Woody Allen famously remarked that "I don't want to achieve immortality through my works; I want to achieve it by not dying." But most of us in the postmodern liberal West, I would wager, hover somewhere around a fond and somewhat guilty hope for postmortem consciousness, supported when pushed to the wall by some platitudes about our work or our legacy, or at least the intensity of our short lives. It is an ancient compromise. From Homer (Helen: "Zeus has prepared a woeful destiny for us so that in the future we may be sung of by the bards") through Shakespeare ("Absent thee from felicity awhile and draw thy breath in pain to tell my story") to Nabokov ("the only immortality we may share, my Lolita"), the maxim vita brevis, ars longa is expanded into an aesthetic soteriology.
We try to keep up our end of the bargain. Whether to lessen our own pain of grief or to reassure ourselves that later generations will do the same for us, we promise not to forget the dead, to keep a legacy alive, to honor lessons taught or accomplishments striven for. The modern and postmodern mythology is full of references to this sort of immortality, a closely-held belief that "as long as someone remembers," the dead are "still with us," or even continue to exist for themselves (as in Kevin Brockmeyer's recent novel The Brief History of the Dead), but the roots go very deep and the manifestations are widespread. The promise to recite Kaddish. The Día de los Muertos. Our memorials public and private.
And when the last one who remembers us is dead? Here is where things become dilute. Someone will remember them, perhaps? And so on, and so on, our "influence," our "legacy" getting more and more diffuse but perhaps (goes the implicit rationale), perhaps still efficacious.
Even aside from every other possible connection across six degrees, I am certainly effected by my father's high school English teacher; maybe even by her mother's childhood best friend. There's a kind of homeopathic subtext here, a notion that though the ripples get ever fainter, a keen spiritual eye could discern the karmic traces, that given the right conditions one could extract a full profile of a slave on Washington's plantation or a monk in 10th-century Silesia or one of our hominid cousins from the savanna a few hundred thousand years ago. The implication is that experience is a kind of medium with a "memory" like water is supposed (in homeopathy) to have. This is, I suppose, what are called the "akashic records" in modern theosophy.
Of course, in practice (aside from some alleged ability to read the akasha) this is a poor substitute for immortality. It's not very satisfying to say that the "legacy" of my father's English teacher's mother's best friend somehow "lives on" (say, in this blog); or that my own will "live on" in the work of someone equally removed down-the-line from me. But then, the question is, satisfying to who? To our ego, that's who, the ego that doesn't want to die, and is going to. The dissolution of such a legacy is just as real as that of the physical elements of the body recirculating through the natural world. To realize this fully is to "die before you die," a practice that has been elaborated in multiple spiritual contexts precisely as a combat against the tyranny of the ego.
The Tibetan Buddhist practice of meditating (with sharply detailed visualization) upon one's eventual death is meant to bring into clear focus the ramifications of our bodily mortality. There are some vivid examples in The Words of My Perfect Teacher, e.g.:
This same body that was wrapped up during life in silk and brocades, that was kept well filled up with tea and beer, that once looked as handsome and distinguished as a god, is now called a corpse, and is left lying there horribly livid, heavy, and distorted.... No matter how precious and well-loved you were, now you arouse horror and nausea.... once you are dead, you just lie there with your cheek against a stone or tuft of grass, your hair bespattered with earth. (p47.)At the same time, however, there is always the inexorability of karma, by which the ripples of any cause, be they ever so faint, find their equal-and-opposite effect. This introduces a certain tension between ultimate impermanence and the laws of samsara, in which what comes around goes around. The alchemical aqua permanens or Mercurial water is perhaps closer to the kind of "water" the homeopathic theory assumes, a water in which these karmic reverberations could obtain, according to the "law of infinitesimals" (which says that dilution increases potency). Jung remarks that "The philosophical water is the stone or the prima materia itself; but at the same time it is also its solvent...", and the dissolution he refers to is closely akin to the dissolution of body and ego envisioned in the above-mentioned Buddhist meditations. (I am not claiming either continuity of tradition or identity of intention here, only an analogy.) Medieval and Renaissance alchemy speak of "water" and other fluids with more than one adjective--aqua vitae (water of life), acetum fontis (vinegar of the spring), lac virginis (virgin's milk)--which may or may not be various aspects of this fluid. The "father of alchemy," Zosimos of Panopolis (4th c. A.D.), recounts a dream of a figure named Ion, who responds to Zosimos' querries:
I am Ion, Priest of the Adytum, and I have borne an intolerable force. For someone came at me headlong in the morning and dismembered me with a sword and tore me apart, according to the rigor of harmony. And, having cut my head off with the sword, he mashed my flesh with my bones and burned them in the fire of the treatment, until, my body transformed, I should learn to become a spirit. And I sustained the same intolerable force.(Note that it is Ion who speaks here of his own dismemberment; the Wikipedia article on Zosimos linked to above incorrectly asserts that Ion performs this operation on Zosimos in the dream.) Upon awakening, Zosimos muses upon Ion as an allegory for the the philosophical water. He dreams again of a cauldron full of boiling men, and hears the explanation,
"The spectacle which you see is at once the entrance and the exit and the process."Without identifying Tibetan Buddhism with western alchemy, one may say that in each case, to "die before you die" is not just a salutary reminder of impermanence but a practice intended to lead to a kind of reality beyond death. (I know I may be reprimanded by Buddhists here, so let me clarify again that I am not claiming this means the Buddhism of any stripe believes in a self.) Eliade argues in his book The Forge and the Crucible that the alchemists were "projecting onto matter the initiatory function of suffering." One need not be a full-fledged Jungian to read such passages as pertaining to the process of individuation or indeed something greater. From the Brahmanas' injunction to understand the equivalences of the Vedic sacrifice to the Nietzschean underscoring of mnemotechnical cruelty, the tradition is that the undoing of the ego is linked to the promise of immortality. To read the inevitable dissolution of individual existence at the moment of biological death as a kind dispersal that makes possible a continued existence is a perennial tendency. "Unless a grain of wheat die..."
I questioned him further, "What is the nature of the process?"
And he answered saying, "It is the place of the practice called the embalming. Men wishing to obtain virtue enter here and, fleeing the body, become spirits."
As the plausibility of individual postmortem existence has receded until its main popular defense is the sassy "scientists don't know everything, man!" (with perhaps an NDE anecdote or bit of past-life recall thrown in), the immortality at issue here has shifted from the metaphysical to the artistic, and the medium in which most hope to "live" is not a disembodied spirit-hood as ghost-sans-machine, but the material and cultural matrix of memory. Such a chastened aspiration is not, however, a purely modern innovation. The Bible knows well this sort of fingers-crossed hope. "Let us now praise famous men," Ecclesiasticus says, recounting artists or composers, lawgivers or other benefactors of humanity; these are those whose names remain upon the lips of the living, but a little later it remembers:
And some there be, which have no memorial; who are perished, as though they had never been; and are become as though they had never been born; and their children after them.Yet it is as if just this nod of the text toward them is enough--enough, at least, for this sort of literary immortality:
But these were merciful men, whose righteousness hath not been forgotten. With their seed shall continually remain a good inheritance, and their children are within the covenant. Their seed standeth fast, and their children for their sakes. Their seed shall remain for ever, and their glory shall not be blotted out.I don't claim that this is the only Biblical vision of afterlife (or lack thereof), but I believe I could make a case that it is the most pervasive one. That is, that the dead have no (conscious) existence of their own--"will the dead praise you, O Lord?" (Psalm 88:10). What postmortem existence they have is restricted to, as it were, suspended solution in the praise of the living. Surprisingly, then, this limited immortality, which is the most that cynical reason can permit itself to believe in, turns out to have a respectable Biblical heritage.
The Bible--both Testaments--proves to be remarkably reticent when it comes to life after death. No one reports anything of it. T.S. Eliot's Prufrock imagines a Lazarus saying
"I am Lazarus, come from the dead,But in fact, Lazarus says not a word in the Gospels regarding this or any other question. One is left with the impression, almost, that the desperate inquiry "what happens to us when we die?" is not a question that preoccupied the Evangelists. N.T. Wright has earned a reputation in part by persistent (and, in my opinion, accurate) reiteration that the New Testament's promise is concerning "new creation" and not immortality--not life-after-death but "life after 'life-after-death'", as he memorably puts it. Life-after-death, in this sense, is precisely continually diluting homeopathic and alchemical immortality in which we enter the conversation and song that precedes us and will come after.
Come back to tell you all, I shall tell you all"
But we know well that this aspiration is not enough to give us what we hope for. We may aspire like Yeats to "dine with Landor and with Donne" at journey's end, or even to be someone with whom some yet-unborn Yeats may hope to dine. In this hope one still finds the ancient belief in poetry and music as magically potent, which is to say, one is right back at the very pulse of the equivalences. Such "salvation through works," through the memory of the living, is what we can aspire to ourselves. I am sometimes moved to wonder whether there is not something to it; for the old alchemists, with (and despite) their weird imagery, were preserving techniques that generated real enough effects, psychic and existential and perhaps ontological as well. But even if we stipulate that the alchemical dissolution of the self and its sublimation into spirit (which amply recalls the Bardos of Buddhism as well as the Dantean purgatory of the west) has a metaphysical and not just a metaphorical reality, this is not what the New Testament is concerned with; indeed, as St. Paul makes clear, the concern of Christianity begins precisely--and only--where our human aspirations face their abject failure.
Wright underscores that the New Testament, promising a new heaven and a new earth, an unimaginable but bodily resurrection, knows nothing of "going to Heaven"--nor indeed to Hell-"when you die." The Biblical eschatological promise is neither the fond superstition of ectoplasm and table-rapping or of disembodied harpists. Neither, however, is it the diffuse karmic immortality of long-memory'd art or homeopathic legacy (even after our name has been forgotten).
And yet, for all that, "literary" immortality is as it were image of what is ultimately envisioned in the same Biblical hope. The language of these human aspirations is not discarded out of hand, for the Church herself is the wounded and risen Body of Christ.. The liturgical refrain of "memory eternal" is a way of making even the faltering and pitiful hope of vita brevis, ars longa (which is, on our own, all we are capable of) an image of eschatological promise. For this faltering, human hope is precisely what has been (so says the Gospel) assumed and redeemed by the God in Whose image we are made.
This assertion remains, however, an act of faith. No image by itself shows the truth; the truth is glimpsed precisely and only where the image fails.
The master-songs are ended, and the man
That sang them is a name. And so is God
A name; and so is love, and life, and death,
And everything. But we, who are too blind
To read what we have written, or what faith
Has written for us, do not understand:
We only blink, and wonder.
Last night it was the song that was the man,
But now it is the man that is the song.
We do not hear him very much to-day:
His piercing and eternal cadence rings
Too pure for us --- too powerfully pure,
Too lovingly triumphant, and too large;
But there are some that hear him, and they know
That he shall sing to-morrow for all men,
And that all time shall listen.
The master-songs are ended? Rather say
No songs are ended that are ever sung,
And that no names are dead names. When we write
Men's letters on proud marble or on sand,
We write them there forever.
--Edwin Arlington Robinson