Philip Appleman: Poem About His Mother’s Dying


A Young Version                                                  Today, in his late 80s

Philip D. Appleman (1926 –  ) is an American poet and Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. I first became acquainted with him when I read his edited collection, Darwin (Norton Critical Editions), which is a classic in the field. Here is a quote from an essay he contributed to that book:

Looking back at a million years of our struggle to be human, at our errant and painful attempts to be a special kind of animal—the animal who thinks, the animal who creates—it seems to me that despite our shortcomings, we have some cause for satisfaction … We are worth keeping because, given our remarkable past, we may continue to hope that we have, as Darwin surmised, “a still higher destiny in the future.”

I recently became aware that Appleman, as he nears the age of ninety, has published a new book: The Labyrinth: God, Darwin, and the Meaning of Life.

Here is a quote from the book which exemplifies his beautiful prose, “Religion stalks across the face of human history, knee-deep in the blood of innocents, clasping its red hands in hymns of praise to an approving God.” And here is an exemplar of his deep thinking:

Religion says: console yourself, there will be another chance, another life. Two things are wrong with this. First, there is not a shred of evidence for it and, second, it is a sop, consciously intended to blunt our rage and regret, thus dehumanizing us. Our anger at death is precious, testifying to the value of life; our sorrow for family and friends testifies to our devotion.

I find the final sentence particularly moving. It reveals as noble, not egocentric, the wellspring of the idea that death is a great evil. Appleman’s most moving poem about death and religion concerns his mother’s dying. I’ll let it speak for itself.

“GERTRUDE”
Gertrude Appleman, 1901-1976
God is all-knowing, all-present, and almighty.
— A Catechism of Christian Doctrine

I wish that all the people
who peddle God
could watch my mother die:
could see the skin and
gristle weighing only
seventy-nine, every stubborn
pound of flesh a small
death.

I wish the people who peddle God
could see her young,
lovely in gardens and
beautiful in kitchens, and could watch
the hand of God slowly
twisting her knees and fingers
till they gnarled and knotted, settling in
for thirty years of pain.

I wish the people who peddle God
could see the lightning
of His cancer stabbing
her, that small frame
tensing at every shock,
her sweet contralto scratchy with
the Lord’s infection: Philip,
I want to die.

I wish I had them gathered round,
those preachers, popes, rabbis,
imams, priests – every
pious shill on God’s payroll – and I
would pull the sheets from my mother’s brittle body,
and they would fall on their knees at her bedside
to be forgiven all their faith.

One thought on “Philip Appleman: Poem About His Mother’s Dying

  1. ‘Would that Appleman had taken the next step in analyzing the meaning-of-life question in Labyrinth by extending the scope of inquiry to the impact of the approaching Singularity and Transhumanism. The maze of life through which we frantically scurry in search of sanctuary has a greater dimensionality than he addresses. There is more to it than understanding [1] that belief in God and a promised afterlife is an inadequate response to the fear of death and [2] that we should thus be content with the conclusion that meaning can only be found intrinsically (within the here and now of our everyday lives) rather than extrinsically (cosmically in place and time beyond them).

    Increasing public interest in Transhumanism speaks to the reality that for many of us Appleman’s intrinsic meaning is simply insufficient to satisfy, both emotionally and rationally. Why should we accept the idea that death is not a bad thing just because it’s the natural order of things? And does it really make sense to take life seriously and strive to succeed, all the while knowing we are doomed to forfeit everything we have worked for and everyone we love? Life is not precious because it’s short, it’s precious period!

    Buying into such Sisyphisian fatalism seems absurd, not to mention anti-life. It may also be unnecessary. Appleman believes that because we are “doomed to extinction” and “whatever we are, whatever we make of ourselves, is all we will ever have–and that . . . is the meaning of life.” But, for the first time in history there may soon be a way out of the labyrinth. Transhumanism grounds the idea of extrinsic meaning in plausible science rather than the wishful thinking of religion. By using bionic technology to achieve an infinite lifespan with ever evolving intelligence, we might actually be able go along for the ride as the universe speeds on its way towards its ultimate destination allowing us to finally see what’s behind the curtain.

    Transhumanism is not without its complications–the biggest being the portended change to human nature and what it means. Until now every pronouncement about the future and human destiny has been based on the assumption than human nature is immutable. This includes the notion that life is sacred because it’s so short and precarious. The idea that no one’s life is inherently more important than anyone else’s is not rooted in magnanimity of spirit so much as self-interest. Because we realize that for anyone to succeed everyone must be allowed the chance to succeed, we protect liberty and property rights and have devised rules insuring equal opportunity and elimination of privilege. Thus we all can pursue happiness without getting in one another’s way and make the most of our brief lives.

    But will we continue to regard life as “sacred” in this way when it no longer confined to natural biological capability and becomes ever more limitless in longevity and quality as we learn to shape and even manufacture it? Is the emergence of an elite class inevitable to the detriment of the masses? Are we facing the specter of a bleak and hopeless existence along the lines of Huxley’s Brave New World? If the trajectory and likely success of the abortion campaign is any indication, the answers are not encouraging for the sacred lifers.

    But maybe such pessimism is unwarranted. Maybe Transhumanism is simply the next stage of the relentless law of life that is evolution. Not every seed we plant in our gardens will germinate, let alone grow to maturity. Why should we necessarily resent and fear those that make it into the immortality club? Life is a struggle, not an entitlement.

    In any case, and back to my initial point, these thoughts at least show that Appleman does not address the bigger picture regarding the meaning of life issue. Too bad, for I would love to know what he would have to say. [Perhaps you have access to him and would consider passing this on and invite him to comment. Wouldn’t it make the perfect postscript to his book?]

    It is very difficult to think about all this without knowing what’s possible. We don’t have all the puzzle pieces. There always seems to be another horizon beyond which we cannot see. Perhaps we’re forever doomed to confinement in Plato’s cave–just in a different room with only incremental improvements in lighting to make it seem as if we once and for all see the world as it really is.

    Thanks for posting notice of this wonderful article! It deserves wider attention in that I believe it is the perfect segue to take the topic of life’s meaning beyond religion to the next level. I hadn’t known about it and am continually amazed at how much gets by me even though I am ever on the lookout.

    –Sylvia Jane
    Enfield, CT

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