Monday, August 20, 2007

Morning song

Let's be blunt. Death is final. Against the expectations of most people everywhere since the dawn of time, there is no such thing as personal immortality.

Egyptian kings who built colossal pyramids to ensure their comfortable passage to the afterlife wasted their treasure. Christians martyrs found no Heaven, Viking pagans no Valhalla. The Chinese emperor who filled his tomb with clay armies never met them on the other side.

Everything that can be counted part of a human self -- soma, immune system, consciousness, self-awareness, memory -- has been shown to be inextricably material. No hint of a ghost in the machine. Not a whiff of immortal soul. Nothing has been more decisively demonstrated. Anyone who believes otherwise has not been paying attention, or is afflicted by a intractable case of wishful thinking.

Near death experiences? Poltergeists? Channeling? Table-rapping? Straws. Grasping at straws. Nothing that passes empirical muster.

But surely science can't disprove the soul's immortality? True enough, and far be it from me to dissuade anyone from their faith-based hope of heaven (except where a fanatical faith in an afterlife facilitates mayhem, as with the Catholic Inquisition and Islamic suicide bombers). Here's the Pascalean catch: If believers turn out to be right, they'll get the last laugh; if disbelievers turn out to be right, we won't have the consolation of knowing it.

Do we lapse then into morbidity? Do we rage, rage against the dying of the light? The poet Czeslaw Milosz, writing about Philip Larkin's gloomy Aubade, tells why the poem dissatisfies: "Death in the poem is endowed with the supreme authority of law and universal necessity, while man is reduced to nothing but a bundle of perceptions, or even less, to an interchangeable statistical unit." Is that it? A glimmer of candlelight. Then -- pffft!

Not quite. Milosz is more hopeful: "Faith in life-everlasting has accompanied man in his wanderings through time, and it has always been larger and deeper than religious or philosophical creeds which expressed only one of its forms." For Milosz, poetry is one affirmation of the transcendence of an individual life. Even a rhyme can thumb its nose at death, says Seamus Heaney. Even a rhyme represents (in Heaney's words) an "Orphic effort to haul life back up the slope against all the odds," by adding to language what is strictly unnecessary.

The dream of immortality is so universal it would seem to be part of our biological natures, and even the scientific agnostic who accepts the finality of death will be inspired to join "the Orphic effort." We can each of us try to live our lives as poetry. To add to life an element of graciousness that is not strictly necessary. To leave behind a spoor of rhymes that marks our passage on the Earth.