Friday, July 17, 2009

In Heaven There Are No Dogs?

I recently read a clever and interesting book called Sum by a fellow named David Eagleman. The book's full title is Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives (Pantheon Books, 2009). It is a collection of short scenarios of what the afterlife might be like. The author is a neuroscientist at a facility in nearby Waco, and so the tales have a sci-fi spin to them. In most, the afterlife does not entail endlessly eating chocolate, strumming harps, or meeting dead celebrities. In fact, in most, the afterlife is kind of a grind. One neither experiences relief from the cares of daily life nor gains long-awaited and expected enlightenment. Instead, the afterlife is a disorienting and often lonely place where the dead (and sometimes God, too) feel confused and undergo existential crises. 

Some of the scenarios are fascinating. In one, the newly dead discover that they have jobs—to appear in the backgrounds of the dreams of the living. In another, the afterlife is a sort of purgatory, a waiting area set in a motel lobby where the dead sit until their names are spoken for the last time on Earth. Ordinary folks quickly move on to the next realm, but those who are famous, notorious, or unfortunate enough to have a small college named for them wait forever, in increasing psychic discomfort. In another, God has a crush on Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein. The most heart-rending scenario, I thought, is the last, in which the afterlife is a replay of life, but in reverse. Life gets relived from death and old age back through youth, infancy, and birth. But instead of providing insight—as one might from viewing a movie or reading a book a second time—the replay only shows how little we learned and how much we got wrong the first time around. And then, when it's over, it's really over. The End. Forever. How do you feel now?

That final story reminded me of those Escher prints that were so popular in the 1980s. At first you are delighted by the cleverness—"See? The birds turn into fish." Or "Hey! The staircases seem to be going up and down at the same time!" Then, after a moment or two, a sense of panic sets in. You realize that the stairs go up and down forever, but they don't lead anywhere, and you will never escape. You are eternally stuck in Escher's crazy, creepy, lizard-infested landscape. Eagleman's tales are clever and thought-provoking in the same way, and they inspire a similar kind of mental nausea, so don't read this book before bedtime. 

I guess because the author is a scientist his scenarios tend to feel like something out of the movie 2001. There are lots of sterile rooms and anxious souls but few natural images or animals—hardly any clouds and, alas, no dogs. (At least in the stories I read. I'll admit, I skipped a few.) Which brings me to my point: "Who wants an afterlife if there won't be any dogs?" I never wonder about life after death. In my mind, it's the black screen at the end of the film, before the credits roll. It's like the deepest sleep—the kind you have when you are exhausted and forget you are even alive. It's dark, it's quiet, and it's forever. But the book forced me to consider a technicolor version—with dogs. You can probably guess how it goes:

In about fifty or sixty years or so, after I die, the elevator doors will open onto the Afterlife version of Dog Park. It will be April, when the grass is green and the wildflowers are blooming. And there, awaiting me, will be all my dogs, with bright eyes, new collars, and wagging tails. Roma will be five or six, the age she was when we hiked the Appalachian Trail and before she developed arthritis and her obsession for treats. Muzzy will be her perfectly sweet, young, post-housebroken self, leaping for tennis balls. And across the field will be all our favorite doggie pals and their owners, too, after their time has come. And we'll just stand there in the evening sun and throw tennis balls for eternity and tell about our days. (It will never be warmer than 80 degrees or cooler than 75.) Best of all, there will be no Animal Control or Crazy Guy or Jesus Guy or any of the people who annoy or perturb.  They, of course, all be experiencing their own satisfying afterlives over there. Waaaaay over there where I can't see them. Dream on, everybody.

1 comment:

  1. Goodness, you have been doing some serious reading. Be careful in this weather; if you overheat your brain it may melt and run out of your ears! Let me know if you need a Sophie Kinsella novel or two.

    I do love your idea of heaven. And all the poop magically disappears?


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