INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
The Globe And Mail JULY 24, 2009 - by Martin Levin
TO BE, AND THEN TO STILL BE
David Eagleman, a neuroscientist, has put together a small gem of a book that imagines all sorts of possibilities for what life will be after death, including how eternity might be hard on Conservatives.
When David Eagleman's Sum: Forty Tales From The Afterlives dropped on my desk a while back, I thought: Hmmm, a cute little self-help book to which I need give no further consideration. Definitely, as they say, my bad. Little it may be, a hundred-and-nine-page bijou of a book. And cute for sure, despite the vaguely ectoplasmic image on the cover. (One of my sons considered "ectoplasm" the ugliest word he knew.)
But self-help? Only in the sense that delight and instruction are to be derived from Eagleman's firty excurses into possible variants on life after life, and that a variety of lessons may be inferred therefrom.
First, I should have twigged to the playful title: It is not just a reference to the aggregation of small stories here, not a mere summing up either, but also Latin for "I am," as in Descartes's famous phrase, Cogito, ergo sum, which he regarded as the clearest possible formulation of the reality of existence.
But back now to David Eagleman. Who'd have thought that a young neuroscientist (he's at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston) would have so much story in him? Then again, I think of the superb Oliver Sacks and Montreal's Liam Durcan, so perhaps there's some intimate link between neuroscience and narrative. I shall await further scientific study for enlightenment.
Human imaginations of the afterlife have tended to the cartoonish. White-robed men and women sitting on clouds and strumming harps. Or complaining about boredom. And indeed, contemplating an eternity of that sort of thing, or even singing hosannas 24/7 (although that term would probably be meaningless, time in Heaven ceasing to have existed) would itself be a sort of Hell.
We also figure Heaven as occupied solely by human beings.
Fortunately, Eagleman's imagination is unfettered by such limitations. For him, not just people, but all entities, have some sort of share. But not always happily so.
In Egalitaire, for instance, God is a benign equal-opportunity version of, say, Queen Victoria. Though She is profoundly aware of the "complexities of life," peer pressure had Her structuring the universe in the old good vs. evil mode, with consequent rewards and punishments. She decides, though, that all people deserve a share of Heaven. She shuts down Hell, ties a can to Old Nick and takes a personal interest in everyone, offering them all equal face time. What She doesn't count on is that afterlife humans remain humans, so things go awry: "The Communists are baffled and irritated, because they have finally achieved their perfect society, but only by the help of a God in whom they don't want to believe. The meritocrats are abashed that they're stuck for eternity in a incentiveless system with a bunch of pinkos. The conservatives have no penniless to disparage," and so unhappily on.
In Angst, it turns out that we humans are, in the afterlife, huge, nine-dimensional beings charged with "the maintenance and upholding of the cosmos." That lasts for three centuries, at which time we are allowed a vacation, the universal choice being rebirth onto Earth as insignificant creatures, who are, in Eagleman's final, haunting image, "searching for meaninglessness."
Not just humans, not just animals, but concepts and aggregations find afterlives as well: theatre casts, microbes and platoons, all of whom may "enjoy a delicious afterlife together, exchanging stories of their adventures."
Continuing to play with our stock notions, say that in the afterlife we could somehow have a dinner party with Marie Antoinette, Marcus Aurelius, Goethe, Marie Curie and Oscar Wilde, Eagleton offers one scenario in which the afterlife is populated only by people one has already known in life.
One of my favourite entries is Will-O'-The-Wisp, which riffs on the idea that the dead, especially our dead relatives, are somehow watching us, as if the planet were some huge TV show: "In the afterlife you are invited to sit in a vast comfortable lounge with leather furniture and banks of television monitors. Upon the millions of blue-green glowing screens, you watch the world unfold."
And although you could watch anything - wars, orgies, explorations - what everybody watches, the real goal of such voyeuristic possibility, is "evidence of our residual influence in the world, the ripples left in our wake."
What's both charming and alarming about Sum is that it renders life and after as both ineffably strange and agonizingly familiar, the way in which the next world inevitably collapses into this one. The lessons for Earthbound humanity may be slightly parabolic, but the book is no less charming for that. In fact, Brian Eno thought so highly of it that he has turned it into an opera. Which makes me think of another vision of the afterlife, one in which music you've disdained in life (your pick here) would be played on a continuous loop for eternity. Now that would be Hell.