Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

To be young was very heaven

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David Niven in A Matter of Life and Death

Note: Every Friday, The A.V. Club, my favorite pop cultural site on the Internet, throws out a question to its staff members for discussion, and I’ve decided that I want to join in on the fun. This week’s question: “Assuming the afterlife exists, in what fictional world do you want to spend it?

Years ago, whenever I thought about the possibility of an afterlife, I’d find myself indulging in a very specific fantasy. After my death, I’d wake up lying on a beach, alone, dressed for some reason in a dark suit pretty much like the one Kyle MacLachlan wore on Twin Peaks. The world in which I’d find myself would be more or less like our own, except maybe a little emptier, and as I explored it, I’d gradually come into contact with other departed souls who had awoken into much the same situation. We’d be curious about who or what had brought us here, but the answers wouldn’t be obvious, and we’d suspect that we were all part of some kind of ongoing test or game, the rules of which were still obscure. And we’d spend the rest of eternity trying to figure out what, exactly, we were supposed to be doing there. (I’m not the first to imagine something like this: Philip Jose Farmer’s Riverworld series is based on a similar premise. And much later, I was amazed to find the same image in the opening scenes of A Matter of Life and Death by Powell and Pressburger, in which the airman played by David Niven—who isn’t really dead, although he doesn’t know this yet—wakes up to find himself on a beach in Devon. He thinks he’s in heaven, and he’s pleased to meet a dog there: “I’d always hoped there would be dogs.”)

What’s funny, of course, is that what I’ve described isn’t so far from the world in which we’ve actually found ourselves. We’re all born into an ongoing story, its meaning unknown, and we’re left to explore it and figure out the answers together. The difference is that we enter it as babies, and by the time we’re old enough to have any agency, we’ve already started to take it for granted. There’s a window of time in childhood when everything in the world is exciting and new—I’m seeing my daughter go through it now—but most of us slowly lose it, as our lives become increasingly governed by assumptions and routine. That’s a necessary part of growing older: as a practical matter, if we faced every day as another adventure, we’d quickly burn ourselves out, although not before rendering ourselves unbearable to everyone else we knew. Yet there’s also a tremendous loss here, and we spend much of our adult lives trying to recapture that magic in a provisional fashion. Part of the reason I became a novelist was to consciously reinvigorate that sense of possibility, by laboriously renewing it one story at a time. (If writers often seem unduly obsessed with death, it’s partially because the field attracts people of that temperament: we’re engaged either in constructing a kind of literary immorality for ourselves or in increasing the number of potential lives we can experience in the limited time we have.)

Map of Middle-earth

On a similar level, when we fantasize about spending our afterlives in Narnia or the Star Trek universe, we’re really talking about recapturing that sense of childlike discovery with our adult sensibilities and capacities intact. This planet is as wondrous as any product of fantasy world-building, but by the time we have the freedom and ability to explore it, we’ve been tied down by other responsibilities, or simply by a circumscribed sense of the possibilities at our disposal. So much speculative fiction—or really fiction of any kind—is devoted to rekindling the sense of wonder that we should, in theory, be able to feel just by looking all around us, if we hadn’t gotten so used to it. Video games of the open world variety are designed to reignite some of that old curiosity, and there’s even an entire subreddit devoted to talking about the real world as if it were a massively multiplayer online game, with billions of active players. It’s a cute conceit, but it’s also a reminder of how little we take advantage of the potential that life affords. If this were a game, we’d be constantly exploring, talking to strangers, and poking our heads into whatever byways caught our interest. Instead, we tend to treat it as if we were on rails, except in those rare times when the range of possibilities seems to expand for everyone, as it did to Wordsworth during the French Revolution: “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven.”

This inability to live outside our own limits explains why the problem of boredom is one that all creators of speculative afterlives, from Dante to Mark Twain, have been forced to confront, with mixed results. Even eternal bliss might start to feel like a burden if extended beyond the heat death of the universe, and to imagine that we’ll merely be content to surrender ourselves to that ecstasy also means giving up something precious about ourselves. Dante’s vision of purgatory is compelling because it turns the afterlife into a learning process of its own—a series of challenges we need to surmount to climb that mountain—and his conception of paradise is significantly less interesting, both poetically and theologically. But if we can start to see heaven as a place in which that sense of childlike discovery is restored, only with full maturity and understanding, it starts to feel a lot more plausible. And, more practically, it points a way forward right now. As Wordsworth says later in the same poem:

[They] were called upon to exercise their skill,
Not in Utopia, subterranean fields,
Or some unsecreted island, Heaven knows where!
But in the very world, which is the world
Of all of us,—the place where in the end
We find our happiness, or not at all!

That revolution, like most utopian ideals, didn’t end as most of its proponents would have wished. But in this life, in incremental ways, it’s the closest thing we have to paradise. Or to put it even more vividly: “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

Written by nevalalee

February 27, 2015 at 9:34 am

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