17 March, 2021

Review: Two Arms and a Head

Two Arms and a Head: The Death of a Newly Paraplegic PhilosopherTwo Arms and a Head: The Death of a Newly Paraplegic Philosopher by Clayton Atreus
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Two days ago, I held Jasper in my arms as he died. My grief at his sudden death has overwhelmed me, and I've struggled to find ways to deal with it.

My latest method, apparently, has been to read this book-length suicide note by Clayton Atreus. I wouldn't say that it has helped much with my reaction to Jasper's passing, but I did find Two Arms and a Head compelling reading. Atreus became paraplegic in a tragic accident, and he ultimately disvalued the resulting life afterward so significantly that he committed suicide.

I doubt that I would have gotten along with Atreus, had I met him in his prime. His experience of life differs greatly from mine, and, to be quite honest, feels a bit shallow. But he is correct when he says that we are our own arbiters of our own value, and the fact that he values differently than I is not a good reason to dismiss his point of view.

Atreus gives a defense of his sanity in choosing to die prematurely, explaining his disagreements with other persons with a similar disability. He provides a cogent argument, even if in the process of doing so he shows just how different his values are from what I would consider the norm. Several times, he makes claims that I completely disagree with; I would certainly, for example, live 25 years in what he called a "head garden", as a full quadriplegic, rather than die immediately, and perhaps I fall prey to the same typical mind fallacy as he does when I say that I believe there are many who would agree with me rather than with him about this. Nevertheless, these disagreements are ultimately ones of personal value, and they do not harm the greater argument that he makes in his suicide note.

His disrespect for the larger community of activists with disabilities like his is tough to read. Rather than just argue against them, he uses derogatory terms for them that I find particularly distasteful. But, in a way, I almost want to forgive him for this, as from his perspective their actions certainly seem to have caused him a lot of unnecessary pain.

It's hard rating a text like this so highly. I can't stress how much I doubt I would have gotten along with someone as shallow as he in his prime. I find it utterly surprising that he can't even admit the possibility that people might not be lying when they say that they honestly can find life fulfilling and meaningful even with a major disability. I wonder if he would have been receptive to the argument that future humans might very well (in a post-singularity existence, for example) have access to abilities and experiences that we cannot currently imagine. Compared to these future specimens, our most thriving exemplars of humanity might be considered severely disabled. Yet we thrive nevertheless! And so could he, if he allowed himself to enjoy other things.

Then again, I imagine Atreus replying: that would not be me. And I suppose he'd be right, as he appears to define himself in just such a way that would make him impervious to this kind of argument. How convenient for him.

Jasper's death a few days ago was done as a form of euthanasia. The doctor put him to sleep, then stopped his heart. My heart broke in the process, too. Maybe it wasn't the best idea to seek out an essay that argues, in part, for allowing euthanasia of this kind. It hasn't helped me in any real way. But reading Atreus' words did help me to connect with Clayton Atreus, in an odd way, at least for the few hours that his text had me spellbound.

If you're interested in also connecting with him, I recommend the book. It's available in full at 2arms1head.com. Atreus is smart, writes well, is kind of an asshole, and he lacks sufficient epistemic humility. But his suicide note is worth reading, even if it uses unnecessary derogatory terms in several places. I'm going to go ahead and give him a break on that, given the fact that he's doing it while in the process of preparing to end his own life.

Note: While Two Arms and a Head is recommended, I didn't bother reading his contemporary account of the accident, which he also posted on forums as it happened here: advrider.com/f/threads/seattle-to-arg...

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