Does aesthetic creativity relate to or influence reality? Does art possess the capacity to heal society? These questions seem implicit to Walker Percy’s understanding of literature and art in general. Literature is a thought-involved process concerned with communication; it selves as a moral guidepost to commend society as well as correct it. Literature represents and describes; it presents readers with a method of articulating and resolving problems in society.
“So it is clear that redescribing a world is the
necessary first step towards changing it” (Rushdie
Art, in one sense, creates its own political agenda. Percy pursues his diagnostic theory of literature having reckoned with the basic relationship between language and life. Percy seems to answer the initial two questions posed with a resounding yes.
The issue of art’s impact upon a society is not quite so easily resolved, however. Not every person writes or thinks about art with the same set of assumptions. In order to strike at the heart of the question “what is the purpose of art?” we must first identify, understand and appreciate certain fundamental assumptions inquiries, mediating contexts, surrounding the political nature of art and the role of the artist in authentic creativity. I would like to frame my discussion within the apparent struggle between two ideological contexts: modernism and postmodernism. Using Percy’s diagnostic theory of literature to facilitate the discussion, we can examine how modem and postmodern assumptions attempt to shape the purpose of aesthetic creativity.
Percy’s approach to art is inherently modern. He is concerned with unity and truth and achieving them through the creative process. Modernism claims to Speak to some form of ideological absolute, a universal quality. All things ultimately move to reveal a unified whole, a universe bathed in Truth. Reason is the primary tool of the modernist. It is privileged above all other human faculties. Reason allows humanity to possess knowledge, to know, to assimilate, to unify. Truth and knowledge are hopelessly intertwined. The search for knowledge is thus the search for truth as well. Percy mirrors this modern reverence for the power of human thought, when he claims that literature is essentially cognitive. Art is an expansion and extension of the mind. Art is thus actively involved in the search for Truth.
Doctor-Assisted Suicide is Rare
A new survey published in the April 23 New England Journal of Medicine finds that few doctors have ever assisted a patient’s suicide — but that over a third would do so if the practice were legalized.
“This is really not happening very often,” says survey co-author Dr. Diane Meier of New York’s Mount Sinai School of Medicine. “That’s the most important finding. It’s a rare event” [Associated Press, 4/23/98].
The survey was based on a questionnaire sent in 1996 to 3,102 physicians under the age of 65; 1,902 doctors responded anonymously. In all, 11% of respondents said they had ever received a request for a lethal injection (euthanasia) and 18% said they had been asked for a prescription for an overdose of pills to end life (assisted suicide). Five percent said they had ever given such an injection, while 3 % had written a lethal prescription; since some doctors had done both, the cumulative total of doctors who had ever helped deliberately end a patient’s life was 6%. While most of those who engaged in such behavior had done so only once or twice, one doctor claimed to have written 25 prescriptions and given 150 lethal injections.
While responses were confidential and untraceable, the authors note that the survey may underreport these practices. On the other hand, the surveys were deliberately sent to doctors in ten specialties identified in previous surveys as “those in which physicians are likely to receive requests from patients for assistance in hastening death” [New England J. of Medicine, 4/23/98, p. 1193]. Thus the survey may overestimate the percentage of all U.S. physicians who have assisted suicides or performed euthanasia. The survey found that these practices are most common on the West coast, where one state, Oregon, voted to legalize assisted suicide in 1994 [p. 4].
Earlier surveys, usually confined to a particular state or region, had produced higher estimates for the frequency of assisted suicide or euthanasia [e.g., “1 in 5 Doctors Say They Assisted a Patient’s Death, Survey Finds,” Boston Globe, 2/28/92]. The new survey differed from these in having its questions tested beforehand with focus groups of physicians, to minimize confusion between these practices and medical actions which may indirectly or unintentionally hasten death.
Noting that 36% of doctors in the survey said they might assist suicides if the practice were legal, the Hemlock Society declared that the results support its position favoring legalization.