Monday, 7 February 2011
Death and what comes after (historically)
The story goes that we originally believed in heaven and hell, but since we evolved away from superstition and towards scientific enlightenment, we developed this view that there's nothing after life. Actually, the belief that there's nothing after life is far, far more ancient than the belief in heaven and hell. Homer held to this view, painting the afterlife as no more than a shade of what passed before it, and so did the Old Testament of the Bible. Pindar's Elysian fields and Plato's reincarnation theories came much later, as did Christ and his vague mentions of 'a reward in heaven.' Usually, societies need to become quite complex before they conceptualise a genuine system of reward and punishment to follow death. Homer doesn't send Achilles to any heaven, but Virgil, in the more intertextual Roman society, gives an accurate description of what the Roman paradise is like. The author of Beowulf, writing in the dark ages, makes no compromises about its hero surviving, but Dante, at the shores of the Late Middle Ages (about six-hundred years later), produced the most sophisticated portrayal of the afterlife you can imagine. As for the Bible, there's no mention of heaven and hell in the Old Testament, and even the canonical gospels aren't exactly precise on the subject. The Gehenna is meant to be 'hell,' but the literal meaning of the term is a valley outside Jerusalem, disreputed for being a site for apostates (there's one liberal translation if I've ever seen one!). Heaven and hell, for all of their eternal duration, are really rather young.
Anyway, the most interesting and incisive text on death by the ancients came a thousand years before either Homer or the Bible. The epic of Gilgamesh tells the following story, more or less: Enkidu, the best friend of Gilgamesh, dies. Gilgamesh, baffled at this final reality, goes on a quest to figure out how to become immortal and avoid the same thing happening to him. He finds and conquers a flower of immortality, but this is stolen from him (by a snake) while he sleeps, and he is left to weep over his loss. He comes back to his village to live the rest of his life, and there he sculpts the story of his journeys. His act of inscription is crucial to his tale, to the point that it's foregrounded as early as in the first tablet, as the epitome of his presentation as a character: "He carved on a stone stela all of his toils, / and built the wall of Uruk-Haven, / the wall of the sacred Eanna Temple, the holy sanctuary."
This is the point, and Gilgamesh goes to show just how ancient it is. The fatality of termination leads us to want to 'build' something with our lives - this is how we respond to death. And this is what leads us to the old idea that life must have a meaning - that is to say, essentially, *something which can be translated into an inscription,* and therefore written down. Though that still doesn't save Gilgamesh, or ourselves, from the inevitability of death.
What is the 'meaning' that, once invested on life, redeems it from death? Right. Like I'm going to get into that one.
Anyway, what the specific 'meaning of life' is, is not really that important. It always has the same function of transcending the temporal limitations of our beings. Also, I don't want to discuss it now because it's a topic which deserves its own series of meditations. It really can't be reduced simply to 'a construct used to respond to death,' even theoretically. The representation which we refer to by the expression 'meaning of life' is far more complex than that, planting its roots directly in our sense of identity, in our philosophical quest for purpose, in the values of our society (and the tension between determinism and autonomy), and in the nature of our personal spiritual journey. I think it's necessarily plural, in the sense that there isn't a *single* meaning of life to be sought, but it flourishes into different shapes and forms according to the contingencies and individuals (though there's always a collective drive, theistic but also cultural, to reduce this polyfunctional quest to a single Word). Precisely on account of its multifarious quality, it transcends the teleology of this discussion, which shall therefore now return to its single topic. That is to say, death.
Still a few more things to say. Part IV is upcoming.