In Tom Rachman’s novel, The Imperfectionists (2010), one of the characters — a woman in her 70s who has cancer and is dying — gives a soliloquy on death to a reporter who’s come to interview her for her obituary; here’s part of it:
“But my point, you see, is that death is misunderstood. The loss of one’s life is not the greatest loss. It is no loss at all. To others, perhaps, but not to oneself. From one’s own perspective, experience simply halts. From one’s own perspective, there is no loss. You see? … What I really fear is time. That’s the devil: whipping us on when we’d rather loll, so the present sprints by, impossible to grasp, and all is suddenly past, a past that won’t hold still, that slides into these inauthentic tales. My past — it doesn’t feel real in the slightest. The person who inhabited it is not me. It’s as if the present me is constantly dissolving. There’s that line of Heraclitus: ‘No man steps in the same river twice, for it is not the same river and it is not the same man.’ That’s quite right. We enjoy this illusion of continuity, and we call it memory. Which explains, perhaps, why our worst fear isn’t the end of life, but the end of memories.”
When I read this, my immediate reaction was, No, that’s wrong. Not the part of the past feeling unreal – that’s so for me, too. Not the suggestion that memory maintains this illusion of a permanent self – I think that’s right, too. But what we fear in death — or what I fear — is not the end of memories, which, as she has just said, are often inauthentic and are really about someone else anyway (the self at that time). It’s the end of experience. Of possibility. Of piqued and slaked curiosity.Of what might happen and of what is happening.
My fear is not about the loss of memories and of the past — the past is already gone and memory only grants the illusion of a self, of a number of selves; my fear is the loss of curiosity and the possible future, and the loss of experience in this very present moment. ‘Experience simply halts.’ Yes, that’s the unimaginable grief of death.
Of course, I am also curious about what might happen after death. But I don’t hold out a lot of hope there. It seems likely there could be nothingness, no experience. Or if there is experience and consciousness, could it ever be any better than lying outside in the sun, listening to water lapping and gulls voicing, thinking hazy thoughts and making pleasurable plans? Or better than discovering something new, some new pattern, some unexpected collision of ideas, something full of wonder that changes the way you think and feel? If not, then what’s a heaven for?