Thursday, May 07, 2009

Roger Ebert on death

Roger Ebert is a movie-buddy of mine - even though I've never met him nor have I had a 2-way correspondence with him. My conversations with him take place after every movie I watch - when I come back from the theater and read his review. Sometimes we agree and sometimes we disagree (c'mon, The Great Buck Howard totally sucked!), but the conversation is always productive (for me). I've done this religiously for the past 15 years and over this time Ebert has introduced me to small wonderful movies like Off the Map, The Station Agent, and Frozen River, to off-beat Sci-fi/fantasy films like Dark City, The Fall, and Knowing (also see recent posts: Unusual Darwin and Wallace in "The Fall" and Science & Religion in "Knowing"). What I appreciate about his reviews is that they are not simply about movies - rather they often touch on larger human values. A great recent example is his review for The Reader. Whether you like the movie or not will depend strongly on what you think the movie is about. Is it a movie about the Holocaust, about German guilt, or about human nature? Ebert, as usual, was looking at the larger canvass, and makes a fantastic case for its connection to larger human nature.

Why talk about all this on a blog on science & religion? Well...Ebert has a thoughtful essay on death - a topic that automatically brings up conversations about a scientific and/or religious worldviews. [Here are some earlier posts on the topic: Death and Religion, NYT review of "Nothing to be frightened of", Weinberg on life without God, and (of course) Carl Sagan on life, death, and religion].

Here is Roger Ebert's article Go gentle into that good night (if you have time - read his full entry - it is worth reading):
I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear. I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. What I am grateful for is the gift of intelligence, and for life, love, wonder, and laughter. You can't say it wasn't interesting. My lifetime's memories are what I have brought home from the trip. I will require them for eternity no more than that little souvenir of the Eiffel Tower I brought home from Paris.

I don't expect to die anytime soon. But it could happen this moment, while I am writing. I was talking the other day with Jim Toback, a friend of 35 years, and the conversation turned to our deaths, as it always does. "Ask someone how they feel about death," he said, "and they'll tell you everyone's gonna die. Ask them, In the next 30 seconds? No, no, no, that's not gonna happen. How about this afternoon? No. What you're really asking them to admit is, Oh my God, I don't really exist and I might be gone at any given second."

Me too, but I hope not. I have plans. Still, this blog has led me resolutely toward the contemplation of death. In the beginning I found myself drawn toward writing about my life. Everyone's life story is awaiting only the final page. Then I began writing on the subject of evolution, that most consoling of all the sciences, and was engulfed in an unforeseen discussion about God, the afterlife, and religion.

On religion and death:

Raised as a Roman Catholic, I internalized the social values of that faith and still hold most of them, even though its theology no longer persuades me. I wrote about that, too. I have no quarrel with what anyone else subscribes to; everyone deals with these things in his own way, and I have no truths to impart. All I require of a religion is that it not insist I believe in it. I know a priest, a lovely man, whose eyes twinkle when he says, "You go about God's work in your way, and I'll go about it in His."

What I expect will most probably happen is that my body will fail, my mind will cease to function, and that will be that. My genes will not live on, because I have had no children. Perhaps I have been infertile. If I discover that somewhere along the way I conceived a child, let that child step forward and he or she will behold a happy man. Through my wife, I have had stepchildren and grandchildren, and I love them unconditionally, which is the only kind of love worth bothering with.

Though, he does say that he will leave behind many memes - but they will all "eventually die as well, but so it goes". Towards the end of his article, he brings up a fascinating quotation from Vincent van Gogh. I love the imagery in the quotation - and perhaps it adds another dimension to The Starry Night:

I have been corresponding with a dear friend, the wise and gentle Australian director Paul Cox. Our subject sometimes turns to death. In 1988 he made a luminous documentary named "Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent van Gogh." Today Paul wrote me that in his Arles days, van Gogh called himself "a simple worshiper of the external Buddha." Paul told me that in those days, Vincent wrote:

Looking at the stars always makes me dream, as simply as I dream over the black dots representing towns and villages on a map. Why? I ask myself, shouldn't the shining dots of the sky be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France? Just as we take a train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star. We cannot get to a star while we are alive any more than we can take the train when we are dead. So to me it seems possible that cholera, tuberculosis and cancer are the celestial means of locomotion. Just as steamboats, buses and railways are the terrestrial means. To die quietly of old age, would be to go there on foot.

Thank you, good Paul. I think that is a lovely thing to read, and a relief to find I will probably not have to go on foot. Or, as the little dog Milou says whenever Tintin proposes a journey, pas de pied, je l'espère!

Good stuff! Read the full article here.


Atif Khan said...

Sometimes, I really wish that someone like Carl Sagan soul could come to us and explain death experience (though I sound religious here believing in souls). Is there any way or probability of having any scientific explanation about death?

Salman Hameed said...


What do you mean by a "scientific explanation about death"?

You mean after death? Well...scientifically, the body decomposes, and biology gives way to chemical reactions, and eventually the atoms and molecules of the body become part of Earth - along with food for insects etc. Too grim?? :)

Ok - so lets move a bit further. There is a good chance that a large comet or an asteroid will hit the Earth in the future and it will eject same material from the Earth's surface. This ejecta will carry many of the atoms and molecules that were once part of human bodies - and now they will be part of the Solar system - eventually to be used for some other star or a planet.

Not Sagan, but there have been others whose ashes have been spread out in space (see Space burial. Comet hunter, Shoemaker's ashes are now on the Moon. But Clyde Tombaugh, the discover of Pluto, is the coolest. His ashes are on board New Horizons - which is on its way to Pluto. Planet or no planet - this is soooo cool!

Of course, a religious narrative will be very different.

Atif Khan said...

Thanks Mr. Salman for explaining that. Do we (including me) think that religion is the resultant product of human fear of being mortal? (Assuming of life after death and all that making one believe we will live for ever thereafter). I would be glad to know your views about that.

Salman Hameed said...


Here are couple of lecture videos that talk about the origins of religion(s):

Evolution and Religion by David Sloan Wilson

The evolution of religions by Jared Diamond (I plan to post it soon on the blog).

and also take a look at this article Is God an accident? by Paul Bloom

All of this does not necessarily explain away religion - but it provides a larger context to the reason why humans believe.

Atif Khan said...

Thanks a bunch for putting up that stuff.

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