Neanderthal Death and Dying

I was just reading an article about Neanderthals burying their dead, a practice which will further humanize them and cause us to see them not as higher apes but close cousins.

The idea that something so like us lived in our own era and became extinct, like Barbary Lions and Arctic camels, should be troubling for us, because it points not just to survival as an iron law of nature, but to the fact that like any other animal species we are subject to the vicissitudes of cultural and environmental change. In the death of Neanderthal we confront the general mortality of our own race. And though we shall never know, we may also confront the murderous superiority of human intelligence over theirs. Homo sapiens sapiens might have warred them to extinction, or they may simply have succumbed to disease or demographic decline.

We are more comfortable exploring the outreaches of space and the depth of the oceans for possible and unusual life forms than we are with probing the depths of the self because such activity distracts us from our own puny and limited existence.

There is nothing new about saying this; Freud would say it is just a spin on his theory of “substitutionary satisfaction,” except that instead of locating satisfaction in the arts and merchandisable skills that define civilization, as he tended to do, it locates it specifically in the objects we choose for scientific investigation: the outer world—the world external to the self. The inner world, now being dramatically explored by studies in cognition and neuroscience is more putative, perhaps even more real for certain people than for others. We have to acknowledge that the inner life of a stockbroker and the inner life of a classical musician or philosopher are different not just as a matter of preference or taste but as matter of fundamental interpretation and meaning. The world in which we become the object of our own thought is fraught with difficulty, not least of which is the ancient problem of how to define the self.

You may recall this famous passage from Hobbes,describing earliest human history before “governments” were formed:

“Whatsoever therefore is consequent to a time of Warre, where every man is Enemy to every man; the same is consequent to the time, wherein men live without other security, than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withall. In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no Culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; no Society; and which is worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short.”

In other words, it is remarkable that we survived at all, perhaps more so that the instinctive drive for survival has stretched our intelligence to devise new ways to ensure our persistence, and in some ways, our progress. Hobbes would define progress, as men of the Enlightenment would, as the removal of the “natural condition” of continual fear, and danger, of violent death–and just as important, the birth of societies that extend our life and our dominion over nature. An astounding number of our contemporaries still define progress in that way.

Still, whatever collective progress is, at the end of it is death. Not death as Neanderthal may have experienced it—the gradual but no doubt perceptible diminution of creatures who looked like them down to the last half dozen on the face of the earth. But individual death.

Freud had a few thoughts on this in a 1915 treatise called Thoughts for the Times on War and Death, written a few months after the outbreak of the Great War. In that treatise Freud lets his imagination range more freely than usual, speculating about everything from cognition to the unconscious to polyarchy (constant, universal warfare)to the psychological foundations for burying the dead.

Like Freud or lump him, his thoughts never fail to arouse the suspicion of truth: Do we bury our dead because they attract animals and flies, begin to smell bad, or because we want them safely under the ground where they cannot remind us of our fate and torment us through their jinns? Is (as Hobbes suggests) the natural state of mankind war and the artificial state (as Freud argues) peace and civilization? Is religion a contract between these two extremes, a denial of death through harnessing violence (taboos, laws) in the name of deferred life after death?

Is the ritual violence that we sublimate in religious practices such as the Eucharist and circumcision and even the ideological form of jihad a reminder of our essentially hateful and violent natures? How do we survive, as creatures torn between the need to make love and the reality of decay? Can we even imagine our death?

“We cannot, indeed, imagine our own death; whenever we try to do so we find that we survive ourselves as spectators. The school of psychoanalysis could thus assert that at bottom no one believes in his own death, which amounts to saying: in the unconscious every one of us is convinced of his immortality.”

Or is this too outrageous a simplification of the complex reality we live as human beings? Was Neanderthal more in touch with basic impulses that define an essential humanity, a kind of lost reality that civilization, art, music, science, and literature have taken from us?

Wilfrid Owen asks the question poetically about the general violence of war and the meaning of death, the same war Freud was responding to as a psychoanalyst three years earlier:

“Was it for this the clay grew tall?
—O what made fatuous sunbeams toil
To break earth’s sleep at all?” (“Futility,”1918)

Remembrance Day

Like many Germans of his day my grandfather was a Nazi.  He did not talk about it, and I was not interested in hearing. My choicest memory of him is that he would take me almost each afternoon to a local ice cream shop for an Eskimo Pie. Therefore he was the kindest, best and most lovable man in the world. My father, by contrast, would sometimes tell him not to fill me up with sugar before dinner. Therefore he was the worst, beastliest, and cruelest man God had ever created, though he was never a Nazi.

Everything that comes through America ends up ice cream, I learned later in life. Especially our view of history. I preferred chocolate. My father liked butter crunch, which I came later to appreciate, too. There is nothing like having a taste of something to end disputation and encourage wisdom. This includes rutabaga but not cherry tomatoes.

After his funeral, I was told stories about my grandfather.   He was considered too old to fight in the German army at the start of the war, but by the end men of sixty and boys of 14 were taken, some conscripted. 

Only twenty years before 1948, Germany had been humiliated by the combined powers of  the west and Russia,  beginning with Austria-Hungary’s declaration of war against Serbia, a Russian ally. Via St Petersburg, the Russian Empire sent an ultimatum to Vienna warning Austria-Hungary not to attack Serbia. They did it anyway . So many wars are started with angry letters and missed messages.   

After the end of that war, when my grandfather had been a very young man, Germany was made to pay a heavy price–lost most of its few colonies, was forced to pay reparations to richer countries, and became associated with aggression, racial hubris, double dealing and later genocide. By 1929, the Germans recognized that they had been humiliated and were spoiling for justice. Justice is a funny word. Sometimes it means vengeance.

I grew up thinking, even as an ethnic German, that these traits were quite exceptional. –And exceptionally evil. If Germany and Germans exemplified them in a special way, then the conquerors of Germany must be benevolent, generous, democratic, freedom loving heroes. 

I was 13 when I heard–or remember hearing and seeing in a newspaper– the name Viet Nam for the first time, a bit older when the My Lai massacre occurred. My father was determined I should not go overseas, as we were now in the United States, like many other Germans who abandoned the old world for Kennedy’s new frontier (Ich bin [ein] Berliner].

 I was in university when villages were napalmed to drive the Viet Cong from their houses and villages, while their forests were defoliated, while they died of gas which the Pentagon said was not poisonous because it was designed to kill jungles not people, not babies.

The cold war dragged on, too. Facilitated by two great nuclear shields made up of earth- destroying missiles. Berlin became a patchwork of four parts called sectors. Blacks were clubbed into submission throughout the American south, and when I was at Harvard bricks and bottles were hurtled by Bostonians at little “negro” children in pressed white shirts and crisp pinafores, being transported to white-majority schools.  Benevolent, generous freedom loving heroes.

In my lengthening life, it has not changed. Russia is celebrating its national patriotic days along with its ex-Soviet republics as its troops shoot to kill and mutilate their ethnic and linguistic cousins in peaceful Ukrainian cities. Fair minded America, having left Afghanistan to chaos after twenty years of false promises, now plots to strip its women of the right to accept or reject an unplanned or unwanted pregnancy.

And these words ring in my ears, these words of the Psalmist (quoted by St Paul) in his verdict on humanity, too often fused to make sluggish Christians feel awful about their moral habits and get them back to the church, the font of salvation: “What then? Are we any better? Not at all. For we have already made the charge that Jews and Greeks alike are all under sin. As it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one. 11There is no one who understands, no one who seeks the good.” (Romans 3; Psalm 53)

Patriotism is not a bad thing in small doses.  Likewise, being a Muslim, or Christian or a Jew whether by birth or choice–not bad at all,   As long as we realize it confers no special grace, no special rectitude, no better chance of possessing the truth or being on the right side of moral questions. 

We have come a long way since Germany could be seen as the normative Worst Case in human history.  These of us who learned our Latin and Greek were never taught that Greeks were savage fighters and Romans beasts to their enemies—think of crucifixion as a “normal” punishment for political dissent or free speech.

My grandfather did not tell war stories because he thought they were unimportant. I would learn my own lessons, only he hoped not from learning about his close calls and moments of danger and glory.    And that is the danger of Memorial Days, Victory Days, and Hero Days. In honoring our war dead and wounded and survivors we also elevate war as a solution and something noble. We are encouraged to think that there are degrees of perfection in the pursuit of war, though every page of history tells us this is a lie–and history is the judge, not the glory of the battle  And no country is any better that any other in this act:   “There is no one righteous, not even one. There is not one who understands.”