Halberstadt, Germany, contains a church that has stood since 1050 AD.
This church, the church of St. Burchardi, contains a pipe organ.
This is not particularly unexpected behavior for a church.
Even less so a church in Halberstadt – the first permanent pipe organ was installed in a cathedral there in 1361.
But the organ at St. Burchardi is different. It was built for one single purpose: to play one single song.
John Cage’s “Organ²/ASLSP”
The initialism stands “As SLow aS Possible.”
This is the only direction given for the tempo.
The premiere performance of “As Slow As Possible” lasted nearly half an hour. Others have lasted over seventy minutes. Some have gone eight, twelve, or even fourteen hours (and fifty-nine minutes.)
The performance in Halberstadt is slated to last six hundred and thirty-nine years.
It began on September 5, 2001, with a rest that lasted seventeen months. The first note was heard on February 5 of 2003.
A dozen note changes have taken place since then. The most recent change was on October 5 of 2013.
The next will take place on September 5, 2020.
With its massive bellows, the organ at St. Burchardi holds its notes unfailingly as the seasons slide by. In due time it will change chords, play solo notes, and possibly rest for months on end. If everything goes as planned – despite the many, many ways and reasons it might not – it will only end for good in the year 2640.
I have an odd relationship with time. Time and numbers in general, really. Math is the most objective possible way of explaining things, and yet it never feels like an explanation, just a quantification. Just saying “639 years” does little to help me imagine the true length of that time; it’s the “years,” not the “639,” that bears meaning for me. So I tend to fall back on analogies and comparisons, finding something that I can relate to in my personal experience – humanizing, arguably even egocentering the values (to coin a verb.)
Most often, I accomplish this involuntarily through Things That Make Me Feel Old.
I know, from an objective and logical numerical standpoint, that Nirvana’s Nevermind came out in Fall of 1991. I know that the year is 2015. But, somehow, performing that simple arithmetic – realizing that was 24 years ago – blows my mind. I know – or think I know – how long a year is; what a year feels like, and I have trouble reconciling the objective and logical numerical fact that I have existed not just for 24 years, but for even more years than that.
Today, as it turns out, is October 21, 2015 – “Back To The Future Day,” the then-future date to which Marty McFly traveled in time in Back To The Future: Part II. I’m pretty sure I’ve watched that movie at least once, but recently; it’s not something I watched when it came out. So I’m not thrown off by that depiction of the future becoming, as of today, a depiction of the past.
What does throw me is simply this: that, in the original movie, when Marty McFly traveled in time back to 1955, that was as long ago to him as 1985 is now.
When I was a kid, the 1950s felt alien. It was this weird little parallel world of pinafores and perms, black and white TV and black and white saddle shoes, Sputnik and sock hops and frozen Salisbury steak. Anyone who’s been reading along knows that I grew up listening to – and enjoying – Oldies. But that’s what they were: old. Old things for old people, and I couldn’t really relate.
I couldn’t figure out how I could really engage with those things. An oldies song, enjoyable as it might be, didn’t feel as new and raw and true as a song I heard on the radio. It was old; it couldn’t speak for me or my time. I couldn’t make “At The Hop” sound as parent-terrifyingly dangerous as “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” I couldn’t make “Wake Up Little Suzie” sound as raunchy and depraved as “I Wanna Sex You Up.”
I could enjoy those things some, from this outsider perspective, but watching anything about or from the 50s was like going to a museum. Sure, that was what people wore, what they did, what they were interested in, what they danced to. But they were relics, artifacts – tools. Old tools that old people used to interact with old feelings and old things in an old world – one that was just different from the modern world, the real world, the world toward which all of human history had obviously been advancing.
The best I could do to humanize that length of time was to think about my parents. They barely became teenagers before the 1950s were over, and they were obviously Way Old, so the 50s might as well be ancient history.
The 50s just felt like a threshold, a stepping stone toward the present, toward Progress.
Yet it was one of the first somewhat modern-feeling decades – based, I’m almost certain, on the fact that it had television, and I struggled to relate to those prior decades where the most familiar form of media just did not exist. Still, I knew that, if I’d grown up in the 50s, I’d have been a fundamentally different person – I wouldn’t have been able to become myself, or anything very much like myself.
And now, I’m sure my niece feels the same way about the 80s.
It’s that time period her mother grew up in, becoming a teenager partway through it. Early rap may be as quaint as doo-wop. Madonna and Whitney Houston and Pat Benatar may sound as innocuous as Connie Francis and Ella Fitzgerald and Lena Horne, time dulling even the edgiest performances. It may be as hard to imagine cable TV being new as was for me to imagine TV itself being new.
Or worse: perhaps the 90s are her threshold decade for modernity, thanks to the growing adoption of the Internet. Perhaps it’s hard not to look at the 80s and feel like something huge and significant is simply missing.
I try to keep perspective. I know I’ve reached that age now where it’s tempting to believe that everything I grew up with was the apex of human endeavor – and that everything from here on out is unnecessary or outright backwards. That current music is terrible and will be loved only by gullible idiots, that everything else in the media should go back to the old familiar formats I grew up with, that Back In My Day, we didn’t HAVE these newfangled whatsits, and we liked it that way! Change and progress are exciting when you’re young and learning. But once you’re of an age where you’re supposed to settle down and make a stable place in the world, change is threatening and “progress” can sound like anything but. Even if you think things are stable, you may be one disruptive technology away from becoming this generation’s buggy-whip manufacturer.
But, despite the fact that time progresses onward at a steady rate of one second per second, entirely measurable and comprehensible, perspective is hard to maintain. More and more often, I hear myself say those old people phrases, like “Where did the time go?” and “It seems like just yesterday.”
Time Loss / Gain
By my best estimations, the speed at which I sense the passage of time seems to have doubled since I was in elementary school. Back then, a six-week grading period felt, subjectively, as long as three months feels to me now. A half-hour cartoon took as much subjective time as an hour-long drama does today. It has – to my shame – been quite a long time since I’ve watched a Bugs Bunny cartoon, and so I just thought back to watching them as a kid, thought about how long a time it seemed to take, and guessed that the average short was fifteen minutes. After a quick search for such cartoons on YouTube, I found that any given Bugs Bunny cartoon usually lasted seven to eight minutes. Half my estimation.
Why, though? Why, as I get older, does my sense of time speed up?
I have a theory.
Time feels like it passes more quickly as we age because more and more things are familiar.
I’ve noticed – again, subjectively, anecdotally – that my first experience with anything seems to take longer. The first day of class always took forever. The first day of any new job. Even the first time I saw any given commercial, or watched a given movie. The second day is always faster; the second watching more swift. And why? Probably because I already know what’s happening.
My guess is that, perhaps, when experiencing novel phenomena, the sensation of time slows – and maybe there’s a causal relationship. There’s a temptation to say that it’s a reaction: that, presented with new stimuli, the brain slows down your temporal perception somehow, giving you more subjective time to perceive and process it all. Overclocking itself, in a way. But that might be exactly backwards. The sense of time dilation might be a result of all that perception and processing – more like a sudden onslaught of complex processes making the computer run slow. I’ve fortunately suffered few emergencies in my life, but they’ve all felt like they lasted for ages. For one in particular, it felt like an hour passed between accident and ambulance – but I’m sure, objectively, it couldn’t have been more than fifteen minutes. Hell, that could even be a fair analogy for my tendency to faint – it’s a system crash.
Maybe that swift sense of time is a good thing, an efficient thing – it means that we’re not in a crisis, not overwhelmed, not needing to slow down.
After all, we’ve done all this before. We wake up in the same bed in the same room, we put on some of the same clothes, we head off to the same job. We stand or sit in the same place; we do the same types of tasks, we take breaks at the same time. Every day is more or less like every other day. And while, depending on the tedium, any given day may feel it takes forever, somehow it’s Thursday already, and it’s almost the end of October, and where did the year go?
It feels like a life on fast-forward, trying to skip through the dull parts, realizing that they’re all dull parts. You know that what you really need to do is to change the channel – or just go somewhere else, do something else, think something else, make something else. But it’s hard not to get bogged down in the feeling that those, too, would become dull. That you’re dull. Or that you just create dullness around you, because you don’t perceive things the right way, or think about your perceptions the right way, to feel energized by anything.
You know you want to make the most of things, but you get caught up in all the things you have to do. Before you know it, a week’s gone by. Then two, then a month, a quarter.
Perhaps it’s a fast sense of time that’s a psychological response. A way to deny the objective truth about how much you could have done in a day, how much you could have done in a quarter, by convincing yourself that it really only felt like a couple of weeks at most. You can only do so much in a day, after all. And your days, like God’s, are long.
The specious present expands.
It Was Acceptable In The 80s
My friends and I have a running joke. Whenever someone mentions a date from the 90s – say, an event from 1995 – we interject with “TEN LONG YEARS AGO.” The 90s do feel like ten years ago. I fear the 90s might always feel like ten years ago.
I have these stereotypical models in my mind of other decades. Caricatures of The 1950s, The 1960s, The 1970s, The 1980s, The 1990s. The fine details worn away, the only things left being the big distinctive elements that made them stand out from everything else. It’s been strange to watch the caricature of the 90s coalesce, to watch it go from a lived and present thing to another distorted representation of outdated technology, near-meaningless pop-cultural referents, bizarre fashion styles, half-forgotten music.
I’m distinctly aware of the differences, not just in culture, but in perception of that culture. I remember when 80s stuff was just tired and dated and dumb, and when it was retro and cool again, and how it’s once more on the wane. I’m watching that happen to the 90s now, too – and feeling strange about how twentysomethings are venerating a time period for which I have a little less fondness, nostalgic for things of their childhood that were things of my early teen years.
But I don’t feel that happening yet for the Aughts. By the year 2000, I’m sure I felt that things from 1995 were utterly dated and passe. But I find myself watching some things from the early 2000s, and while I recognize that they’re not exactly current events, they don’t feel old; they don’t feel dated. …That is, not unless it’s an Internet phenomenon. Those wash out in weeks, after all.
Before I know it, nostalgia for the Aughts is going to sweep across pop culture, and I may not even feel like we’re out of the Aughts at all.
Have things in pop culture changed so little? Or am I so busy rushing through my days, so ignorant of some popular media, that I just don’t notice those changes? Do the 2010s feel like the 2000s to my parents – and do they also feel similar to the 90s and even the 80s?
The Day I Tried To Live
Maybe it’s a sign of competence that things rush by so fast. I’m making my own choices about things now, after all, and my cohort is no longer just my age group, or even people in my same geographic area. I no longer have to listen to Top 40 radio because it’s blaring on the school bus – but that also means I barely have a grip on current music. I can curate my media experience so that I only get what I seek, so that I can only seek what I want – and unless I choose to, out of curiosity, listen to popular music, I won’t hear it. I have to choose to be in touch, and it’s tempting to pride myself on not being in touch with these things that stupid teenagers like.
But that way lies isolationism. And if I have this theory about novelty extending the subjective perception of time, shouldn’t I be seeking out novelty for its own sake? I’m not a really hedonic person; I’m not going to go recklessly having experiences just for the sake of them. I also don’t have the kind of ambition or egocentrism that believes “being happy” is a valid thing to spend time, effort, and energy on. Plus, well, I don’t have that kind of money, if nothing else. But why not do at least some smaller, simple things? Why not at least listen to the Billboard Top 10 once a month? Why not grab a random book off the library shelf and read it whether or not I think I’ll like it? Why not do more crafts with the supplies I already own? These things don’t cost me money, and i won’t lose much time or energy even if I don’t like the end result.
Sure, I’m an adult, and I get to set my filters for what media I absorb and what I do with my time, and that’s a wonderful sense of freedom – especially compared to a childhood that forced passivity upon you, where you’d need permission to go outside, to eat, to touch the radio dial. But, because of that childhood, I learned to find something worthwhile in whatever I experienced. Or, at least, to try to. Why not continue cultivating that, even if it means creating a false sense of requirement?
When you’re a kid, you think you’ll get to be Who You Really Are when you’re an adult. As an adult, you realize how much more latitude you had in certain ways as a kid. But, when you’re a kid and you’re being taken care of and it’s safe to make mistakes, you’re under such rigid control that you can’t try and fail. When you’re an adult, you can try whatever you want, and nobody’s going to tell you no – but any miscalculation, any failure, any error, will be a waste of resources that might massively affect you from then on out. There’s a lot more to be afraid of.
Still, perhaps it’s sheer decision fatigue, but I’m not as anxious and panicky as I always used to be. I have more – and more serious – things to be worried about now, but I don’t feel as bad. If being in a crisis slows one’s sense of time, then maybe that’s another part of why it feels like it’s passing quickly: I no longer feel like I’m in a constant state of low-grade emergency. What’s the delusion, though – that I was worried all the time for no reason, or that I’m actually a functional, sorta-okay person now?
Because, face it. There are still a lot of times when I try to do something – something that seems like it should be simple – and I make such a complete mess of it that I can barely show my face. I have to ignore my every instinct and pretend that I don’t hate how incompetent and worthless I am, instead acting like everything’s okay. The more I try to do, the more I try to achieve, the more I make mistakes that cause problems for myself and others.
But, well, at least I am trying, now. For whatever that’s worth.
Maybe I should be glad that time passes by so quickly. It means I’m doing it right. That I’m properly predictable, properly placated. Properly bored. Properly an adult.
Who Wants To Live Forever?
But that’s where the duality kicks in. I live in that subjective time. The slower it passes, the longer I feel like I’m experiencing things. The faster it passes, the more swiftly I’m swept toward my inevitable demise. I already have the sense that I’m well past the halfway point of my lifespan – possibly more like four fifths – and while that’s a rational result of everything from genetics to epigenetics to choices, I still resist the idea. It’s inevitable, and it’s not like I’m so valuable to the world that I’m worth keeping forever. But, well, existence is habit-forming.
Yet I’m not sure that I would want immortality. Even a long but normal lifespan might be painful. Everyone I knew might die before me, and I’d have so much loss to deal with. And I don’t know that I’d ever be worth it. All the food I’d eat, all the water I’d drink, all the trash I’d generate and resources I’d expend… the world only has so much, and it’s hard enough not to hate myself for taking what I take now. No matter how long I lived, could I ever make anything good enough to justify all that?
Non-corporeal immortality, on the other hand: now that’s an idea.
I work online; I do most of my socializing in a virtual world. Just let me upload my consciousness already. No more stupid body, no more constant pain, no more worries about how much worse my body will get as I age. Hell, 3D model that body for posterity and mocap my awkward clomping gait; make my avatar a photorealistic simulation of myself, for the sake of the people who know me. And, the rest of the time, let it be whatever I feel like looking like, whenever I feel like being looked at at all, which is usually never.
That’s possibly the crux of it. I want to think forever, not live forever.
The Great Gig In The Sky
I’m not really afraid of death. I’m somewhat afraid of the act of dying, because I’m reasonably sure that it would be intensely uncomfortable. But, more than anything, I’m pre-emptively regretful for the inconvenience that would inevitably be caused. While I’m much, much better with this than I once was, I still sometimes feel egotistical about existing. I sometimes think that my presence – or the mere fact of my existence – is an unnecessary burden on other people, and that I don’t do enough good things to make up for it. I hate to think of the quite literal mess I’ll leave for others when I’m dead. All the things I own that will need to be disposed of. The things that have sentimental value to me and me alone – they’ll just be objects at coordinates. They won’t evoke memories to anyone else, they won’t be tangible touchstones to another time and place. They’ll just be things. A lock of hair. A dried flower. A sack of plant parts and dirt. Unless I write about them, I suppose. And someone reads it. And someone cares.
People will have to go through all that and decide where to put it all. And they’ll have to wonder about what things mattered to me, and what things matter to them, and whether or not certain things should matter to them, and whether any of it matters at all. They’ll have to wonder about what to do with what’s left of me – this husk I’ll leave behind. Someone will have to scoop up my swiftly-cooling meat, and take it to a place, and clean it and make it presentable, and maybe mail it a thousand miles to my home state. People will have to take time off work to go look at it.
They’ll have someone go up and say some words, but that person won’t really know what to say since I don’t subscribe to any conventional religion, and haven’t even come up with my own funerary rites or burial practices yet. (Well, other than “Do not pickle or set on fire. Bury in ground near trees because I am made of food.”) So that person will say the vague words about remembering the good times, and the vague words about not hurting anymore, and – if they’re very astute – the vague words about words themselves and how they keep ideas alive even when matter is dead. Other people might say some God words to tell themselves a story that helps them make sense of things. Still other people might keep thinking about human words that they wanted to tell me, and now they can only imagine stories about telling me those things.
And they’ll feel bad for a lot of reasons, many of which won’t even make sense, and they’ll feel bad about the senslessness of everything most of all. There will be little stupid things for the rest of their lives that will make them sad because they’ll think of me, then will be forced to acknowledge the fact that I don’t exist anymore. Whole books might be ruined for some people. And, even into the future, there will be new things – new books, new music, new media – whose existence I will never be aware of, but which someone might think I’d have liked.
It will be a big stupid inconvenience on a large majority of the people I’ve ever known, and that’s terrible. When being alive feels so selfish, I can’t even imagine the hubris of being dead.
I’ll never have done enough. I’ll always leave something unfinished. There will be things left undone that I never even knew I was supposed to put right. A few last disappointments to remember me by.
And everyone will have that strange experience of knowing me in certain ways, of having certain memories, and being left with that mental model of me. One that might not even match anyone else’s – and that, suddenly, doesn’t have any real-world referent at all.
I will become fiction.
After this meat has stopped emitting words, after all the vague words and the God words and the wish words and the story words, there might still be these words. Someone, sometime in the future, after I’m dead, might be reading these very sentences right now. They’ll know when I died, and why I died, and they’ll know a bunch of things that I should have done before I died that might keep me from having died when I died. And, no matter how long I’ve been dead, it’s still possible – so long as these words are out there to find – that someone will experience them for the first time, long after I ever lived. Meeting me after I died.
Hi, whomever you are. I probably just made this even more awkward, but, what can I say; that’s the kind of person I was / am / will be having been. Sorry to make the situation more… tense.
That’s right, folks. PUNS FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE!
I’d like to think I have a reasonable perspective about death, even though I know it sounds irrational to plenty of other people. It’s a little detached, a little flippant, a little hard to couch in the conventional narrative, and the lack of specific religious overtones may upset some people – ones who might believe that, if I believed differently, a metaphysical entity would endow me with a longer physical life and/or acceptance into a transcendental realm of eternal goodness. But I know that death is something that’s going to happen – and probably sooner, rather than later.
There are a lot of things wrong with my meat-husk, none of which I can afford to diagnose or treat. It’s entirely possible – plausible, even – that I’ve got an abdomen full of tumors, and there’s nothing to be done about it. Sometime, maybe in a couple decades, maybe in a couple years, maybe even in a couple months, my functions will just stop functioning, and that will be the end of me.
It’s unfortunate, I guess. And very inconvenient. And, honestly, pretty stupid. A collection of molecules, many forged in the hearts of stars, comes together and attains self-awareness. It learns things about the surrounding world. It has thoughts that nobody has ever had before. It has experiences. And then some cascading chemical reaction happens in some of its component molecules, and the awareness and experiences go away, and they never ever come back.
And it’s dumb.
It’s the most obvious, normal thing in the world, death. It’s necessary to keep the ecosystem functioning. There is nothing special about sapience, about awareness of the world or awareness of ourselves or awareness of our mortality, that gets us a special exemption. We die, we rot, we are food for things that are food for other things, and this coincidental construct we called “ourselves” just… stops. There is no awareness to be aware of itself, no experience to experience itself, and all those things that make up selfhood just stop happening forever. That permutation will never happen the same way again, and even if it could, even if your very same personality could be forged by a future brain, it would live in a different place, at a different time, and be molded by different experiences. This sense of self, here and now, is all we get. All I get.
And I have to spend so much of it worrying about how to continue being alive – to secure the food and shelter and health care that’s necessary to keep my stupid crapsack body, my ever-aching self-house, alive.
We Interrupt This Broadcast
Much as I might like to, I can’t make myself believe in a consciousness that lasts beyond death. It’s like believing in a fire that exists after dousing – insisting that the fire can’t just be gone, that all that light and heat and other energy must still be happening somewhere else, in some ideal realm. Or that all the heat and light from the extinguished fire might transfer themselves into another fire someday – the very same fire, burning from different wood! Nevermind that the fire, the energy, is an emergent property of that wood burning in those specific conditions at that specific time.
Consciousness is a property of brains, but when something disrupts a brain, consciousness stops. I’ve felt it happen – and then felt nothing, because there was no consciousness left to feel anything with. I’ve never been dead, to my knowledge, but I have fainted plenty of times – and I can’t imagine how dying would be much different.
For those who’ve never done it, passing out is nothing like falling asleep.
It starts with the shock. The cold stab of panic. Then come the cold sweats, the feverish feeling of burning coldness, frigid fire. Your skin is clammy and cold under your trembling fingers, but you can’t bear to touch yourself or be touched. Then come the feelings of detachment, the dissolution of your sensorium. The roar of static in your ears; the high-pitched, keening tone. The creeping tunnel vision, shimmering at the edges. Static in the eyes and static in the ears and static in the limbs, pins and needles throughout your entire body. You try to stave it off, but you don’t have control anymore. The roaring darkness washes over you, and the last sensation of “you”-ness is swept into a still, dark sea, where it dissolves.
There is nothing. No dreams, no visions, no sense of the passage of time. No sense of anything: the thing that does the sensing is broken. No experience: the thing that generates The Experience Of Being You is broken. You may have tried to walk it off, or tried to walk to a safe place. Your empty body may take a few more steps before it collapses.
Some timeless time later, the process happens in reverse. Somewhere at the edge of perception, there’s a notion of turbulence. It isn’t felt strongly enough to be a sensation; it’s more like a dim and distant memory of what movement feels like. And The Experience Of Being You reactivates. The seashore static rushes away, the high tone fades to the background and becomes inaudible, the blood comes back to limbs and lips and skin. You wash up on the shore of reality again, aching, your breaths shallow.
People may tell you about the things you did – they may say you shook or shouted, or that you fainted here – yards away from the last thing you remember seeing. You know that you didn’t do any of that. All they saw were the spasmodic glitches of an innervated meatsack, under the control of no consciousness.
Sleep is nothing like this.
Falling asleep is calmness and torpor, a heaviness of the eyelids, a heaviness of the limbs. Where fainting is being washed out to sea, falling asleep is sinking into soft sand – a sensation warm and heavy, a feeling of presence, a gentle pressure all around you. Mentally, you don’t go from panicked wakefulness to nothing; you go from controlled imagination to runaway imagination to dream, sometimes in a seamless handoff.
I’m often aware that I’m dreaming, in dreams. I can’t control the dream; as soon as I try, I wake. But there is a dream self that is experiencing the dream, the dream self that is thinking about and analyzing the situation as it presents itself, the waking self that is observing both of the above, and the waking self that is trying to analyze the dream and my waking self and looking for correlations or significance. Again, the more I look for meaning, the more I search for sense, the more likely I am to wake up, at the worst, or just divert the dream, at best. I wish I could make lucid dreaming happen; I’ve only had a few moments, ever, where I had that type of control, and I could feel myself waking all the while.
“I’m experiencing something amazing! Yup, it must be a dream. Maybe I can make it last… nope. Welp. Time to get up and get to work, I guess.”
But strange perceptions of time reign, in sleep. I’ve dreamed days in fifteen minutes. I’ve dreamed a short conversation, a beautiful song, something that seemed to last five minutes, and woken up eight hours later, surprised I’d even slept. I’ve had dreams that repeated over and over, like fractals of themselves, spending a whole night’s dreaming on the iteration after iteration of the same subjective half-hour event.
That alone seems proof enough that my perception of time isn’t something I’m detecting in the world around me, but something generated by my brain.
I’ve even had an experience that I once considered paranormal, but now just consider wonderful coincidences. Like the dream I had as a child where I was sitting on the family room floor, listening to a small radio that was playing Billy Joel’s “The River of Dreams.” Presumably because the song was stuck in my head, and it filtered into the dream, in some sort of phantasmagorical diegesis. There’s a point in that song where it rests – no backbeat, no vocals, no nothing – then starts back up. And in that rest, I woke up. I looked at my clock radio and frowned at the time. I turned it on.
And Billy Joel’s “The River of Dreams” played, picking up right after that rest.
But I like these strange perceptions. I like these stories that my unconscious tells me, without any clear influence from my will. I love that sense of a mind unfettered by body or physics or basic logic.
And, even though I have no reason to, I want to believe that death would be like falling asleep.
I want to believe that perhaps it feels like a faint at first – the panic, the coldness, the detachment. But that, somewhere, somehow, it stalls. The cold and tingling sense of dissolution is replaced by that warm, close pressure. Your breaths are slow. Perhaps to flee from the pain of your present, perhaps just as some last-minute kernel dump, you begin to imagine and remember. But, instead of an easy transition from imagination to dream, the transition is from imagination to dream to deeper dream to something far beyond.
Perhaps your life flashes before your eyes, as it’s so often said to do. But your sensation of time slows, in this moment of ultimate crisis. Your memories grow vivid as life. After all, it’s said that we never forget anything completely. Perhaps your brain gives up on your body, more completely than it ever has before, and it has all your body’s resources to itself.
And perhaps, in one second, five seconds before death, you re-experience your entire life in real time. All those moments, from birth to now, lived again – but with your awareness cutting in from time to time, musing, commenting, analyzing.
Perhaps, in one second, four seconds before death, you realize that you have already done this. You realize that this is not just the first full repeat of your life, but that your “original” life was itself a replay. All your living moments of deja vu were moments that, for whatever reason, you already remembered remembering.
Perhaps, in one second, three seconds before death, subjectivity falls away. You break away from reliving your lives and other lives, and you think about everything you’ve learned and read and seen and experienced. You begin to correlate everything. Synapses crackle as connections are made, and you understand the world on a deeper level than you ever had before. All the information from all the different perspectives. Everything makes beautiful sense. Not in the thin, impressionistic watercolor way of a dream – those bitter beloved dreams where, within them, you have some fantastic epiphany, only to wake and look logically and see that it was meaningless nonsense. No, you can tell somehow: this sense isn’t just in you, or in any of the other yous. It’s in the world, and it works, and you ache that you didn’t see it sooner. But you acknowledge, dimly, dispassionately, that our brains – sense-making organs though they are – just can’t correlate all their contents AND let us be functional independent animals at the same time. You’re only seeing this because you’re all mind now, not wasting anything on your body. You’re suffused with timeless truth about the world you lived.
Perhaps, in one second, two seconds before death, you shift your focus from your memories and your reason to your imagination. Having re-experienced all there is to experience about you as you were, and about the world as you experienced it you extrapolate, modeling all the outcomes of having done things differently. The paths your life would have taken if you had talked to that person, did not talk to that person, left five minutes early, spoke your mind, stayed silent, took that job, watched that movie, cultivated different habits, lost your legs, killed that jerk, were institutionalized, had a child, went to Australia, won the lottery. Your other lives flash before your eyes. Perhaps you even imagine a couple of them in real time. Your imagination feels as vivid as your memories, which felt as vivid as your lived experience. Given this indistinguishability, you become aware that it is hard – if not impossible – to make any claims about which ones are “real.” You acknowledge that there’s no such thing as the “real you” save for your belief in it, your fondness for familiarity – and that you can let it go.
Perhaps, in one second, one second before death, you realize that, since some of the other “real yous” were so different as to be strangers, that strangers are therefore not that far off from you. Free of that misapprehension, you extrapolate once more, imagining the lives and experiences of other people you’ve known. You imagine the lives of your relatives, your friends, that interesting stranger. With each one, you learn more things about the possible ways of the world, the possible truths.
And, perhaps, in one second, the last second before death, you think about all those experiences of all those people and all those possibilities of all those worlds, and even more correlations are forged. That beautiful truth you’d seen before was only the truth of the world that you experienced – only one facet of an enormous gem. The you that is everything is suffused with the timeless truth about not just the world as you experienced it, but all the possible worlds.
The brain dies. But, in its last millisecond, it was eternal.
Do I think any of that is actually possible? Absolutely not. Is it even something I choose to believe, pulling the wool over my own eyes? No. But it’s what I’d want to believe, what I’d want to be true. A way to reconcile my desire to think and experience forever, to dream forever, with my acceptance of death and of the incoherence of post-death consciousness.
I’m just going to die, and be too busy dying to think, or to hear any music around me. But, if I could choose, perhaps Golden Slumbers / Carry That Weight / The End would be a fine thing to ride out on. Appropriate in many ways at once.
And yet, I still hope a stupid hope.
I hope that, sometime in my lifetime – even though I doubt I’ll make it so long – technology advances significantly. Nanotech exists, human level AI exists, and consciousness can be uploaded. Similar to the foglets in Transmetropolitan, people can become clouds of nanobots, loosely cohered, taking shape when they feel like it to interact with the physical world, otherwise simply viewing it. Make whatever assumptions need to be made so that everything Just Works, and will not stop working.
Not even when it’s 2640.
The sky is blue over Halberstadt.
But a grey haze hangs over the Church of St. Burchardi.
It still stands, despite everything. It’s over a millennium old, now – a millennium and a half, in fact – and while there’s certainly a church-shaped building intact on that site, restoration and preservation measures bring to mind the old ship of Theseus problem.
Collectively, the grey haze would be the last to judge.
The swarm seeps into the church, through the doors, the walls, the micron-sized holes in the mortar. As per etiquette, they consolidate themselves into one dense sphere, hovering silently in midair, out of the way of the gathering crowd of humans and other sapients.
The organ’s long low note fills the air. The grey sphere ripples with the harmonics.
Slowly, a human – or, at least, a human-presenting foglet – steps to the organ. They carry no stopwatch, have no contact lens or heads-up display. They simply think about what time it is.
A wistful smile crosses their face as they reach out to the weathered wooden key of the organ, held down with a small weight. The weight is unhooked by one graceful hand, while the other holds down the key for just a little longer.
The time comes. Their hand moves.
The sound ends.
Except for the echo.
The echo fades to nothing, and the cathedral erupts in applause from humans, sapients, and foglets alike.
I whirl my nanobots away from the rest of the crowd and glide around the room, gazing at the plaques on the wall, eyeing the helpful translations that have popped up on my consciousness. I think them away and look at the original Pre-Ing text like it’s an old familiar friend.
Finally, I turn back to the organ. Finding a convenient space, I pull the requisite molecules from the air, ground, and litter around me, assembling a human shape – this human shape – around my cloud.
I wiggle my toes on the stones and feel the old familiar weight of my body. I clear my new throat.
I disassemble that body, technically dying yet another death, and my invisible cloud of consciousness passes out the doors and into the bright blue sky.
One can dream.