Once last fall, world stock markets lost a trillion dollars in value in a single day, or maybe it was a week, and I found the evident impossibility of this somehow at once appalling and exhilarating. I wondered why—why it was exhilarating, that is. Was it the suggestion, the proof even, that this supposed value had not been actual at all, had been nothing, a projection, a magic trick? Why would that be exhilarating? Some of my own money was vanishing (as my wife reminded me, asking why I was laughing), and to most humans, the sense of a vast and necessary structure dissolving into thin air like Prospero’s cloud-capp’d towers might be gloom-inducing in the extreme.
Along about the same time, the Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland was being set up for its first test run, and there was speculation that the machine could so focus the random possibilities of particle collision as to swallow up the planet and all of us with it. A mini black hole might be created, doomsayers warned, a spot of “true vacuum” that could actually draw in the entire universe at the speed of light—all matter and energy and all time and space—and leave nothing at all behind. Nothing at all.
This possibility, like the vanishing trillions of cash value, was exhilarating too, only awe-inspiring rather than appalling—godlike laughter as against demonic glee.
Not long before these two possibilities stepped forward (the trillions are still gone, for now, but the wrapping-up of space and time appears unlikely, for now), I found I could think a thought that seems of a piece with these. Like them it relates to the sort of universe we live in, the idea that we can actually know what sort that is, and the consequences of such knowledge, for one self (mine) and for others whom I have read and thought about.
My thought or insight was that there is no death. It wasn’t any kind of conviction about life after death, i.e., continuing on in the spirit realm, or passing into another form, or persisting as consciousness after the death of the body, none of which (at least when stated thus baldly) has ever had much resonance for me. It was something like the opposite: that the universe can’t outlive or transcend consciousness.
The first inklings of my notion had actually arisen some years before, when a friend was dying of aggressive prostate cancer at less than sixty years of age (“The early birds are checking in,” he said of our generation). He was an inordinately cheerful man with a huge appetite for existence, several kids by three wives, and a relisher of his own past experiences and delights, of which it seemed he had forgotten none. He was hardly in denial about dying, enjoying what was left to him to enjoy, but he was fretful too—he didn’t know how he was supposed to manage this looming end. I sent him a quotation from Montaigne I like: “If you know not how to die, never trouble yourself; nature will fully instruct you upon the spot; she will exactly do that business for you; take you no care.” He enjoyed this and found so much comfort in reading it over that his wife said his printout of it would become illegible, wrinkled and stained with hospital orange juice and sweat, and have to be replaced now and then. After his death, his wife wrote to me about how sad it seemed that he died relatively young, with so much more to see and do and feel. And though of course I had to concede that it was impossible not to think in that way, I described to her this inchoate idea I had that somehow any amount of consciousness is everything, is all, is the whole of existence. One moment of looking through the window at the world is the world. It is as much of the world as any life, no matter how long, will ever have. A short life is as full as a long one.
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