December 23, 2015

"The premise of Billy Collins’s poem 'The Afterlife' is that we all get the afterlife we believe in."

"Is it shallow to say that it’s led me to think, 'I need to switch what I believe in,' because I believe that when we die we flip off like light switches, for all eternity? I love that he imagines each different version of the afterlife with such efficient vaudeville comedy. 'The female God' is 'a woman in her forties with short wiry hair / and glasses hanging from her neck by a string.' I love that this is a funny poem about the worst thing ever. And that it’s properly unfunny in its closing lines."

Writes Ira Glass, one of the many people (mostly writers) who were asked "What’s Your Favorite Poem?" There are links to all the poems named. The Collins poem is here.


Lucien said...

The idea of choosing what you believe is an interesting one. If belief is supposed to be about what you really, really think is true, then trying to voluntarily change one's belief about a particular subject is like trying to rick yourself. On the other hand, if we look at people in general, it seems undeniable that beliefs are changeable, so why can't there be a volitional aspect to that change? How different is being open to a change in your beliefs from saying you actually want to change them?

For others, I think "belief", especially in religious contexts, means what they open profess to believe in. In that case, voluntary change in belief is obviously possible,and they can even "convert" just to be able to marry someone espousing another religion.

MisterBuddwing said...

I've had this occasional fantasy of shuffling off my mortal coil and finding myself in some kind of afterlife. I find myself walking alongside some kind of guide. I smile, shake my head and remark, "I can hardly wait to see the face of old so-and-so" - the so-and-so being a late former acquaintance, an atheist who sounded off regularly on the non-existence of a God and an afterlife.

The guide shakes his head. "He doesn't exist anymore." Why? Because he totally rejected the idea of an afterlife. Therefore, he doesn't get one.

I look perplexed. I tell the guide, "I never 100% believed in an afterlife! Why do I get one?"

"Because you merely doubted. You never totally rejected."

Don't know where the fantasy goes after that...

Ann Althouse said...

I had the idea recently that you die, you get to the afterlife, and you just get: Pick a number from 1 to 10. And that determines it. From the best heaven to the worst hell to the complete in-between.

A better version of that is: Pick a color.

Henry said...

Collins is very wry and very readable. Consolation is another very wry poem. "How agreeable it is not to be touring Italy this summer" it begins and thus it has the opposite premise as The Afterlife: You believe in what you get.

Henry said...

My favorite poem is Beowulf, which doesn't exactly fit the the short, lyrical selections at the link. Despite some Christian trappings, Beowulf is profoundly fatalistic about death, which, to me, seems right:

"Wise sir, do not grieve. It is always better
To avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning.
For every one of us, living in this world
Means waiting for our end. Let whoever can
Win glory before death. When a warrior is gone,
That will be his best and only bulwark..."


...death is not easily
Escaped from by anyone:
All of us with souls, earth-dwellers
And children of men, must make our way
To a destination already ordained
Where the body, after the banqueting,
Sleeps on its deathbed.

Bill R said...

PJ O'Rourke said of the ex-Catholic.

He doesn't believe in Hell anymore, but he knows he's going there anyway.

dbp said...

The link to the poem was full of self-launching videos This link is to clean, uncluttered text: The Afterlife

David said...

"Some are approaching the apartment of the female God,
a woman in her forties with short wiry hair
and glasses hanging from her neck by a string.
With one eye she regards the dead through a hole in her door."

So God isn't a woman. Just one of the Gods is a woman. The brittle suspicious one with myopia.

David said...

"Some are approaching the apartment of the female God,
a woman in her forties with short wiry hair
and glasses hanging from her neck by a string.
With one eye she regards the dead through a hole in her door."

So God isn't a woman. Just one of the Gods is a woman. The brittle suspicious one with myopia.

Roughcoat said...

My favorite poem is Beowulf


Andrew Koenig said...

Raymond Smullyan pointed out in one of his books (perhaps The Tao Is Silent) that there is nothing inconsistent about a God who admits only nonbelievers to heaven.

William said...

If past is prologue, the afterlife like life will not be anything like what you were hoping for and will mostly suck. But better than nothingness is indeed a high standard when it comes to an afterlife.

Henry said...


Pete said...

I'm a big fan of Billy Collins. You might enjoy his poetry.

Big Mike said...

I get a little worried when someone younger than I starts meditating on the afterlife.

Static Ping said...

TV Tropes: Clap Your Hands If You Believe

I've mentioned it before.

As to the poem itself, it's fine but nothing special in my opinion.

Roughcoat said...

HWÆT, WE GAR-DEna in geardagum,
þeodcyninga þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ellen fremedon!

Terry said...

O lips that the live blood faints in, the leavings of racks and rods!
O ghastly glories of saints, dead limbs of gibbeted Gods!
Though all men abase them before you in spirit, and all knees bend,
I kneel not neither adore you, but standing, look to the end.


mikee said...

Terry Pratchett, in his stories about people suddenly finding themselves facing Death, implies that the beliefs one holds in life are those that guide the afterlife. So the idea has some popular backing among the millions and millions of readers of Pratchett, who at this point knows whereof he wrote, RIP.

Static Ping said...

In Larry Niven's and Jerry Pournelle's novel Inferno (available through the Amazon portal), the main character is doing his Dante thing exploring his way through Hell when he comes across the atheist wing. Needless to say, it tends to be a quiet place. Somehow he rouses up one of the souls in the form of a ghost. The ghost very well seems to grasp that he is dead, but does not grasp that (a) he is in Hell or (b) he was wrong (or at least he won't admit he was wrong, a common theme in the novel). The conversation comes to an abrupt end when the protagonist asks him about the afterlife, at which point the soul says he does not believe in the afterlife, nor does he believe in ghosts. *poof*

The book and its sequel are recommended.

Freeman Hunt said...

If that's true, my afterlife is going to rule. Not limited by position and time in a perfected universe made by an infinitely creative God. An eternity of interaction and change and discovery in His presence. It's going to be tight.

This is also true if I am right.