Dal To Defy Death
I’ve been thinking about death after reading an article adapted from The Case Against Death. It’s written by a teacher of philosophy from NYU, a certain Dr. Linden, who purports his book to be one of the only philosophical works taking an anti-death stance.
If true it’s quite a mad situation; that philosophers over the millennia have disagreed on every possible axis of thought, but all decided that death - which on the surface seem quite awful really - is good.
Linden says some of this pro-death advocacy is made up of the fear of what would happen if we all lived too long; your overpopulations, your stagnations, and your social security and pension crises. However at the heart of our acceptance of death, he puts, lies an apologist message embedded into our culture since the dawn of civilisation.
The message is this; life is brutish and anguished, yet what comes with life is ageing, illness and death, and so it must be that these things are best for us, and so it too must be that if we try to change this natural order, it could only work out for the worse. One of the world’s earliest surviving pieces of literature, The Epic Of Gilgamesh, is full of it. The Mesopotamian poem was written in 18th century BC and sees a pained Gilgamesh struggling to find the secret to eternal life after the death of his friend. His close attempts are continually thwarted until he is to learn that “life, which you look for, you will never find. For when the gods created man, they let death be his share, and life withheld in their own hands.”
The ancient Greeks understood the apology better and coined the term hubris, a word my dad mentions sometimes and I now finally know what it means; man’s refusal to stay within his proper bounds. We see it as the Greek’s favourite way of punishing their heroes, from Icarus, who flew too close to the sun, to Achilles, who chose pride over duty.
The most hubris-y of them all though was Sisyphus, who was not a little kitten (sissy puss), but a man who tricked the god of Death by - of all things - locking him in a wardrobe. With death stuck in the closet, humans were able to live without loss and mourning, which was lovely, and also experienced prolonged and ridiculous battles where no-one could be slaughtered. Sisyphus could easily have been seen as a hero (the man who tried to save us all from annihilation!), yet instead with thousands of years of apologist messaging weaved into our cultural DNA, we are of course made to see an unhappy ending for him. Death is let out the closet and Sisyphus’ punishment is that he most roll a boulder up a hill for eternity.
To the Greeks defying death was for the scoundrel, for the man who knew not his place, but not for the evil. Today however the crime is reserved for the worst of the worst. The most popular stories of the last century tell us that there is no more villainous a deed than to seek eternal life. The dreaded Voldemort, Darth Vader, and Lord of The Ring’s Sauron all are bent on defying death, and to side with our wise elders - Dumbledore, Gandalf and Yoda - is to condemn in unison the arrogance of those would seek to usurp the natural order.
So Linden’s thinking goes, however The Case Against Death is a slightly misleading title and likely something a little dramatic to pique the interest of the crowds. He accepts that Death is inevitable and his argument seems to more become The Case Against Ageing. He asks us why we should choose to accept death at 65 or 80 and not 150 or 300? Anti-ageing technologies are arriving and many futurists already refer to our mortality as merely “a technical problem.”
It makes me wonder if we have throughout history revered death with a kind of Stockholm syndrome. Today though with its promises of bio-engineering, or Elon Musk uploading your brain to an indestructible Tesla, means that we finally see a ray of light shine through the floorboard, and with it realise there may be a world beyond this basement, and that this Death fellow who has kept us captive here has actually been rather ‘ruddy abusive (it turns out).
I may seem to be dwelling on this all too much for a 34 year old whose existence is far more involved with life’s start than its end, but I do already have my own scrapes with infirmity. I did my neck in while sleeping in another house last week and it was bothersome (a real pain in the neck, you could say). The culprit was a mattress softer than my own, where this slight departure from habit proved too much for my crook-susceptible spine.
I was reading some lessons in ageing from a man who had been observing his ancient cat. He notes the cat seems to enjoy his life, but that the key to this is that everything has to be just so, within a tightening range, and that variation from routine is accompanied by increasing costs of coping and recovery. Each asset of the cat’s health becomes increasingly precariously balanced, one system demanding a certain treatment and another part something else, until this stack of Jenga is so uncompromising in its stitching that there is no room left to wiggle.
The variation that I no longer seem to suffer with ease is a shift in mattress, a ridiculous circumstance to my teenaged self. That with my IBS comprise the two vertices upon which my capacity for spontaneity and thoughtless indulgence have diminished and, by the cat man’s reasoning, mark the start of a balancing act that is to perfect itself through my later years.
Preferring not to be the farting man with the crooked neck, I’m made to feel more sympathy to Linden’s case (and that of Voldemort, Vader and Sauron) and if given the vote would say to direct more funding into these technologies that they argue (the scientists, not Vader and Voldemort) could add more years to average lifespan than the advent of antibiotics. However the cat demonstrates lessons in the complexity of ageing, how it is not a single process, but an accumulation of the licks we pick up upon the way, and the skeptic (or is it apologist?) in me wonders where such attempts to refute it all can take us.
While my neck was most done in, I was more active in the kitchen than usual. It brought to mind my friend discussing his grandma in Hong Kong, who from daybreak to night, toiled round the house, butchering chickens, preparing stocks and wrapping dumplings. After so many times of his insisting not to work so hard, she explained “I’m in pain, and the work distracts me.”
I felt similarly on a quiet evening at home as I cooked dal with my head glued to one shoulder. I had already cooked a kilogram of lentils (following advice from An Everlasting Meal) and by now the process had become part of the course; heat the oil, add the mustard seeds, add the garlic and curry leaves and chillies, mix in the cooked lentils, and serve with rice or buttered bread. Despite the consistent pain all week, something accompanied me through the steps, if not a joy, at least a pleasing familiarity, and showed me that even if I’m not yet the generation destined to live forever, I at least know a dal that will extend the game of Jenga a little longer.
South Indian Lentils
There are palettes that underline every cuisine, and the most distinctive flavours of South Indian cooking are born from the combination of mustard seeds, garlic and curry leaves.
These are used to make a tarka that finds itself as at home as the base of a dal, or a medium for softening vegetables in a thoran or even more simply poured over cucumbers or tomatoes (or both) to make a side salad.
The hardest part of this preparation will be acquiring curry leaves, which are widely available in Indian grocers (though if Indian grocers are widely available is another matter) and otherwise can be found at Waitrose sometimes, but for an arm and a leg. They freeze perfectly so my advice is that when you do come across them, you buy in bulk and keep them in the freezer so that you never go wanting.
If you can’t get curry leaves, a good fistful of chopped coriander at the end, maybe with a squeeze of lemon, will do very nicely too.
Ingredients (for 2 as main)
150g dry lentils (I used red here, but toor dal, or split yellow peas or any lentils will work really)
1/2 teaspoon Turmeric
Oil (I still use extra virgin olive oil, not seeing any reason to depart my betrothed)
1 dried chilli & inch stick of cinnamon (both optional)
1 scant teaspoon mustard seeds
A handful of curry leaves
Pinch of asafoetida (if you have any)
3 garlic cloves, sliced
1/2 teaspoon chilli powder (optional)
Mango pickle & rice or naan/bread to serve
Cook the lentils with the turmeric and salt in boiling water until they are soft.
[Once soft you can adjust for your desired level of soupyness/stiffness (I like quite soupy) and you can use a whisk or hand blender to achieve your desired level of smooth too (I like a little smooth but with the lentil remaining identifiable). There is no perfect consistency here so be kind to yourself, not fretting too much over these two consistencies]
When the lentils are cooked, heat 5 or 6 tablespoons of oil (or more if you like - I just cover the bottom of the pan with oil until there’s a attractive pool) in a small pan and put on medium-high heat. When hot add the sprinkle of asafoetida if you have it, then the mustard seeds, once they begin to pop and leap in the air, add the whole spices (i.e. the chilli and cinnamon) with the garlic and curry leaves. Take a moment to savour the heady and distinct scent of this marriage between leaf, seed and alium, and then when the garlic is beginning to take a little colour, add the chilli powder and pour the hot oil into the lentils.
Stir together a minute or so and serve with hot pickles, bread, rice and maybe even some sliced cucumber that you’ve squeezed lemon onto with a pinch of salt.
I welcome this bold turn in discourse although was pained to read of your discomfort. So true about the road narrowing…In general we don’t talk enough about death which should only really add to the zest of being alive. I have a growing shelf of books devoted to The End, mostly first-person accounts of the encroaching. I may, if spared dementia, add my own one day. I am sure my strength will be ebbing but I hope to be sustained by Thanatos Dal. Meantime thanks for the namecheck.