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A Different Kind of Afterlife




Aristotle argued that tragedy, a story ending in a death, unlike a comedy which ends in a marriage, is the more impactful of the two literary types. Nietzsche thought that nothing drew a people closer, galvanized them, like a human sacrifice, literally or figuratively. Ancients generally required heroes to be demigods, half god and half human, able to travel to the underworld, the realm of death, and return to tell about it. 

 

Ancient lit is full of examples of men––there was a gender requirement––who descended into Hades, Tartarus, Gehenna, Hell, whatever you want to call it, who survived the journey. Odysseus and Aeneus made trips there, in the Odyssey and Aeneid respectively.  Orpheus manages the journey in Ovid's Metamorphoses, as does Persephone, not a demigod but a full-on goddess, who was abducted and dragged there, against her will. Her mother, Demeter, tracked her down and made a bargain with Zeus so she could remain down there six months of the year with her husband, Hades, king of––you know––and remain above the other six months, which to the ancients explained the hot and cold months of the calendar. 

 

The early Christian writers, notorious "borrowers" from the ancient stories, gave us a hero remarkably similar to the classical version, except the ethical structure of the Jewish hero, Jesus, compared to, say, Odysseus, is noticeable––though he's not that different than Aeneas, whose story was set down roughly between 30 and 20 BCE. In fact elements of the Aeneid, including the dancing flames in what Christians call the Pentecost, were directly lifted from Virgil. Nowadays people have another word for that kind of "borrowing," the doing of which can cost you your job as president of one of the more prestigious of Ivy League schools. 

 

Yet plagiarize the Christians did––and often. Particularly around the topic of death in relation to the ancient stories, namely death and return, or resurrection as they like to call it. 

 

In modern times, since the birth of science around the time of the Renaissance, a growing segment of the population has come to be more skeptical of stories touting abilities that spoke to ancients who, quite frankly, were petrified of death. That's understandable because disease and death lurked everywhere. Life was brutal and short for most people, such that belief in a hero who cheated death was a no-brainer. 

 

Many of the old stories, including the Christian version, might not have survived had not Constantine, the 3rd-4th century CE Roman emperor, declared after a conversion experience that everyone in the empire must be Christian. That did more than any proselytizing could have ever done to spread the faith; anyone who refused to convert and believe in the Christian stories was put to death. 

 

Again, science and modern medicine––longer life in general, at least in "developed" countries––have altered the need for a death-defier among many if not most in contemporary life. People have made peace with a state after life that resembles in no way the afterlife that Christians and other believers entertain. Einstein made it possible to see a kind of "resurrection" in the conversion of mass into pure energy. 

 

And yet news of a death is still traumatic, especially if the deceased is someone we hold dear. Whether a person is an afterlifer or non-afterlifer, a passing is a blow, something that takes time, often years, to process. The news can send a person into a tailspin. Afterlife-believers can always contend they'll see the departed in the next life (or not, depending on the direction they go, up or down); for those of us skeptical of the religious version of an existence-to-come, the calculus is different, and in a sense more profound. It requires wrestling with the reality of death unvarnished and unmythologized. It is a true death, a DEATH, or death-death. 

 

That means news of a death ramifies deeply. So that if someone calls to say, as happened to me recently, So-and-So just died, my reaction was to want to reply, Take that back this instant! You're lying!––It can't be true! The news is tantamount to coming on an event horizon of horror, like witnessing a car accident unfold in front of your eyes, a tree falling on a house in a storm, or a bomb dropping from the sky, followed by an explosion. The moment of the news-telling itself, one that can never be rehabilitated much less reversed, itself becomes a trauma that must be processed. 

 

The benefit of a no-afterlife view of death, I would argue, is that it has the potential to accustom a person to the actual, real, unalterable fact of death in our lives.  The ancients and modern believers insist/ed in a sense that there's no such thing as death, that it's merely a superficial change, that everyone has another life after this one. Minus the comfort of that view, living in the empirical mode to one degree or another, a person must find a way of making peace with one of life's hardest, most stubborn, and ubiquitous realities. 

 

In The Lede the way the characters do that is through memory, though even that's not new.  The Greeks believed that a person was never dead-dead-dead until the living no longer thought of or remembered them. People were less literate in those days compared to us today, when journals, photographs, letters––novels, poetry, art––and many other kinds of physical remnants extend the lives of people. Derrida remarked that when we write we're penning our own deaths, in the sense that the person starting a work is never the same as the one who finishes it, that writing alters a person. But it's also true that writing and other art forms, like gravestones, create our afterlife; they define our life-to-come. 

 

All this is explored in one way or another in The Lede. Molly speaks from the grave, bringing a world alive, along with those in her world, sustaining and re-enlivening them through the recounting of memories. Her life, in essence, and the life of all those around her, is extended in perpetuity, in a sense, in the existence of the novel itself. 

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