Will Self is quite a readable and captivating author to me, although like many other writers I feel he may be wasted on me and that a lot of his stuff must be going straight over my head. Having said that, I did feel that he got to the heart of a particular aspect of bereavement in his short story ‘The North London Book Of The Dead’, used as the basis of his novel ‘How The Dead Live’. Very obviously there will now be spoilers for those two works and possibly for other stories in his ‘The Quantity Theory Of Insanity’, and they’re good stories so you might want to take this particular warning seriously. Against this I could also set the thought that literary prose is unspoilable because it’s not primarily about the plot.
In ‘The North London Book Of The Dead’, which is apparently “now a major motion picture” (why is nothing ever a minor motion picture?), a man whose mother has recently died keeps thinking he sees her, and it turns out that when people die they go to live in a different part of London. Later on, if I recall correctly, they move out to the “provinces”. Ignoring the Londocentricity, which I’m sure is there for a reason, this does actually capture quite well one of the experiences of bereavement: the recurrent impression of glimpsing the person who has died, hearing her voice and the like.
You’ve had your spoiler warning. Here’s your trigger warning. At this rate nobody will be left to read this by the end. Okay: trigger warning for acute bereavement. I messed up seriously a few years ago on this and I don’t want to do it again. Some of my friends and acquaintances and I experienced quite a traumatic loss a number of years ago which someone close to the person concerned took askance to my reaction to. For all I know, I may be venturing into traumatic territory here, but I want to make it worthwhile. Again, this is where literary sensibilities might help me because the sufficiently talented can pull this off but I don’t think I’m one of them, so please forgive my clumsiness in advance.
So we had a friend with a history of depression. Whereas you shouldn’t speak ill of the dead, the fact remains that she was a real asset to her community, family and so on. She was absolutely not a waste of space. Nobody’s a waste of space of course but I don’t even think anyone who knew her could call her that. And she was a really nice person too. She did, though, suffer recurrent bouts of deep depression and sometimes she would hide away at these times. Two things about her stick in my mind. She was probably the best adult outside our immediately family at relating to our son as a toddler and whenever I made the tea at church, I remembered her telling me how to do it the first time. The second sounds quite trivial but it means that whenever I make tea for a large number of people it reminds me of her.
She triumphed over her depression countless times, and sometimes it was very bad indeed. As someone who had won so often, she deserves to be remembered for the numerous occasions where she did prevail, and also not to be defined by her illness at all but by her enormous value to the people around her. Even so, on one occasion she did not prevail. Her illness did, and she went missing. Only after a month or so did it become clear that she had definitely found it too hard to go on living, and in the meantime, although most of us were pretty convinced about what had happened we couldn’t be absolutely sure. In other words we didn’t have closure. None of us knew for certain what had happened, not 100%, and we needed a definite answer to the question of where she’d gone, even though we knew really. I’m avoiding saying that we knew “deep down”, because actually we pretty much knew on the surface too and we were all pretty definite about what had happened, but sometimes you need to do the doubting Thomas thing and stick your fingers in the nail holes and the wound in your friend’s side.
During the intervening period, I and many other people kept thinking we could see her in the distance or even quite nearby, although of course none of those identifications were correct. Nonetheless she was out there somewhere for us because we didn’t have an answer for what had happened. After a few weeks of course, we did get an answer, and that got us there to some extent. Even so, way after her funeral I for one, and probably others, still glimpsed her in the distance quite often. The experience of not having a resolution stayed and consequently this experience, which had gone on for far longer than was good for our mental health, left its mark. I won’t say scar because there are “wounds” you don’t want to heal. This is another thing I have left of her. It’s been a long time since I “saw” her, but those inverted commas still hurt and so they should.
This is of course a fairly intense personal story, though it’s shared with a lot of other people. Then there’s public grief, and here the death of Diana Spencer comes to mind. Whereas I can see that she shouldn’t have been constantly pestered as a means of selling newspapers and I feel sympathy for her and respect for her work with land mines and people with AIDS, there’s no way I could feel a personal connection with her and the outpouring of grief didn’t seem authentic to me, even though it did affect some close friends quite profoundly. I’ve never been able to pin down exactly what seemed in poor taste about that reaction but since I don’t really do much of the role model or hero thing, maybe there’s something about who I am which means I’ll never get it. I’ve already done grieving celebrities though, so I won’t go on.
One of the unexpected consequences of all this grief was that it challenged my faith in an unusual way. The gospels tell of a period after Christ’s death when people met him at length without realising it was him. For instance, Mary Magdelene meets him in the garden and thinks he’s the gardener, then he goes unrecognised on the road to Emmaus. There are a couple of ways in which this could be taken, but given my experience with my friend at the time, it shook my faith, not along the lines of “why does God let bad things happen to good people?” but more in terms of seeing how loss without closure can warp one’s perception.
I want to entertain for a while the possibility that this hallucinatory experience was what the gospel accounts are about. One influential consequence might be that people could learn to treat everyone they meet with the same degree of respect and love as they would with Christ. And this is where we get to the central issue of the problem: the question of whether Jesus existed or not as a historical personage.
There are various theories of atonement, and most of them do require Jesus to have been a real person. There’s at least one which doesn’t, known as the moral influence theory. In this version, people are inspired to behave better as a result of their perception of Christ’s sacrifice on the Cross. This requires neither a resurrection nor even the gospel accounts being true, although I suspect that almost every Christian who believes in moral influence also accepts other theories of atonement, which are not mutually exclusive. One of the oddities of theology is that its terminology includes a lot of “-ologies” which are not so much thoroughgoing discrete disciplines as mere subject areas of the larger subject, so there’s mariology – the study of Mary; soteriology – the doctrine of salvation; christology – the nature of Christ – and so on. Similarly, theological theories can sometimes coexist when they’re about the same subject, and consequently it’s possible to believe, for example, that the Crucifixion is an inspiring story as well as that, for example, Christ acted as a bait for Satan to take which was then unjustly taken, thereby leading to Satan’s defeat, which is the ransom theory. So you can dispense entirely with the story of Jesus as a matter of historical fact and still accept the moral influence theory, but probably most people don’t do that even if they do believe in moral influence.
The story as it stands, however, with the authenticity of seeing the person you loved after your death, seems very genuine. Treated as a work of literature, this raises a question for me which I can’t seem to answer right now. How did people in that place and time grieve and how well did they recognise the grieving process? It seems very realistic that the loss of a charismatic leader they were expecting to become an all-conquering Messiah in capital punishment would not involve closure and that they would then experience this manifestation of difficulty in accepting their loss. What I don’t know, because it’s about emotional realism in literature, is whether that detail, if you take it seriously, far from discounting the idea of the story being fictional, actually supports the idea that it’s true. If people universally experience grief in such ways, it doesn’t follow that it was recognised by the evangelists or whoever came up with the possibly fictional story of Jesus. If they didn’t, it strongly suggests to me that the account is historical. However, because I’m literarily impaired I have no idea.
The other aspect of all this is how personal and meaningful it is to me. I can recount the events of my friend’s death and feel it very deeply and personally. Likewise, talking about Jesus in this way really does feel as personal and real. It doesn’t mean it is, but it does mean that it might be polite to behave with some respect towards people who believe these things. They’re not just fun, interesting theoretical discussions or things which people believe just to be difficult, but things which are as real to them as their friends are. The same applies to other faiths. However, what they then do with those beliefs is often dodgy and dangerous, because that genuine emotion can be hijacked by the person concerned or others to, well, hijack for example.