Visions of life from encounters with deathSep 29, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 03 • By EDWARD SHORT
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.”
Jewish studies takes a new look at the Old WorldSep 29, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 03 • By SUSANNE KLINGENSTEIN
For digital natives, studying classic English and American literature in college is about as attractive as mowing the lawn. When authorities require it, digital natives will do it as a chore: They find a command of humanistic knowledge irrelevant to their sense of self. They see no compelling reason to know the difference between George Eliot and T. S. Eliot.
Why aren’t we doing more to relieve pain?Sep 22, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 02 • By WRAY HERBERT
Hyrum Neizer was a successful Salt Lake City truck driver and a happily married man until the headaches began. Then, suddenly, for no apparent reason, he was disabled by pain—pain so punishing that he often ended up in the emergency room. He sought help from physician after physician, but the experts were either stumped or skeptical.
Napoleon on the downward slopeSep 22, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 02 • By JAMES M. BANNER JR.
History is rewritten and rehashed—in the lingo, it is “revised”—for many reasons, some of which have nothing to do with politics, ideology, or current academic trends. Sometimes, the reason is the sudden availability of never-before-seen documents; sometimes it’s a historian’s more thorough exploitation of long-known documents.
How the study of words leads to thoughtSep 15, 2014, Vol. 20, No. 01 • By SUSAN KRISTOL
It takes a daring man, or a very erudite professor, to name a book Philology. Hardly anybody seems to know what the word means. And for that very reason, the professional organization of classicists to which I belong—the American Philological Association (APA)—is currently in the process of jettisoning its name.
The last chapter of Philip Roth’s fictionSep 8, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 48 • By DANIEL ROSS GOODMAN
"If we had a keen vision of all ordinary human life,” George Eliot wrote in Middlemarch, “it would be like hearing the grass grow or the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of the roar which lies on the other side of silence.” To read Philip Roth has been to hear your own heart beat; for over 50 years he has been the irrepressible roar inside our own heads.
The achievement(s) of James MadisonAug 18, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 46 • By PATRICK ALLITT
If you’re in your 20s or 30s and still living with Mom and Dad, remind them, next time they nag you about getting your own place, that James Madison wrote the Constitution while still living off his parents. Note, however, that this retort will only be effective if you, too, have created, explained, and made operational a political system durable enough to thrive for more than two centuries and flexible enough to accommodate the shift from agrarian republic to world superpower.
The spy who came in from the cold, and prosperedAug 18, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 46 • By HARVEY KLEHR
There is a story, probably apocryphal, that Franklin Roosevelt, when informed that Whittaker Chambers had named Alger and Donald Hiss as Soviet agents, responded by derisively dismissing the possibility that two products of Harvard Law School and elite East Coast law firms could possibly betray their country. British spies like Donald MacLean similarly avoided suspicion because of their establishment bona fides.
The Jewish encounter with historyAug 18, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 46 • By PETER LOPATIN
Simon Schama’s choice of “Story” in place of “History” in the title of this impressive new work is fitting, for the history he recounts is not history conceived of as a chronicle of important events, but rather as a compendium of thematically linked stories told throughout the ages by, and about, the lived experience of real people—and of a people.
The fascinating/infuriating General MacArthurAug 18, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 46 • By MITCHELL YOCKELSON
Douglas MacArthur (1880-1964) was undeniably one of history’s greatest Army officers. During a remarkable career of 48 years, he graduated first in his class at West Point, fought in three wars, and earned numerous decorations, including seven Silver Stars, a couple of Purple Hearts, many Distinguished Service Medals and Distinguished Service Crosses, and, most prominently, the Medal of Honor.
The Mozart of music, and the Mozart of the moviesAug 18, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 46 • By COLIN FLEMING
Slim biographies of the most famous people tend to have a more philosophical slant than the big life-of-so-and-so books. That 200-page volume on Napoleon, say, isn’t going to be some soup-to-nuts treatment, jammed with quotidian minutiae and copious excerpts from letters, but rather a study in how the man’s thoughts while in exile on St. Helena might help you manage your own life better.
The imaginary lives of an American realistAug 18, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 46 • By JAMES SEATON
This will undoubtedly serve as the standard work on Stephen Crane’s life for many years. Paul Sorrentino was one of the first scholars to reveal the many inaccuracies of Thomas Beer’s 1923 biography, which was entertaining enough but thoroughly unreliable. John Berryman and R. W. Stallman wrote biographies of Crane that, in Sorrentino’s generous words, “reawakened scholars to Crane’s genius,” but neither author had access to all the primary sources Sorrentino has discovered.
Titles, tangled webs, titillating journalismAug 18, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 46 • By EDWARD SHORT
In his preface to this well-researched and witty retelling of the famous Ampthill Succession case, Bevis Hillier recalls how he chose his subject after researching a proposed Oxford Book of Fleet Street.
An epic reclaimed, courtesy of J. R. R. TolkienAug 18, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 46 • By GERALD J. RUSSELLO
Before Robert Baratheon or Ned Stark, from the hugely popular Game of Thrones series, there were Beowulf and Hrothgar; and Daenerys Targaryen’s dragons have nothing on their prototype, a fearsome beast called the Guardian of the Hoard, which Beowulf fights to the death.
A paradise created by survival of the fittestAug 18, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 46 • By CHRISTOPH IRMSCHER
The lizard—a dirty, yellowish-orange creature several feet long—had been doggedly working on that shallow hole for quite a while. Alternating its short, lateral legs, it finally managed to get half of its body covered. Charles Darwin couldn’t stand it any longer. Impatiently, the young naturalist, recently arrived in the Galápagos by way of the HMS Beagle, walked over and pulled the sluggish animal by its tail. The lizard was, he noted, very surprised.