To you, with regard (5)

All I ever been is me
All I know is I
And I will turn to nothing
In the second that I die

– Robyn Hitchcock, telling it like it (spoiler) probably is.

What interests me about that formulation is that the scepticism about the afterlife goes along with a strong sense of self – an awareness that whatever any one of us has experienced, wherever we’ve been, whatever we’ve done, ‘I’ have always been there. Whoever you are, there’s a unique consciousness looking out at the world through your eyes; it’s you, it always has been and it always will be – until you aren’t any more.

So on one level Robyn Hitchcock has a surprising amount in common with Emily Brontë: they both express a fascinated, wondering awareness of what it is to be here, what it is to be an ‘I’. On another level, of course, their disagreement is pretty fundamental. Emily Brontë envisages, not only her own removal from the scene, but the disappearance of the world, the sun, the universe; and she looks on it all with equanimity:

There is not room for Death
Nor atom that his might could render void
Since thou art Being and Breath
And what thou art may never be destroyed.

For what thou art is also right here:

Life, that in me hast rest,
As I Undying Life, have power in Thee

She pictures God as ‘resting’ by stepping his energy down to the level of creatures such as her – very much as matter effectively slows down spacetime from its default setting of c – while at the same time linking them back up to the source of all energy. Consciousness of self, for Emily Brontë, is consciousness of something immeasurably – infinitely – greater than her physical existence. Death is nothing to fear, because strictly speaking there is no death to fear: all there is is return to the source, reuniting the spark of creative power that looked out through her eyes with the vastness of the power that had created the world she saw.

When I was doing English Language O Level one of the exercises we had to do was ‘précis’. Tell me what this 500-word piece is saying, in 100 words; when you’ve done that, do it again in 50 words. Generally the source texts were on the flowery side; you’d get very good at skipping to the end of sentences, then working back through the sub-clauses and checking if any of them were needed. George Eliot’s poem reminded me of that. It’s 43 lines long, and a précis would look something like this:

O may I join the choir invisible
Of those immortal dead who live again
In minds made better by their presence: live

In good deeds, deep thoughts and generous impulses.

That’s heaven: to continue to have an effect in the world
Helping to make people’s lives better and better,
Ultimately bringing about the ideal state of affairs
Which we failed to achieve in our lives.
After the body dies, our better self
(Generous, contemplative, religious)
Will live on.

May I reach that purest heaven
Inspiring others to good and generous thoughts
(Lots of others, including people I don’t know).
So shall I join the choir invisible
Whose music is the gladness of the world.

Apologies to any George Eliot fans or poetry-lovers, but I think that’s the gist of it. Here’s the question (and you can check back with the original): what kind of survival is George Eliot talking about here? “So to live is heaven”, “This is life to come”, “that purest heaven”; is the ‘choir invisible’ Heaven? Or is it some more diffuse blending into the enspirited natural world, such as might appeal to a panpsychist like Emily Brontë or the young Wordsworth?

I think the answer is ‘neither of the above’. This poem is often linked to the closing lines of Middlemarch:

Her finely-touched spirit had still its fine issues, though they were not widely visible. Her full nature, like that river of which Alexander broke the strength, spent itself in channels which had no great name on the earth. But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

And, I think, rightly so. George Eliot’s imagination was social, as full of people as Emily Brontë’s was full of landscape. She envisages herself as living on, in a pure and near-eternal state, among other people, for as long as other people exist – or rather, through other people. Read the poem through carefully and you’ll see that there’s no reference to continuing subjective survival, no sense that Mary Anne Evans’s consciousness will continue after the heart in Mary Anne Evans’s body has stopped beating. The continuing existence George Eliot hopes for – the glorious, near-eternal, purest-Heavenly continuing existence – is the continuing existence of her influence on other people, as experienced by those people in their own lives. She hopes to have been a good enough person for her memory to inspire other people to be good, and to have been a wise enough person for her insights to help other people to be wise. And – this is the crucial, very George-Eliot-ian point – she recognises and gives thanks for all the other people who have already gone before: all the other people whose good deeds have inspired her to be good, whose insights have helped her to have insights of her own. She presents the history of humanity as a continuing story of collective improvement, continually renewed, and continually spurred on by the example of those who have gone before. It’s a big picture; something well worth aspiring to be part of. But it offers no glimmer of hope for the person who was looking out through Mary Anne Evans’s eyes. Yes, we will go on, as a species – not forever, but for a good while yet. But the same can’t be said for you as an individual: when you’re gone, you’re gone. It’s also worth noting briefly that, as well as there being no sense of personal survival, there’s no reference to God here – you aren’t there, and neither is anyone else (just us).

Schematically:

Robyn Hitchcock Emily Brontë George Eliot
Where do we start from? Me (“All I know is I”) Me and God (“Life, that in me hast rest”) Us; society, humanity
What happens after death? Nothing; we cease to exist There is no death, only reunion with God Nothing, but people remember us
Is God there? No Yes, and He’s right here too! No
Is there any point?
No, there’s just this life Yes, but it’s a mystery Yes, people will remember us

Three views of personal immortality or only two? I’ll leave it to you to decide.

It’s worth mentioning, incidentally, that Robyn Hitchcock has written about death and the afterlife several times, usually not in quite such clear-cut terms; perhaps “Where do you go when you die?” was a response to over-enthusiastic readings of some of his earlier work on the subject. Well, call me over-enthusiastic, but I have to say I prefer this (musically as well as in other ways).

When I was dead I wasn’t interested in sex
I didn’t even care what happened next
I was free as a penny whistle
And silent as a glove
I wasn’t me to speak of
Just a thousand ancient feelings
That vanished into nothing
Into love

NEXT: science fiction, with space travel and everything!

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