A single seed: the price of a humanity that grows and changes is death. Credit: SARAH HANNAM /MILLENNIUM IMAGES, UK
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How dying offers us a chance to live the fullest life

The price of a humanity that actually grows and changes is death.

People still sometimes discuss the question of how you could tell that you were talking to some form of artificial intelligence rather than an actual human being. One of the more persuasive suggested answers is: “Ask them how they feel about dying.” Acknowledging that our lifespan is limited and coming to terms with this are near the heart of anything we could recognise as what it means to be human.

Once we discovered that Neanderthals buried their dead with some ritual formality, we began to rethink our traditional species snobbery about them and to wonder whether the self-evident superiority of homo sapiens was as self-evident as all that. Thinking about dying, imagining dying and reimagining living in the light of it, this is – just as much as thinking about eating, sex or parenting – inseparable from thinking about our material nature – that to have a point of view at all we have to have a physical point of view, formed by physical history. Even religious systems for which there is a transition after death to another kind of life will take for granted that whatever lies ahead is in some way conditioned by this particular lifespan.

Conversely, what the great psychoanalytic thinker Ernest Becker called “the denial of death” is near the heart of both individual and collective disorders: the fantasy that we can as individuals halt the passage of time and change, and the illusions we cherish that the human race can somehow behave as though it were not in fact embedded in the material world and could secure a place beyond its constraints. Personal neurosis and collective ecological disaster are the manifest effects of this sort of denial. And the more sophisticated we become in handling our environment and creating virtual worlds to inhabit and control, the looser our grip becomes on the inexorable continuity between our own organic existence and the rest of the world we live in.

It’s a slightly tired commonplace that we moderns are as prudish in speaking about death as our ancestors were in speaking about sex. But the analogy is a bit faulty: it’s not simply that we are embarrassed to talk about dying (although we usually are), more that we are increasingly lured away from recognising what it is to live as physical beings. As Kathryn Mannix bluntly declares at the beginning of her book about pallia-tive care, “It’s time to talk about dying”. That is if we’re not to be trapped by a new set of superstitions and mythologies a good deal more destructive than some of the older ones.

Each of these books in its way rubs our noses in physicality. Caitlin Doughty’s lively (and charmingly illustrated) cascade of anecdotes about how various cultures handle death spells out how contemporary Western fastidiousness about dead bodies is by no means universally shared. We are introduced to a variety of startling practices – living with a dead body in the house, stripping flesh from a relative’s corpse, exhuming a body to be photographed arm in arm with it… all these and more are routine in parts of the world. And pervading the book is Doughty’s ferocious critique of the industrialisation of death and burial that is standard in the United States and spreading rapidly elsewhere.

Doughty invites us to look at and contemplate alternatives, including the (very fully described) composting of dead bodies, or open-air cremations. A panicky urge to get bodies out of the way as dirty, contaminated and contaminating things has licensed the development of a system that insists on handing over the entire business of post-mortem ritual to costly and depersonalising processes that are both psychologically and environmentally damaging (cremation requires high levels of energy resource, and releases alarming quantities of greenhouse gases; embalming fluid in buried bodies is toxic to soil). Doughty has pioneered alternatives in the US, and her book should give some impetus to the growing movement for “woodland burial” in the UK and elsewhere. At the very least, it insists that we have choices beyond the conventional; we can think about how we want our dead bodies to be treated as part of a natural physical cycle rather than being transformed into long-term pollutants, as lethal as plastic bags.

Talking about choices and the reclaiming of death from anxious professionals takes us to Kathryn Mannix’s extraordinary and profoundly moving book. Mannix writes out of many years’ experience of end-of-life care and presents a series of simply-told stories of how good palliative medicine offers terminally ill patients the chance of recovering some agency in their dying. Those who are approaching death need to know what is likely to happen, how their pain can be controlled, what they might need to do to mend their relationships and shape their legacy. And, not least, they need to know that they can trust the medical professionals around to treat them with dignity and patience.

Mannix’s stories are told with piercing simplicity: and there is no attempt to homogenise, to iron out difficulties or even failures. A recurrent theme is the sheer lack of knowledge about dying that is common to most of us – especially that majority of us who have not been present at a death. Mannix repeatedly reminds us of what death generally looks like at the end of a degenerative disease, carefully underlining that we should not assume it will be agonising or humiliating: again and again, we see her explaining to patients that they can learn to cope with their fear (she is a qualified cognitive behavioural therapist as well as a medical professional). It is not often that a book commends itself because you sense quite simply that the writer is a good person; this is one such. Any reader will come away, I believe, with the wish that they will be cared for at the end by someone with Mannix’s imaginative sympathy and matter-of-fact generosity of perception.

Sue Black’s memoir is almost as moving, and has something of the same quality of introducing us to a few plain facts about organic life and its limits. She moves skilfully from a crisp discussion of what makes us biologically recognisable as individuals and how the processes of physical growth and decay work to an account of her experience as a forensic anthropologist, dedicated to restoring and making sense of bodies whose lives have ended in trauma or atrocity. The most harrowing chapter (and a lot of the book is not for those with weak stomachs) describes her investigations at the scene of a massacre in Kosovo: it is a model of how to write about the effect of human evil without losing either objectivity or sensitivity.

Perhaps what many readers will remember most vividly is her account of her first experience of working as a student with a cadaver. For all the stereotypes of the pitch-dark and tasteless humour of medical students in this situation, the truth seems to be that a great number of them actually develop a sense of relatedness and indebtedness to the cadavers they learn on and from. Black writes powerfully about the sense of absorbing wonder, as the study of anatomy unfolds, of the way in which it reinforces an awareness of human dignity and solidarity – and of feeling “proud” of her cadaver and of her relation with it.

For what it’s worth, having taken part in several services for relatives of those who have donated their bodies to teaching and research, I can say that the overwhelming feeling on these occasions has been what Black articulates: a moving mutual gratitude and respect. And the book is pervaded by the sense of fascinated awe at both the human organism and the human self that comes to birth for her in the dissecting room.

Richard Holloway writes not as a medical professional but as a former bishop, now standing – not too uneasily – half in and half out of traditional Christian belief, reflecting on his own mortality and the meaning of a life lived within non-negotiable limits. His leisurely but shrewd prose – with an assortment of poetic quotation thrown in – is a good pendant to the closer focus of the other books, and he echoes some of their insights from a very different perspective. Medicine needs to be very wary indeed of obsessive triumphalism (the not uncommon attitude of seeing a patient’s death as a humiliation for the medical professional); the imminence of death should make us think harder about the possibility and priority of mending relations; the fantasy of everlasting physical life is just that – not a hopeful prospect, but the very opposite.

He has some crucial things to say about the politics of the drive towards cryogenic preservation. Even if it were possible (unlikely but at best an open question) it is something that will never be available to any beyond an elite; any recovered or reanimated life would be divorced from the actual conditions that once made this life, my life, worth living; how would a limited physical environment cope with significant numbers of resuscitated dead? The book deserves reading for these thoughts alone, a tough-minded analysis of yet another characteristic dream of the feverish late-capitalist individual, trapped in a self-referential account of what selfhood actually is.

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Odd as it may sound, these books are heartening and anything but morbid. Mannix’s narratives above all show what remarkable qualities can be kindled in human interaction in the face of death; and they leave you thinking about what kind of human qualities you value, what kinds of people you actually want to be with. The answer these writers encourage is “mortal people”, people who are not afraid or ashamed of their bodies, those bundles of rather unlikely material somehow galvanised into action for a fixed period, and wearing out under the stress of such a rich variety of encounter and exchange with
the environment.

None of these books addresses at any great length the issues of euthanasia and assisted dying, but the problem is flagged: Black says briskly that she hopes for a change in the law (but is disarmingly hesitant when it comes to particular cases), while Mannix, like a large number of palliative care professionals, strikes a cautionary note. She tells the story of a patient who left the Netherlands for the UK because he had become afraid of revealing his symptoms fully after being (with great pastoral sensitivity and kindness) encouraged by a succession of doctors to consider ending his life. “Be careful what you wish for,” is Mannix’s advice; and she is helpfully clear that there are real options about the ending of life that fall well short of physician-assisted suicide.

Like all these authors, she warns against both the alarmist assumption that most of us will die in unmanageable pain and powerlessness and the medical amour propre that cannot discern when what is technically possible becomes morally and personally futile – when, that is, to allow patients to let go. The debate on assisted dying looks set to continue for a while yet; at least what we have here goes well beyond the crude slogans that have shadowed it, and Mannix’s book should lay to rest once and for all the silly notion occasionally heard that palliative care is a way of prolonging lives that should be economically or “mercifully” ended.

The most important contribution these books make is to keep us thinking about what exactly we believe to be central to our human condition. It is not a question to answer in terms simply of biological or neurological facts but one that should nag away at our imagination. How do we want to be? And if these writers are to be trusted, deciding that we want to be mortal is a way of deciding that we want to be in solidarity with one another and with our material world, rather than struggling for some sort of illusory release.

Richard Holloway doesn’t quite say it in these terms, but the problem of a humanity that doesn’t need to die is that it will be a humanity that needs no more births. The price of a humanity that actually grows and changes is death. The price of eternal life on earth is an eternal echo chamber. As someone once said around this time of year: “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed.” 

Waiting for the Last Bus: Reflections on Life and Death
Richard Holloway
Canongate, 176pp, £14.99

All that Remains: a Life in Death
Sue Black
Doubleday, 368pp, £16.99

From Here to Eternity: Travelling the World to Find the Good Death
Caitlin Doughty
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 272pp, £14.99

With the End in Mind: Dying, Death and Wisdom in an Age of Denial
Kathryn Mannix
William Collins, 352pp, £16.99

Rowan Williams, former Archbishop of Canterbury, is a lead book reviewer for the New Statesman

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Syria’s world war

The Wu-Tang Clan in 1997: l-r, Ghostface Killah, Masta Killa, Raekwon, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, U-God, GZA, Method Man, with RZA at the front. Credit: BOB BERG/GETTY IMAGES
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Hip-hop’s unhappy families: rappers’ tales of brotherhood and betrayal

Hard knocks and Hollywood adventures in new memoirs by Gucci Mane, Wiley and U-God of the Wu-Tang Clan.

The best pop music is a combination of individualism and unity. The Beatles, for example, earned lasting success as the sum of four very distinct parts. Few genres manage this as successfully as hip-hop, where bands such as NWA and New York’s A$AP Mob have released group albums and solo records. In a music industry run by a handful of corporations, hip-hop was always made up of hundreds of verticals.

A brace of new books act as a bridge between black music’s individuality and brotherhood. The most demonstrative example of rap’s independent streak can be found in The Autobiography of Gucci Mane, a thrilling though often superficial memoir by Radric Delantic Davis. The rapper helped build Atlanta’s “trap” sound on albums such as La Flare, has been to jail on numerous occasions and fought drug addiction for most of his adult life. His autobiography, written two years short of his 40th birthday, is an attempt to grasp the third rail of American life: atonement.

In November 2010, Davis was arrested for driving his Hummer on the wrong side of the road. He was sent to a mental health facility – the reckless driving charge was later dropped. The recording of his 2009 album, The State vs Radric Davis, went into hiatus when he failed a drug test and entered rehab. In its more satisfying moments, The Autobiography of Gucci Mane is defined by a relentless pursuit of self-control. Readers may or may not entirely sympathise: Davis once spent $75,000 on a diamond Bart Simpson chain. The book ends with his release from incarceration in 2016, where he read Malcolm X, Mike Tyson and Deepak Chopra. Davis got sober, shed 80 pounds and married. A film adaptation seems highly likely.

Eskiboy by Richard Kylea Cowie, the British musician known as Wiley, is an unconventional autobiography written by a committed individualist. The book is divided into 96 chapters separated by lyrics and includes contributions from friends and relatives, including his father, his sister and musicians Wretch 32 and Flow Dan. The effect is like watching an old episode of Behind the Music on VH1 or This is Your Life.

Cowie is a grime elder who helped dig the scene’s foundations. He eventually grew weary of London and now lives in Cyprus. Newcomers to songs such as “Wearing My Rolex” will enjoy his occasionally cantankerous opinions on the capital (“this is not a black man’s country”), fatherhood and food (“Yorkshire pudding, my God”), as well as the archaeology around the early years of his first group, Roll Deep. Cowie once released 200 songs online for free and first used MSN Messenger to distribute his music. He turned 39 this year, but Eskiboy reads like the worldview of a veteran.

Twenty-five years ago a New York group released their debut album, Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers). It became one of the most consequential hip-hop records of all time, and Raw: My Journey into the Wu-Tang by Lamont “U-God” Hawkins offers a vivid portrait of the group that made it.

Back in 1993, the Wu-Tang Clan’s prestige was initially hard won. While New York’s first wave of rap music excelled at the soldiery of hip-hop – where rappers formed constellations around groups such as De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest – the East Coast had been overwhelmed by Californian soloists such as Dr Dre and Snoop Dogg. Enter the Wu-Tang removed hip-hop from the warmth of the sun and returned it to the brownstone tenements of its birth. Released one year after albums by Kriss Kross and Sir Mix-a-Lot, Enter the Wu-Tang depicts a life of defiance born of deprivation. On songs like “Bring Da Ruckus” and “Protect Ya Neck”, the group draws on stories of criminology, an African-American version of Islam called Mathematics and two obsessions, chess and martial arts.

Compared to the digital stutter of rap in 2018, Enter the Wu-Tang sounds antediluvian, with its nine rappers taking turns to deliver eight bars over dense beats. Yet the detuned rhythms of its producer, RZA, can be heard in music by Kanye West, Drake and Odd Future. The group’s core rappers – RZA, GZA, Ol’ Dirty Bastard, Method Man, Raekwon, Ghostface Killah, Inspectah Deck, U-God and Masta Killa – are responsible for the largest body of work in the history of hip-hop.

In the seven years between Enter the Wu-Tang and 2000, the Clan and its members released 31 albums and compilations, as well as comics, books and documentaries which have helped shape a universe built on Shaolin and numerology. One of the more poignant biographies from Planet Wu is the 2014 chronicle of the short life of Russell Jones, who died in 2004, aged 35, of a drugs-related heart attack. Jones called himself Ol’ Dirty Bastard, or ODB, “because there ain’t no father to his style”. Outlandish and addicted to drugs to alleviate a host of psychological issues – he once arrived to collect a welfare cheque in a limousine – Jones attracted both tabloid and police scrutiny.

Lamont Hawkins, also known as U-God or U-God Allah, is the latest Wu to publish an autobiography. In the group’s hierarchy, he was never a top-tier rapper, but was part of a second wave who released solo records in the late 1990s. Despite his late arrival, his memoir is the most vivid piece of writing to emerge from the Wuniverse.

Hawkins grew up in a single parent family in Brooklyn and Park Hill on Staten Island. Whenever he inquired about the family patriarch, his mother would reply, “God is your father!” Unlike Mane, who describes being orbited by grandparents, aunts and uncles, Hawkins’s childhood was blighted by black-on-black crime and drugs-related violence. He describes witnessing his first death when he was four years old and watched a woman leap or fall from the roof of an apartment building. “Lovin’ You” by Minnie Riperton was playing on a radio in the street. Hawkins was a member of gangs called Baby Cash Crew, Dick ’Em Down and Wreck Posse. He carried a gun from the ages of 14 to 21 and recalls watching one of his babysitters shooting up heroin on the couch. Years later, Staten Island’s rappers would describe Park Hill as “Killa Hill” in their music. “Dudes would shoot dogs and leave their carcasses behind our building all the time,” writes Hawkins. “It was like a concentration camp for poor black people.”

While Raw is full of the despairing tales that inform the Wu-Tang’s music, it is also fuelled by the gallows humour that runs through albums staffed by fictionalised gangsters called Tony Starks or Lex Diamonds. Hawkins describes watching thieves steal his mother’s handbag on five separate occasions. One day, as she walked him home from school, a young man pulled the jewellery off her ears. Years later, she saw a man on TV who she swore was her attacker – it was Mike Tyson.

Hawkins’s teenage years were a fountainhead of illegal and legal labour. Like Gucci Mane, who describes selling marijuana by the age of 13 (the discovery led his mother to evict him from the family home), a teenage Hawkins was selling crack and making a profit of $2,500 each day. He met his future Clan bandmates before he was 14. In one passage in Raw, he relates how authorities in Park Hill struggled to process the daily body count. He wanted to become an embalmer and applied to study mortuary science before deciding to follow a career in music.

The early years of the Wu-Tang Clan were a maelstrom facilitated by the kind of family grift that usually leads to acrimony. The group already contained RZA’s cousins GZA and ODB, as well as friends such as Cappadonna, a part-time taxi driver. The Clan was managed by RZA’s brother, Mitchell “Divine” Diggs. A third RZA cousin called Mook became their road manager. Mook drove the tour bus and accepted cash-only payments from promoters.

Any attempt at organising the group was futile. On tour, the crew sometimes numbered 60 members. Cappadonna failed to make recording sessions for Enter the Wu-Tang when he was sent to jail. Hawkins was incarcerated four times for parole violations and only managed brief contributions to two tracks. It would be different four years later when the members had all signed to major labels and the Clan’s second album was released, selling 612,000 copies in its first week. Hawkins writes with eye-opening details about how his life changed; at one point, he was dating 12 women.

He also expresses regret at the group’s more lurid behaviour. He describes arriving at a Beverley Hills party after consuming a large quantity of rum; other guests included Leonardo DiCaprio, the rapper Q-Tip and members of Metallica. At the party, Hawkins got into an argument with DiCaprio, Ghostface urinated off a balcony and later destroyed some flowerbeds. A moment of kismet is delivered on another occasion when the Clan reaches Mike Tyson’s house only to discover the world heavyweight boxing champion won’t allow them entry.

For a group of young men who had never left the US, hip-hop also presented an opportunity for travel. A trip to the Colosseum in Rome provided a hilarious awakening. “I thought it would be big like fuckin’ Yankee Stadium, but that place was a Little League arena at best,” writes Hawkins, bitterly. “The reality of it broke my heart. I remember thinking Hollywood had fed me some bullshit with the Gladiator movie and all that about its size.”

The final section of Raw returns to the matter-of-factness of its beginning. In the period between the Wu-Tang Clan’s first and second album, Hawkins’s two-year-old son, Dontae, was shot in one hand and kidney when, during a gunfight, one participant picked him up to use as a human shield. Dontae lost his kidney and has walked with a limp since. “RZA and the others didn’t make it any better, ’cause they didn’t give a fuck,” writes Hawkins.

The Wu-Tang’s once indomitable friendship has occasionally publicly soured over musical differences and financial disagreements. In 2007, the group even embarked on a tour without RZA. He replied with a rival series of solo concerts.

Wiley writes equally frankly about his long-running feud with former Roll Deep rapper Dizzee Rascal. The pair have quarrelled since Rascal was stabbed in Ayia Napa in 2003. “I am a part of why he’s Dizzee,” Wiley writes, offering reconciliation. “And he’s a part of why I am Wiley.”

Hawkins admits that the challenge of competing for space on albums has taken a toll: “Nine MCs going at each other, battling for who gets on the song can lead to some hard feelings.” In the mid-2000s, RZA became a filmmaker and the Clan felt his attention diminish. Hawkins describes Wu Tang-Clan’s 2014 album, A Better Tomorrow, as “some wack shit from start to finish”. In 2016, he sued RZA over unpaid royalties. Hawkins was also absent from last year’s album, The Saga Continues.

It isn’t wholly surprising that a group of middle-aged rappers is often at loggerheads over their direction and legacy. In the final pages of his fearless memoir, Hawkins unexpectedly calls for a renewal of the brotherhood that bent him to its will. “Yeah, we don’t always get along,” he writes, “but what family does?” 

Eskiboy
Wiley
William Heinemann, 352pp, £20

The Autobiography of Gucci Mane
Gucci Mane and Neil Martinez-Belkin
Simon & Schuster, 304pp, £16.99

Raw: My Journey into the Wu-Tang
Lamont “U-God” Hawkins
Faber & Faber, 292pp, £14.99

This article first appeared in the 12 April 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Syria’s world war