‘While we talk, the sun is getting older. It will explode in 4.5 billion years.’
Jean François Lyotard, ‘Can Thought Go on Without a Body?’
‘living on can mean a reprieve or an afterlife, “life after life” or life after death, more life as more than life, and better; the state of suspension in which it's over - and over again’
Jacques Derrida, ‘Living On: Borderlines’
‘Whether my life had been before that sleep
The Heaven which I imagine, or a Hell
Like this harsh world in which I wake to weep,
I know not’
Percy Bysshe Shelley, ‘The Triumph of Life’
When you die, surrounded by loved ones, a misty and transparent version of yourself will detach itself from your body. You will gaze at yourself, dead, before you let yourself go into the light, and then you shall live on eternally. Or, perhaps, “when you die” is only a linguistic construct that can only be followed by a full-stop.
It is difficult, if not impossible, to think of a “post-” to life, in the same way that it is nearly impossible for some of us not to. Life and its ceasing are all we know, and the (de)valuation of life can depend on both its termination and its continuation. How death-centred is after-life, and by implication, life itself? Can we reverse the formula and live life, in Derridean fashion, after death? The onus can be shifted to what we mean by “after”, where the connotations of “following” are less about a passive chronological occurrence than a possibly self-purposing direction. Unsurprisingly, there have been countless representations and permutations of the idea of an afterlife throughout theology, philosophy, literature and the arts, extending even to debates within scientific spheres.
Contemplating such an idea immediately situates one between several long and well-articulated traditions of the afterlife. On the one hand, there are the endless and at times even conflicting depictions of heaven, hell, and purgatory in painting, music, architecture and literature. After all, as Milton reminds us, ‘[t]he mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven’. One also encounters reincarnation (haven’t we heard of how Pythagoras met his old friend as a dog?) and the liberation from that interminable cycle as Nirvana. There is the elaborate afterlife of the Ancient Egyptians, or the idea from Germanic folklore that souls leave bodies in the form of bees, and thus the beehive is the abode of spirits. On the other hand, one sees the broad spectrum of secular nihilism stretch out across time and cultures. Don’t be daft, they tell us, there is nothing beyond life; “where death is, I am not”, to paraphrase Epicurus. Beyond life there is only decomposition. Whether or not there is an afterlife, then, seems to obstinately and perpetually remain debatable.
And yet we may already be living an afterlife of sorts, however paradoxical “living afterlife” might sound. Is not our contemporary age the afterlife of the twentieth century, and that in turn of the nineteenth, and so on? Is it possible that sometimes life changes so drastically that life becomes life-after-life, as after-event: after 9/11, or the Holocaust, or the French Revolution—and so who are we now? After trauma, there begins a new life, perhaps a lesser life. ‘Writing poetry after Auschwitz is barbaric’, Adorno contends. Perhaps afterlife is where the humanities die, and thus one thinks of the post-literary, where poesis might end… or begin to live anew.
Taking chronology more macroscopically, is the contemporary human being in itself not the afterlife of its evolutionary predecessors, haunted by the Neanderthals that could have been but never were? From this, therefore, it emerges that one can also look for an afterlife not just as the yet-to-come, but in the already-has-been.
Despite this, the idea seems to implicate within it, almost necessarily, something that is always future. What lies beyond human life—and one here thinks of robotics, virtuality and prosthetics, or the transhuman technological singularity that we so often hear prophesised—might not be too far removed from what lies beyond human death. What about games, where, after losing a life, you will always have another? Literature, too, seems to be making this leap into cyberspace. Is electronic literature the afterlife of the printed word, its spirit intact but lacking a body (of literature)? What about the reception of literature itself, or of the work of art more generally? When we sing the praises of Shakespeare, Dante, Hieronymus Bosch or Chopin, the “death of the author” might be transformed into the author’s eternal afterlife. Homer is still alive. And of course Shakespeare and Dante themselves gave us visions of afterlife through, for instance, Macbeth or Inferno; Chopin gave us the soundtrack to our afterlives, and Bosch, in his third panel of The Garden of Earthly Delights, a horrifying prevision. Across myth, literature, film and television, we find a multitude of afterlives: Frankenstein’s monster, vampires, ghosts and ghouls, zombies and all sorts of undead. Apocalyptic narratives all attempt an envisioning of life after life, where afterlife might be no more than base survival. No less imaginative, one reads the forms of the elegy, the memoir, the commemorative epic or the biography of the deceased as words after life. In this case, is not afterlife a memory?
And yet, memory stops where life does, science tells us. What problems does the condition of brain death present us, and what about life-support? Is organ donation a sure method of living on after your death, where parts of you live on in others? Is it still your kidney or your eye, especially when your I lives on in someone other? What about life after disease? How does one live with chronic debilitations, or how does one live with the death sentence that is terminal illness? What can disability studies tell us about afterlife?
We attempt to think of afterlives, of thought after life. It is something that concerns all of us: as Lyotard reminds us, all of us will die soon enough. How have cultures, both ancient and modern, thought of death and its consequences? After life, what lives on? What persists after all that is left of us are bones? What remains after remains?
In light of the above, the editors of antae welcome submissions on or around the topic of after(-)lives. The authorial guidelines are available on www.antaejournal.com, and the deadline for submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org is the 30th of June, 2016. Submissions should be in the form of finalised papers of around 5,000 to 7,000 words. Issues and topics relevant to this publication include, but are not limited to:
Representations of afterlives in literature, film, music, painting, architecture, or other arts
Narratives of afterlives across contemporary or historical cultures
Life after colonialisation; life after biopower; the politics of afterlife
Posthumanism and death; technologies of afterlives; materialities of afterlife
What the post-literary is; electronic literature; digital arts
Life after gender; constructions of sexuality
Biographies, memoirs, elegies; posthumous and unfinished literature; auto-thanatography
Scientific theories of post-life; epidemics and end-of-the-world scenarios
The reception of literature; fame, posterity, influence; lateness, late style
Gothic fiction; supernatural representations of the afterlife
Animal afterlife; Other afterlives
We are the Editorial Board at antae who aim to publish this special issue entitled After(-)Lives