The Afterlife in Popular Imagination

March 1, 2015

Gastown x Crab Park

In a thoughtful essay included in his novel ‘Invisible Cities‘, Italo Calvino, an Italian journalist and author of ‘If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler‘, wrote on our society’s obsession with morality and despair, described by his narrator Marco Polo to his host, the Chinese ruler Kublai Khan:

“The inferno of the living is not something that will be; if there is one, it is what is already here, the inferno where we live every day, that we form by being together. There are two ways to escape suffering it. The first is easy for many: accept the inferno and become such a part of it that you can no longer see it. The second is risky and demands constant vigilance and apprehension: seek and learn to recognize who and what, in the midst of the inferno, are not inferno, then make them endure, give them space.” (p.165)

Maybe it’s just because I am still in my twenties, but when I read this article earlier this week I couldn’t get it out of my mind. It’s not new to question our life’s purpose, and the stigma of suicide is still prevalent in modern culture: Facebook recently added new tools and an interface update so users can more easily report Facebook friends whose posts suggest they might be considering suicide. Myself, I choose to live a life with no regrets. If I died now, death would just be the next adventure. John Gray, the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer, reviews  Greg Garrett’s Entertaining Judgement: the Afterlife in Popular Imagination and the presence of post-death in modern media:

“The leading moral philosopher of the 19th century, Henry Sidgwick, spent much of his life looking for evidence that human consciousness survived bodily death. For this eminent Victorian (born in 1838, he died in 1900, having spent all his adult life as an academic in Cambridge), there had to be an afterlife if ethics was to have any meaning. If we are extinguished when we die, there can be no basis for morality – no reason why we shouldn’t follow the dictates of self-interest, or simply obey the whims of the moment. The only way of avoiding this “intolerable anarchy” was what he called “the Postulate of Immortality”.

The power of A Matter of Life and Death comes from the questions it poses about what human beings truly want from an afterlife. Many – including Sidgwick, whose search was driven by his fear of moral anarchy – look to a posthumous existence as a corrective to earthly injustice. Yet there is no intrinsic reason for thinking that survival of bodily death would allow an escape from unfairness. (Nor is it clear why surviving bodily death would make the survivor immortal, but that is another story.) If life after death were no more than a natural extension of our biological existence, as some 19th-century spiritualists believed, it could contain just as much suffering and unfairness. The afterlife might well be just as morally random as life here below.

Ancient pagan beliefs illustrate the point. Several kinds of posthumous existence – including the idyllic afterworld of Elysium – were envisioned in Greco-Roman myths; but there was no presumption that the moral failings of earthly life would be corrected, and admission to the Elysian Fields was restricted to mortals who were somehow related to the gods, or who had achieved distinction as heroes. The gods themselves were pleasure-loving, capricious and not notably moral; for ordinary mortals, the afterlife was a dim realm where witless shades of the human beings who had died wandered about glumly. The Roman dramatist and essayist Seneca (following Stoic and Epicurean traditions that Garrett doesn’t mention) believed that the fact that we die should not concern us, because we will no longer exist. The notion that surviving death would make sense of life, which Garrett takes for granted, relies on a monotheistic faith that the universe is governed by some sort of moral order. Otherwise, there is no reason to expect anything much from dying.

One of the questions explored in A Matter of Life and Death is whether we truly want a cosmos ruled by moral laws. The pilot appeals against the judgement that consigns him to death on the grounds that he has been the victim of a miscarriage of justice: if anyone is at fault, it is the celestial authorities that allowed him to live. There is, however, another strand to his plea. The laws that govern the universe must be broken on occasion, he argues, in order to protect what is most precious in life, which is not justice, but love. Even a world that was perfectly fair would be humanly intolerable if it ignored the demands of the heart.

“In most of our versions of paradise, sacred or secular, heaven is a place where dreams come true,” Garrett writes. True enough, yet what he omits to note is that human dreams of perfection are essentially contradictory. We may dream of a cosmos governed by moral laws but we also want one in which our cherished personal attachments can sometimes be exempted from these laws. We would like ourselves and those we love to be spared ageing and death; but if our wishes were granted, whether by divine decree or by means of the new technologies that futurists in Silicon Valley are coming up with, we would cease to be the creatures we are and become unrecognisable to one another. Our inability to form any coherent view of the afterlife results from it being a projection of needs and impulses that are irreconcilably at odds.

You can read here the original full-length article ‘New Statesman – Heaven is a place on earth: popular culture has more to say about the afterlife than religion’.

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