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The Mark Of Cain
July/August 2015

"The First Mourning", 1888, by William Bouguereau

“I spend most of my time not dying. / That’s what living is for,” writes Frederick Seidel, the enfant terrible of the New York literary scene, in his poem “Fog”. We have wrestled with the fear of death for as long as mankind has existed. The recent discovery in Spain of an archaic human’s skull, believed to be 430,000 years old, with lesions apparently caused by a weapon, suggests that the story of Cain and Abel, like so many others in the Hebrew Bible, expresses a profound truth about human nature. Our ancestors bear the mark of Cain. We fear death, but most of all we fear murder; and the worst kind of murders are those committed in the name of God.

Three important new books open up different standpoints from which to examine this unpalatable fact of life. The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life (Allen Lane, £20) summarises the remarkable life’s work of three American psychologists — Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski — who have created a whole new field of research: Terror Management Theory. This is a practical as well as theoretical approach to death anxiety which, by the empirical study of its power over us, seeks to understand how so much of what we do — our creativity and our compassion, our love for others and for ourselves — is a refusal to give in to the negative thoughts, emotions and violence that grip human beings in the face of death.

Another man of medicine, Raymond Tallis, has written a more personal book: a Religio Medici for our times. The Black Mirror: Fragments of an Obituary for Life (Atlantic, £17.99) takes literally Montaigne’s injunction to “always keep the image of death . . . in full view”. Tallis imagines himself as his own future corpse (easier, perhaps, for a professor of geriatric medicine than for most of us), in an “endeavour to look at life — my life, your life, anyone’s life — from a virtual viewpoint outside it”. If this sounds morbid, Tallis is a surprisingly entertaining companion on his imaginary journey into the underworld. As a thoroughgoing atheist, “RT” (as he refers to himself) permits himself none of the consolations of faith that sustained Sir Thomas Browne, his great predecessor as a physician who tried to know himself. Instead, he faces his own finitude with the fortitude of a man who, having explored his own mortality, invites us to “come back from the dead to change the world or our lives”.

The third book to address death, however, does so from a completely different point of view — one that takes seriously the threat of religious fanatics who are (pace Keats) half in love with a death that is anything but easeful, whether it is others’ or their own. In Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence (Hodder & Stoughton, £20), Jonathan Sacks draws on an even wider frame of reference than his scientific counterparts to make the argument that we can only defeat those who kill in God’s name with their own weapons — that is, by reinterpreting scriptures that seem to exclude or demonise, by demonstrating the futility of fundamentalism in its own terms, by deconstructing the dualisms that divide and the sibling rivalries that sow hatred.

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