As I lay dying

“I remember how when I was young I believed death to be a phenomenon of the body; now I know it to be merely a function of the mind – and that of the minds of the ones who suffer the bereavement. The nihilists say it is the end; the fundamentalists, the beginning; when in reality it is no more than a single tenant or family moving out of a tenement or a town.” William Faulkner, The best of Faulkner, The Reprint Society of London (1955), p. 23.

[Re-posted from The Old Site original dd. 01/05/08. A tremendous sadness has come over me and it is as if somebody has left me; somebody that was in a sense: me. This sadness is overwhelming, but it is not without great joy in the appreciation that the future cannot be as the past was.]

I’ll let you in on a little secret: I believe in an after-life. Weird, ain’t it? It takes a lot of imagination to picture an agnostic believer in the after-life. Luckily, I’m here to help you out a bit, & William is here to help me out a bit.


It isn’t quite true that I believe in an after-life. First, I’m not big on believing in anything. Second, and that’s the crux of it, I don’t think there is evidence to support the common idea that ‘mind’ goes when the bodily functions give way.

[I did not note this in the original apparently but the key illustration of this latter point lies in the fact that the common idea that a new body comes with a ‘mind’ attached to it is wrong. The body comes and only when it’s there the mind starts to develop. If so, why assume that if the body goes the mind can but follow?]

The reasons for holding to this idea [that the mind goes when the body does] are very good reasons. It is far better to see the mind as a function of the brain than to see it as a function of a God (… knows what). Not so much because it is closer to the truth – although it most certainly is – but because any explanation based on what we cannot know does not do any explaining but inevitably leads to coercion from a happy few.

Still, having good reasons to hold something true does not make it true. I do for instance have very good reasons for holding that the political left will find itself again but having these reasons will not suffice to make it so.

We’re born quite mindlessly. A few even live their entire life completely and utterly content to do it mindlessly. So the least one can say is that having a brain isn’t necessarily a sign of having a mind (this point the educated will see as behavioristic in nature, as always the educated are right but this is not the place where I will attempt to defend the obvious). If having a brain isn’t quite sufficient for having a mind (the educated may here find comfort in the fact that the dumbest animals have brains as well) then something else has to enter into the mind equation. We would then do well to postpone our judgment on whether having a brain is at all necessary – given it’s clearly not sufficient – until such time as we have gathered a little bit more info on the something else.

[This text is depressingly deficient in almost all respects. Still, it says a thing that is dear to me and it says it in a way that reminds me that it’s much better to make your point directly. Sounding clever is rarely the clever way out ;-[

People have held for a long time – some unfortunate ones still do – that there has to be an outside authority for them to feel well. But only the mindlessly devout have lacked the imagination to see that, at the very least, an outside authority doesn’t suffice. As we all know now: what was held to be necessary in the religious times was a purely co-incidental result of the mental need to be sheltered as member of a group of people. So too it could go with the brain and the mind. No doubt mind requires something with brain-like capacities but – depending on what it is we find to be necessary for mind – this something could be somewhat surprising.

[A-ha! The relief of alcohol ;-]

I drank in the meantime – as the more perspicacious no doubt already noted – quite some alcohol so I will allow myself to cut to the chase. Mind is an eminently social thing. To have a mind requires one to be a social animal of some sort. The common idea of brain-mind identity is rather unavoidable because a brain of some sort is – in fact – functionally required to be a social animal [Hell, it is required to be just an animal!]. But mind is not in the first instance related to such a brain. It is related to it – at least – once removed, via intermediary of verbalized social interaction that is itself most probably directly predicated to the sort of brains in the individuals that make up the society in the first place.

Hence the after-life. One can only hope you did not forget the Faulkner quote whilst reading the, as per usual verbose, language above. When body, and thus brain, are not necessary to the mind; the decomposition of body & brain can’t in itself cause the demise of the mind. If we then use the term ‘death’ related to persons or selves it does not stand for an end (nor would it stand for some kind of beginning) but for a transition. Instead of a mind that can, for reasons of ease of reference, be associated to a body one passes to a mind that does its persisting in its necessary context of social interaction.

Like somebody that moved out of your sphere of friends (because of some kind of argument, because she has moved, because it was too difficult to keep bothering about what he desired, …) it may be out of sight but it won’t ever be completely out of your mind. Whenever your mind experiences this loss is when the mind, that has been thought lost, manifests itself again.

The term that applies to this kind of disembodied after-life is ‘resonate’ and a metaphor could be that of a social symphony in which individual minds can be heard as individual themes. Neither the theme can exist without the symphony, nor the symphony without this theme. It is not at all like the after-life of the religious fanatics because what is preserved is one’s self without redemption & without judgment whatever; whatever you were will persist in the measure that you were worth remembering by other minds.

The family leaving without having made any impression at all will be like something perishing without ever being seen.

I have to say: if any of you takes this embryonic thought and makes it your own – know that you will be eternally damned. But do point to others who’ve had this thought before I did – I’m sure I did not invent it from scratch.

[Whilst writing this I was listening to Thelonious Monk, It’s Monk’s Time, Sony Music 2003.]

One response to “As I lay dying

  1. Pingback: Sunday Stories: Gravity’s Rainbow (6) « The Weblog

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