The Fountain, Terry Schiavo, Charlie Gard, and "Spiritual Pornography"

One of my favorite movies, and a movie I will defend to the death, is The Fountain.  

The conventional wisdom is that The Fountain (2006) was a weird misstep in director Darren Aronofsky's career between the critically acclaimed, commercially successful hits Requiem for a Dream (2000) and The Wrestler (2008) (and, later Black Swan (2010)).  That conventional wisdom is wrong--The Fountain is every bit as good as those films (and I think better than Requiem and Black Swan, though I really like those films).  It is, I will admit, less accessible than some of his other films--it doesn't have a conventional narrative structure, but instead intertwines three related stories.  But if you take the time to work through what is going on, it will reward you.

[Also, a quick aside--the soundtrack to The Fountain by Clint Mansell and Kronos Quartet, is absolutely fantastic.  Even if you don't see the movie, listen to the soundtrack--it is one of the most beautiful symphonies I have ever heard.  It's as good as anything by the classical masters.  Really.]

Aronofsky's movies usually have a spiritual dimension to them, and The Fountain is the most spiritual of his films (except, I guess, for Noah).  The central plot of the three interwoven plots involves Dr. Tom Creo (Hugh Jackman) frantically researching pharmaceuticals that will cure diseases.  He does so because his wife Izzy (Rachel Weiss) is dying from a brain tumor, and it is clear that Tom is trying to find a way to save his wife from dying.  Izzy, meanwhile, is trying to enjoy the time she has left--she keeps trying to get him to leave the lab and spend time with her, and she is writing a book that may or may not be the other two plots of the movie (the 16th Century conquistador Tomas looking for the Fountain of Youth in the New World and "astronaut Tom" in the far future on his way to the distant nebula Xibalba, respectively).  Dr. Tom is having none of that.  "Death is a disease," he says at one point, "Its like any other. And there's a cure, a cure — and I will find it."

Thus, the whole film (and this is the part that I think the people who don't like the movie missed) is about the various incarnations of Tom learning to let go of his monomaniacal desire to defeat death.  Staying alive, by hook or by crook, is not the end-all, be-all of being human.  Contrasting the "death is a disease" line is the line uttered by the Mayan priest at the end of the 16th Century storyline "death is the road to awe."  Death doesn't always have to be fought with maximum strength, and there is a time for giving up one's life. 

The message of The Fountain is deeply Christian.  By which I don't mean it doesn't or wouldn't resonate with other spiritual traditions, but only that it does resonate with Christianity.  As Dr. Tom's story shows us, a monomaniacal focus on "fighting death" can isolate us from the joy of being human.  Dr. Tom sacrificed precious time with his dying wife in order to carry on the fight--a fight being done in the name of a person who didn't want to fight anymore, and was ready to accept the Road to Awe.  Izzy kept trying to show Tom another way, and Tom kept rejecting that way.   

Jesus came so that we may have life and have it more abundantly, yes, but He came to show us that we no longer need to fear death.  The act of fighting against death with all of our strength is not a virtue.  Eternal life of the sort that Tom seeks in The Fountain is not the same thing as the resurrection Jesus promises.  Jesus's resurrection comes, in part, from laying aside the life you have, in order that you may walk the Road to Awe. 

One would think that Christians would not need the lesson of The Fountain as much as people without that spiritual and theological background.  One would think.

In the winter/early spring of 2005, I was living in Jacksonville, Florida, waiting to hear back from the various law schools that I had applied to in order to find out where my life would go from there.  I had left the Dominicans about two years earlier, and I was also in the process of trying to figure out where I stood with all of that.  I was living with my parents while teaching, and on Sunday mornings I would go off, officially to attend a different parish from the one my mother attended but actually to sit in a coffee shop and read the paper.  I wouldn't start going back to church full time until I moved to Philadelphia to go to law school.  I needed some time away.

Anyway, that winter the dominant story in Florida was the Terry Schiavo case.  For those who don't remember or who weren't living in the US at the time, Ms. Schiavo was a Florida woman who suffered a cardiac event in 1990 which resulted in severe brain damage.  As it turned out--as the medical professionals said at the time and was confirmed by the autopsy after her death--Ms. Schiavo's cerebrum had degenerated to the point where it was essentially non-existent.  As a result, the most basic and primitive brain functions like the systems that controlled respiration and heart rate were present, but nothing else.  This meant, among other things, she could not swallow, so Ms. Schiavo could only be kept alive through a feeding tube.

After many years of Ms. Schiavo existing in this state, her husband began to take steps to allow his wife to die and to remove the feeding tube.  This resulted in a lengthy and convoluted legal fight with Ms. Schiavo's parents, who not only insisted on maintaining the feeding tube, but also maintained that Ms. Schiavo was not in fact "brain dead," but was responsive and could communicate with them (contrary to all medical analysis, it must be said).  This legal fight became a cause celebre, with extensive (and, it must also be said, illegal and unconstitutional) interventions by both then Florida governor Jeb Bush and the Republican-controlled U.S. Congress.  Eventually, various courts held that Mr. Schiavo had the right to make medical decisions on behalf of his wife, and the feeding tube was eventually removed and Ms. Schiavo died.

When I first heard about this story, I remember thinking that from a moral point of view this was a relatively easy case.  I had learned that Catholic moral theological principles held that one is never required to use "extraordinary means" to keep someone alive, defined as permanent medical interventions which, but for their presence, the person would die.  A feeding tube, it seemed to me, was an extraordinary means, and thus it was morally appropriate to remove the tube.  While the initial reports made clear that the parents were pursing their course in the name of Catholic pro-life principles, I thought surely as this case got greater attention someone from Official Catholicism would gently explain to these (understandably perhaps) irrational parents that it was OK to allow their daughter to pass away.  

I was deeply naive and deeply mistaken.  Official Catholicism rallied to Ms. Schiavo's parents without hesitation.  I remember having lunch with a friend of mine who is a Catholic medical ethicist, and I was stunned that she was taking the side of the Schiavo parents.  The problem, I was told, was that removing the tube was an affirmative act resulting in death, and thus was euthanasia.  The extraordinary means rule only applies when deciding whether to implement the means in the first place--you could refrain from putting in a feeding tube, but once it was in you could not remove it.  My response to my friend at the time, and still to this day is: (1) where does that principle come from? (2) that's a completely unworkable principle from a practical standpoint, as the tube is often going to inserted at a time when the ultimate futility of the case is unclear.

Nevertheless, Official Catholicism declared that we are opposed to removing feeding tubes, we have always been opposed to removing feeding tubes.  From this, I took away a lesson.  Roman Catholicism loves to assert that its moral stances apply from a detached, almost Solomonic application of neutral principles.  I had bought into that notion hard.  But, in the breach, those principles were far more malleable and outcome-dependent than Official Catholicism was willing to admit.  The pro-life cause was not an inevitable and almost mechanical application of philosophical postulates, but a political program with political objectives.  And, like all political programs and political objectives, it is desirable for philosophical principles to have some "give" so that one can craft a philosophical justification to support your ex ante political objective.  That's what I believed, and believe, happened in the Schiavo case.

I also learned another lesson.  The pro-life warrior brigade has no hesitation in smearing its opponents if it advanced their goals.  Ms. Schiavo's husband suffered atrocious and unjustifiable attacks--the fact he had remarried in the intervening fifteen years since his wife's, for all intents and purposes, death in 1990 was held up as evidence that he was an evil man who never loved his wife and was trying to remove the tube for nefarious purposes (to the point of suggesting he somehow caused the heart attack).  Schiavo proved that the pro-life crew was a bare-knuckles crew to their core.  And, if you ever doubt that, ask Michael Schiavo.

So, now we have what seems to me is a pure case of Terry Schiavo 2.0, in the form of the Charlie Gard case in England.  Same incurable, terminal condition.  Same multiple-choice philosophical and moral justification.  Same dismissal of medical evidence in favor of wish-fulfillment.  Same brutal "shoot the messenger" tactics (h/t to Maureen Clarke for pointing me to the story).  And the same overheated reaction from Official Catholicism, represented most clearly in a piece by Charles Camosy, in which he asserts that all of this is simply government actors trying to kill people in order to decrease the surplus population.

Bill Lindsey links to the Camosy article in a thoughtful piece, and asks the really provocative question--why?  What is the motivation to turn these tragic incidents into rallying cries to storm the barricades?  I was turning this over for a while, until yesterday coming upon what I think is the best review of Rod Dreher's book The Benedict Option, written by Alan Levinovitz in the LA Review of Books.  Levinovitz describes Dreher's book, (as well as another book by Anthony Esolen, who Frank Strong has written about extensively) as "spiritual pornography":

Spiritual pornography, in all of its incarnations, stars easy heroes and villains. The heroes are idealizations of the target audience, which encourages narcissism, and the villains are caricatures of The Other, which encourages bigotry. And although a little spiritual pornography probably does no lasting harm, frequent, concentrated doses can seriously damage individual souls, and, worse, society at large. . . .

Calling spiritual pornography a fantasy helps to evoke its psychological appeal, but the world it conjures up is closer to that of the fairy tale. Both genres are built on two foundational features: dramatic arcs that proceed from Order to Disorder to Order, and clearly defined roles and rules that map neatly onto good and evil. It’s a world that trades humans for archetypes, nuance for simplicity, and the tangled skein of history for the orderly vectors of myth — but if you’re on the side of the angels, living in it feels really, really good.

In this, Levinovitz echoes the recent broadside from La Civita Cattolica about the "Manichean" nature of conservative Catholics in the U.S. and their fellow travelers among the conservative evangelicals.  Spiritual pornography requires lurid accounts of the moral degeneracy of "the other side," however "the other side" is defined:

They’re a contemporary take on a timeless fantasy of collapse into moral chaos, usually captured by voyeuristic accounts of disordered sexuality and the corruption of innocent women and children. The characters change, but the plot remains the same. . . .  The 21st-century equivalent is not anti-Catholic but anti-secular, a category capacious enough for atheists, reform Jews, New Age mystics, nihilist Nietzscheans, even liberal Christians — the last of these described by Dreher, derisively, as “moralistic therapeutic deists,” and Esolen, appallingly, as Persecutors and Quislings — anti-anyone, really, whose religiosity is deemed less austere than that of the pornographer.

The truth of the Schiavo and Gard cases, that of men and women of science utilizing their knowledge and training to make the best possible choice out of a set of fundamentally bad choices in a tragic context, lacks the moral valence, the clearly defined protagonists and antagonists, and the overarching meta-narrative.  And, so, such things must be created, in order to serve as a vehicle to make the listener into the hero of some grand Tolkein-esque narrative, where scrappy underdog hobbits like Dreher and Esolen and Camosy and their companions set off to fight against a monochrome and uncomplicated evil:

These distortions are necessary not only to fulfill narrative requirements, but also because the hero of spiritual pornography, like the hero of most fairy tales, is an underdog. The satisfaction of moral superiority is sadomasochistic, requiring a villain holding a whip. “We are a powerless, despised minority,” complains Dreher, repeatedly, flagellating his audience with shared victimhood at the hands of liberal elites — in a book that was twice reviewed in The New York Times and earned him a New Yorker profile.

This is why, to use Girardian terminology, systems and narratives of goodness are so dangerous--in order for them to work, there must be evil to act as the contrasting foil, and if no obvious candidates for Team Evil are to be found, then folks will be conscripted into service.   Thus the doctors and husbands and the bewildered observers to these tales have to be converted into Josef Mengele 2.0.  It must be the case that non-Christian (or, rather, not the right kind of Christian, in addition to non-Christian) people desire to bathe in the blood of innocents, in keeping with their basic perversity.  Whether or not any evidence would support this conclusion.

But it is not just that.  As good as it may feel initially to enlist in the fight against Sauron, once you have signed the enlistment papers you are committed to the cause for the duration.  Having taken the position that the world is thoroughly wicked and consists of roving bands of immoral actors, it becomes essential to establish, and more importantly maintain, your Team Good bona fides.  Ideology that was originally used as club to beat others and seize the moral high ground becomes a paranoid prison, in which you constantly have to engage in performative displays of one's own goodness and righteousness.  After all, the alternative is the Outer Darkness of pure moral evil, and no one wants to be a servant of the Outer Darkness.

Circling back to Bill Lindsay's post, he talks about a family he knows that is insistent on keeping an elderly family member physically alive through any and all means, regardless of quality of life or dignity considerations.  Why?  Because, I suspect, doing so allows them to have some public sign that they are on Team Life.  After all, anyone can talk about being pro-life, but having an actual person to point to is far more meaningful as a signal of one's virtue.

As Levinovitz points out, no one is immune to the siren song of spiritual pornography.  Hell, if you wanted to consider this post an example of spiritual pornography, I'm not going to argue with you--it probably is.  The same folks who are so exercised about the Manicheanism of  conservative American Catholics jumped head-first into the Gard case, perhaps proving that criticisms of the Manicheanism of others usually end up being complaints that others don't have the right sort of Manicheanism.  

Still, I think this particular example of spiritual pornography is worth calling out, and I think The Fountain shows why.  There is a deep, unfixable irony at the heart of the basket of crusades lumped together as "the pro-life movement."  First, "life" is pitched as this monopolar, uncomplicated, absolute value, while being a product of the religion whose leader teaches that "[t]hose who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it."  

But, more to the point, these crusades for life and against the dehumanization and instrumentalization of human beings end up accomplishing the very thing they are seeking to prevent.  Dr. Tom turns Izzy into a totem of his quest to defeat death, and in doing so he loses contact with the human being in front of him that he loves.  Likewise, Terry Schiavo and Charlie Gard and the elderly woman that Bill Lindsay knows have become totems, symbols of virtue for the people who are fighting ostensibly for their cause.  In doing so, the totems are dehumanized to a far greater degree than anything even remotely contemplated by medical science and so-called secular culture.  (Just like, as I have mentioned before, the fact that the crusade against birth control ends up turning children into cogs in the procreation machine).

I am spoiling The Fountain a bit, but all three of the "Toms" come to learn in the end the lesson that Death is the Road to Awe, and give up (though, in one case, not exactly by choice) their obsession with defeating death.  In two of the cases, this involves a reconciliation with Izzy, who for me is a symbol of a non-possessive hold on the precious, but not unqualified, gift of life.  

We could all use a little less Tom here, and a lot more Izzy.   


khughes1963 said…
Excellent. How did ventilators and feeding tubes become ordinary means? This is genuinely perplexing to me as a Catholic. I believe that the hierarchical church would have taken a very different approach to the Karen Quinlan case if it had been decided today. I also find the dishonesty and use of the Charlie Gard case very dismaying as well. This little boy died because he had an untreatable illness. Once he was removed from the respirator, he died naturally. There was no euthanasia involved, and Camosy is wrong to say this. I am also disgusted with the use of the Gard case to fight against single payer or universal coverage, because Charlie Gard would have died here too, only his parents would have had a mountain of bills. What you say about the underhanded tactics of the "pro-life" movement and the reviewer says about Dreher's book as "spiritual pornography" are both correct.
dianedp said…
Excellent article. I, too, loved that movie, The Fountain.
Twice now I have had to make a decision to remove a loved one from a ventilator, my infant son and my mother.
It seemed an easy decision for my son, a premature baby with a massive intercranial bleed. He died quietly and peacefully.
My mom, thank God, had an advance directive. We new her wishes, but as you have inferred, medical conditions change rapidly and interventions one day with the best of intentions, can become impediments to a natural, peaceful death. It is sometimes so hard to walk that tightrope.

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