“The child died”

There is little to add to what I wrote in yesterday’s Thing (here), besides the words quoted in the heading above. They have been used many times, but I am thinking particularly of an old diary — from pioneering life in Ontario — in which these words were the entry for one day. Two hundred years hadn’t lightened them.

We assume that our ancestors were hard people, because they lived harder lives. They “couldn’t afford” all the feelings we have in our much easier lives. The proof, to us, is in such hard-fact diary inscriptions. We have the leisure to make a bigger display. Paper and ink are cheap today; electrons are free. We emote freely; we have the space on Twitter and Facebook to share our grief with the world. Our ancestors did not. But it wasn’t just the price of ink and paper.

In Vietnam, I first noticed a remarkable cultural misunderstanding. I can’t speak for the present, but know this from what soon will be half a century ago. Americans, and also Europeans, would be appalled by the unsentimentality of the Vietnamese. Often they did not scream, when seriously injured, through what must have been intense pain. An involuntary tear was the only indication. Funerary wailing was formalized, and as in many pre-modern cultures, the wealthy might hire others to do their wailing for them. The grieving would, having paid for this service, have nothing to add. They might stare. They did not smile when greeting friends and relatives, the way we have long done in the West. And Westerners would take this for rudeness.

In every “traditional” culture I have encountered, raw emotion is masked. We, the products of Hollywood, assume that what is masked is nothing. We can do far grander displays, even while faking it. It is theatre of another kind. With an understandable total ignorance of a foreign culture, Westerners would sometimes actually say that, “the Vietnamese don’t have any feelings.” This made us feel better about blowing them up — since, until they had been westernized, they showed no emotion when blowing us up.

But we had once been much like them. Once, we had taken our lumps, silently; once, we had ritualized external display. And this was decency. You (anyone) will never be able to see inside a marriage that is not your own; or inside a family death. Words don’t go there.

Our civilization is so broken, that it is now possible to take death out of the family. Like every other human thing, it now belongs to the State. The British State decided when and how Alfie Evans should die, and of what his “death with dignity” should consist, in unapologetic contempt for the wishes of his own mother and father. For hardly the first time, the legal and medical machinery of State imposed a decision to remove “nutrition, hydration, ventilation”; to make Alfie die in a hospital, attended by cool professionals, rather than at home alone with those who loved him. The bureaucrats now have policies on this.

In the refrain of a Canadian folk song, by the late Stan Rogers: “God damn them all.”