In 1910, Henry James published an essay titled “Is There Life After Death?”
Probably not, is the answer he starts with. For one thing, a lot of people don’t even seem to care whether they have immortal souls. “How can there be a personal and a differentiated life ‘after,’ ” he sniffs, “for those for whom there has been so little of one before?” The consciousnesses of people who don’t care about their souls are almost certainly too boring to need to be preserved. In James’s opinion, in fact, it’s not clear why such people exist even once, unless they do so for the same purpose “slugs and jellyfish” do, to provide “amusement” and to represent “wealth and variety” for others in the universe who are more spiritually inclined.
This is divinely snobbish, but as a logical argument, hard to take very seriously. James goes on, however, to raise a more substantive objection to the afterlife: materialism. Science teaches that “we are abjectly and inveterately shut up in our material organs,” he writes, and most people’s experience confirms this. As we get older, we become more and more aware of the limits and compromises that our bodies inflict on our minds, and in the end, we are forced to acknowledge that “even at our highest flights of personality,” we are “the very stuff of the abject actual.” Our hopes and passions turn out to be “but flowers sprouting in that eminently and infinitely diggable soil.” Perhaps the most dismaying confirmation comes when we observe that people “die piecemeal.” After a certain age, most of us become aware of the encroachment of partial death even in ourselves. And if it’s possible for our personality to decline “by inches”—in my own case, the ability to recall people’s names is fast becoming a lost cause—it’s hard to sustain a belief that the mind is ineffable, and hard to resist the conclusion that mind is just an effect produced by “the poor palpable, ponderable, probeable, laboratory-brain.”
Then there’s the paucity of ghosts. This sounds pretty eccentric, as arguments against the afterlife go, but hey, we’re talking about Henry James. What he cares about is personality, and what is a ghost but the essence of the personal? In his nonfiction, it turns out, James doesn’t believe in ghosts, however persuasively he may have written about them in his fiction. (He admits he finds mediums and trances interesting, but only as evidence of the personalities of the mediums.) In James’s opinion, no one has ever come back from death for a visit. Which to James’s mind, more or less proves that no one continues to exist as an individual person after death. Because: No one came back? Really? No one? Could the afterlife be so overwhelmingly interesting that absolutely no one who gets there is willing to spare a moment to check in on the people they used to care so much about? If another world does exist, could the border between it and our world be so impenetrable that none of the greatest and bravest souls who ever lived can figure out a way to cross it, even briefly? And even if we the living are relatively speaking very boring, and even if the obstacles to returning are very high, isn’t a universal failure to come back just incredibly rude?
We think of the particular cases of those who could have been backed, as we call it, not to fail, on occasion, of somehow reaching us. We recall the forces of passion, of reason, of personality, that lived in them, and what such forces had made them, to our sight, capable of; and then we say, conclusively, “Talk of triumphant identity if they, wanting to triumph, haven’t done it!”
If you’re dead to the appeal of society to that extent, then, in Henry James’s opinion, you must really be dead.
In the second part of his essay, however, James changes his mind. He writes that the change began for him with a suspicion that he wasn’t quite sure about the afterlife, after all. He felt he needed to investigate by “trying to take the measure of my consciousness”—only to discover that it wasn’t at all clear that consciousness could be measured, that it had a beginning or an end. Mind seemed to him to be at least as large as the world that contained it, any angle of which it could observe and reflect, at will. “The more and the more one asked of it,” James writes, “the more and the more it appeared to give.” It seemed capable of giving more, in fact, than James thought he could come to the end of in the course of even the longest lifetime. His work as a novelist, in particular, brought this home to him:
. . . it is above all as an artist that I appreciate this beautiful and enjoyable independence of thought and more especially this assault of the boundlessly multiplied personal relation (my own), which carries me beyond even any “profoundest” observation of this world whatever, and any mortal adventure, and refers me to realizations I am condemned as yet but to dream of.
If consciousness is infinite, how can it come to an end? Once we’ve been given a taste of eternity, to yank it away would be, James writes, “a practical joke of the lowest description.” Fate couldn’t possibly be so “vulgar.”
I wish it were true that the universe couldn’t possibly be vulgar, but I’m not sure. I have to admit, however, that writing has sometimes brought me to a similar sense of consciousness as limitless. Writing about life is a strange activity. You take a portion of life that you have lived, and you spend a second portion remembering and re-experiencing the first, in order to create a representation and share it. Life goes on while you are doing the re-experiencing; life runs away, in fact. And the ratio of the second portion to the first, it soon becomes clear, may be any number. To write my first novel, I drew on a year of my life; the writing itself took more than five years. There are hours that it would be easy for me to spend months writing about. It has often happened that I’ve spent a day writing in my journal about the day before. Mathematically, this incommensurability is suggestive. Any set that can be put into one-to-one correspondence with one of its subsets can be shown to be infinite. As a corollary, therefore, since you can spend as much of your life as you want thinking about as brief a stretch of it as you’re interested in, life must be infinite. It can always be described more thoughtfully, more carefully. There is no limit to how much attention you can pay. Which doesn’t mean, mathematically speaking, alas, that it doesn’t or can’t have a beginning and an end. The moments in a life could be like the points in a line segment, which begins at A and ends at B but can be subdivided to any fineness.
It’s suggestive, too, though in a darker way, that the practice of writing, once capable of convincing James that the soul was eternal, looks likely to become an activity that very few humans will still do at any length, a decade or so from now, thanks to the advent of generative artificial intelligence.