A Violated Pair of Shoes
September 11, 2016
Sometime during 2015 I wrote about curiosity; and about how curiosity is too often lauded and praised as an unqualified good thing and a virtue for a person to possess. One meets such across the board encouragement of curiosity broadly being promulgated by influential persons towards younger and/or aspiring persons; and very particularly in the fields of science and science-based studies.
I argued last year that curiosity is very often capable of being and quite often transpires to have been a bad thing; and to have done more harm than usefulness or good. I do not mean only the obvious examples of baseless insidious speculations and of gossip; nor enhanced and elaborated reporting of plain events and so on; I mean also the types of inquisitiveness which are being pursued by many persons who earn their livings by handling and presenting and studying things and areas which I believe are better left alone. This class of inquisitors includes many academics and pursuers after learning.
Now I am not being a Luddite; nor am I wishing to smash the machinery or the impetus behind research and inquiry. Inquiry normally takes place more or less as a study of historical events; be they ten thousand years or a few hours old. The scientist sets up, observes and makes notes; then thereafter sits and sifts what s/he has, and tries to draw some useful conclusions. The materials may be only hours old on which s/he is deliberating; but it is ‘in the past’ still. The archaeologist might be seeking enlightenments from items and events thousands of years old; just as an historian might be also.
For all this there remains a set of ethics which are discernible and perhaps applicable (by researchers themselves in the ideal situation) to any study and to any research. Again I am leaving to one side lately sensitive items like stem cell research and chemical weapons research; items which currently are ‘hot potatoes’ and for which debates are still going on and have yet to be settled. This kind of sensitive item is topical because it is usually concerning a relatively new state of affairs; e.g. regarding stem cells it is only recently has research on them been a realistic option; and regarding chemical weapons this debate is muddied by the recent arrival and presence of nuclear weapons; and also receives a similar ‘interference’ from a widespread antipathy towards wars and their defence budgets and weapons industries; but these presences nonetheless are to some degree (rightly or wrongly) accepted very widely as being a ‘fact of life’.
The sort of thing which I feel is being transgressed by the curiosity of too many inquirers is a simple and a basic thing; it is simply the dignity of a human person. We all know that to obtain certain health checkups at the doctor’s one has to face an amount of personal indignity. Illness and disease themselves might be termed indignities imposed on people by the natural course of events. Some small sects of persons – like the Ancient Hebrews and The Church of the Seventh Day Adventists – have put in place certain hard and fast rules which have acted as barriers to their followers having to sustain certain of such indignities. In my knowledge it is not uncommon to hear that people have died rather than have faced a doctor or a surgeon or an undignified ‘eleventh-hour rescue’ by the tools and practitioners of modern medicine.
It is not merely a mater of ‘embarrassment’ or of a ‘false pride’ which deters such people from throwing themselves and their lives into the hands of a medical person; it is often their sense of whom they are; of what they might be; and of the value of that resultant sense of integrity and wholeness of identity in supporting their will to continue to live on regardless without resort to available medical aid.
I myself believe I would be too frightened to make such a stand when/if such a time comes for myself; my choice; but nonetheless I can see and quite largely sympathise with such a person who has the strength of character to choose such a way. I myself am at once shocked and horrified by the Romans who like Seneca opened their veins upon an order from their Emperor to kill themselves. Seneca was a Stoic; and had studied so as to learn how to die well; but nonetheless he had perturbations which he had to overcome in order to fulfil the Emperor’s command. He died by his own hand; but I think nonetheless nobly and with his integrity intact.
So, medical help can sometimes be demeaning and so destructive of a person’s self-esteem and hard-won integrity.
And is this not why we honour our dead; because they have faced and gone through the fire of the Last Battle, and passed on and so deserve a respect and a regard from us for that fearful adventure they have made before us; and we feel this way even about persons whom we know have died an ignominious death, don’t we. Shakespeare has his Macbeth say: ‘He who dies pays all debts’; and this is a true and worthy saying.
We have a saying in common usage: ‘Do not speak ill of the dead’. (I was ‘informed’ by a person once that this saying was mooted because of the simple fact that the laws of libel and slander no longer apply to slanders and libels against persons who have died. This I believe misses the point very widely. I myself believe that we do not speak ill of the dead; not because of superstitions or else to protect them from libels; but because we have that ineffable respect for them in their having passed fearfully beyond and to the grave. Our own endings are foremost in our minds whenever we think of our dead. ‘Send not to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee’ wrote John Donne, Dean of St Pauls in the days of James VI of England)
I want to just diverge one paragraph or two here to a subject close to my heart and which touches on the drift of this essay at this point. Since the new libertarian societies first emerging in the 1960s in The West and over the course of the years; there has been a lighter and less grave attitude to living and to dying emerged in many parts of our societies. Liberace was buried in a piano-shaped coffin. Many an old rocker is played out by Megadeth or Black Sabbath, with his guitar as grave goods in his coffin. I saw just the other month in the street a funeral cavalcade of cars leaving a Funeral Parlour with a beadle type man – a Mr Bumble type character - with a staff in hand marching with pomp before the cars in slow procession. As they went solemnly, very loudly was being played on a PA sound system, ‘I can’t get no Satisfaction’ by The Rolling Stones.
A person beside me (I was at a bus stop awaiting) murmured to herself ‘I’m not sure I believe what I’ve just seen!’ She was tickled by it, and had found it weird but remarkable.
So that’s how it goes with us nowadays. I recall as a boy I was taught by my mother to stand still and to allow any funeral cavalcade to go by in the street as a ‘mark of respect’ to the dead. But this tradition has nowadays fallen out of use.
The upshot of my bringing up these changes in attitudes to death and in saying our farewells; is to show by their example that a level of dignity and respect for death, the dead, and for dying, has evaporated over the course of my lifetime. The loss of what was once considered to be innate inviolable value and which once was attributed to men and women; to their best selves, and to their best works and productions, has given way to a world and a society where nothing which might once have been considered virtuous or noble or honourable or discreet or having integrity, has in fact much value at all for many, for most, of us.
So how is all this my complaint affecting the arts and sciences and encouraging that curiosity which pursues ungraciously after new knowledge and expanded horizons?
I am going to give a single detailed example and thereafter to run through quickly several other good examples of my case.
There was a show on television lately about the sinking and the disaster of The Titanic. The show concentrated on a pair of shoes which had been donated to a Scottish Shipping Museum as being shoes which were taken off the body of an infant boy found drifting dead in the ocean and assumed a victim of the wreckage of The Titanic.
These shoes had been passed down in a Scots family, a member of whom long ago had either removed the shoes from the boy or had come by them and their provenance at the time of the sinking. They had become that family’s heirloom. But a recent just a few years back had donated them and told their story to the Museum curator.
This story as it was told fitted with certain facts as know to the curator – a boy had indeed be found without shoes and buried – but in an unmarked grave because the boy had not been identified. The story of the television programme was about the scientific quest made and accomplished which identified the boy buried in the unmarked grave. The small shoes were to play a role in the scientific identification of whom the boy was.
I am not going to continue with the story of the science and the investigation which revealed the boy’s name, who was in an unmarked grave; but to tell you only that it involved an exhumation; an extraction of DNA from a preserved bone, and the tracing of one of the boy’s descendants so as to inform her about the investigation and the discovery. Public money and academic time and resources were thrown at this adventure; which had been initiated by a devotee to the history of the sinking of The Titanic and by his enthusiasm and eagerness to pursue this investigation.
I would argue; on the basis of what I have written so far; that this investigation ought never to have been made. Proverbial wisdom says; ‘Let sleeping dogs lie’ – it says also; ‘Least said; soonest mended’ and it used to say some years back on every grave in Britain ‘RIP’ ‘Requiescat in Pacem’ – ‘Rest in Peace’.
The endeavour was for the most part sheer prurience; and it had zero value as a project, scientifically or ethically nor practically or theoretically. It was – I use this phrase on my children and they don’t like it – mere ‘idle curiosity’.
The result of identifying the boy was justified on the television show by way of a huge dollop of sentimental insincerity; sentiment about the story of discovery itself rather than about the subject and the result of the investigation. The past then is today a virtual Theme Park for many people, and is being served up and treated as one such.
History today is to be entertainment; and past lives are to be objects to be put on display; and for the exercise of our intellects upon their sorrows and their gladnesses, on their sad humanity; and on the vicissitudes pertaining to that humanity. Much of what passes for history today is mush. Or else it turns out to be a personal tour de force on the presenter’s most urgent bee in their bonnet.
At the same time, displayed to a public, and held up for our admiration, are huge resources held as equipment at the universities and the museums and the research laboratories; all of which is very high-tech and costing billions to build and to maintain. And this is besides the professional salaries of the multitude of persons associated with these activities. Yes. A lot of the equipment is spin-off technology from studies in medicine and healthcare. But it is top of the range and state of the art; and for the most part in the service of ‘disturbing sleeping dogs’ and ‘Saying a lot and thus freshly regrazing wounds’ and not letting the dead ‘Rest in Peace’.
The recent jamboree in England around the discovery of King Richard III’s body in a coffin buried beneath a car park is a large example. There were fights and squabbles broken out in public about whereabouts he should be reburied; which town should claim him; and so obtain the tourist attraction. There were scenes which would have disgraced and humiliated a person of even minimal self-esteem; but these indignant-with-one-another parties continued battling farcically for months, and ‘hanging their dirty washing out to dry’ in public.
And of course tourism is the central justification for this jamboree of grave exhumations and grave robbings and disturbing the dead etc. There has come at long last some glimmer of respect for American and Inuit native peoples whose recent relatives stand mummified as exhibits in State museums across the country. Likewise the Aboriginal peoples of Australia and New Zealand are at last getting a foothold upon obtaining a degree of due respect and regard from their oppressors and conquerors.
We look back today at Colonialism and disown our own heritage. We look back at the 1930s eugenicists and phrenologists who were our great-grandparents and reject their kinships. We believe so firmly that we today are more civilised, more advanced, more aware, and of a greater sensibility than were the people of those days.
There’s the story – read about it in the Bible in the Book of Job
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