Scholar’s book offers nonconformist way to look at life… starting with death

Most people imagine life and lifespan as an hourglass: once the sand has trickled to the bottom of the vessel, you’re time’s up. As a society, we don’t like to think about death, let alone talk about or dwell upon it; anxiety over death is deeply rooted in Western culture.

Image shows a series of laughing face masks and the words The Dying Body as a Lived Experience

Alan Blum’s book The Dying Body as a Lived Experience. Cover reproduced with permission of Routledge.

York’s Senior Scholar and Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Communication and Culture Alan Blum has recently produced a book, The Dying Body as a Lived Experience (Routledge, 2017), which introduces a brand new paradigm. “Lived experience” refers to personal knowledge about the world gained through direct, first-hand involvement in everyday events, according to the Oxford Dictionary.

“If one accepts the cliché that life is preparation for death, we must accept that the lived experience of a dying body is not highlighted merely in obvious cases of deterioration, such as the aged or diseased body, but in everyday life as a normal phenomenon,” Blum explains.

This kind of outlook can, according to Blum, empower people to develop creative relationships as they deal, in a comparatively straightforward and realistic manner, with issues such as retirement, aging, dementia and depression.

York U professor Alan Blum

Alan Blum. Photograph by Cher Knightingale

Blum, the founder and executive director of the Culture of Cities Centre, is a prolific writer who has authored many books, including The Grey Zone of Health and Illness (Intellect Press, 2010) and The Imaginative Structure of the City (Queen’s-McGill Press, 2003). His work is unique in that it intermingles traditionally separate spheres or sectors and seamlessly dovetails with a variety of outwardly disparate disciplines.

Blum refers to York as his “home base” and credits various fruitful international collaborations undertaken at this University for advancing his work and thinking.

Indeed, The Dying Body as a Lived Experience stands at the forefront of the burgeoning field of medical humanities. This is a strongly interdisciplinary field of medicine with nonconformist or unorthodox attributes and imaginative aspects that weave in:

  • The humanities, such as philosophy, history, religion, ethics and literature;
  • The social sciences, including sociology, cultural studies, anthropology, geography of health geography and psychology; and
  • The arts, from poetry and literature to theatre and film and the visual arts.

Blum’s new book, part of the Routledge series in the sociology of health and illness, is thoughtfully planned. The first section – “Death, Mystery, Life” − establishes the bases for a comprehensive investigation into the ways that the fear of death re-emerge as a constant premonition in life. “The aura of death haunts everyday life as a tacit, unsettling but forceful awareness of mortality,” Blum explains.

Distraught older woman holds her hand to her chin

Blum establishes the bases for a comprehensive investigation into the ways that the fear of death re-emerge as a constant premonition in life

The second part – “Dementia and the Look of Madness – Aging, Raging and the Politics of Passing On” ̶ delves into specific but universal issues including retirement, aging, depression and dementia, and the range of responses.

“The aura of death haunts everyday life as a tacit, unsettling but forceful awareness of mortality.” – Alan Blum 

Book occupies rich philosophical space, bridges from Plato to Virginia Woolf

The Dying Body as a Lived Experience tackles all the weighty questions of existence in an unflinching fashion, comfortably occupying the same philosophical spaces of Plato, the founder of philosophy; Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, German philosopher in the early modern era; Martin Heidegger, mid 20th-century German philosopher; and French Sociologist Émile Durkheim, most often cited as the principal architect of modern social science.

“I focus on the effects of the premonition of mortality on lived experience as an implicit source of anxiety, neither simply bodily nor cognitive, but affective at its core and linked to a sense of the fundamental ambiguity of human existence in time and the persistent lure of melancholy evoked by an apprehension of the abandonment of meaning,” Blum explains.

Image shows a young woman speaking to an older man who appears to be depressed

Blum’s book delves into everyday life experiences such as loneliness, demoralization and desperation

What’s striking to the reader and perhaps Blum’s greatest contribution is his comprehensive, all-encompassing approach to this vast subject not through white-hot issues of organ donation or the death penalty, but instead through everyday life experiences such as loneliness, demoralization, desperation, settings of rehabilitation and propensities for acting-out on occasion.

“My book intends to penetrate and lay out such mundane disguises of anxiety over mortality in a number of different cases including both these ‘normal’ situations and additionally on occasion in films depicting characters ‘falling apart,’” he says. Here, Blum considers the works of British writer Virginia Woolf, best known for her pioneering use of stream of consciousness; Thomas Bernhard, Austrian-born writer whose work was most influenced by the feeling of abandonment; and, more recently, Canadian writer Miriam Towes. In doing so, Blum infuses a literary echelon to his book that deeply enriches its philosophical bulwark.

Blum supported by York “home base” and federal granting agencies

Blum refers to York as his “home base,” which has offered support in many different ways, and credits various fruitful international collaborations undertaken at this University for advancing his work and thinking. He also acknowledges the support of federal granting agencies: “Tangible support include Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada [SSHRC] that has funded many of the projects in which I was involved; and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research [CIHR] whose funding enables be to begin research on health and dementia.”

For more information on Blum’s book, visit the publisher’s website. For more information on Blum, visit his website.

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By Megan Mueller, manager, research communications, Office of the Vice-President Research & Innovation, muellerm@yorku.ca

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