Just One: Wasting Away (Yet) Again in Aporia-ville (or, how I broke my Holy Week blogging fast)
It's about Terri Schiavo.
No, I'm not going to stake out some position on her right-to-die or her right-to-live. Honestly, I'm not sure what I think about it anyway. I am pretty unhappy about their removing the feeding tube, to be honest -- starving someone to death is awful. But beyond that, I'm pretty much at sea: any position on her is filled with complexities and ramifications that I just haven't thought out to my satisfaction yet.
Terri Schiavo has been very much in the limelight over the last few weeks, on innumerable blogs and headlining most news shows. Yet it strikes me that none of us have heard her speak; she hasn't uttered a word on her own behalf or revealed any of those things that we would normally associate with a personality. Her national -- indeed, international -- fame has all come in the twilight-y waking death that is a "persistent vegetative state". If it weren't for the singular misfortune of just barely surviving a vascular event in 1990, none of us (presumably) would even know her name. And yet this mute person has had any number of people willing to speak for her ad infinitum.
In a very real way, Ms. Schiavo is a body. And like any body that is objectified, it is a blank screen upon which we project ourselves, our fears, desires, concerns. I would argue that those who are energized by this case do just that: on the one hand, some project their fear of lingering suffering, purposeless life or inappropriate government intervention; on the other side, some project their fear of being abandoned at their weakest and most defenseless, and of a society incapable of caring for the least, or the unproductive. Both sides have legitimate fears, for either set of them represents an inhuman world. Yet I submit that these fears are not directly related to Ms. Schiavo (or are so only derivatively). She has been sentimentalized and inserted into a larger conversation on humanity that she has no direct part in.
There is an interesting parallel with texts here, for texts, too, are bodies that cannot speak for themselves. And the constant debate between Ms. Schiavo's parents and her husband about what her wishes would have been seems like nothing if not a debate about authorial intention. One side will claim "well, she said to me..." and the other side will retort "yes, but she never would have wanted...". Either party interpreting her can be painted as having either altruistic or malicious motives. Any final, nonprovisional, action-warranting resolution of (authorial) intention seems out of the question.
This is also an interesting entry point to thinking about bodies generally, and the way we relate to women's bodies in particular. There are many others better versed and better qualified to write on this than I am, but it strikes me that as a society* we tend to objectify women's bodies, making them screens upon which to project our desires, our lusts, our sentimentality. (Witness women's forms in marketing and advertising.) Ms. Schiavo is only an obvious and prominent example of this, being reduced (nearly) to a literary trope rather than a person; I wonder what our response would be to her if she were a man?
It also hit me how like Jesus in the tomb Ms. Schiavo seems. (Bear with me.) Taking Mark as my chief reference, after the Last Supper and prayer in Gethsemane, Jesus becomes gradually more and more passive, through his arrest, trial, and crucifixion. When he finally dies on the cross, he is reduced to (just) a body. The body, at that point an object, is taken from the cross and placed in Joseph of Arimathea's tomb. The three women come to the tomb to care for the object but they find instead the stone rolled aside and the tomb empty except for a white-robed young man who reminds them of what Jesus told them before.
When the gospel ends at 16:8 (which I am increasingly convinced was the original ending, not the result of some unfortunate accident), we have -- nothing! We have not "seen" Jesus raised from the dead. We have not seen a body: the "object" is specifically missing. Jesus has not spoken, gestured, written or even provided us with his body to interpret or project upon: he is gone, eluding our grasping hands. He is alive, but as the young man says "he is not here". Perhaps -- and this is purely my own speculation but, hey, I like it -- Jesus is not "here", that is, in the pages of the gospel, because he in his resurrection leaped clean off of the page and into the non-literary world around us. He is not "here" because he is here. In this way Jesus escaped the order of signs.**
But Ms. Schiavo has not, yet. Perhaps as we (non-Orthodox) Christians approach the great Feast of Christ's resurrection, we might pray that, whether she lives or dies, Ms. Schiavo(and, yes, women everywhere) might at least be delivered from the order of signs and be raised to being a person.
* I might say that men tend to do this, and it's true: but I think with history and the power dynamics involved, many women do this also, more or less willingly, and so "society" is more accurate.
** And yet, in the Last Supper, he specifically submitted himself to the order of signs (this is my body/ this is my blood). Perhaps this is a sacramental/ semiotic transformation? There is more to be said here, but another time...