In the Midst of Death

If the universe can’t outlive or transcend individual consciousness, does death even really exist?

By John Crowley

The Garden of Death, by Hugo Simberg, 1896.

The Garden of Death, by Hugo Simberg, 1896. Ateneum, Helsinki, Finland.

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.

How perceptions and humors travel through the body, woodcut from René Descartes’ Treatise of Man, 1664.

How perceptions and humors travel through the body, woodcut from René Descartes’ Treatise of Man, 1664. 

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.


I was then in the middle of writing a four-volume novel much concerned with the nature of time and the malleability of history—as it can be malleable in fiction. A leading character in the novel is the actual historical personage Giordano Bruno, a heretic philosopher of the Renaissance who was obsessed with the workings of memory in the capture of time. Bruno practiced a mnemonic system in which symbols and images of things and ideas to be remembered are distributed across a series of linked places, and then retrieved by moving in imagination from place to place—a practice with a long history, which Bruno expanded into an impossible and universe-containing spatialization of time, the past, present and future embodied in a rotating pageant of mythological and imagined beings all available at once to the mind. I don’t know if Bruno could actually employ his fantastic systems in any practical way, but of course in my fictions he could and does.

Bruno was one of the earliest Western philosophers to posit that the physical world is infinite. He believed that the stars were suns, like our sun, and that around them other planets circled. (He also thought that the planets were great conscious beings, who went in circles around their suns because they chose to.) He understood that his conception of an infinite universe implied the absence of a center: the universe was a sphere whose center was everywhere and circumference nowhere, a Scholastic theological paradox that Bruno took as physical fact. He thought he stood at the center of an infinite universe extending eternally outward, but he thought every other mind was also at that center. He held an atomic theory of matter in which every one of the infinite number of atoms that compose the infinite universe has an infinity at its center, an illimitable power Bruno called “soul,” a quality from which we derive our own aliveness (since we’re made of atoms) and which he took to pervade the universe just because the atoms fill it up, even where we perceive emptiness or vacuum, touching each other at their spherical perimeters.

Doctors don’t know everything really. They understand matter, not spirit. And you and I live in spirit.

—William Saroyan, 1943

Bruno wasn’t a scientist; his mathematics were primitive and his physics speculative. But his thought went further than any of the time’s protoscientists: Copernicus, Galileo, who are now denominated the forebears of our science. It wasn’t only that he conceived of an infinite populated universe; he also described an infinity of stuff within it, and within the human person responding to it. In The Expulsion of the Triumphant Beast (1584) he writes that “[The gods] take delight in the multiform representation of all things, in the multiform fruit of all minds, because they are pleased with all things that exist and with all representations that are made; they are no less concerned that these should exist, and give orders and permission that they be made.” In Bruno’s memory systems, the gods stood for the creative impulses of the universe, at once disciplined and endlessly fructifying. It’s central to his thought that the mind is as capable of an understanding powered by the gods as the universe is capable of coming into infinite being through their labors. The “soul” or power or illimitable energy at the heart of each atom shines through like a lamp, and the shadows of the world cast in our souls by that light are the world in all its infinity. (I can’t say I understand this entirely, or how the atoms that make up our own souls might also illuminate us; it may well be that Bruno himself hadn’t worked it out.)

In one of the more gnomic descriptions of modern cosmology, our universe (which is now considered to be only one universe among a possibly infinite number of others) is not made of the hard, infrangible matter we think of it being, but is more like a holographic projection from a flat plane. Again I don’t really understand this, though I trust them when they say the thesis is the consequence of ineluctable mathematics. But a universe that is in fact a bright projection of an underlying order, able (at least theoretically) to vanish entirely away in a moment—small enough to fit in your pocket and at the same time infinite in all directions—sounds to me like what Bruno meant.

In 1600 Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake in the Campo de’ Fiori in Rome. It’s said that he spoke up to the ecclesiastical court that condemned him, saying that they were surely more afraid to pass this sentence than he was to receive it. By all reports—though there aren’t many—he faced his horrific death with equanimity; he refused the crucifix held up to him, which the authorities thought might give him consolation, a chance to repent and win eternal life. I have often wondered about that equanimity. Was he (as some said at the time) a madman, who believed that angels—or demons—would arrive just in time to snatch him from the flames? Was he just unaware of what was to happen? Was he toughing it out, like some cocky thug in a 1930s prison movie going to the chair? Or like a slave laborer in the Gulag, had he learned over seven years’ imprisonment how to do the work, suffer the deprivation of each eternal day, not looking forward or back? I don’t pretend to really know, but I wonder if Bruno had perceived in his own way that he didn’t need to win eternal life because he was sure he already had it.

Hanuman Revives Rama and Lakshmana with Medicinal Herbs, workshop active in the generation after Nainsukh, c. 1790. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Cynthia Hazen Polsky, 1987.

Within a novel, of course, a Bruno or anyone else can contain eternities within his memory, and (as Bruno believed) have power over them by that means as well. After all, what exists in books is what the characters see and know; the characters possess and embody it, it extends outward from them in auras, but there is no more of it than the characters can hold, and the only reality it has is its power over the reader via the feelings and fates of the characters. Don Quixote and Odysseus are as large as we are, even though nothing more can happen to them and they can do nothing more than they do in their stories, wherein they have endless lives extending infinitely in all directions. But this endlessness and eternity are also not things, are nothing but effects of the words “endless” and “infinite,” and they withdraw into a true vacuum when the book is shut, like a slide projector turned off, all the things shown in all their color and detail extinguished. Is that then why I laughed at the prospect of a vanishing universe? Was it because, by feeling—no, by knowing, having good evidence—that the world in which I exist is at once endless and fictional, I could participate in the experience of those people I made, the experience of living in worlds made of words? Why would that be liberating, or delightful? I’ve always thought that there is an awful poignance in being a character in fiction, for all its advantages (e.g., spending so little time at work, rarely needing to go to the bathroom, and skipping the boring parts of life generally). I don’t know: but I know that whenever I experience a brief, blessed intimation that the only existence the world can have is within the living consciousness that I inhabit—and that “the world” includes all that is and all that can be, including my own death, including the persistence of the world after my death and its existence before my birth—the feeling resembles nothing so much as the charmed feeling of thinking up a book, or reading a great one.


That’s where I seemed to arrive in my own thought, with no particular mode of justifying the conception, or working out what it entailed. I am actually often apprehensive about dying—afraid of being terrified by its sudden onset, like being run over by a train, more than by the fact of it, or of being dead, which doesn’t much alarm me (so far). I didn’t think of my conception as ameliorative, or wonderfully heartening, but I did think it was so.

Then recently, in an unrelated mood, I began pondering that common paradox of mystical discourse, whether Christian or Buddhist, Zen or Sufi—the Moment in Eternity. Common, because we’ve all heard it and taken it to mean some sort of apprehension of the divine or the All in some way the mystic gets and we don’t; and a paradox, because if you experience such a moment, then it can’t ever stop, can it? It’s a moment in eternity, and every such moment would by definition be as long as eternity itself, just as any subset of infinity is itself infinite. So then what would that moment be like to experience? What would the next moment be like? Wouldn’t every subsequent moment, and all preceding or possible moments, just be further aspects of the Moment in Eternity that had swallowed up everything like a true vacuum, both the infinite and the infinitesimal? And if the mystics are right and we can all access and experience such a moment if we meditate or pray or win grace or whatever, then aren’t we already living within it, only some of us haven’t realized it yet?

To think in this way changes how existence is envisioned. We commonly speak of living as though a life were like a candle lit in a room: the candle’s lit at birth, it shows the room; the candle burns, it burns down, it goes out, but the room that was briefly illuminated remains. But what if the room, the candle, the experience of the room and the candle, the candle’s extinguishing, and the room’s continuance, actually all exist at once, always, and only, in a Moment in Eternity? We seem to sense something of this: even though we feel certain that we’ll die and everything will go on just the same without our presence, we are also prone to feeling that existence can’t go on after our deaths—it seems impossible. Have a Moment in Eternity and you’ll dissolve the paradox. You’ll know that any amount of consciousness is all consciousness; that life, and being, and our apprehension of it, go on forever in all directions within every moment. This is why, probably, the average mystic is also usually unafraid of dying or of being dead: death and dying, and his or her own being dead, exist in the Moment in Eternity that he or she experiences, and in fact cannot exist anywhere else. The reason there’s no death is that all time is now, including all the time when we are not.

I knew even as I formulated it that this notion was problematic, to say the least. It resembles the ontological proof of the existence of God, a linguistic device anybody can see through. It seems to imply an inescapable solipsism; it struck me even as I formulated it as funny. But why did those instances of mass evanescence that I thereafter learned about—the vanishing of actualities on the stock markets and then of the physical universe in the bowels of the Alps—seem to lend the idea some kind of credence? Just because it too made me laugh aloud to think of?

It is not a case we are treating; it is a living, palpitating, alas, too often suffering fellow creature.

—John Brown, 1904

There are laughing philosophers and dry-eyed philosophers and gloomy philosophers. In their almost entirely opposite ways, Montaigne and Bruno were laughers—not laughing in scorn or indifference but in the delight of understanding. My friend even as he was dying of cancer remained delighted by himself and those he loved, unable to get into death, though knowing he must. Bruno’s conclusions about infinities and eternities, the stars like a jeweled bracelet in the hand, were doubtless affected by his desires—as no doubt are mine. I can’t say for sure if his understanding of the universe supported him as he went to his death; and I don’t know if my conception will help me at the same crossroads.

The question has begun to take on some urgency. Not long ago my wife came home from a consultation with her mother’s cardiologist and called up the stairs to me that those “pulled-muscle” pains I’d been having in my chest were angina and I should go to the doctor now. My blood pressure’s always been low, I’m a nonsmoker, not fat, I take my statins, I’d recently seen for myself the ultrasound of my carotid artery (“clean as a whistle” said the technician), and so I had every reason to suppose this was unnecessary—a condition medically described as “fool’s paradise.” Of course it soon appeared that I did indeed have coronary artery disease, for which I was promptly treated. Though the doctor tells me my longevity may well be unaffected, I certainly was made to think freshly of that longevity as a line with a terminus.

We all die. It’s said that we all die alone, but what that may mean we can’t know. My idea that there is no death is admittedly a negative proposition, and it is famously difficult to prove a negative. I certainly cannot prove it, or even test it, by not dying. Wittgenstein claims rightly that death is not an event in life, though dying certainly can be, and in fact sometimes (certainly not always) dying can be the locus of a Moment in Eternity itself, the soul flooded with richness and somehow in possession of the universe. (We know this from the experiences of people who died and then were resuscitated, or in some other way did not stay dead, but maybe they don’t actually count as having died at all.) It is true, and many of us have noticed it, that even for the fretful and afraid who cling to life, there can come at the end a brief time of calm clarity where all of that fades away; we usually think of it as a goodbye peace, the soul resigning life and its claims there at the frontier, but maybe it’s not that. I’ve actually witnessed it as a kind of inexplicable good cheer. Maybe it’s an understanding, granted by the dissolving physical structures, that the self does not actually at that moment face death or approach death, but has always had death as well as everything else within its view or at its fingertips: that the vision of death—of being extinguished, buried, disintegrating—is death, which can only exist as a part of life. In the midst of death we are in life.

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