The last email I got from Harold came in on October 8 at 4:08 P.M., eight days ago. It said:
I am trying to cut the size of the book. This is the new table of contents.
Table of Contents
Prelude: The Longing for Immortality
Chapter 1: Platonic and Neo-Platonic Immortality
Chapter 2: Esoteric Visions of Immortality: Orphism, Hermeticism, Kabbalah
Chapter 3: The Resurrection of the Body
Chapter 4: Indic and Iranian Redemption
Chapter 5: Redemption in Israel
Chapter 6: Christian Redemption
When I saw him over the summer, in late August, he started to tell me about a new book he wanted to write called Immortality, Resurrection, Redemption: A Study in Speculation. It was to be an exploration of the afterlife in the Judeo-Christian, Greco-Roman, and Islamic traditions, the way people have imagined and hoped for something more or different once this life ends. It moved me that an eighty-nine-year-old writer and former teacher would spend whatever time was left wrestling with the very thing that would take him.
I left that afternoon and wrote one of the many emails I’ve sent over the years thanking Harold for the time we had spent, then added a note about the book he’d described. And as I was writing the bit about the book, I realized I desperately wanted to publish it, which I then told him. He wrote back a few days later, saying he was open to working together as long as we could illustrate it with artworks that had helped capture the way humans have imagined the afterlife. I immediately agreed.
What has followed, in this past month, was perhaps the most beautiful creative process I have ever been part of. On a daily basis, Harold would send me notes, parts of chapters, thoughts, apologies for not writing more because he was worn out from teaching, dreams and corrections to the prospectus that he wanted to make sure I liked. At eighty-nine, he was writing more quickly and more powerfully than I (his ostensible editor) was able to read and respond to. In one email, he sent me the epilogue in its entirety—not in a Word document, just in the body of the email. It included this line, which I can’t stop rereading.
At ninety I have died and been resurrected five or six times. I refer to the many falls and grave illnesses that led to serious and successful surgery. My body—such as it is—is the Resurrection Body. I would interpret this as meaning that immortality is this life and so is redemption.
What did he know?
Immortality is this life. So deepen it, live it profoundly. Harold may have been divisive, and he had his blind spots. But he taught us to live with characters, to think the world through writers, to see reality textured by literature: richer, more alive, redeemed. Because of Harold, I consider Falstaff an intimate friend—what he did, how he lived, his gift for presentness. The memories come rushing back. Listening to Wallace Stevens with Harold on weekends while I was still at Yale. I remember Pindar and Melville—“The Whiteness of the Whale”—and Dickinson and George Eliot. I remember going out to Santa Fe and meeting Cormac McCarthy, and then brokering a call between him and Harold, feeling like I was somehow making literary history. Being with Harold always felt historic, momentous. The world around him was thick with thoughts and feelings, dense. The people we encounter in writing pierce us, their inner lives give us more life. For those of us who were lucky enough to study with him, Harold let that life out. It doesn’t matter that he didn’t finish his book. It was ready in him, and as he liked to say, quoting Hamlet:
If it be now, tis not to come, if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come. The readiness is all.
Here’s the email he sent on September 18, with the revised prospectus (including a jab at Silicon Valley, which he added only in this final version). It says everything I would want to say, and much more.
At Glen’s suggestion, I have composed a new beginning for the prospectus. Here it is:
In the early autumn of 2019, the denial of death by Silicon Valley technocrats has been an organized phenomenon for about fifteen years. There are varied cults that keep burgeoning of which the most notorious is Terasem, founded on a science fiction novel I could not finish. Satellite dishes have been set up to record the mindsets of the new faithful and beam them out into the great beyond, in the pious hope that amiable aliens will receive them and descend with fresh panaceas to sooth the fear of dying.
Does the world grow better or worse, or does it just get older? There is nothing new under the sun. Cultivating deep inwardness depends upon the reading of the world’s masterpieces of literary works and religious scriptures. Not that Silicon Valley would be at all interested, but I would prescribe that all of them learn to read Shakespeare as he needs to be read. Self and soul would then return and take the place of fashionable evasions of the contingencies that have always shaped human lives.
Much of Freud is now obsolete but not his moral suggestion that we must all of us make friends with the necessity of dying. And yet, throughout the world, one form or another of spiritual hope affects the consciousness of moving inexorably towards death.
The following book offers a narrative of three crucial speculations: immortality, resurrection, redemption. I do not intend a history of the theological development of these ideas, though I will resort to accounts of theological developments through the ages that play crucial parts in this story.
My prime interest is in our common human nature. Montaigne charmingly remarked that we need not prepare because, when the time came, we would know how to die well enough. But you and I are not Montaigne nor Shakespeare. We are curious, apprehensive, and would like to know more.
Lucas Zwirner is a writer, translator, and publisher.