In this foray into what Hamlet famously styled the “undiscover’d country from whose bourn no traveller returns,” Judy Bachrach looks at recent accounts of those claiming to have returned from the undiscovered country in order to suggest what her readers’—and, indeed, her own—“impending itineraries” might be like.
A sworn agnostic, for whom religious faith is unappealing, Bachrach prides herself on her adamantine skepticism. “I am a journalist,” she declares, “have been since age 22, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s not to trust anyone completely on any subject they haven’t either witnessed or experienced.” Consequently, she looks at the accounts of various individuals’ experiences beyond the living from a decidedly untraditional point of view. This makes her an ideal recorder of testimony that most religious readers (your humble reviewer included) might be inclined to discredit.
Of course, in the West, since at least the 18th century, faith-based readings of what death might portend have undergone more or less continual attack. John McManners, in his witty study Death and the Enlightenment (1981), nicely characterized how the traditional view of the afterlife fared vis-à-vis the rise of scientific investigation when he observed how it had “advantages corresponding to its disadvantages,” by which he meant that “while it could not be incorporated or enriched by new systems of thought, it also could not be contradicted by them. It was in the powerful defensive position, from the point of view of abstract logic, of being irrelevant.”
This is certainly Judy Bachrach’s view—or at least the view with which she began this study of the scarcely chronicled afterlife. At the end of her labors, she is honest enough to admit to her dissatisfaction with plenary unbelief. And indeed, her most striking observation is in the final chapter, where she confesses,
[D]eath is not the worst thing that can happen, and from the research I’ve done, I’ve come to conclude that it is not really death many of us fear. It’s emptiness. That is what my mother feared. She was afraid of the nothing. And by the time I learned that there was no nothing, it was too late to tell her. She wouldn’t have understood.
This may not be an entirely unambiguous intimation of immortality, but it is certainly a recognition that nihilism hardly offers a tenable alternative to the traditional readings of these matters.
Another striking thing about the testimony here is how reminiscent it is of the experiences of soldiers who fought in the trenches during the Great War, many of whom, like Bachrach’s “death travelers,” never felt comfortable trying to convey to noncombatants what it was like to undergo something so foreign to ordinary, sublunary experience. Wilfred Owen became so exasperated with what he regarded as the invincible ignorance of civilians that he even extended his contempt to their favorite poet, charging Tennyson with having been “always a great child,” adding only, “so should I have been, but for Beaumont Hamel.”
Again and again in Bachrach’s pages, one hears a similar impatience in the attitudes of her subjects to those unfamiliar with the afterlife. One can be skeptical about any number of things pertaining to the testimony of these death travelers in this meticulously researched book, but that nearly all of them exhibit this shared reticence, this shared detachment from the land of the living, is deeply compelling.
In all events, Glimpsing Heaven is full of lively, vivid, engaging reporting. And it is delightfully funny. As here, where a death traveler named Jayne recalls meeting a tall antinomian beyond the bourn, to whom she says:
“Everything since I came over to this side—everything has been beautiful with perfect love. But what about all my sins?”
The tall man responded: “There are no sins, not the way you think of them on Earth. The only thing that matters is what you think. What is in your heart?”
Jayne looked into her heart. She cannot explain to this day how she quite managed this feat, but she says that’s exactly what happened. She gazed straight into it. And it amazes her now when she speaks about it because, as she explains, her voice tinged with irony, “I was an Episcopalian, and it’s a very nice religion, but we don’t get into things like that.”
But there she was, a dead Episcopalian high on a hill in Wonderland “enabled to look into the core of me.”