All or nothing happened
there or not there.
—“Atlantis,” by Wisława Szymborska
Translated by Joanna Trzeciak
A couple of days before my father died, when we were more often listening to his breath than his voice and learning how much energy a body requires to relinquish its hold on life, he suddenly looked up at me and lifted his hand the way he did when he was thinking something through. “None of you have been where I’m going,” he said, sounding as surprised to be saying it as I was to hear it.
Death was always part of our lives—not a topic anyone in my family avoided—and my father was dying at home because, diagnosed with colon cancer in his early sixties, he did not want to spend the time he had left in hospitals and doctors’ offices. But we had never talked about whether he believed in an afterlife.
My mom, different than my father in almost every respect, somehow conveyed a similar sense of acceptance without defining what that acceptance entailed. Years after my father’s death, she liked to startle dinner guests by announcing that she intended to evade old age by slipping from a sailboat into the sea with weights in her pockets. As it happened, she died in her sleep without fanfare or warning, leaving me with a clear sense that my parents’ way of confronting death was one of their strongest legacies, but without any simple way to describe an attitude that was neither obviously religious nor avowedly secular.
I relate this because there’s something about my parents’ attitude—deeply familiar and yet strangely difficult to characterize—that resonates with the image that came to mind when I mulled over the question of this forum, “Is this all there is?” The image is one I had not recently seen or even talked about until the prompt evoked this memory—a rare memory of seeing something on TV that I did not understand in a childhood with plenty of rules around when, although not what, I was allowed to watch. I possessed a now-embarrassing appetite for only the most conventional shows: Little House on the Prairie, The Lone Ranger, and The Love Boat—these were my pleasures. Even then I knew I did not have the appreciation for weirdness—or the stomach for pain—that shows like The Road Runner or All in the Family or Mork and Mindy involved.
But somehow I loved Taxi and especially the Latvian immigrant who enraged Danny DeVito, and that may be the reason I once found myself watching the opening moments of what, until very recently, I thought was a wacky decision to give this Latvian immigrant money and time to do a TV special. I watched, disbelieving, as the mechanic, now nattily clothed in a black turtleneck and tan blazer, sat on an easy chair and leaned forward, conspiratorially, to tell us there would be no show. He had been given the money, he explained, but he had spent it all, and now he had only the hour of airtime with nothing to fill it. I could not stop watching. There’s nothing to see, he said. Go away. Truly, I have nothing to show you. That was it; all there was.
And then my Latvian mechanic—who I now understand was actually Andy Kaufman—smiled and whispered:
“Okay, good, now that everyone but my friends has gone away, we can do something now, you and me, all of us who remain.”
It seemed unimaginably daring to me then, to insist on nothing and then offer something.
Now it seems to me also a way of conveying something profound: now that you have given up on the all-or-nothing proposition—a real show or no show, death or no death—now that you are open to another possibility, we can go on with the show. You will be ready to see something different than you had imagined.
* * *
“Without the afterlife,” Abou Farman writes, “the problem of death was (and could only be) treated as a technical problem.” Just as Foucault argued that the metaphysics of infinity became useless when objects of knowledge came to contain the principles of existence within themselves, so too, Farman contends, have advances in science and medicine confined the person within the “numerical, measurable” body. Within the world biomedicine has created, the person cannot outlive death because the person after death is not measurable “in any sensible way.” Life itself now necessarily tends “to an inexorable, fixed end.” Farman concludes that in this context we have two options: we can either accept biomedicine’s insistence that death is a technical problem, or we can hail this condition of terminality as an “existential gauntlet,” reclaiming death for ourselves by refusing to let the numbers that measure our bodies delimit our lives.
This account of our options reiterates a familiar modern model: stripped of an afterlife (read: religion and/or God) we must contend with the triumph of materialism or science or bureaucracy (read: secularism). Within these parameters, the only alternative to medical resignation seems to be heroic existentialism. Those who express interest in a third alternative risk seeming deluded or reactionary, as Farman himself suggests in an interview granted around the same time as the publication of his essay. Still grieving the death of his wife and artistic partner, which prompted the reflections on terminality, he says he wants to “explore what might survive . . . I want to take it seriously, not as some characteristic Christian delusion but what it means to have an ongoing relationship with the dead that is ethical.”
Farman’s desire to differentiate his own exploration of what survives death from a characteristic Christian delusion implicitly acknowledges what many people think is the reason for religion: to provide a comforting alternative to death. “That’s really what it comes down to, isn’t it?” Christian Wiman asks in a memoir about how his own return to religion coincided with a cancer diagnosis: “What happens after we die?” If we don’t believe in the resurrection of Christ and life everlasting, then what’s the point of Christianity? So Farman, presuming this version of things a delusion, and Wiman, who presents himself as a paradoxical figure, a self-professed “modern believer,” agree on this: the fundamental distinction is afterlife or no afterlife. “Is this all there is?” If your answer is yes, you have to contend with the dominance of biomedicine. If your answer is no, you are allowing the possibility of the comfort provided by some vision of survival beyond the horizon of mortality.
* * *
It was this association of religion with fear of death that made me—growing up in a small-town context where the two options were Christianity or no Christianity—think that religion was a way to dodge life’s biggest challenges. If people were religious because they were afraid of what might happen to them in the future, I thought, then religion might be comforting but it couldn’t claim to be morally or existentially satisfying.
I was lured into studying religion in college in large part because I was so surprised to learn that Christians from the supposedly benighted past weren’t spending all their time painting pictures of heaven and hell, but were also—and often even more—interested in what I viewed as far more important issues, questions about human nature and problems of selfishness and solidarity, not to mention the effects of poverty and wealth, and the power of words, and the significance of bodies, and traditions of communal discipline, and time-tested strategies for internal and external transformation.
I have, on the whole, avoided studying or teaching about death, intent on showing my students that there is more to religion than the Christian answer to the question of what happens to us when we die. But revisiting my parents’ attitudes, recognizing the impossibility of categorizing them as religious (if religious means concern with an afterlife) or secular (if secular means that our two options are to accept or rebel against the medicalization of death—and life) helps me better understand the importance of the fact that Christianity itself—the salvation religion par excellence—does not necessarily draw a bright line between this world and the world to come.
Perhaps the most obvious place to see alternative versions of Christian attitudes toward death is in the practices and doctrines associated with the Christian cult of saints, and all the myriad ways that the cult of saints promoted the assumption that the living and the dead are not confined to separate spheres. Just as the doctrine of purgatory encouraged the living to imagine that their actions could affect the fate of the dead, so too pilgrimages and devotion to saints affirmed that those who Peter Brown calls the “very special dead” could intercede on behalf of the living. But other forms of Christianity, even a thoroughly conventional and traditional version of Protestant Christianity, could merge life and death in ways akin to what I perceived in my parents and suggestive of the same insight I attribute to Kaufman’s special—that giving up on the assumption of all or nothing makes it possible to have a different experience of what is.
Consider, for example, “Contemplations” by the Puritan poet Anne Bradstreet. John Calvin, who proclaimed that nature is God, counseled all Christians to contemplate nature as the “theater of God’s glory.” And that’s exactly what Bradstreet did.
“Look how the wantons frisk to taste the air,” Bradstreet writes in one stanza, having moved from trees to sun to “pathless paths,” delighting in the grasshoppers and crickets, revisiting stories from Genesis before pausing at the river to watch the fish, “Who forage o’er the spacious sea-green field, / And take the trembling prey before it yield.” The reverie then evokes a “sweet-tongued Philomel” and another identification with nature that promises nothing but itself, a song that “rapt me so with wonder and delight / And wished me wings with her a while to take my flight”:
‘O merry Bird,’ said I, ‘that fears no snares,
That neither toils nor hoards up in thy barn,
Feels no sad thoughts nor curating cares
To gain more good or shun what might thee harm.
Thy clothes ne’er wear, thy meat is everywhere,
Thy bed a bough, thy drink the water clear,
Reminds not what is past, nor what’s to come dost fear.’
Bradstreet also writes poems personifying the flesh and the spirit as two quarreling sisters, and gives a predictable victory to the latter. She composed a conventional poem on “The Vanity of All Worldly Things.” In “Contemplations,” the devout poet calls time a “fatal wrack of mortal things” and concludes dogmatically that “only above is found all with security.” But readers who deduce from this—as many do—that Bradstreet’s poems demonstrate an unresolved tension between her doctrinal Christian belief in the afterlife and her sensitive appreciation of this life presume the two cannot coexist. And in Bradstreet’s work, they clearly do.
Through much of her “Contemplations,” as in poems about the death of her granddaughter or the absence of her husband and son, the poet is not primarily interested in whether she and those she loved would live eternally. Bradstreet’s poems are not preoccupied with proclaiming that there is no need to fear the end of things or, conversely, proclaiming to fear death so much that only the promise of an afterlife could comfort her. The aim of her “Contemplations” was instead to discern in the merging of life and death a different experience of life. Life is, in this sense, not all there is but what there is. And from it, in the affirmation that what one can see in the world is the parameters of what there is to see, new insight could be gleaned. Immortality was not an escape from the natural order of things, but what the natural order of things, properly contemplated, could reveal.
This seventeenth-century Puritan attitude is not as far removed as we might expect from what my parents embodied. Neither existential rebels nor temporal realists, they never exalted death nor denied its power. Theirs was, I now think, a religious attitude not despite but because of the way it presumed uncertainty, because it enabled me to see how life transforms death and death transforms life and to recognize that this convergence of death and life is itself a revelation of immortality.