Tuesday, March 16, 2010

In the spider's web

In Michelle Cliff's powerful novel of Jamaica, No Telephone To Heaven, Kitty is preparing her mother's body for burial:
Her mother could not respond to her. Where had she gone? Where were her ideas? Her beliefs? Where were her mind and memory? It seemed impossible that these things could have vanished into thin air. A black spider lighted on the back of Kitty's hand and made her
ashamed.
It seems impossible, indeed. Impossible that the thoughts and dreams of a loved one simply vanish at the moment of death, that mind and memory are inextricably embedded in flesh and blood. Surely, there is no human wish more persistent than this: personal immortality.

We search and scratch for confirming evidence. Near death experiences. Answered prayers. Table rapping. Apparitions and felt presences. Nothing, however, that is not anecdotal. Nothing that meets the loosest criteria of scientific evidence. Moreover, everything we have learned empirically about mind and memory speaks forcefully for embeddedness.

I am not so foolish as to suppose that any weight of scientific skepticism will dissuade believers in an an afterlife from their belief, nor would I want too. It is by and large a harmless conviction (except when it reinforces violence against others -- seventy-two virgins, and all that). In Cliff's novel, Kitty wants to believe, to be consoled that her mother is still with her, and who would deny her that consolation?

But, ah, the black spider.

There in that sweltering tropical room, her mother's body has begun the process of decay. No anointing with coconut oil or bay rum, or the tenderness with which Kitty applies those ointments, disguises the necessary extinction of her mother's mind and memory. The black spider that lights on Kitty's hand surely stands for the niggling doubt that must inevitably infect the faith of any post-Enlightenment believer in the afterlife. And Kitty is ashamed.

She does what tradition requires must be done. She turns the mirrors to the wall. She sweeps the room, sweeping out the dead. She repeats to herself: "We done wid she now. We done wid she now. We done wid she now."