Dead again

Posted on May 6, 2009


By Darran Anderson


There’s nothing people spend more time consciously avoiding and subconsciously obsessing over than death. And, bar clairvoyants and priests, there’s no profession that has gained more mileage out of what exists beyond, what Hobbes called “the great leap into the dark,” than writers. When idly considered, the mind falls into clichés regarding the afterlife; bare-arsed cherubs plucking lyres on passing clouds or cloven-hoofed pyromaniacs roasting Nazis on pitchforks. Beyond the West and in the less visited corners of culture, there’s a rich selection of afterlives to choose from. Paradise as vast bird-filled reed fields, plentiful benevolent jungles, palaces with hanging gardens and banquets where you’re lavished on by 72 virgin concubines. Or hell as some subterranean cave system where you’d spend eternity doing handstands in boiling effluent, swimming in rivers of rabid jaguars or climbing trees made from razor blades. Bosch. Dante. Blake. Doré. Each had their own teeming and unique visions. For Flann O’Brien, it was a depressing rural village in Ireland where men slowly became bicycles. Will Self had the afterlife as simply a suburb of London.

Whatever its design or location, the afterlife is clearly a canvas onto which our fetishes and phobias are cast. And a place in which the paradoxes of life are resolved. Into the metaphysical fray steps David Eagleman. A leading neuroscientist, Eagleman is renowned for his work with the Laboratory for Perception and Action which includes dropping students from huge scaffolds to measure time perception, examining neural circuitry, neuro-jurisprudence and Synesthesia (a phenomena whereby senses crossover and blend into each other – thus it is possible to hear colours or see sounds as demonstrated in the works of Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Roots Manuva). With Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, Eagleman’s challenge is clear; to consider the great beyond afresh. That he manages to do so is a rare achievement and just one of the reasons this book deserves to be widely read.

Sum is written as a series of short philosophical propositions or flash fictions, each beginning at the point at which you die. In ‘The Cast,’ you are destined to play a cameo role in someone else’s dream. The curse of fame is explored in ‘Metamorphosis’ in which you only truly die when your name is spoken for the last time and you have to stay in a waiting room until that day. In ‘Circle of Friends,’ you return to a sparse world that only contains people you’ve met. The pitfalls of reincarnation, as a kind of anti-evolution, are considered in ‘Descent of Species’. We encounter a creator so terrifying the afterlife should be spent as silently as possible (‘Giantess’). We find out God’s favourite book is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (suggesting we are his monsters). God is a microbe who has no knowledge of our existence or we are cancer cells in God’s body. God absconds and leaves his angels to riot and go to war with each other over where he is. There are pit-stops at The Wizard of Oz, surveillance culture, the Big Bang, cartography, the perils of technological progress and a world where all the old defunct Gods live out mundane lives. It is to his considerable credit that Eagleman makes these outlandish ideas seem not only vaguely plausible (at least as much as traditional concepts of heaven or hell) but genuinely riveting.

It’s not hard to see why the book, small though it is, has captured the attention of the likes of Brian Eno and Philip Pullman. It lacks the deadening semantics and smart-arse word-tricks that soil much contemporary philosophy. Forgoing hyperbole for accessibility, Eagleman’s compact theses open up and broaden thought rather than boxing it in. When it seems to steer too close to indulgence, the vagaries of self-improvement and quasi-Buddhist claptrap, he not only pulls back but flips your assumptions on their head with neat subtly subversive finishes. Rather than dealing with solely abstract matters, the book is scattered with extraordinary facts; the title piece ‘Sum’ features a replay of life where all the similar events are grouped together meaning you spend seven months having sex, fifteen looking for lost things and endure twenty seven solid hours of pain. It’s revelations like these that have an uncomfortable but inspiring effect on the reader. You read it and think, in more ways than one, “Fuck.”

In the end, Sum is a beguiling gem of a book; much too dazzling and erudite for the pass the sick-bag self-help genre but too consciously philosophical and self-contained to slot easily into fiction. To the question, “Where does it fit?” comes the answer, “It doesn’t.” Remarkably so. It’s a singular thing. What could be seen as nothing more than a clever collection of diverting conundrums and curios is saved by what it says about the human condition. How, given the complexities and ambiguities of every motive, choice and consequence, could a God designate good and evil and so how can we fairly judge anyone? What am I spending my time doing and for what purpose? If the electronic traces you leave behind (emails, credit card purchases) were a mould, what would that tell you about your identity and if reconstructed what kind of person would be formed? Would living forever be a joy or a curse and so what does death mean? It’s an incredible thought-provoking book that creates infinitely more questions than it answers.

In a number of ways, Sum is a powerful riposte. To those god-botherers who claim they’ve found all the answers, it presents numerous questions that they’d require superhuman skills of contortion to evade (a breath of fresh air for this recovering Catholic). Indeed, it demonstrates that uncovering the mysteries of thought is just as enthralling as the search for God (in a similar way that the allure of imaginary alien life-forms in space somehow supersedes the real alien life-forms at the bottom of the oceans in the public imagination). To those who gain satisfaction purely from the material, it shows, with wit and humility, the transitory nature of the things we pursue and worship, when considered alongside the prospect of death and beyond. Ultimately though, like all great art and thinking, it cocks a snook at the void itself. Aldous Huxley once said of dying, “Ignore death up to the last moment; then, when it can’t be ignored any longer, have yourself squirted full of morphia and shuffle off in a coma.” To which Eagleman’s counter seems to be – forget ignoring. Look it in the face. Examine its possibilities. What’s there to lose?

Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives
David Eagleman
Canongate, April 2009
128 pages


Darran Anderson is an Irish writer. He curates Flotsam & Jetsam, a “selection of cultural debris, oddities and curios from the forgotten corners of the interweb,” and his hobbies include whiskey, rum, vodka and regret.

Posted in: Reading