As a low lantern’s flame flicks in its final blaze
then leaps above its shriveled wick and mounts aloft,
. . . so did his fierce soul leap before it vanished in air.
-- Nikos Kazantzakis, The Odyssey: A Modern Sequel (trans. Kimon Friar)
My hostess at Thanksgiving dinner, knowing my profession, turned toward philosophy. “What do you think?” (Who, me?) “What really happens after we die?” Here she mentioned a recently reported instance of the near-death experience: the tunnel, the light, the reunion with loved ones, the voice that says to go back because it’s not your time, the lasting belief that death is not to fear. There are many such accounts. (There are also many accounts of alien abductions.) These visions might point to something transcendental; or they might be instances of a common dream the mind calls up as it sinks into itself and out of the world. In either case the vision is a calming one. How, o philosopher, would you explain the difference between objective immortality and a phantom of immortality that is never corrected?
“But what do you think?” (Who, me?) “You’ve known dying people.” I’ve not seen anyone “come back” speaking of the tunnel. But some clients have told me they see people the rest of us cannot see. A deceased mother, father, brother or sister, or spouse; or a being not to be named, an angel of death. We call these visions hallucinations because we cannot detect them. But the work is about the client’s experience. Not about our classification of that experience. So we do not challenge the angel. We try to interpret her.
What do I think? I lack standing to decide whether I will outlast myself. It doesn’t matter much what I think of immortality. What matters is, I can’t understand it. What would it mean to say that I will live on after death? What is the “I” in question? In our Department of Reality we see the body lose its integrity. Visions of Resurrection repeal destruction and restore a still living body, systems intact despite stigmata. But Resurrection of the body, in the dead condition that we observe, is the stuff of horror movies. Jesus is not a zombie. That’s not the meaning of the Promise.
Bodies are destroyed. My “living on” would have to be done by something else. Descartes said my soul is an “incorporeal substance” joined to my corporeal self. But what can this mean? This thing that survives, but no longer seeks the touch of skin or the body of beer, how could this be called “me”? Some have loved my mind, or felt the stirrings of my heart, but they have known them only as presented on this specific stage of flesh. If I succeed in speaking to my children after I am gone, they will know it is me when they hear what Roland Barthes called the “grain” of my voice.
I can assign no meaning to the notion of an incorporeal substance. It is an empty class. “I” am not a substance. Of any kind. I am something that a substance does. Only this particular messy substance could do it. And its ability to do it will be consumed.
We can talk about the soul, but not as substance. The soul is like a flame that leaps from a wick, flickers and stands up again. It might be blown out. Or not. Eventually the shriveled wick will lose capacity to perform the vaudeville trick that is me. Other flames may be lit from me. They resemble me more or less, as the substance that performs them, and the circumstances of performance, are like or unlike mine. Does this mean I live on? Is memory – not my own – enough?
After my final blaze, the substantial ruin remains. It is more immortal than I. My matter disperses and participates in the universe. But the universe is not me. I will have been this very particular prophet, this Word in the Hand. The Word, like this sentence, comes to an end.
Even Time itself is told between Alpha and Omega, and my life burns from a to zed. I am grateful for the letters in between. Only knowing that zed is on the way can I summon the sacred dimension of a dinner table. I don’t know how else.