Sunday, January 8, 2012

Life & Death: Prologue

A death on New Year's Day and the remarks of a Franciscan father, prompted by it, brought to mind our mortal existences. We exist, as Nabokov noted, between two voids. Quickening in the womb, we enter roughly into the rest of life. Our passing out of it is comparable, leaving the lifeless body that, from the standpoint of bystanders, we lately quit. The sight of a body in its 99th year brings home just how used up a body can be.

I say "between two voids," because this is how Nabokov wrote of it, but that depiction is just one theory. There are others, also to be noted here.

At the service for the recently departed, the priest stressed the promise of immortality at the heart of his religion. The Franciscan also mentioned this, but in more personal terms, connecting baptism with the final rites as a journey in which birth and death are stages. He mentioned, appropriately, how this woman fell in love and took joy in being pregnant with her three daughters. From those three arose eight, I thought: both men and women. This is the chain of being, which often seems to be the real purpose of a religion that's mainly intended to ensure a good harvest. That this is an aspect of life cannot be doubted, although I disagree with several of the asserted implications.

This essay is not about religion per se, however, but about the theories of life and death that I have personally considered. These theories arise from life and shed light on it. As small children, we believe ourselves to be immortal. That belief dies hard, I would say. Even as we measure our deterioration, the idea that life is more or less infinite sticks with us and its staying power, however self-serving, makes it a kind of leitmotif, the cello part against which the other theories sometimes struggle for our attention.

To give this essay a bit of structure, let me note the theories I will describe. The first two are opposites: the childhood belief in immortality and the "adult" belief in mortality, pure and simple - a material universe in which everything is transient. The third and fourth theories are really theories of life and death. Let's call the one "cohort reincarnation" and the other "cohort education." The word cohort figures in both, because it's been my sense that we end up amid people who are significant beyond their earthly presence in our lives. So my theories are intended to explain this in two ways, one marked by a process that I think of as "falling through time" and the other analogous to being sent out into life by one's parents. The third theory has many, many antecedents, while the fourth draws on Emanuel Swedenborg's view of heaven and hell.

These theories are not mutually exclusive. Indeed, one of the characteristics of theories of life and death is that, like the Japanese embrace of native and imported beliefs, each assigned a different social role, one can hold to all of them at different points.

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