David Eagleman, a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, Texas, has written a book called SUM: Forty Tales from the Afterlives.
It’s a work of fiction, being made up of forty descriptions of alternative versions of the afterlife: all the product of Mr Eagleman’s fertile imagination.
I mention the book partly because it sounds very interesting (I’ll be ordering a copy as soon as I’ve finished writing this article), and partly because it sounds as though it’s got an uncannily similar structure and purpose to a work of fiction that I wrote myself.
The work of mine to which I refer was written in the 1990s, over a dozen years ago. I sent it round to a few literary agents at the time but none of them were interested. Either it wasn’t a very fashionable subject back then – it predates the current explosion in interest in religion and atheism – or it just wasn’t not very good. To this day it remains unpublished. Here’s a (slightly updated) sample from the book so that you can decide on its merits or otherwise for yourself.
The Concept Behind the Book
The premise of the book is the conceit that although the world appears to be becoming an increasingly uniform place in terms of culture, with the mass media disseminating fewer and fewer ideas to more and more people, each community or town on the planet has its own unique belief system and set of myths that are fully functioning just below the surface comformity. These beliefs and myths have been preserved for many hundreds of years, since the time that communities were isolated islands of habitation in a world in which travel was extremely difficult and communication was even harder, allowing each community to develop its own concepts independently and unhindered. They are deeply held convictions that to this day go unnoticed by the casual outside observer (or even by generations of relatively recent incomers to the community).
My book is a portrayal of the hidden belief systems adopted by communities within the British Isles, because that’s where I live and where I have had an opportunity to investigate the phenomenon. Exactly the same hidden belief structure can be found in every community in the world – including your own.
Here’s an example if such a belief.
At some unknown time in the depths of the dark ages the people of Chesterfield in Derbyshire conceived a new theory to explain the observation that when an animal dies its flesh decomposes and disappears from its body, leaving only the underlying scaffolding of bones that held the creature together.
They observed that the flesh of a dead animal mysteriously transmuted from solid meat and muscle into a seething mass of wriggling, squirming maggots.
Rather than seeing the maggots as scavengers on the dead flesh, the people decided that they were a new manifestation of the dead creature itself. The creature had metamorphosed into a new form and had been reborn.
The people realised that any rebirth must be a progression, because life is nothing if it isn’t a journey forwards to an unknown but better place.
Thus maggots, being the creatures of rebirth and therefore the next manifestation en route to that better place, must be superior to the creature from which they were born.
Today you’re most likely to see maggots when you come across road kill or when you enter a fishing tackle shop, but in the middle ages, when all death was a closer companion to life, the population were familiar with something else that turned into maggots if it wasn’t buried soon enough.
The inhabitants of Chesterfield concluded that because a person can transform into maggots after death this must mean that maggots are spiritually superior beings to people.
What’s more, maggots don’t remain maggots for long. In their turn they are transformed into yet another creature – a creature that, because it’s the result of yet another level of rebirth, must be an even higher life form than maggots.
If maggots are spiritually one level higher than humans, then it stands to reason that flies must be two. Flies must be truly transcendent beings.
The flies of which I talk are the same flies that buzz around your living room on a hot summer’s day irritating you. They irritate not because they are irritating in themselves, but because you are irritable. Your irritability is a sure sign that you are a lower and less enlightened life form than the flies.
Because the true nature of flies has long been known to the people of Chesterfield, to this day flies are welcomed into people’s homes as honoured quests.
At mealtimes special food is often placed on the dinner table to attract flies to share meals with the inhabitants of a household. (Perhaps the fly that comes to the table today will be the reincarnation of a dear but dead relative.)
It is considered a great privilege indeed if a fly should choose to land on your plate while you’re actually eating from it. The larger the fly the better. Bluebottles are particularly venerated, not only because of their large size but also due to their iridescent colouring which is seen as a sure sign of their transcendent nature.
Should a person be lucky enough to have a fly alight on their own plate of food the fly is allowed to sample the dish at its leisure, coating the food with its digestive secretions as it does so (Flies don’t have mouths, only tubes. In order to ingest nutrients they first have to discharge digestive juices onto the food in order to turn it to a liquid which they can then suck up). Only once the fly has flown away can the person finally take the food into his or her own mouth and eat the freshly consecrated dish.
People in Chesterfield often die of food poisoning, and thus soon turn into flies themselves.
Links: David Eagleman