Saturday, April 16, 2011


Hans Keilson is 101 years old and still has the presence of mind to marvel at the contemporary literary sensation created by books he wrote nearly eight decades ago.

"Slowly, perhaps, there's a change happening inside me,” he told the Guardian in late 2010. “Maybe I did manage to produce something which goes beyond the everyday. It's not unusual for works of literature to be rediscovered decades after they were written. But the odd thing with my situation is that I am still alive while that's happening."

Keilson’s writing is exquisite. But why am I writing about him on a blog devoted to bioethics, and in particular end-of-life issues?

Because he’s alive into a second century, and in late 2010 still had the presence of mind to thoughtfully answer an interviewer’s questions.

Because of what he lived through in the 20th century, what he has lived to tell.

Because today is National Healthcare Decisions Day in the U.S., which is about care at the end of life, when few are blessed with articulateness such as his.

Because he’s a Jew and a physician who lost his right to practice either his religion or medicine to Nazism, but whose own humanity has survived into a second century.

Because the exhibit “Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race” has just opened at the Countway Library at Harvard Medical School.

But really why I’m writing about Keilson is because of the coincidence of my discovering him at a time when I was trying to comprehend the contemporary quandary over futile care and medical decision-making. In particular, one quotation from “Comedy in a Minor Key,” his novel about refuge from Nazism, has been haunting me since I read it a couple of months ago.

“I am always surprised how few grown men and women have actually really seen a dead body,” Keilson wrote. “That is, in normal times. A lot of people see one for the first time in their thirties. It’s strange. Everyone has a lot more to do with love, earlier and more often, of course. But they should have to see a dead body at least once a week. Then everyone would have a better sense of equilibrium, and lots of fears and anxieties would just disappear.”

I don’t know what else to say, except to recommend the exhibit “Deadly Medicine,” that National Healthcare Decisions Day inspire you to think about what you want at the end of life, and that you discover the mind and writing of Hans Keilson, if you haven’t already.

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