Damien Broderick (
Sat, 27 Jun 1998 15:05:50 +0000

"I certainly don't know whether Carol and I had the ideal amount of
overlap, but I would say we approximated it fairly well... The `I', the
very core, of each person has been incorporated into the other person. Not
only lovers, they are now psychologically merged, blurred, blended, and
fused, and have come to form one composite entity. This is perhaps why, a
few months after Carol had died and I was gazing up at her photo... I felt
myself falling deeply into and through her eyes right into her innermost
core, and behind a veil of tears I heard myself sobbing, `That's me, that's
Douglas R. Hofstadter, Le Ton beau de Marot (1998)

Death is intensely personal. Its theft of another human world hurts us
deeply, if we have shared even in some small measure that internalised
overlap of which Douglas Hofstadter writes so poignantly. We are moved by
death more greatly, perhaps, than by any other passage - except, perhaps,
by birth. Does thinking about death in the somewhat remote and clinical
mode of science distract us from that fundamental agony of loss whose only
appropriate answering voice is music and the hard melodies of poetry? I
have no wish to evade mortality's personal dimension by speaking of nothing
but superoxide dismutases, the mysteries of the quantum, or the resplendent
glories of the cosmos.

Still, death in aggregate does not move us quite so fiercely, death on the
large scale of those wars and starving throngs we see behind the television
screen each night, death as the reaper of millions we do not know and might
not like very much if we did know them. Our kindest emotions sag beneath
`compassion fatigue'. And for the young, and honest, death and its mimicry
can also provide the fiercest of thrills. Healthy young gangs of men
travel great distances to maim each other in soccer game riots, just for
the pleasure of it. Vivid computer simulations allow most boys and young
men in today's technologically advanced nations, and a few girls, to
obliterate imaginary foes in gory detail - even to flash whole cities into
nuclear fire. We embrace what terrifies us most. Or we ignore and
suppress it. But death will not go away - unless we make it go away.

For the first time since single-cell life coalesced on this planet, we are
perhaps within reach of doing just that.

So the keen pathos of mortality remains our spur, but we are justified in
regarding death, for a time, as an abstract force to be countered with
knowledge and determination, rather than appeased by mythic verse and
surrender. But solving death, and life, is not a merely technical project.
It embraces everything that makes us human. The first immortal generation
will not be the children of just science alone, but of law, art, music,
writing - all the humane arts.

Although the Genome Project will accelerate the knowledge base for direct
genetic intervention, there is very much more in an organism (especially a
person, as Hofstadter makes us remember, eyes prickling) than is to be
found even in a total DNA map. The ethical consequences of the new
sciences are formidable, even before the acceleration of science and
technology turns into an headlong ascent and death is put to rout (if that
ever happens). We need to be prepared well and truly in advance. We need
to learn how to think clearly about both death and life.

Damien Broderick

Dr Damien Broderick / Associate, Dept. English and Cultural Studies
University of Melbourne, Parkville 3052, AUSTRALIA
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