suspect are kept going by amphetamines. And in spite of all the failures in my own case, I prefer to attribute my depression to a so-called sodium leak into the cells, rather than, say, to “the state of the arts” or the “philosophical overview.”
Another malady, but this one not my own, is responsible for my keen interest in the science of diagnosis by smell. I think it was Coleridge’s “Every teacher has a mental odor” that first drew my attention to the subject. Then, recalling what my Danish nurse had said about Følling’s detection of a metabolic disorder in babies from an odor in their urine; and remembering that the perspiration of schizophrenics is distinguished by an odor (trans-3-methyl-2-hexenoic acid), I began to wonder whether other biochemical disturbances might identify vocational aptitudes and inaptitudes. Music critics, for example. That most of them “stink” is obvious, of course, but what is the chemical basis?
Perspiration may be a primary odor, by the way, since some people are “odor blind” to it. But unlike the primary color receptor sites in the eye, the primary odor receptors in the olfactory tissue—which could conceivably identify by shape, on the grounds that molecules with different chemical properties but similar shapes possess similar odors—have not yet been isolated. And we should be grateful for that, otherwise television would come not only in deadly color but with the living smellies as well.
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