The classical Greek conception of the afterlife was not a particularly attractive one.
In Homer’s universe, the vast majority of the dead — those not singled out by the gods for special treatment — did not wake up in some bright city of jasper and chalcedony. There were no beautiful houris, no songs, no drinking with old comrades, no dancing in fields of asphodel. Death meant a transition from the daylight world to a gray twilight, a cavern of ashes and dust, populated by muttering shadows. The Homeric dead retained their identities only through the living, sustained in the memories of those left behind. As those memories faded, or the people who had known them in life themselves died off, the dead reflected that loss, becoming more and more vague, insubstantial, losing all individual selfhood. The one thing that could provide a moment’s respite in this slide into oblivion was blood. The blood of the living, freely given, would restore a shade’s identity and memory, at least for a short time.
Pretty grim, right? We are talking about death, after all, the big D, the final darkness, the end of life, so to expect sunshine and roses and platoons of beautiful virgins does seem a bit naive.
If you’re one of those folks who believes that you will, upon the death of your body, rise up to enjoy dancing and singing and partying for all eternity with your ancestors back to Adam and Eve, I’m not here to rain on your parade. We all look for consolation where we can. What I really want you to think about, looking out at those gray multitudes in the Greek afterlife vibrating to the last fading echoes of selfhood, is the concept of identity.
“It was a likely story. But then, all of his stories were likely.”
– Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad
In a somewhat pointless exchange on Facebook recently (but aren’t they all, usually?) a friend-of-a-friend, struggling to defend against a criticism of current US President Donald Trump, trotted out the “birther” trope: the assertion that Barack Obama was actually born in Africa.
I’m not what you would call a fan of Donald Trump.
To be honest, I doubt if I would waste a good cup of coffee to extinguish a brushfire in his comb-over. At the same time, watching the video clips of our President lurching along in front of the 92-year-old Queen Elizabeth II at the inspection of the Queen’s Guard during his recent visit to the UK, my principal response was not disgust, or embarrassment, or outrage, or any of the other sentiments that seemed appropriate, but — strangely enough — sympathy.
I like to think that I’m a pretty easy-going sort of person.
I have strong opinions about a lot of things, but they don’t get in the way of my being able to talk to just about anybody, about just about anything, and I try to be courteous to, and considerate of, the people I deal with in my day-to-day life – regardless of who they are, and who I am. Sometimes I succeed, sometimes I fail, but I think it’s important to give it my best shot.
Many years ago, during a visit to my family in my hometown of Boaz, Alabama, I got the notion to prepare a really fabulous meal for everybody.
On the face of it, this would seem like a nice gesture, but don’t fool yourself. I was thirty years old, and my snobbery knew no limits. I was from Boaz, but not of Boaz; I had gone away and become part of a wider world, and a fancy meal was just another way to prove my superiority. (I suppose all escapees from small towns go through that phase somewhere down the line. We’re Truman Capote or Andy Warhol: We go away for a few years, then come back to visit, proudly bearing suitcases full of Robert Rauschenberg and Igor Stravinsky and W. H. Auden and chicken recipes in Italian.)
I don’t like country music. The yodeling vocals, the whining guitars, the relentlessly predictable lyrics about faithless babes, abusive bubbas, pickup trucks, disreputable nightspots in the middle of nowhere … An hour of this, and a visitor from another planet would marvel that everything south of the Mason-Dixon line had not long since slid off into the Gulf of Mexico, crushed into slurry under the weight of all that drama and all those tears.
“Wait just a gosh-darned minute!” I hear someone shouting from the back row. “Yes, a lot of country music is like that, but it’s not all the same. You’re being unfair.”
Of all the obnoxious and unpopular universals we have to deal with – gravity, conservation of momentum, the ratio of the circumference of a circle to its diameter, the speed of light in a vacuum, the way coffee never tastes as good as it smells – the one that seems to be the hardest for most of us to accept is entropy.
Just when we think we’ve gotten a handle on things, figured out how to survive, how to be happy, how to get through the day, we discover that the universe has marched on and the situation has changed. Suddenly all the systems and workarounds that we rely upon to keep us sane no longer work the way we expect them to. The rules have changed on us. Loved ones die, things break down, the places that are important to us become strange and different. “For no reason!” we insist, red-faced and frustrated, but in fact there is a reason: simple entropy.
I was standing behind a woman at the grocery store checkout a couple of days ago, patiently awaiting my turn, browsing the tabloid headlines and marveling at the variety of lip balms that are available to today’s consumers, when I happened to glance down at the products that were at that moment being zipped across the scanner and into the bags.
Mountain Dew. Cheetos. Ground beef (a ten-pound package). Wonder bread. Hot Pockets (six boxes). Hot dogs (four eight-packs). Microwaveable breakfast sandwiches. Little Debbie snack assortments. Potato chips. Frosted Flakes. Frozen pizza. An explosion of colors, textures and flavors that have never occurred in nature.
All told, a hundred and seventy dollars worth of groceries, with collectively less nutrition than a pound of pine bark.
Wiry, wily Irish bomb-throwers get their place at the dinner table, stuffing themselves on the political pie that has been denied them for so long, and find themselves growing fat and slow and toothless. Hezbollah finally hacks and burns its way into mainstream Lebanese politics, and next thing you know they’re no longer the wild-eyed incarnate Wrath of God, but a gaggle of middle-aged politicians in pricey Italian shoes struggling to defend their prerogatives against a new generation of anarchists and Islamic fundamentalists. George Washington’s cold winter at Valley Forge, battling the old aristocracy, led to a long, warm afterlife as the first of a new and even more deeply entrenched ruling class.
The story takes the form of a vision – what you New Age folks would call “lucid dreaming” – in which our hero, Christian Rosenkreutz, experiences a series of episodes that supposedly illustrate great cosmic truths which are never explicitly articulated. The symbolism is lavish and highly detailed. For the uninitiated, it all seems like some sort of paranoid fantasy, but for those with the proper training and insight there is supposedly much useful information to be gleaned. The nature of that information is, again, not clear. Is it a cookbook of alchemy? Recipes for the Philosopher’s Stone? Procedures for turning lead into gold, or quicksilver into the Elixir of Immortality? Or is it perhaps a glimpse behind the veil of reality, offering clues as to the fundamental powers of our universe? As with so many esoteric systems, those who tell don’t know, and those who know aren’t telling – at least not for free.