Thursday, March 17, 2005

Sideline on Heinlein - UPDATED

I keep running across the Dean.

I started reading Heinlein when I was about eleven, if I recall - his juvies, of course, probably with Have Space Suit, Will Travel among the first. I plowed through them as fast as I could; my dad, a lifelong fan, owned many, possibly most, of the juveniles, and nearly all of the adult fiction Heinlein had published by that time. I read Glory Road, my first Heinlein "grownup" book, in one summer day when I was about 12, and Stranger in a Strange Land at about 14 or 15, having worked my way through the less odd selections before then. In retrospect I'm surprised it took me that long - and in fact my memory may be faulty; I'm going from "sense memories" of what my bedroom looked like while I was reading each book, and to tell the truth, none of these memories are all that definitive. I can say for certain that I read The Number of the Beast when it was first published; I read the serialized first chapter in the now-defunct Omni magazine, rushed out and got the book as soon as it was available in paperback (impecunious as I was), and read it in a hurry just before the family moved to England when I was about to turn 16.

In all that time I never met another kid who had read Heinlein.

I continued to buy his books as soon as they came out, and to track down the few I didn't already own; I even took a course in college in which he was the subject of a unit. (I was deeply disappointed by it, but I have to admit that the prof who taught the course finally articulated for me the pattern I'd known about for close to a decade by that time: the three-stage Heinlein character.) I'm writing aobut him now because I just came across a new(?!) book of his in the library, some 15 years after his death. It's his first "novel," though Spider Robinson, who wrote its intro, was correct in calling it a series of lectures loosely knit together by a story line. It's more like a long cultural essay than a novel. And I've been discovering over the past year or so that Heinlein is much more popular in the blogosphere than I ever thought he was among "real" people. Selection bias? No doubt... but still, his contribution to the cultural landscape that's under construction even now appears to be profound.

I understand there's a biography in the works. I can hardly wait to read it - all my sordid questions answered. Virginia Heinlein, who I just discovered was his third wife rather than his second, was my hero for years, though all I knew about her was her wavery reflection in his books and the contents of one intro to The Past Through Tomorrow. Finding out about her is really more of my reason for wanting to read the bio than finding out about him.

More, post-Schiavo: Robert Heinlein gave me my politics, by and large. He gave me the hope of a bright future for humanity. He gave me my respect for the great literature of the English-language tradition. For a while, he gave me a kind of uneasy agnosticism, before C.S. Lewis gave me back my faith. But in some realms, what he tried to give I have refused to accept.

One of those areas is euthanasia. Heinlein as personified by his third-stage characters, the crusty old men who people his books, regularly championed ending one's life on one's own timetable. Of course, many of his characters were doctors themselves, or had easy access to aother means of suicide, and none, ever, grew senile. Brief discussions of senility in his books inevitably led to the characters' unanimously concluding that if such a fate were to befall them, would someone please put them out of their misery... And his reasoning was that once the mind is gone, the soul, or self, ought to go too - he was never too clear about where the soul resided (except in one short story, where he, tongue-in-cheek, put it in the pituitary gland), but clearly he thought that a senile person was still "in there," suffering tortures because he was unable either to think or to leave.

I don't know what happens inside the mind of a senile person, or one - like Terri Schindler Schiavo, with profound brain damage. But I am confident of this: that with every devaluation of humanness on functionalist grounds, we are closer to involuntary euthanasia. I won't go so far as to say that involuntary euthanasia will be the needful outcome, someday, of Terri's death, but I will say that I fear even the first steps down this path, because these first steps are the easy ones.

Just as I argued all through Terri's long ordeal that where doubt existed as to where she, the elemental she, resided, we ought to shrink from any action that might evict her, so to speak, since we poor humans don't possess the ability to knit body and soul together and give them life, I say the same about the old and the damaged. Since we don't know where our humanity resides, we ought by default to conclude that it resides in the part of us that we have no power to create, but only to destroy. And then we ought to protect those whose functional humanity is no longer obvious.

It's possible that I may grow senile in my old age, or that I may suffer some injury someday that will render me as uncommunicative and possibly as unconscious as Terri Schindler Schiavo (I can't quite bear to let her married name stand alone). It's possible that I will be either terribly weary or terrified inside my own head - seeking release from torment. But here's the rub: I will be granted that release, someday. There's no need for men to provide it; it will come. Catholic tradition created "purgatory" and made it a sine-qua-non for sinful humans; who am I to be released from some form of it, simply because some doctor has that power? God's mercy will provide my release, in God's time. It's not for me to rush it.

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