“The Time Of Your Life,” by James Wood. The New Yorker, 5/20/2019.
If you took Miss Cook’s Latin class in high school, you may remember the Roman scholar, Pliny the Elder. (Pliny the Younger, also well-known, was his nephew.) Pliny the Elder was a naturalist and wrote the first encyclopedia. He commented on death shortly after the the beginning of the Christian Era: “A plague on this mad idea that life is renewed by death!” He argued that the belief in an afterlife removes “Nature’s particular boon,” the great blessing of death, and merely makes dying more worrisome by adding anxiety about the future to the overwhelming grief of departure. (Will I pass Saint Peter’s scrutiny? Will I meet old girlfriends and wives, now understandably hostile? Will I be content living in heaven forever?)
Death is a blessing? Yes, for many I have known.
“How much easier,” he continues, “for each person to trust in himself,” and for us to assume that death will offer the same freedom from care that we experienced before we were born: oblivion. (I don’t know what it was like before I was born. I wasn’t there; I didn’t exist.)
One of Chekhov’s characters, 40-year-old Dmitri Gurov, having a mid-life crisis, stops to look at the sea and realizes that his small dramas are nothing alongside the water’s timeless indifference (The Lady with the Little Dog). He says:
And in this constancy, in the complete indifference to the life and death of each of us, there lies hid, perhaps, a pledge of our eternal salvation, of the unceasing movement of life upon earth, of unceasing progress toward perfection. Sitting beside a young woman who in the dawn seemed so lovely, soothed and spellbound in these magical surroundings—the sea, mountains, clouds, the open sky—Gurov thought how in reality everything is beautiful in this world when one reflects: everything except what we think or do ourselves when we forget our human dignity and the higher aims of our existence.
Yes! In high school, several times, I suddenly saw a girl in a new light, a girl, often seen but unnoticed at her locker every morning, an ordinary girl I was totally indifferent to, but now I saw as a goddess, radiating breathtaking divinity in every movement (although I was not thinking of “the higher aims of my existence”).
After college, I married the last one who affected me that way. Good thing, too. There were no more.
The article goes on to review a new book, This Life: Secular Faith and Spiritual Freedom, by Martin Hagglund. Hagglund shares Pliny’s view that we need death as a blessing; eternity is at best incoherent or meaningless, and at worst terrifying, and we should trust in ourselves rather than put our faith in some kind of transcendent rescue from the joy and pain of life.
Hagglund’s argument is that our Christian religious traditions subordinate the finite (the knowledge that life will end) to the eternal (that we will be released from pain and suffering into the peace of everlasting life).
He admires Judaism whose practices are sensibly grounded in the here and now, and which lacks the intense emphasis on the afterlife characteristic of Islam and Christianity.
Hagglund says of a changeless eternity free from grief:
Rather than making our dreams come true, it would obliterate who we are. To be invulnerable to grief . . . is to be deprived of the capacity to care. And to rest in peace is not to be fulfilled: it is to be dead.
Hagglund was born in Sweden, but now teaches at Yale. He returns every year to Sweden. His love of the landscape is premised on the knowledge that it will not always be there. “Likewise, my devotion to the ones I love is inseparable from the sense that they cannot be taken for granted. . . . Our time together is illuminated by the sense that it will not last forever.”
One of my favorite old-timey songs is “I Can’t Set Down,” where a woman sings she just got to heaven and can’t set down (I got to walk around) as she sees in the distance Biblical characters and friends and relatives who have gone before. Of course, if she sees Moses or anyone she remembers, there will be a before and after she sees them. “Before and after” is time and is incompatible with the concept of eternity, the absence of time. Believe what you want, but be consistent, although the logic we know may ultimately not be.
Author Woods adds, “When we ardently hope that the lives of people we love will go on and on, we don’t really want them to be eternal. We simply want those lives to last a little longer.”