by Emile DeWeaver
I don’t subscribe to happily ever afterlives. They’re too shiny. Shiny promises defrauded my father into poverty, so I tend to parse them the same way that philosophers parse theories of mind. Sometimes I’d like to say, “Yeah, bro, 40 virgins sound fantastic. But … do many virgins want you now? No? Well … aren’t the same virgins who die down here going to be the same ones giggling at you up there?”
Generally, I keep such thoughts private. Belief in afterlives plays its role in human fulfillment, perhaps the same role irreverent humor plays in mine. Live and let live: we all draw our spiritual sustenance from something. I’m just the here-and-now type, so the afterlife doesn’t strike me as a valuable idea. Imagine my surprise when I fell in like with a book filled with tales about Heaven and Hell and the purgatories in between them.
Sum, by neuroscientist David Eagleman, joins mythology, philosophy, and psychology to present 40 possible afterlives—from an afterlife where one simultaneously lives every possible iteration of his or her former life to a celestial kingdom where Mary Wollstonecraft Shelly sits on the throne. In the same way that Italo Calvino uses urban landscapes in Cities to explore a multiplicity of relationships—between people and power, citizens and history, seekers and desire—Eagleman uses afterlives to explore the relationship between humanity, knowledge, and happiness. Each chapter is a humorous vignette, functioning like a thought experiment that tests desires and ideologies to suggest new ways to approach human questions.
I’m drawn to human questions because I want to answer a big one: why are we divided, alienated from each other? Afterlife number 37, titled “Apostasy,” offers one reason: ideologies. Not ideologies exactly, but our propensity to treat our own ideology as if it’s the whole picture. In “Apostasy,” God is feminine, and She takes supreme delight in handing new arrivals to Heaven the Book of Truth. Her pleasure is so intense that, deep down, She fears a clear-thinking theologian will guess the answers before Her revelation. She is fond of people who hold loyally to their ideologies because “people’s biases and traditions impede clear theological guessing. It is only because of these cultural blinders that she retains Her enviable position of revealing the universe’s great secrets…” In a nutshell, attachment to ideologies divides us and the resultant biases blind us.
Were that all Eagleman had to offer us, we could pin a Captain Obvious badge on him and file his book under F for Fucking-A. But Eagleman does more than name an intractable problem. He makes his contribution to the solution because he entertains, but while you’re laughing, he overturns ideologies. With this method, he cracks the cement in which attachment to ideology is set.
In “Egalitaire,” God loves us so much that She establishes a new celestial system: Heaven and equality for all, no more Hell. The result:
It’s characteristic for Eagleman to first take something popularly desired, like knowledge or equality, show us something unsatisfying about that desire’s fulfillment, and then prompt us to rethink what we believe.
When I imagine humans complaining about equality in Heaven, I ask, what piece of myself do I see in this story that makes me laugh? Certainly I still want equality; I’ve been fighting for it all my life. But given that I’m a creature whose character grows from his habits, might I be in danger of becoming my fight for equality, of becoming automated toward conflict? How might habituated conflict manifest after I realize equality and whatever else I dream? Might I become as absurd as the meritocrats and liberals in “Egalitaire?”
Afterlife 23 offers a glimpse of what habituated conflict looks like in Heaven. “Absence” reveals paradise fallen into disrepair after God steps out, promising to return soon. Theories about why God has left and where He’s gone arise; debates follow theories, and wars follow debates. The new holy wars aren’t about who God is but where He is. Will He Return? Does He have other universes to attend? Is He enjoying a cosmic weekend with His girlfriend?
I like it: not because “Absence” depicts a Heaven that’s as shitty as Earth, but because this afterlife tells us something about how we should live now. Again, I’m the here-and-now type, a materialist who believes every provision for happiness and transcendence lies in flesh-and-bone—let’s call it secular faith. Heaven often occludes this realization, and hard–earned cynicism aside, that’s why I don’t subscribe to traditional afterlives.
The draw of Eagleman’s afterlives is they seem to say that if I want contentment in Heaven, I need to find it on Earth. If I want peace in the afterlife, I should proliferate peace in life. If I want 40 virgins in Paradise, I must be worthy of one woman on the ground floor.