Tuesday, March 9, 2010

LIFE, DEATH, ABORTION, SCARFACE AND HAMLET

AN ESSAY

I grew up in a ferociously pro-choice household. From my earliest memory, my mother told me that abortion was a woman's right. It was her choice to decide what to do with her body. Those ideas filtered into my mind. I never thought much about it. I never thought abortion amounted to murder. In fact, I remember my mother used to say: "It's nothing but a clump of cells. It's not even a person. You're not hurting anyone when you pull it out of there."

I was satisfied with her explanation. It passed my empirical scrutiny. After all, I had no memory about my own life before I was three years old, let alone memory about my time in the womb. I recalled no pain from that time. In that light, I perceived no moral problem in terminating a pregnancy: It just didn't hurt anyone.

I could not identify with a fetus; I may have once been a fetus, but if someone had rooted me out before I was born, I would not have known the better. There seemed to be no suffering in abortion. I had no problem with it.

When I was a little older, my mother told me that she had had an abortion three years after I was born. That made me understand why she so fiercely advocated abortion rights: She had needed an abortion and she got one. She told me she could not have supported another child. I completely agreed with her. I did not want another sibling, either. I liked my mother's undivided attention. So we both had some self-interest in our beliefs about abortion. I never regretted the idea that I "may have lost a brother or sister." I supported my mother's decision. In fact, I fully endorsed her main argument: That no one has a right to tell a woman what she should do with her own body.

I carried these beliefs with me to law school. They informed my understanding about the Constitution. I read Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113 (1973), as if I already knew what it said. In essence, Roe held that a woman has a constitutional right to terminate her pregnancy at any time before "viability." It reaffirmed my own belief that the State has no right to interfere with a woman's reproductive choices because we all have a right to "privacy" in our bodies.

But there were people in my class who strongly disagreed with Roe. They thought that abortion was a crime. They thought that there was such a thing as "potential life," and that the State had a right to protect "lives that did not yet exist." My own values clashed with that argument. I had always believed--thanks to my mother's explanations and my own empirical conclusions--that fetuses were not people. They were just "clumps of cells." I did not consider them "alive." And even if they represented "potential life," that concept was far too nebulous for me to defend.

Still, many people vociferously believe the opposite. In fact, there are probably some people out there who would kill me for my belief that abortion is acceptable in virtually every circumstance.

In recent years, I have been obsessed with death. When my father died suddenly in 2006, it forced me to reevaluate every assumption I had about life. I pondered life's meaning, its "rewards" and its expectations. After all, I saw that life can end without warning. And all the things that we learn to expect from life can evaporate in an instant. We are all just going to die--in fact, we might even die tomorrow--so why stress out about little things, like careers and money? What do they gain us in the end? Why waste time on them? Why waste a single day on something unappetizing? If all we have are our bodies, why torture ourselves doing things we would rather not do?

I developed a contempt for life. I am still quite contemptuous about it. What does life really have to offer, anyway? Food? Sleep? Orgasms? Comforts? Feather beds? Money? Joys? Is this everything? Are we mere slaves to our senses until the day our senses cease functioning? What difference will food and orgasms make once we die? None, none, none. In fact, those are only the good sensory things that can happen to us in life. More often, life inflicts unbelievable sensory suffering on us. We endure physical pain and emotional turmoil. We endure heartache, delay, disappointment, rejection, boredom, stress, betrayal, mockery, abuse and frustration. The bad moments usually far outnumber the good ones. Then we die. Taken as a whole, then, life is a losing proposition.

That's not to say that I do not sometimes like living. It feels good to eat, sleep, have sex, talk with friends, love people, be loved, sit in a comfortable chair, listen to music and read books. I like being alive in those moments. But is this all there is? And do I have to endure all the bad stuff for these few good moments?

Many others have come to these same sad conclusions about human life. In Brian de Palma's Scarface (1983), drug kingpin Tony Montana achieves the height of earthly success. He has a beautiful wife. He has untold riches. He has a huge villa in Florida. He has a massive hot tub. He throws mammoth parties. He wants for nothing. Yet after an argument at an expensive restaurant one night, he turns to his best friend and despondently says: "Is this it? Is this what it's all about, Manny? Eating, drinking, fucking, sucking, snorting, then what? You're 50 with a bag for a belly."

Tony Montana developed a contempt for life. He did not care about what it had to offer, even though he had it all. And he did not mind dying after he saw how little life really matters.

Shakespeare's Hamlet thought the same thing. In several scenes, Hamlet rues the crude banality of human existence. Like Tony Montana, he says: "What is a man,/ If his chief good and market of his time/ Be but to sleep and feed? a beast, no more." Hamlet, Act IV, sc. iv, l. 31-33. Hamlet understands--as I do--that life's so-called "good things" add up to little more than "[b]estial oblivion." Act IV, sc. iv, l. 38. In fact, Hamlet grows so disenchanted with life's petty potential rewards that he prefers death to living: "O that this too too solid flesh would melt,/ Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew!/ Or that the Everlasting had not fixt his/ Canon 'gainst self-slaughter! O God! O God!/ How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable/ Seem to me all the uses of this world!/ Fie on't! O, fie! 'tis an unweeded garden/ That grows to seed; things rank and gross in/ nature/ Possess it merely." Act I, sc. ii, l. 129-138. Later, he dismisses the world as "no/ other thing [] than a foul and pestilent/ congregation of vapors." Act II, sc. ii, l. 308-309. And he dismisses man, too: "What piece of work is/ man!...what is/ this quintessence of dust?" Act II, sc. ii, l. 309-310, 314-315.

Is this what it's all about, Manny? A "quintessence of dust?" "Bestial oblivion?" An existence "weary, stale, flat and unprofitable?" "An unweeded garden that grows to seed?" "A foul and pestilent congregation of vapors?" Taken in the abstract, Hamlet is dead on. Life pretty much sucks. And even the good stuff is a pretty poor palliative for the endless difficulties it inflicts upon us.

I am permissive toward abortion because I really could care less whether another person enters this brutal world. After all, earthly life offers little more than "bestial oblivion," anyway, so why should I care whether some new beast gets to eat, sleep or feed? It just doesn't matter to me. If a woman chooses to end her pregnancy, good for her: She's saving the little tyke a whole lot of trouble.

But what about abortion opponents? They must have different expectations from life than I do. They must not really ponder human existence. They must genuinely like what life has to offer. They must really like eating, sleeping, fucking, sucking and snorting, even if they wind up with bags for bellies. After all, they are willing to kill doctors in order to defend potential life. Let me say that again: Potential life. They like life so much that they are willing to commit murder so that a clump of cells may one day eat, sleep, fuck, suck and snort. They are committed not just to an existing person's right to eat, sleep, fuck, suck and snort. They are also committed to a non-existent person's right to do so. Now that shows real dedication to earthly life. It's a dedication I certainly do not share. To each his own, I suppose.

In my experience, life is no bowl of cherries. It is hard. It is full of misery and pain. When we do enjoy good moments, they are precious. But how rare they are! And viewed in the abstract, how petty! Is this why we're alive, then? To undergo endless difficulty punctuated by a few slender moments of bestial joy? We cling to life like any other mammal. We fear death because we do not know what awaits us. So, as Hamlet says, we "bear those ills we have/ [rather] than fly to others that we know not of." Hamlet, Act III, sc. i. l. 83-84.

We are the only ones who can create meaning in our lives. Hamlet found meaning by finding a purpose: Taking revenge for his murdered father. He did not seek mere "bestial oblivion" or "worldly comfort." He impressed his soul on his existence to transcend his "mortal coil." His life took on greater significance. And fittingly, he died in the process.

I have not died yet. I know that life does not offer much. Yet I try to do what Hamlet did. I am trying to live for something greater than bestial oblivion. I like bestial oblivion as much as the next man (beast). But my real joy flows from the idea that I am doing something beyond the flesh: Writing. I had to find something to make this maddening journey bearable. It was my choice.

Even then, I do not hold my own life in high esteem. On the whole, life is more trouble than it's worth. Only instinctual self-preservation holds me in check.

So from my view, so what if a woman gets an abortion? I have no philosophical problem with any activity that saves another from this harrowing sphere of pain.

3 comments:

angelshair said...

I am prochoice too. I love life, but I know how hard life can be on some people. I hate to see people who from the beginning of their life to their adult life cannot find happiness. For adult it might be a question of choice, but the choice is easier to make when you started on good bases. It is like winning a sprint competition when you miss the starter. Impossible. Does it worth participating anyway? I don't know.
I think many problems in the world wouldn't exist if each children here was desired.

MaxThrust said...

I read Victor Frankl's "Man's Search for Meaning" a couple times, never got much out of it.

Joseph Campbell had a few interesting thoughts on meaning:

He doesn't believe life has a purpose...a lot of protoplasm with an urge to reproduce and continue in being. Just sheer life cannot be said to have a purpose, look at all the different purposes it has all over the lot.
-But each incarnation has the potentiality, and the function of life is to live that potentiality.
-How? Follow your bliss. Something inside you which knows you're in the center, on the beam, knows your off the beam. If you get off the beam to earn money, you've lost your life.
-------

I've been pondering this a lot too lately, I have a hard time finding the ambition, aggression, motivation, or the desire for achievement and success required to initiate any task.

Timoteo said...

If life really IS ultimately about suffering, (as Buddhism will tell you) and has no discernible purpose, then the only rational response to life is not self-centered pursuits that lead nowhere, but in the attempt to relieve suffering where and when one can. And having done so, it becomes a small victory for those who feel oppressed by the seeming unfairness of it all.