Sunday, June 14, 2009

David Eagleman

This bloke was in Sydney last week for the Luminous festival, in a collaborative show with Brian Eno at the Opera House; did anyone see him?

I don't know how well his little book Sum: Forty tales from the afterlives would work as a performance, but qua book it is pretty damned dazzling. As a neuroscientist, albeit a freakishly young-looking one, he has probably spent a fair amount of time thinking about (a) how the brain orders information, (b) what constitutes a human being ('Sum' here is a Latin pun), and (c) death. The fruit of said thought is here, in forty hypothetical scenarios about what might happen when we die.

Clearly he's also a poet. Look at that word 'covey', suggestive as it is of birds and (with one change of letter) witches, which some would say are the two creatures that might produce an angel if they bred.

Some highlights:

In the afterlife you discover that God understands the complexities of life. She had originally submitted to peer pressure when She structured Her universe like all the other gods had, with a binary categorization of people into good and evil. But it didn't take long for Her to realize that humans could be good in many ways and simultaneously corrupt and mean-spirited in other ways ... Might it not be possible, She considered, that a man could be an embezzler and still give to charitable causes? Might not a woman be an adulteress but bring pleasure and security to two men's lives?

When you arrive in the afterlife, you find that Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley sits on a throne. She is cared for and protected by a covey of angels.

After some questioning, you discover that God's favorite book is Shelley's Frankenstein. He sits up at night with a worn copy of the book clutched in His mighty hands ... Like Victor Frankenstein, God considers Himself a medical doctor, a biologist without parallel, and He has a deep, painful relationship with any story about the creation of life ... reading again and again how Dr. Victor Frankenstein is taunted by his merciless monster across the Arctic ice. And God consoles Himself with the thought that all creation necessarily ends in this: creators, powerless, fleeing from the things they have wrought.
There are three deaths. The first is when the body ceases to function. The second in when the body is consigned to the grave. The third is that moment, some time in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.


Deborah said...

The third is that moment, some time in the future, when your name is spoken for the last time.

OH. This brought tears to my eyes.

Of those of us who have a visual memory of my great grandmother, the youngest is 42 (one of my younger brothers). She is nearly gone now. I haven't spoken her names for years and years.

fifi said...


what Deborah said, exactly.

Except the number is 41.

fifi said...

and it was my Grnadmother (sorry, missed the great)

Link said...

I was reading about the stages after death just yesterday, and this made me smile.

People who have not believed in the world, in any life of the soul after the life of the body, are acutely embarrassed when they realise that they are alive.

From Chapter 46, # 442, Man's Awakening from the Dead and Entrance into Eternal Life --Heaven and Hell--
Emmanuel Swedenborg

He gives incredible detail. I've also heard it said that after ten years of being 'dead', people living in the spiritual world forget about their lives on earth. So I wouldn't feel too much remorse about remembering or not, the great, great rellies, as they have probably forgotten not only who they were, but about you too.

skepticlawyer said...

This is beautiful ... and faintly creepy, because I've been thinking about similar perplexities over at our place.

James Bradley said...

He was on Late Night Live a week or so ago - I only heard part of it, but he has a pretty dazzling cv (neurologist, research scientist, writer - it's really just too depressing to go on). The interview is at:

James Bradley said...

Sorry - that link was:

Anonymous said...

I have no memory of my great-grandmothers, pioneer women all. But I do think of them, write of them, even speak of them, quite often. Maybe it helps to be a Victorianist.
Here are their names:
Emma Melvina, Nancy Eliza, Jane, Mario.
They were all tough and resourceful. If my book on Victorian travel writing ever gets out, they will be further remembered. Lucy Sussex
(and the verification word is susnou)

Spike said...

I saw the performance with Eno. There were twelve stories, I think, each read by a different performer (one was read by two) with some background projections of faces morphing slowly into one another and Eno playing peaceful Eno-ish music in the background.

It was a bit of a mixed bag but mostly, I think, very effective. The one that begins "there are three deaths" was one of the better ones.

They also included the one about God understanding the complexities of life; which was well-read but I found the ending to be a bit glib.

Other highlights were the afterlife where you live over all the moments of your life but this time sorted by category (so twenty years of sleep, seventeen weeks waiting for lights to change, etc) and the afterlife where you meet all the different versions of yourself, some of whom achieved more than you and others of which are failures, but all of whom were dealt the same genetic hand. That last one was read by twins, and was very good.