Sunday, December 29, 2013

Withdrawing the Grain

by KARL STEEL

When I teach the Prioress's Tale, as I did twice last semester, I have typically liked asking the students "who kills the Little Clergeon?" Most give the obvious answer, what we might as well call the correct one: "the Jews," or "a Jewish professional murderer," while others, when sufficiently prodded, blame the monk who plucks the grain from under the little boy's tongue.

Who's the murderer, then? And who makes a martyr? The boy miraculously keeps singing, despite being nearly decapitated, but only until he tells the monk where to find the kill switch. Having killed, the monk goes catatonic, falling as if bound to the floor. And now we in the classroom have something else to talk about. We can keep on about the Antisemitism of the Prioress, or Chaucer, or medieval Christian Culture. But now we can also talk about how stories of martyrs demand a victim, and how the love of sacrifice needs its deaths. And so on.

Now, though, I'm newly sympathetic to the monk. As a reminder, here's the conversation, beginning with the undead boy (a translation into Modern English here if you need it):
"Wherefore [because of that grain] I synge, and synge moot certeyn,
In honour of that blisful Mayden free
Til fro my tonge of taken is the greyn;
And after that thus seyde she to me:
'My litel child, now wol I fecche thee,
Whan that the greyn is fro thy tonge ytake.
Be nat agast; I wol thee nat forsake.'"
This hooly monk, this abbot, hym meene I
His tonge out caughte, and took awey the greyn,
And he yaf up the goost ful softely.
And whan this abbot hadde this wonder seyn,
His salte teeries trikled doun as reyn,
And gruf he fil al plat upon the grounde,
And stille he lay as he had been ybounde.
The monk's newly captured my sympathy, now, because I've made a similar decision, twice, with both of my parents. I was close to my mother (died in 2001) and not so close to my father (died early November, this year), but in both cases I was given and took the monk's choice.

That's far from unique. Most Americans die in hospitals now, many of them only through some decision to let them be allowed to die. In both cases, my parents were unconscious when they finally died: my mother in a coma, my father on morphine. Any decision was made with what was, at best, their literally tacit approval. But it was a decision, made by us more than by them. They did not die on their own.

My father consulted with his children when we decided to withdraw care for my mother (meanwhile, in a cruelty more than a little reminiscent of the Prioress's Tale, I was told that we were "tying God's hands" by letting my mother die). My father's own father suffered a terrible stroke a year before he finally died, but was dragged back into life, not happily. Sometime in his last year, he told my father, "you should have let me die." Probably with that in mind, but also all too aware of his own suffering, my father made it clear enough that he would be willing to be allowed to go when things got bad enough. We knew how to end things, and we suspected, at least, that they wanted things to end. But we could have kept it all going if we wanted to keep it going. The decision finally had to be ours, not theirs.

It's odd and maybe stupid to find my own experience in Chaucer's ugliest tale. It's not as though either of my parents died as a martyr to Antisemitism. But having twice been a parricide, of a sort, like so many others, as so many of us are likely to be, I can't help but feel with the monk, suffering a choice imposed on me, faced with a suffering that is my duty and curse to end, in pity. In pity, but also  "ybounde" to the fact of a death that will never come, and never stop, until we too must withdraw the grain.


16 comments:

meg said...

Christmas always involves end-of-life conversations with at least one parental set. We haven't had that talk yet with K's parents this year, but my mother revised her instructions on Christmas morning, commanding us to smother her with a pillow (or otherwise dispatch her) if she can't read. "But what if you're otherwise enjoying life?" I asked. "That's just a sign of how bad off I am, if I can enjoy a life without books," she snapped back.

It was an easy decision for my father; I couldn't bear seeing him in any more pain. I find it telling that physicians leave the harshest "no extreme measures" instructions.

Jonathan Hsy said...

@Karl, this is simultaneously beautiful and disconcerting (indeed like the Prioress's Tale itself). Thanks for sharing. You always manage to find new depths in what seems like an utterly unredeemable literary work. Having faced similar end of life decisions with my own family I can't help but see this passage in the text differently and wonder what it actually might mean to die a "natural death."

I think the question of how much of ourselves we "find" in re-reading literature is a curious question. We (by which I mean literature professors) tend to discourage students making simplistic arguments about literary works being "relatable" to their own lives, and yet we also seem invested in making distant/alien literature somehow relevant or at least thought-provoking.

Jonathan Hsy said...

@Meg: Thanks for your comment too. It makes me think more about the significance of assigning the tale of Virginia to Chaucer's Physician. And I wonder what happens if we read the tales of the Prioress abs Physician as companion pieces about death, will, and family.

Karl Steel said...

Thanks JH - I think the trick is to make thing 'relatable' but in a way that remakes or disturbs their comfortable sense of who they are. What happens if they identify with people they find horrifying or pathetic (as I do with this monk), or if they find commonalities where they'd prefer not to? THAT kind of 'relatability' rather than the smug kind ("Oh, I like him") that shakes nothing up, is what we should encourage, yeah?

As for that thing about 'natural' death: I wonder too! The more I think about it, the less possible it feels.

And thanks too for that comment on the Physician's Tale - ABSOLUTELY, yes.

Meg, kind of a weirdly lovely story about your mother.

Eileen Joy said...

This is a gorgeous, if difficult to read piece, and I'm sure it took some courage to write it. I think "parricide" is not quite the right word, but I know why you used it, and respect that. I had an aunt in Ireland [a super-favorite aunt, I might add] who, because of her conservative Catholic upbringing, family, etc., was left to languish in a hospital after a severe stroke for many years. To this day, I still have nightmares about that. When I was last in Dublin before she died, I was asked if I wanted to visit her, and I didn't, and I've always felt guilty about that. It is worse to look the other way than to have the compassion to help someone out of their misery. I would not call that "pity" -- that is somehow too condescending. But in any case -- death: it really is the last frontier.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

My mother in law recently died in her home. She knew her death was coming and did not want to be in a hospital where machines would prolong her body's endurance after her mind had departed. She had many faults, but her clearsightedness about her own death is really admirable, and rare. Then again she had been to hospital six times already where her expressed wish to be allowed to die was not honored because no one -- not even her husband -- wanted to "kill" her. And that's the problem with equating the ending of an artificially and maybe even intolerably prolonged life with murdering someone. It is not the same, and can rob a person of dignity in death. It seems to me that we are often far more humane in our treatment of dying pets than we are in allowing beloved humans a good death. It so easily becomes about those left behind and their unwanted agency rather than the person who dies.

I am sorry that we live in such a death phobic culture. My kids have many friends whose grandparents simply vanished from their lives at some point and their deaths were discovered later, because parents didn't want to traumatize them. I think it's a lot more traumatic to think that death doesn't happen every day, no matter how much we love people and love the world.

Everyone should have a medical proxy / living will (I do; my wife does; our kids even know what we want). They should also make their wishes clear when they can about what measures should be used to preserve past consciousness. I know that is easy to say: the fact is that most people are so terrified of dying they won't do it. And that's why so many deaths leave a legacy of guilt and other ambivalent feelings. What would it be like to live in a world that could fully acknowledge that death is part of the fabric of the everyday rather than a secret to hide away in a hospital?

Jeffrey Cohen said...

I've been ruminating over the comment I left and fear it came across as strident. My tone in it comes in part from the frustration of having parents who refuse to speak about end of life at all despite being in their 80s. Part comes too at the sadness I see within many friends who have made humane, necessary, and in the end affirmative decisions -- and yet feel ambivalence or even guilt over them.

I wish we were better at living with death. That'd all I should have said.

Anne said...

I yearn for a revisiting of the _Ars Moriendi_ in some ways. Birth plans are more common than dying plans at this point and even when death happens on its own (naturally?), as I witnessed for my father, there is a sense of emergency and direness about things. Hospice might be the renewal of the art of dying. In the meantime, meditations like this one do powerful work. Thank you, Karl.

Kristina said...

This is one of the most beautiful and meaningful piece of writing about literature I've read in a long time. I don't teach literature anymore, so you can take this with a grain of salt if you want, but to me, part of the reason why literature professors discourage students from making literature "relate" to their lives is because, frankly, most young people don't yet have the life experience to be able to do that well -- or to realize that writing that is *not* relatable to their lives is still valid. As we gain more experience, we return to literature able to see new things. And what an amazing response indeed that you have had to one of the most perplexing and disturbing stories in English literature.

To Jeffrey Cohen, if you're reading this: I don't think your comment was strident at all. If it helps, this reader agrees with you.

Karl Steel said...

Comment from facebook, first of all:

Apart from the obvious, one reason that this situation's on my mind is that I've been reading saga after saga after saga lately to prepare for NCS Iceland, and in them no one, of course, dies in a hospital, few die of disease, and most die suddenly and violently. In them, death comes when it will. Now, certainly people make decisions to end lives all the time in sagas; but no child or spouse or parent, for example, ever has to decide, in love, in pity, in grief, in hopelessness, in whatever, to put an end to a parent or spouse or child that was, at any rate, already gone in all but final deed. Such things happen all the time to many of us now. That difference, and the melancholy that comes with it, strikes me, and I'm glad Chaucer came through for me in helping me start to think through all this.

I should also say that Ashby Kinch (whom I should alert to this post) has been doing good work on the medieval Ars Moriendi and the modern (non)culture of death, so I'm sure he's miles ahead of me on most if not all of these points.

Now, I'm using "parricide" and "equating the ending of an artificially and maybe even intolerably prolonged life with murdering someone" strategically and probably not sincerely. As you might expect, and as any of you would do too, that whole "artificial" vs "natural" distinction needs more critical pressure. It's notable, in fact, that no one in this thread uses the word "nature" in any form without querying it in some way.

Obviously, quick violent deaths are not natural deaths. Slow violent deaths, on the other hand, are often held to be "natural." Perhaps not starvation, but the diseases and weaknesses and eventually deaths hat come either from food scarcity or nutrient scarcity, i.e., empty but cheap calories: these would be held to be "natural" deaths, I imagine, like other conditions of poverty. When Bloomberg, our thankfully departing mayor, says of poverty "That's just the way God works," well, there's nature again. Actuaries would have something to say here, perhaps, about "deaths above the base line" &c.

Regardless, I'm sure we can all agree that the slow violence of poverty is anything but "natural," because its effects are due to human agency and human institutions. But the trick -- and I'm sure you're all ahead of me here -- is to rethink the natural/artificial distinction outside human institutions.

And that's where things get weird. The meningitis that (really?) killed my mother: do I call that "natural"? More natural than the decision to withdraw life support? Yes, normally, but it's hard to sustain the distinction more I think about it.

And once we start pressuring that, then the distinction between murder and cutting off life support becomes, well, not impossible, but certainly more difficult to sustain. I understand of course that keeping that distinction matters, for good rhetorical reasons, which are themselves good humane reasons. Most people aren't going to be as philosophical about things as I'm being here. But the kind of exegesis and, well, deconceptualizing that we do professionally as literary scholars has its place in these analyses too.

Rick Godden said...

The lines that stick out to me in the Prioress's Tale are the following: "His tonge out caughte, and took awey the greyn, / And he yaf up the goost ful softly." The boy's singing might be miraculous, but it is still an uncanny, animated voice that should be silent. The boy doesn’t just go quietly, but he goes softly, a comfort opposed to the horrifying images of his previous unlife.

Since we are sharing end-of-life stories, let me share one. One of my oldest friends had a disability, and like me, he was in a wheelchair. But, where my condition has a reasonably normal life span, people with his usually never got past their mid-20s. We also went to college together, and just a few weeks before graduation, he slipped into a coma and passed away. The scene in the hospital wing where he was being kept alive very much felt like a living wake. Being his oldest friend, I was allowed by the family to go in to see him, even though in most important ways he was already gone. But, after just a minute or two of being in the room with him, his vitals went erratic and all sorts of monitors started chiming and beeping. I was ushered out while the nurses tried to preserve a little more life. Afterwards, several people suggested to me that his vitals when crazy because he was ashamed to have me see him like that. I understood the sentiment – he was after all very proud – but I knew that my timing was just unfortunate, that he had no consciousness to be proud or ashamed, and that he was reaching the end in all of its spasmodic agonies.

And so, reading Karl's post makes me think about how my friend’s final hours could be described as anything but “soft,” but I do think “he yaf up the goost ful softly” when the end finally came. I also am reminded of the nervous energy of St. Erkenwald, where the animated corpse causes so much restlessness and dis-ease. But, when the Bishop’s tears fall, there is finally rest. Miracles, like technology, interrupt and intervene in an inexorably linear state in of affairs, and sometimes (but not always) that interruption is too anxious and unsettling to bear. Sometimes it is best to give up the “goost ful softly.”

Rick Godden said...

The lines that stick out to me in the Prioress's Tale are the following: "His tonge out caughte, and took awey the greyn, / And he yaf up the goost ful softly." The boy's singing might be miraculous, but it is still an uncanny, animated voice that should be silent. The boy doesn’t just go quietly, but he goes softly, a comfort opposed to the horrifying images of his previous unlife.

Since we are sharing end-of-life stories, let me share one. One of my oldest friends had a disability, and like me, he was in a wheelchair. But, where my condition has a reasonably normal life span, people with his usually never got past their mid-20s. We also went to college together, and just a few weeks before graduation, he slipped into a coma and passed away. The scene in the hospital wing where he was being kept alive very much felt like a living wake. Being his oldest friend, I was allowed by the family to go in to see him, even though in most important ways he was already gone. But, after just a minute or two of being in the room with him, his vitals went erratic and all sorts of monitors started chiming and beeping. I was ushered out while the nurses tried to preserve a little more life. Afterwards, several people suggested to me that his vitals when crazy because he was ashamed to have me see him like that. I understood the sentiment – he was after all very proud – but I knew that my timing was just unfortunate, that he had no consciousness to be proud or ashamed, and that he was reaching the end in all of its spasmodic agonies.

And so, reading Karl's post makes me think about how my friend’s final hours could be described as anything but “soft,” but I do think “he yaf up the goost ful softly” when the end finally came. I also am reminded of the nervous energy of St. Erkenwald, where the animated corpse causes so much restlessness and dis-ease. But, when the Bishop’s tears fall, there is finally rest. Miracles, like technology, interrupt and intervene in an inexorably linear state in of affairs, and sometimes (but not always) that interruption is too anxious and unsettling to bear. Sometimes it is best to give up the “goost ful softly.”

Karl Steel said...

beautiful comment, Rick. thanks

Steve Mentz said...

Gorgeous, moving stuff, Karl. I also like the pressure you put on the human/natural distinction in your comment. Certainly we academics, if we mean what we say, must (to borrow that explosive word from your post!) navigate these experience alongside our literary texts, our theoretical models, and our analytical habits, pedantic as they may seem. Can we distinguish between natural and unnatural (good and bad) deaths? These distinctions are hard to maintain. But I hope it's not too much to ask that Chaucer (among others) can help us approach such problems.

Nathaniel M. Campbell said...

Many, many thanks, Karl, for this rumination, and to J J for his stinging (and in a good way, mind you) thoughts on our "deathphobic" culture. You put into new perspective just what a "culture of death" as opposed to a "culture of life" should mean. What fears provoke what move?

Jeffrey points out that one could see the imposition of extraordinary measures to prolong life as provoked by a fear of death, a refusal to allow the beloved to have a "good death".

On the other hand, there is an opposite fear, that when we refuse measures to prolong life, we are acting, not out of charity towards the suffering, but out of a selfishness to rid ourselves of their burden upon us. The extension in this direction is a culture in which "euthanasia" is forced upon the elderly the moment we find them an imposition upon us, thus robbing them of the very dignity we started out to protect.

How do we navigate these fears, a Scylla and Charybdis of death's shadow?

What makes Karl's thoughts so wonderfully written is that he captures perfectly at the end the swirl of fears and impossible conundra provoked by end-of-life care in the time of modern medicine: "suffering a choice imposed on me, faced with a suffering that is my duty and curse to end, in pity. In pity, but also 'ybounde' to the fact of a death that will never come, and never stop, until we too must withdraw the grain."

Jennifer Lynn Jordan said...

This is lovely. Thank you for writing it. I hope the New Year holds new joys for you.