A Reader’s Guide for Thinking About Death
By: Louise Van Oel
Sometimes I wish I were religious because I would love to believe in an afterlife. Humans are one of the few species cursed with the foreknowledge that death is inevitably how life ends, and this fact is distressing. I think perhaps the very human need for comfort to cope with that knowledge is part of the reason we have religions at all. Cats, for example, don’t need any gods. I look into the eyes of my cat Snorri, and there is nothing going on in there that suggests he might be aware of his own mortality, even though he doles out death to small garden animals on an almost daily basis. He is simply a fluffy white deity playing with the lives of puny mortals for entertainment, and death cannot touch him.
My cat’s favourite hobby may be killing for pleasure, but you’ll be glad to know mine isn’t. Perhaps a little too predictably for an English and history major, it’s reading. Coincidentally, my latest fiction and non-fiction reads both happened to be about people who knew they would die relatively soon, and what they decided to do with the time they had left. Normally I hate thinking about death (as I think most people would understand), but I’m glad I didn’t let that stop me from picking these up because they are both phenomenal books.
Or What You Will by Jo Walton is a novel narrated by… honestly, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what he is, but the (nameless) narrator could nebulously be described as a disembodied personification of artistic inspiration living in the mind of an author, Sylvia Harrison. He is essentially a grown-up and more artistically helpful version of an imaginary best friend. This being has served the function of breathing life into characters across Sylvia’s works, and has managed to gain proper sentience of his own along the way.
Now, he is beginning to grow afraid of death. Sylvia is getting on a bit in age, after all, and being a formless, imaginary creature trapped in her head (the “bone cave,” as he calls it), the narrator will die when she does. However, he has thought of a possible escape from death—for both of them. A character he once inhabited, the wizard Pico della Mirandola in Sylvia’s most famous literary universe (a Shakespearean Renaissance Italy), sacrificed himself to defeat Death. In that world, since the events of the novel in which his sacrifice takes place, people only die if they choose to. So, the narrator hatches a plan: find a way to bring the author into her own fictional universe, and then neither of them has to die.
The narrator hounds Sylvia for hundreds of pages, across reality and fiction, to convince the reluctant owner of his “bone cave” to try his plan, which she believes to be an impossible fantasy. Walton’s book is intricately meta throughout, interweaving chapters dense with historical information about the Italian Renaissance with literal Shakespeare fanfiction and what reads suspiciously like autobiography, all encapsulated together in a (relatively) cohesive fictional narrative. I can’t say much more about the plot because I don’t want to spoil anything important, but also because it is far too complicated for me to even attempt further explanation. Trust me, it is a unique, impressive book.
Sylvia Harrison willingly admits that her story of Pico’s sacrifice to defeat death blatantly plagiarised that of Jesus, so it’s fitting that he was the subject of my latest non-fiction choice, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan. Dr. Aslan’s monumentally difficult project is an attempt to “separate the art from the artist” in terms of the historical Jesus and the religion he (largely accidentally) started. Though it is near impossible to establish (m)any concrete historical facts about Jesus himself, the historical context Aslan illuminates to make educated guesses about Jesus’s life is quite well fleshed out thanks to the quintessentially Roman obsession with record-keeping, and it paints a fascinating picture of the Jewish resistance he was a part of.
Aslan explains that it was highly likely Jesus knew exactly how he would die long before he did: as the latest in a line of Jewish prophets who claimed the mantle of Messiah, he was perpetually committing active sedition against the Roman state. Sedition is roughly defined as speech and/or actions inciting rebellion against an established authority. Since claiming to be Messiah was equivalent to declaring yourself King of the Jews, and so directly undermining Roman sovereignty over their province of Judea, it certainly qualified. The punishment reserved (almost exclusively) for this crime was crucifixion, also known as one of the most sadistic ways to shove other people off this mortal coil ever invented. Thus, the stories of every would-be Messiah before Jesus had all ended the same way: with the poor prophets nailed to a tree.
Jesus’s story turned out to be no exception, except for one crucial thing: after he died, some of his followers started spreading the word that he wasn’t actuallydead because their Messiah had been an earthly incarnation of God Himself. This was a radical new proposition, and, funnily enough, Jesus (a traditionalist Jewish man himself) almost certainly did not originate the idea. After all, the claim that a man could be equal to God in any way was a terrible kind of heresy to the Jewish people, and it’s what caused Jesus’s group to split from Judaism and eventually become the Christian religions we have today. I could go on about this fascinating history forever, but this is supposed to be a short(ish) article, so I shall restrain myself. If you see me around in real life, ask me about it. Seriously. Please. I’ll buy you a coffee for your trouble.
Whatever else Jesus may have been like as a person, he’s likely to have been quite brave: two gospels record him as having said, “Do not think I have come to bring peace on earth. I have not come to bring peace, but the sword.” (Matthew 10.34 | Luke 12.51). While it is unlikely he said these words verbatim, as the gospels were written several decades after he died, they reflect a rebellious spirit which someone who voluntarily risked an excruciating death would almost certainly have possessed. It seems that Jesus intended to continue opposing Roman rule for as long as he could keep getting away with it, but he knew that that couldn’t be forever.
It's cliché but true that everything ends eventually: rebellions, lives, worlds, even my tangents on ancient history. While I was reading Or What You Will and simultaneously learning more about the historical Jesus in Zealot, I started to do a little self-reflection on what I could do to live on past my own end. Unfortunately for me, I don’t think that I can escape death in the literal, Christian sense. It doesn’t seem to matter how much I would like to believe it. What I’m getting from Jo Walton, on the other hand, is that it’s part of life to fear death, but we can achieve some semblance of immortality through writing.
I think that is more the kind of escape route that appeals to me. It’s certainly a motivational thought for pushing through writer’s block! After all, isn’t it just the most wonderful idea to picture someone reading words that you wrote—hearing your voice—centuries after you’re gone?
You don’t have to become a famous author to have a written legacy, to have someone be able to find your ancient notebook full of drafted poems and stories and feel like they’re getting to know you. If you ask me, the most mundane ancient scribbles that have come down to us are the most precious of death-defying acts. We all deserve that kind of afterlife, and if you pour your genuine self into what you write, you’ll have left your mark on the world.
Aslan, Reza. Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth. Penguin Random House, 2013.
Walton, Jo. Or What You Will. Tor Books, 2020.