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A Critique of Dying.

Richard John Neuhaus, As I Lay Dying: Meditations upon Returning. New York: Basic Books, 2002. 172 pp. $22.00 (cloth).

In November 1996, a symposium appearing in the neo-conservative religious journal First Things incited a controversy. Entitled "The End of Democracy? The Judicial Usurpation of Politics," this collection of articles by traditionalist stalwarts such as Hadley Arkes and Robert Bork questioned the very legitimacy of the American government. The editors of First Things, in a spirited -- some might say alarmist -- introduction to the symposium, queried "whether we have reached or are reaching the point where conscientious citizens can no longer give moral assent to the existing regime." Some intellectuals, including those of a more conservative bent, harshly criticized the symposium. Norman Podhoretz, for instance, in his memoir My Love Affair with America (2000), denounced the articles' shrill tone and aping of militant New Left tactics. First Things, Podhoretz argued, had gone too far.

As such, it is safe to say that no one would ever mistake Richard John Neuhaus, Editor-in-Chief of First Things, for a liberal. Indeed Neuhaus, an erstwhile Lutheran clergyman turned Catholic priest, has proved a formidable champion of traditional Judeo-Christian values. Through his sundry books and articles, the almost preternaturally prolific Father Neuhaus has offered trenchant, insightful criticism of left-wing opinion, and has thus become a luminary in the world of religious conservatism.

In his latest book, As I Lay Dying: Meditations upon Returning, however, Father Neuhaus essentially strays from his role as a social critic to offer deeply personal reflections on the subject of death. This slim volume, basically an extension of Neuhaus's First Things article entitled "Born toward Dying," discusses various aspects of human mortality through the lens of the author's own nasty bout with colon cancer.

Although the book's title is an obvious tip of the cap to William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying bears more in common with C. S. Lewis's A Grievance Observed, a meditation on death prompted by the passing away of Lewis's wife. Like Lewis, Father Neuhaus presents his thoughts on the end of life in warm, limpid prose. And Neuhaus, again much like Lewis, demonstrates wide learning in literature, philosophy, and, of course, religion. Even though there is no shortage of books on the topic, As I Lay Dying is much removed from typical ruminations on death.

"There are hundreds of self-help books on how to cope with death in order to get on with life," writes Father Neuhaus. "This little book is not of that genre." Indeed, it isn't. Eschewing the psychobabble and sentimentality of such works (of the Ten Steps to Mourning Like the Pros type), Father Neuhaus dilates on death with admirable candor. He relates his struggle with sickness and his own "near-death experience" gracefully and humbly, inciting the reader to sympathize with the hardships Neuhaus endured during his period of illness. And Father Neuhaus, when describing his trials and tribulations, pulls no punches: when he finally begins to recuperate from his ordeal, for instance, he informs us that "The truth, the embarrassing truth, is that I felt a certain resentment about [my friends] rushing my recovery." Throughout As I Lay Dying, Father Neuhaus seems to examine himself and his own foibles as earnestly as he discusses the topic of death.

This does not mean that the book maintains a solemn tone throughout. Far from it. Rather, Father Neuhaus demonstrates a mordant wit. Describing the vicissitudes of American hospitals, for example, he writes:

There were, to be sure, nurses straight out of central casting; starched, officious, and given to we when they meant me. "It's time for our beddy-bye," said one each night when she turned out the light. I thought the prospect of beddy-bye with her no enticement.

His discussion of his fellow patients proves equally humorous. "You soon discover," he tells us, "that almost everyone has a doctor who is one of the top two or three, if not the very top, in his field." Elegantly presented, the story of Neuhaus's colon cancer betrays no hints of bravado.

And Father Neuhaus's illness has prompted an equally lucid disquisition on the subject of dying. At times, he criticizes contemporary American culture for its unhealthy attitude toward the end of life. "As children of a culture radically, even religiously, devoted to youth and health," he writes, "many find it incomprehensible, indeed offensive, that the word 'good' should in any way be associated with death." Here and there traces of Neuhaus's social conservatism become apparent: "Sex and death," he says, "have been 'problematized,' and the problems are to be 'solved' by sexual technique and the technology of dying."

There should be much of interest, however, for those who might not share Father Neuhaus's political beliefs. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Neuhaus continually defends the worldview of traditionalist Catholics. Even so, in the course of this short book, Neuhaus offers reflections on the work of an impressive number of Western writers and philosophers -- Tolstoy, Pieper, Kant, Epicurus, Pater, Weil, et al. And, much like another Catholic convert, G. K. Chesterton, Father Neuhaus always seems to give the devil his due. Never one for quick dismissals, Neuhaus presents cant-free remarks on all of the figures he mentions - even men as seemingly antithetical to Neuhaus's conservatism as Michel Foucault.

Nor is As I Lay Dying a book only for those whose intellectual and spiritual interests are as broad as its author's. Many of Neuhaus's thoughts are simple -- some even mesmerizingly so. Still, much like C. S. Lewis, Father Neuhaus never offers mere platitudes. This is an impressive - almost shocking--feat: how many works in the "grief" section of your local bookstore aren't awash in trite emotionalism? To this end, Neuhaus is genuinely countercultural -- not only in his social conservatism. His latest book is anathema to the gurus of the self-help genre. As such, it is likely to be more help to those in need.

Eric Adler is a Ph.D. candidate in Classical Studies at Duke University. His essays and reviews have appeared in Partisan Review, The Women's Quarterly, The Boston Book Review, The Bloomsbury Review, and Clarion.
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Author:Adler, Eric
Publication:Cross Currents
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2002
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