6.22.2012

Book Related Afterlife Hijinks

The title here is a nod to Leah Libresco’s recent post, “Math Related Prayer Hijinks.” (Leah recently converted to Catholicism from atheism.)

In her post, Leah talks about how thoughts of the things she loves very much in life (higher level math, in her case) penetrate into her prayer life, especially into the parts of her prayer life that she isn’t very sure of yet. She then used them to point towards God:
. . . instead of fighting these thoughts, I kept thinking about whatever math concepts popped into my mind.  I thought about when I’d learned them, how exciting they were, and the way I got to share that joy with my friends.  Then I basically reminded myself, “God is Truth, so he totally shares your delight in these things.  In fact, he delights in your delight and would love to draw you further up and further in to contemplate and be changed by higher truths in math and in everything else.”
I don’t feel like that about math, but I do feel that way about great literature. I’ve noticed that my love for books has permeated the way I think about death and immortality.

Yes, I do have a crush on you.
Embarrassing, I know.
I am agnostic as to an afterlife. Quakers just don’t have much of a theology of the afterlife, being very focused on the kingdom-of-God-on-Earth. This aligns well with why I converted in the first place, but it doesn’t do much to quell my existential angst. I’m still working out how to deal with said angst in an appropriate Quaker theological context, with or without an afterlife (some very preliminary thoughts here), but in the meantime I find myself immensely comforted by . . . books. I came to this realization, pleasingly, while reading Hydriotaphia (Urn Burial) by Sir Thomas Browne.


I really love Hydriotaphia. Actually, I adore it. I have a crush on this book. Egregious block-quoting coming up; I can’t help myself. You can understand the rest of my post without reading this excerpt so skip if you prefer; I’m just hoping to win converts to the love of Browne. 



Circles and right lines limit and close all bodies, and the mortall right-lined circle, must conclude and shut up all. There is no antidote against the Opium of time, which temporally considereth all things; Our Fathers finde their graves in our short memories, and sadly tell us how we may be buried in our Survivors. Grave-stones tell truth scarce fourty years: Generations passe while some trees stand, and old Families last not three Oaks. To be read by bare Inscriptions like many in Gruter, to hope for Eternity by ├ćnigmaticall Epithetes, or first letters of our names, to be studied by Antiquaries, who we were, and have new Names given us like many of the Mummies, are cold consolations unto the Students of perpetuity, even by everlasting Languages.

To be content that times to come should only know there was such a man, not caring whether they knew more of him, was a frigid ambition in Cardan: disparaging his horoscopal inclination and judgement of himself, who cares to subsist like Hippocrates Patients, or Achilles horses in Homer, under naked nominations, without deserts and noble acts, which are the balsame of our memories, the Entelecchia and soul of our subsistences. To be namelesse in worthy deeds exceeds an infamous history. The Canaanitish woman lives more happily without a name, then Herodias with one. And who had not rather have been the good theef, then Pilate?

But the iniquity of oblivion blindely scattereth her poppy, and deals with the memory of men without distinction to merit of perpetuity. Who can but pity the founder of the Pyramids? Herostratus lives that burnt the Temple of Diana, he is almost lost that built it; Time hath spared the Epitaph of Adrians horse, confounded that of himself. In vain we compute our felicities by the advantage of our good names, since bad have equall durations; and Thersites is like to live as long as Agamenon, [without the favour of the everlasting Register:] Who knows whether the best of men be known? or whether there be not more remarkable persons forgot, then any that stand remembred in the known account of time? without the favour of the everlasting Register the first man had been as unknown as the last, and Methuselahs long life had been his only Chronicle.

Oblivion is not to be hired: The greater part must be content to be as though they had not been, to be found in the Register of God, not in the record of man. Twenty seven Names make up the first story, and the recorded names ever since contain not one living Century. The number of the dead long exceedeth all that shall live. The night of time far surpasseth the day, and who knows when was the ├ćquinox? Every house addes unto that current Arithmetique, which scarce stands one moment. And since death must be the Lucina of life, and even Pagans could doubt whether thus to live, were to dye. Since our longest Sunne sets at right descensions, and makes but winter arches, and therefore it cannot be long before we lie down in darknesse, and have our lights in ashes. Since the brother of death daily haunts us with dying memento's, and time that grows old it self, bids us hope no long duration: Diuturnity is a dream and folly of expectation.


Still here? Oh, good. 

The above passage of Browne beautifully captures my existential fears. I will die; everyone I have ever known and loved will die; the inscription even on my tombstone will pass away; humanity will know me not at all; even if my name appears in some old document an unknown futuristic scholar stumbles across, that is cold consolation indeed. I believe in some way that after my death I will return to God, but without a consistent theology of the afterlife, including belief in the persistence of identity after death, how can I comfort my fears?

I’m very aware that the answer I am about to give is not theology at all, but merely a function of how much I love, trust, define myself by, and identify with books—hence my identification with Leah's original post. I’m still working on how to use this to point towards God!

For me, right now, struggling along with my odd-duck theology and my existential fears, Browne himself is the answer.

Dorothy Sayers and Virginia Woolf loved and read Browne nearly a hundred years ago, and must have had many of the same thoughts and emotions that I did as I read Hydriotaphia for the first time. Melville and Emerson loved and read Browne nearly a hundred years before that. Charles Lamb loved Browne before Emerson; Samuel Johnson loved Browne before Lamb.

I love Browne today, and even though I cannot expect to be a Woolf or an Emerson, a Melville or a Johnson, some part of what makes me essentially me was present in them—and that same thing, that ’me-ness‘ continues on. All of us: Browne himself, the famous readers of Browne, and the unknown readers of Browne, have together experienced the same text. After reading the same words, we all have felt the same way, thought the same way, loved Browne the same wayand together we will continue feeling, loving, and thinking a hundred years from now, and a hundred years after that, when someone, somewhere, still loves Sir Thomas Browne. 


As an afterlife it’s not much, but for now, I find that it will do.