Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Review: The Letter from Death

In The Letter from Death, Lillian Moats personifies Death as the author of a letter explaining how a historical misperception of death has created all kinds of problems for mankind. This literary device allows Moats to deliver her secular, pacifist harangue while hiding behind a façade of Art - maybe no one would be interested in listening to Moats's opinions on war and psychology, but they will listen to the Grim Reaper.

Laced with macabre drawings by her son and pages devoted to pithy pull-out quotes, The Letter from Death fills only 128 well-spaced pages. Nonetheless, Moats manages to pack in a lot, presenting the following case:
  • Humans have always feared death, so they invented the concept of Hell to explain the afterlife. But Hell does not exist, as proven by the silly attempts people make to describe it. Nonetheless, because people are afraid of going to Hell when they die, they try to protect themselves from death with bigger and more complicated weapons, which has only lead to continuous warfare - a state of Hell on Earth.
  • But people do not really like killing each other, even soldiers fighting in wars. They are manipulated into fighting wars by human concepts of good and evil - "good" being the label humans misleadingly apply to "purity," the conceptual opposite of evil. By learning to value purity, people come to hate "The Other," which is then considered "evil" and made the object of destruction through war.
  • Individuals are willing to fight in wars because, as children, they are not properly nurtured - they are weaned too early and taught to suppress negative emotions, such as anger, frustration, and humility. These pent up emotions lead to hostility and violence. If we were to nurture children better, we would end hostility and could turn our attention to saving the planet. Why can't we all just get along?
  • Oh, and by the way, there is no Heaven either. You are here, you die, you melt back into the cosmos. You are like a wave on the shore. Get over it.
Wow. Those are some pretty big ideas for a little book. While one might consider tempering criticism with a qualifying, "I'm no theologian, but . . . ", why bother? Moats is no theologian either, and that did not slow her down.

Judging from the hefty bibliography at the back of the book, Moats read a lot in preparation for writing her own book. But conspicuously absent from her list of source material are any holy texts - it seems no Bible, Torah, or Koran informed her decision to reject all religious tradition concerning death and the afterlife. Nor did she read theology, philosophy, political science, or history books. What she read were a lot of sociology and anthropology materials, mostly of the traditionally leftist variety.

It is not just that there are holes in Moats's arguments; there is no argument in her arguments. She just presents these enormous conclusions - in overwrought language - that she admits in her later notes depend on selectivity, sarcasm, "purposeful reductionism," and a "biting tone." It would be one thing if Moats presented a fully developed case; it is another to have conclusions presented as facts from a snarky Death persona claiming to have acquired its wisdom by sucking in the last breath from every dying person throughout time.

For instance, her whole premise is that humans created war out of fear of Hell, but this premise completely ignores the concept of Heaven as a motivating force, or at least a consolation. What about wars fought for the purpose of obtaining divine glory? Whether jihad or crusade, the promise of eternal life, not eternal damnation, can be a powerful motivator. Moats dismisses the idea of a holy afterlife early on, arguing that humans never believed that more that one in 100,000 or maybe one in 15,000 would go to Heaven. That is her only discussion of Heaven until abruptly declaring at the end of the book that it does not exist.

Likewise, to avoid any analysis of how moral and ethical values determine what is "good" or "evil," Moats simply declares that by "good," humans really mean "pure." Under her construct, anything that contaminates a defined set by crossing its boundaries -- whether those boundaries are "tribal, national, [or] personal" -- is defined as evil. Thus, she argues, humans do not really fight for good and against evil, they fight against what is different to them -- if they could just learn to accept differences, there would be no more fighting. She bolsters her argument that there is no qualitative difference between what we call "evil" and what we consider to be "good" with this:
It strikes me as bizarre that you see evidence for the existence of evil only in the behavior of your own kind. You do not call violent weather "evil," though whole cities can be ripped apart by storms. You are more likely to call them "acts of God." You do not label predatory animals "evil," though they may eat alive their screaming prey. Only in deceitful or vicious acts committed by fellow humans do you find confirmation that evil is alive and active in the world.
"Bizarre"? How is the traditional understanding of the nature of evil bizarre? Moats's position -- presented by her Death narrator -- completely begs the question of free will. Acts of God, forces of nature, and animal instinct are not "evil" because they do not turn on the choice of the agent to commit or not commit the act.

These criticisms only scratch the surface of what is wrong with The Letter from Death. According to her publisher, the book is intended to be a "politically charged" polemic on "unnecessary war, injustice and self-destruction," so Moats must anticipate disagreement. But to argue the points she makes is to argue everything -- religion, philosophy, human nature, the causes of war, and the future of the planet. A book that only takes an hour to read does not warrant that level of attention.


  1. It's too bad, because the premise of this book is such a good one. Her arguments may be lacking in substance, but yours most certainly are not! :-) I'll be skipping this one.


  2. Fascinating review. It does seem that she tackles too many topics umbrella-ed under the topic of death and does so in a superficial way. Just the beginning where she talks about why hell was created...she has a very simplistic view. First she is assuming that hell is a fictional place but even if humans made it up, I have fallen into the line of thought that it is a place where divine justice is meted out because more than I fear death, I fear that all the evil perpetrated here on earth will go unpunished. You have outlined some very good arguments that serve to highlight some of the superficial groupthink that passes for intellectual thought these days. I think I will pass on this one (and it doesn't help that it has a forward from Zinn...I know a lot of people worship his writing but I am not a fan of the writing or the writer).

  3. First you take on the Quakers, now you want to take on the thanatologists? I am going to have to become your bodyguard.

  4. Lezlie -- Thanks. I did get a little worked up about this one. Sometimes the lawyer in me can't let go of an argument!

    Psmith -- I'm realizing that you and I see eye to eye on a lot of things. By the way, and totally off the topic of Death, did you happen to see this article on P.G. Wodehouse in the Claremont Review of Books? You've read biographies on him, so it is probably nothing new to you, but it is interesting.

    Tracey -- Wow! Way to pull out the $100 word! Wish I had had you around to teach me that one before I wrote my review.

    Oh, but it is the Amish who have it in for me, not the Quakers.

  5. Rose City Reader - I am thinking so too about the eye to eye thing. I am always on the lookout for new books and articles on Wodehouse, so I am going to read it either way. Thank you. I find that even though some of the biographical information may be something I already know, a lot of people add personal anecdotes and/or touches which I always enjoy reading.

  6. Fantastic review! I won't be reading this book, but I sure did enjoy your comments.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...