Monday, April 05, 2021


A Burden on the Community?

Sally Green, Prehistorian: A Biography of V. Gordon Childe (Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire: Moonraker Press, 1981), pp. 152-154 (footnotes omitted):
The manner of Gordon Childe's death caused speculation at the time and is still the subject of dispute among those who knew him. One of his last actions at Katoomba was to post to Professor W. F. Grimes, his successor at the Institute, a statement of his beliefs on old age—his own and other people's. He requested that it should not be opened until January 1968, explaining in an accompanying letter to Grimes that it contained 'matter that may in time be of historical interest to the Institute. But now it may cause pain and even provoke libel actions. After ten years it will be less inflammable.' In fact the statement was published for the first time in March 1980 in an editorial of the journal Antiquity. It seems to clarify both that Childe did indeed commit suicide, and some of his reasons for doing so. The statement is more than an expression of personal beliefs: it is also a thoughtful essay on the problem of old age; but it is the unusual revelation of his own feelings which make it a moving and even disturbing document:

The progress of medical science has burdened society with a horde of parasites—rentiers, pensioners and other retired persons whom society has to support and even to nurse. They exploit the youth which is expected to produce for them and even to tend them. While many are physically fit to work and some do, others are incapable of looking after themselves and have literally to be kept alive by the exertions of younger attendants who might be more profitably employed otherwise. And in so far as they do work, they block the way to promotion against younger and more efficient successors. For all in all persons over 65—there are of course numerous exceptions—are physically less capable than their juniors and psychologically far less alert and adaptable. Their reactions are slowed down; they can only gradually and reluctantly, if at all, adopt new habits and still more rarely assimilate fresh ideas. I am doubtful whether they can ever produce new ideas. Compulsory retirement from academic and judicial posts and from the civil services has of course done something to open the rewards of seniority to younger men, and has rescued students and subordinates from inefficient teachers and incompetent administrative chiefs. In British universities the survival of the old system during my lifetime has provided cautionary examples of distinguished professors mumbling lectures ten years out of date and wasting departmental funds on obsolete equipment. These instances probably outweigh better publicized cases of scientists and scholars who in their colleagues' opinion are 'forced to retire at the height of their powers'. But even when retired, their prestige may be such that they can hinder the spread of progressive ideas and blast the careers of innovators who tactlessly challenge theories and procedures that ten or fifteen years previously had been original and fruitful (I am thinking for instance of Arthur Evans).

In fact if the over-age put 'their knowledge, experience and skill at the service of society' as honorary officers or counsellors of learned societies, public bodies, charitable institutions or political parties, they are liable to become a gerontocracy—the worst possible form of leadership. In a changing world their wisdom and maturity of judgement do not compensate for their engrained prejudices and stereotyped routines of behaviour. No doubt the over 65s are competent to carry out routine investigations and undertake compilations of information, and may be helped therein by their accumulated knowledge. Yet after 65 memory begins to fail, and even well systematized information begins to leak away. My personal experience is confirmed by observations on senior colleagues. And new ideas, original combinations of old knowledge, come rarely if at all. Generally old authors go on repeating the same old theses, not always in better chosen language.

I have always considered that a sane society would disembarrass itself of such parasites by offering euthanasia as a crowning honour or even imposing it in bad cases, but certainly not condemning them to misery and starvation by inflation.

For myself I don't believe I can make further useful contributions to prehistory. I am beginning to forget what I laboriously learned—forget not only details (for these I never relied on memory), but even that there is something relevant to look up in my note-book. New ideas very rarely come my way. I see no prospect of settling the problems that interest me most—such as that of the 'Aryan cradle'—on the available data. In a few instances I actually fear that the balance of evidence is against theories that I have espoused or even in favour of those against which I am strongly biased. Yet at the same time I suspect this fear may be due to an equally irrational desire to overcome my own prejudices. (In history one has to make decisions on inadequate evidence, and, whenever I am faced with this necessity, I am conscious of such opposing tendencies.) I have no wish to hang on the fringe of learned societies or university institutions as a venerable counsellor whose authority may slow down progress. I have become too dependent on a lot of creature comforts—even luxuries—to carry through some kinds of work for which I may still be fitted; I just lack the will-power to face the discomforts and anxieties of travel in the USSR or China. And, in fact, though I have never felt in better health, I do get seriously ill absurdly easily; every little cold in the head turns to bronchitis unless I take elaborate precautions and then I am just a burden on the community. I have never saved any money, and, if I had, inflation would have consumed my savings. On my pension I certainly could not maintain the standard without which life would seem to be intolerable and which may be really necessary to prevent me becoming a worse burden on society as an invalid. I have always intended to cease living before that happens.

The British prejudice against suicide is utterly irrational. To end his life deliberately is in fact something that distinguishes Homo sapiens from other animals even better than ceremonial burial of the dead. But I don't intend to hurt my friends by flouting that prejudice. An accident may easily and naturally befall me on a mountain cliff. I have revisited my native land and found I like Australian society much less than European without believing I can do anything to better it; for I have lost faith in all my old ideals. But I have enormously enjoyed revisiting the haunts of my boyhood, above all the Blue Mountains. I have answered to my own satisfaction questions that intrigued me then. Now I have seen the Australian spring; I have smelt the boronia, watched snakes and lizards, listened to the 'locusts'. There is nothing more I want to do here; nothing I feel I ought and could do. I hate the prospect of the summer, but I hate still more the fogs and snows of a British winter. Life ends best when one is happy and strong.
Early in the morning of 19 October Gordon Childe set off walking near the beautiful Bridal Veil Falls, and fell 1,000 feet to his death below Govett's Leap at Blackheath in the Blue Mountains. He had gone to the Leap by taxi at eight o’clock, and told his regular driver, a Mr Harry Newstead, that he was walking along the cliff top to study the ranges and would be going back to the Carrington for lunch. Mr Newstead became concerned about noon when the professor had not returned, and started a search for him. A Sydney visitor to the Leap eventually found Childe's compass, mackintosh, pipe and spectacles at the top of the cliff and notified Blackheath police. The coroner's verdict was that he had died as a result of injuries 'accidentally received when he fell from a cliff top', and it was generally believed that he had missed his footing whilst studying the ranges and rock formations of the Blue Mountains.
Cf. Aeschylus, Prometheus Bound 747-751 (tr. Alan H. Sommerstein):
What good does life do me? Why do I not straight away
throw myself from this rugged rock,
so that I can crash to the ground and be rid of all my troubles?
It is better to die once and for all
than to suffer terribly all the days of my life.

τί δῆτ᾿ ἐμοὶ ζῆν κέρδος, ἀλλ᾿ οὐκ ἐν τάχει
ἔρριψ᾿ ἐμαυτὸν τῆσδ᾿ ἀπὸ στύφλου πέτρας,
ὅπως πέδοι σκήψασα τῶν πάντων πόνων
ἀπηλλάγην; κρεῖσσον γὰρ εἰσάπαξ θανεῖν
ἢ τὰς ἁπάσας ἡμέρας πάσχειν κακῶς.
Hat tip: A friend.

Related posts:

<< Home
Newer›  ‹Older

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?