Comment: In the Wake of All Souls' Day
Everyone knows that life is a problem, not only because of what's in it but because one doesn't know what happens after it. If you were suddenly thrown into a commercial kitchen and commanded to cook a fine meal for someone, it would be hard enough to learn on the fly from incomplete scraps of recipes and advice and instinct. But if it suddenly dawned on you halfway through that you didn't even know who was being served in the first place, what their standards or tastes might be, or whether anyone was going to eat it at all, you might be filled instantly with a new anxiety quite separate from the difficulty of the task. It would be an existential anxiety in which the crucial answer to the question “how should I be doing this exactly?” would not be knowable until the task was completed. The good news is that this unpleasant cooking scenario is not likely to come up in your life. The bad news is that this is essentially the paradox of life and death, and we are in the middle of it right now.
The historian Eleanor Parker has written an interesting article about some of the ways All Souls' Day has been observed and perceived through the centuries. All Souls' Day came and went, as it does every year, on November 2. This solemn feast day, directly following All Saints' Day, is one which has left its mark on history even as its observation in our time fluctuates. Parker brings us back to the pre-Reformation era, when during this short season called “Hallowtide” the living played an active role in the fate of the dead:
“All Saints’ was intended to celebrate the glorious dead and to ask for their prayers, but the purpose of All Souls’ was to pray for the dead, for those in Purgatory who needed the prayers of the living to help them in their passage to heaven. It was a time not only to remember the dead but to look after them, to give them assistance and comfort. On the nights of Hallowtide, church bells rang out to reassure the souls in Purgatory that the living had not forgotten them. It must have been profoundly comforting to the grieving, too, to feel that they could still do something to help those they had lost.”
It's not at all unusual to find people today who pray for loved ones who have died, but in medieval times, the sense of responsibility one felt to see the souls of their departed through, past purgatory and on to Heaven, is a striking difference. This did not become less fashionable chiefly as the result of Enlightenment-era secularization, but rather during the new religious sensibilities which came out of the Reformation. Parker explains:
“At the Reformation, many of these practices by which people had sustained a relationship with the dead were banned. All Saints’ Day survived in a circumscribed form, but All Souls’ Day was suppressed; it was no longer permitted to pray for the dead or say masses for their souls. This was a huge cultural shift, and some historians have seen it as the most significant and painful rupture of the Reformation, violently severing the links between the living and the dead.”
We can still see the differences between attitudes and practices regarding the dead today between Catholic countries (of both the Old and New World– consider the remarkable Día de Muertos festivities among Mexican Catholics) and Protestant ones. Parker, writing from England, notes that while the Protestantism of her country has left All Souls' Day without a widespread observance, local customs have continued through the centuries:
“In pockets of rural England, All Souls’ Day also lingered in local traditions of going out to fields or hilltops at midnight and lighting fires to pray for departed family and friends. These were called “tindles” or “teen-lay” fires (“tind” is an old word for kindling a fire). One witness of such a custom in 19th-century Lancashire memorably described how each family would go to the highest hill near their home and set fire to a large bunch of straw, praying for the dead until the fire burned down; he recalled seeing the bright fires burning in the darkness in every direction, forming a circle all round the horizon.”
Ray Kurzweil is surely a kind of genius, and those who knew him knew it was so from a very early age. He was building rudimentary robots before the age of ten, working on computers before reaching his teenage years (and this in a time – the 1960s – when there were hardly any computers to be found), and “at age 15, he wrote his first computer program...[which] ...analyzed the works of classical composers, and then synthesized its own songs in similar styles.” He went on to pioneer optical character recognition, text-to-speech synthesis, and other related emerging fields.
He's perhaps best known in the last decade or two for his curious and controversial ideas relating to human beings and their potential to merge with technology. He is the most enthusiastic proponent of the “singularity,” a theory of human progress which ends in consciousness transcending the body and existing on a virtual platform. There are many variations on a theme of this sort, some of which Kurzweil expects and hopes for, and some he doesn't. He outlined his own views in his popular book The Singularity Is Near, a theory of irreversible techno-human evolution which depends upon the exponential increase of technological development occurring in human society. One – perhaps the main – upshot of his vision is an end to death. Old religious concepts have been swept aside, the comforting fictions of the soul are no longer required to get on in this veil of tears, and we will finally have a road to real immortality - not thanks to a god, but to our own technological development. After all, suggests, Kurzweil, we only die because our parts break. If our consciousness didn't depend on this fragile biological frame, the possibility of eternal life would be quite real. He suspects it's also quite close.
If this sounds utterly strange and unlikely, there are many scientists who agree. But it would not be quite right to dismiss Kurzweil as some kind of kook; many of his predictions about technology have been proven right, though no others are as far reaching as the one under discussion here.
Behind his hyper-fixation on technological progress and biological obsolete-ism, one can detect an all-too-relatable human theme behind it: a dread of death. Watching Transcendent Man, a documentary exploring his ideas, one witnesses someone who really does not want to die. This alone is not so strange of course, but when you're a man who believes immortality is just around the corner, the matter of avoiding death has been sharpened to a finer point. Kurzweil is seen taking and endless regimen of supplements – 250 a day, supposedly – designed to optimize the health of his digestion, brain, eyes, blood, heart etc. In the event that time runs out and Kurzweil leaves us before death does, he hopes to preserve his body, which will be “perfused with cryoprotectants, vitrified in liquid nitrogen, and stored at an Alcor facility” - so much better than Walt Disney's mythical frozen head – until the eventual breakthrough arrives.
While many would find this obsession with staying alive at all costs a sign of perversion or a kind of unseemly narcissism, for Kurzweil it's only a matter of logic, of seeing reality without illusions. Is he not afraid that in his quest for immortality via technology he will miss the possibility of a traditional conception of the afterlife? Is he not at all afraid of playing God and tempting a higher power with this ultimate Tower of Babel project? Kurzweil is casting his lot with technology, which he sees as our best hope. When asked about the possibility of a divinity, he replies: "Does God exist? I would say, 'Not yet.'"
In his highly readable and ambitious novel Creation, Gore Vidal created a 6th century BC diplomat called Cyrus Spitama, an envoy of the Persian Empire. Aging and blind, Vidal's invented character's position in time and space allows him to reflect on his adventures in one of the most interesting ages of human history. Spitama was positioned to travel throughout the Greek, Persian, Indian, and Chinese (“Cathayan”) world as he represented the Achaemenid Empire. This lead him to meet – with modest chronology-fudging on the part of Vidal – some of the world's great historical figures, including Zoroaster, Darius I, Socrates, Confucious, and the Buddha.
A third of the way through the book, Cyrus Spitama in his journeys encounters an Indian sage called Gosala. He is a Jain, but he has parted company from Mahavira, a contemporary and one of the religion's great thinkers. Spitama has been tasked, among other things, to gather the religious wisdom from every place he goes, and he engages Gosala in this spirit of inquiry.
Spitama has until this point, as well as after, encountered variations on a theme of pursuing 'goodness.' The religious men he meets give their perspective on the meaning of creation and how one improves one's position in the next life. Much of these sermons presupposes the reality of reincarnation. Gosala believes in reincarnation as well, but leaves Spitama (and Gore Vidal) breathless with his own variation on Truth:
““It is not true that any living creature can grow closer to holiness or to nirvana through the conduct of a good life or through the complete observance of all our vows. What is true ...” Gosala gave me a stern look that I found unnerving; he was both serene and relentless. “What is true is that each of us begins as an atom or a life monad. And each life monad is obliged to undergo a series of eighty-four thousand rebirths, starting with the original living atom and proceeding then through each of the elements of air, fire, water, earth and then into such complex cycles as rocks, plants, living creatures of every kind. Once the series of eighty-four thousand rebirths has been completed, the life monad is released, blown out.””
Spitama reflects that he “must have looked uncommonly stupid” in the wake of Gosala's monologue, because the sage got up and, as if to illustrate his point in the simplest way, grabbed a ball of thread and tossed it into the air. It rose, unwinding as it did, and fell unfurled to the floor.
““Now it is at an end. And that,” said Gosala, “is the story of our existence. We change from atom to air to fire to earth to rock to grass to insect to reptile to man to god to — nothing. At the end, all of those masks that we have been obliged to put on and take off are irrelevant, for there is nothing left to mask. That is the truth of our condition. But my former brother Mahavira will tell you that this process can be speeded up by leading a virtuous life, by obeying the five vows. He lies. Each of us must endure the entire cycle from beginning to end. There is no way out.””
The final two sentences are italicized by Vidal, and his Spitama admits at the end of the chapter that not a day has passed without his reflecting on the words of Gosala. Certainly this idea is one which Vidal in some way absolutely held in reserve as possibly true. Spitama encounters many men whose impressions will be remembered in history far beyond Gosala's modest impression (a man who did indeed really exist), yet it is this brief moment in the book – a book all about the point and aim of creation – which entertains the possibility that the lives we all are living, long and full as they seem, are only one fleeting frame in a continuous consciousness of extraordinary length across time and space. And not only that, but the unalterable march of our existence is destined to pass through every joy, every suffering, every conceivable experience before we are finally allowed to come to rest.
I wonder if I find this idea, like Vidal and his Spitama, to be so persistent in my mind because I find it so haunting and unpleasant, or because I find it so plausible.
Surveying a few views of life, death, and the possibility of afterlife across time and space, I return to my first remarks, and the original – somewhat silly – cooking analogy. It seems to me that although one of our most consequential questions is the one which asks “what happens after death?”, the sheer import of the question, and the desperation with which we might ask, does not successfully hassle the world into giving us an answer. If we do not know who or what we are cooking for, how do we know what we should be cooking? How do we know how seriously we should undertake the task? How do we know our work will even be of any abiding use? Is there a correct way to live without knowing the final answer to the Great Question?
I hasten to say I of course do not know. I can't readily find a schema of living which satisfies all the possibilities of what awaits us after death. There are many questions about how we ought to be living which would be made much easier and clearer if we knew what happens *after*. But since it seems that we really don't know, and that we really shall not know here in this life that we share, let me propose in the wake of All Souls' Day a point of possible agreement which I think might stand a chance of at least forging a kind of unifying pledge: that whatever lies in store of us, let us agree that we must not abandon the dead.
What do I mean by this? Let me first turn to the catholic English writer G K Chesterton in his book Orthodoxy, whose paradoxes have a way of endearing themselves to many of us who in other ways still find many of the author's views suspect. I was recently reminded by the poet and priest Malcolm Guite of Chesterton's reflections of the dead and his defense of tradition:
“Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death.”
Chesterton, with almost diabolical cleverness and humor, enlists in his crusade on behalf of tradition our pure and virgin love of democracy! This in modern times – or post-modern, or whatever times we're living in – is a hard sell. We are living in an era in which everything traditional is suspect. Doing things the way they have been done is a sign of being asleep at the wheel of progress. And there is indeed a good reason for this sentiment. For too long in our culture – be it American or English-speaking or “Western” - the reasons for participating in inexcusable behavior could be summarized as being traditional for its own sake.
But there is another, more interesting way of interpreting Chesterton here. We don't have to agree to a slavish adherence to rules written by the dead. We can instead take the time to seriously reflect upon and honor the extraordinary hardships, hopes, and labor of those who have gone before us. One way to do this is to first admit that we ourselves are very likely to be thought of – if things go right enough – as appalling moral disasters to future generations of people. We are not at the end of history, and the things we do, buy, eat, and say will one day all be subject to very harsh reprisals and scorn. If you don't think you're included in this forlorn group, that is further evidence that you are absolutely included.
With this in mind, hopefully we will return chastened to the feet of our ancestors, where we can begin to imagine their hopes and hardships. Without adhering to the norms of their own world, nevertheless one can begin to feel a kind of responsibility to them and to their efforts. I was recently very moved to find on Twitter, of all places, an excellent example of the sort of sentiment I have in mind. Lyman Stone, a demographer and writer for various popular online and print journals, recently wrote from his Christian perspective:
“In the Resurrection, what I most look forward to is not meeting the Bible heroes or the perfected bodies thing or whatever, not meeting lost loved ones, but meeting my ancestors from many generations ago and giving them vindication for their toils. Meeting like Jeremiah or something would be neat and all but I really want to meet the original Lyman who settled Hartford and let him know that his pains and losses and risks were worthy and fruitful. Or further back I want to meet whichever of my many-greats-grandmothers was a teen mom bearing my ancestor in a society with a 25 year life expectancy (its a certainty this is in your lineage somewhere) and just tell her that her courage against nihilism was worthy.”
I find this to be an extremely moving and worthy sentiment, and one generally available to almost everyone. Some may feel the need to drop the literal Christian vision of afterlife, of course, but it doesn't take much effort to translate this good and decent idea into other worldviews.
Recall the interesting and strange figure of Ray Kurzweil, the inventor extraordinaire in a stand-off with death. One can dwell, as I did, on his crusade of self-preservation. However, there is much more to his character, as the aforementioned Transcendent Man reveals. In this middle of the documentary there is a short segment wherein he reflects on the death of his beloved father.
At the age of 22, Ray's father Frederic Kurzweil passed away. The inventor-son admits to keeping everything he could of his father's – “tax returns, letters, photos, newspaper clippings, shopping lists, school reports, medical cards,” etc. - in a storage facility in Massachusetts. These things, combined with the progress of technology, Ray's own memories, and DNA gathered from his grave site, will one day – he hopes – end in the resurrection of his dad. In Kurzweil's world, though this may sound outlandish, in principle it is sound. If people are only the sum of their physical component parts, a sophisticated enough regeneration of those components – including the physical brain-state – would result in a re-emergence of self, personality, and consciousness.
There is something about this, I have to admit, which seems to me utterly doomed. From the limited perspective of a non-scientist, it strikes me as a kind of fantasy masquerading as science. Even if regeneration of a person became possible through DNA, the idea that one's memories, experiences, and learned-lessons could be restored from hoarded documents, pictures, and the memories of one's hopeful offspring seems almost too ludicrous for words, and ripe with the potential for new moral and existential calamities. Yet, I have to admit, for all my doubts, I cannot help but bow my head in reverence for what is ultimately a very touching and monumental effort of a brilliant son on behalf of a father he has refused to abandon to the world of death.
As of this writing Ray Kurzweil is 72 years old.
We are entering winter and our country, indeed much of the world, will see many more months of suffering and death from the Covid-19 virus. It has been obscenely suggested that those who die are 'only' or 'at least' generally people of very advanced age anyway – people who have lived the longest, seen the most, have the most to share, and who have breathed the most breaths with their lungs. When a catastrophe visits a society, the society responds – at least at first – with what it already knows and with the philosophy it is already accustomed to practicing. This is not good news for us. We already don't know how to properly mourn, how to honor the dead, how to deal with our own mortality. And we already don't get along with each other. We see every big event as fodder for our prior ideological and partisan arguments. We see every death as another indication of the evils of our adversaries. We're in trouble.
Might we possibly, somehow, agree that when the suffering subsides, and the weather grows warmer, we will make good on a vow to not abandon the dead? Will we take real efforts to honor their lives, to reflect on our great loss, to publicly observe their disappearance from the Earth? Will we hold out for the possibility that maybe – whether it be through God, an eyeless nature, or our own achievements in science – those who have left us are not altogether gone, not entirely outside the realm of existence, not utterly cut off from our love and our lives? Might we show at the very least that we are not dead by keeping alive the honorable hopes and labors of those before us?
I turn now to a Sabbath poem of Wendell Berry, written two decades ago. It's a poem I have turned to at random, not the one I had intended. And after I read it I can't write anymore. We have already lost so much.
We follow the dead to their graves,
and our long love follows on
beyond, crying to them, not
“Come back!” but merely “Wait!”
In waking thoughts, in dreams
we follow after, calling, “Wait!
Listen! I am older now. I know
now how it was with you
when you were old and I
was only young. I am ready
now to accompany you
in your lonely fear.” And they
go on, one by one, as one
by one we go as they have gone.
And yet we all are gathered
in this leftover love,
this longing becomes the measure
of a joy all mourners know.
An old man’s mind is a graveyard
where the dead arise.