‘PEOPLE APPRECIATE SOMEBODY SAYING, HEY, LET’S HAVE A CELEBRATION OF OUR IGNORANCE’
‘That’s all anyone ever hears now, Dawkins versus the Discovery Institute. On the one hand, you have the religious believers, who are absolutely certain in what they believe – on the other, you have these people who have written these fantastic, and very important, books, but . . . OK, if you’re an atheist, that means you don’t think there is anything left that’s bigger than you, or anything more mysterious. There are no questions left to be answered, we’ve got it all figured out. And that’s not terribly satisfying. People wouldn’t even go into science unless there was something much bigger to be discovered, something that is transcendent. Certainty, about anything, is an absurd position to take. You stop anyone who grew up in a religious tradition in the street and they’ll say, yeah, sure, they can kind of imagine what Heaven looks like. But ask them basic questions like “OK, and how old is everyone?”, and it all just stops making sense!’ The reception S u m has received could conceivably intimidate potential readers. One critic said it ‘fulfils the contemporary longing for a secular holy book’, while Googling ‘possibilian’, the position Eagleman invented to explain his belief system, throws up the beginnings of a worldwide movement. Reading the book in one gulp is, indeed, an overwhelming experience, but the many superlatives thrown at the book, and at Eagleman, perhaps distract attention from the very human stories he has to tell. Why does he
think that there’s been this overwhelming response? ‘I think maybe people just appreciate somebody saying hey, you know what, let’s have a celebration of our ignorance and talk about all the things we don’t know. I’ve been calling this whole exercise “shining a flashlight around the possibility space.”
‘None of the stories are meant to be taken seriously, of course, they’re all just meant to be funny and interesting mental stretches, but the exercise is meant to be taken seriously. I’m just saying, hey, why don’t we try shining the beam around, instead of focussing on this one little tiny part which is the Islamo-Judao-Christian tradition and then, over here there’s the Eastern traditions. They make very tiny spots in this sort of space where there are bigger stories that you could be telling.’
Perhaps Sum chimes with people because it stretches muscles in the brain we leave unused all too often these days. One story, called ‘Angst’ (and pungently aware of the freight of this particular poor-me Noughties buzzword), posits the theory that our consciounesses are actually those of great beings concerned with the workings of the universe and millenia, taking soothing vacations in human minds where we ‘care only about a meeting of the eyes, a glimpse of bare flesh . . . the orientation of a houseplant, the arrangement of hair.’ These stories bring perspective. They may, even, to borrow one of those superlatives, be life-changing.
David Eagleman will be discussing Sum with Richard Holloway, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, Wed 11 Nov, accompanied by readings from Sum recorded by Jarvis Cocker, Nick Cave and Stephen Fry and excerpts from Brian Eno’s music inspired by the book. Sum: Tales from the Afterlives is out now, published by Canongate.
Brian Eno who composed and conducted the music for a live performance of Sum at the Sydney Opera House
SUM (EXCERPT) In the afterlife you relive all your experiences, but this time with the events reshuffled into a new order: all the moments that share a quality are grouped together. You spend two months driving the street in front of your house, seven months having sex. You sleep for thirty years without opening your eyes. For five months straight you flip through magazines while sitting on a toilet. You take all your pain at once, all twenty-seven intense hours of it. Bones break, cars crash, skin is cut, babies are born. Once you make it through, it’s agony-free for the rest of your afterlife. But that doesn’t mean it’s always pleasant. You spend six days clipping your nails. Fifteen months looking for lost items. Eighteen months waiting in line. Two years of boredom: staring out a bus window, sitting in an airport terminal. One year reading books. Your eyes hurt, and you itch, because you can’t take a shower until it’s your time to take your marathon two-hundred-day shower. Two weeks wondering what happens when you die. One minute realizing your body is falling. Seventy-seven hours of confusion. One hour realizing you’ve forgotten someone’s name. Three weeks realizing you are wrong. Two days lying. Six weeks waiting for a green light. Seven hours vomiting. Fourteen minutes experiencing pure joy. Three months doing laundry. Fifteen hours writing your signature. Two days tying shoelaces. Sixty-seven days of heartbreak. Five weeks driving lost. Three days calculating restaurant tips. Fifty-one days deciding what to wear. Nine days pretending you know what is being talked about. Two weeks counting money. Eighteen days staring into the refrigerator. Thirty-four days longing. Six months watching commercials. Four weeks sitting in thought, wondering if there is something better you could be doing with your time. Three years swallowing food. Five days working buttons and zippers. Four minutes wondering what your life would be like if you reshuffled the order of events. In this part of the afterlife, you imagine something analogous to your Earthly life, and the thought is blissful: a life where episodes are split into tiny swallowable pieces, where moments do not endure, where one experiences the joy of jumping from one event to the next like a child hopping from spot to spot on the burning sand. ■ ‘Sum’ is the first story from Sum: Tales from the Afterlives.
5–19 Nov 2009 THE LIST 21
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