By: Alan Lightman
Published by: Pantheon Books, 2007

An ordinary man sees something extraordinary, and suddenly, his take on The Big Questions becomes important. Not just to him, but to everyone around him.

David Kurzweil is a saint for modern times: he is St. Paul on the road to Damascus in a deconstructed world.

An unpreposessing middle-aged man, Kurzweil loses his wife, his job (that he had resorted to inflating to "make his mother happy"), and his sense of direction. He takes a job at a mortuary in sheer desperation, only to discover he actually enjoys it, and finds a sense of family with the patriarchal (though agoraphobic) owner, Martin, the dramatic assistant Ophelia, and the stolid and practical owner's wife, Jenny.

Then, one day, in the slumber room, David "sees something."

The something is never clearly delineated but the idea that it might represent a reality beyond the here and now becomes the central focus of the book.

In fact, the book is pretty much an exploration of modern philosophy's Big Issues: is there life after death? What is time? What the is nature of reality? Can science and (philosophy, religion, the numinous, etc.) ever be reconciled? How can you get the Arts and Sciences together on a University faculty?

Lightman chooses not to answer any of these questions for us, other than to leave protagonist David convinced that he saw something real, if unexplainable.

Lightman scores on two fronts with this book: first, he evokes a very real mood of limitation, confinement, and seeing "through a glass, darkly;" and secondly, he succeeds remarkably well in describing the questions that have for so long haunted the human mind and soul.

As David heads down his path of discovery, the first thing he encounters is his sense that he has been "chosen." "Why him? Perhaps because he has been searching for something in a way that other people have not. He was prepared. He was a cocked spring. Not that he ever considered himself special. But he has made certain decisions in his life. People are the sum of their decisions, aren't they?... The grand sweep and the totality emerged for a moment from the haze, and he brushed up against it."

We learn that he is a child who felt abandoned by his vaguely Madonna-like mother, "She rarely kissed him goodnight. He can see her as clearly as if she were sitting five feet from him now - his young, glamorous mother with the halo of light above her head, her hair its rich brown natural color... her voice calming and stirring." We know that David has a girlfriend who, with her warmth and honesty and sexuality seems to represent all that is good, and wholesome and natural in life. And we know that David has lost his wife, whom he failed to ignite from her personal torpor, for which she blames him.

As David's personal struggle becomes public (the story is leaked to the press) - and soon comes to resemble the current "culture war," both sides frenziedly ripping the baby in two in their efforts to be proven "right," we wonder if Christ might not have ever regretted going public with his spiritual convictions. David is torn between one faction desperately wishing to prove that he is anointed, and to use his "power," and the other side desperately urging him to recant.

In fact, the squaring off of the believers and the debunkers is somewhat comical as it is played out in the faculty room of the local university. Pushed, the scientific skeptic says that "with a great deal of evidence, I could be convinced (that something supernatural might exist). But it would take a lot of evidence.... But, if there were many different phenomena that showed something strange, I would consider that as evidence for a new kind of physical force. Not something supernatural, but a force that we didn't yet understand. A physical force, not a supernatural force... So, says David, you're saying that there are no circumstances in which you'd believe in the supernatural, even if you had evidence. I don't believe in the supernatural, says Ronald (the debunker)."

On the other side, David finds true believers who not only want to use him to help them solve personal problems by supernatural means, but who profess such off-putting beliefs as parallel worlds, electronic voice phenomena, and microorganisms spelling out sos messages in petri dishes. Though more welcoming, they are also more likely to scare off the heretofore rational David.

But no matter which side you take, Lightman reminds us that "Everybody wants to learn the purpose of existence. Everybody wants to know why there's something rather than nothing. Everybody wants to know why we're here. "

At one juncture, David is tested for PSI powers using an R box, or random number generator. The theory is that if he has powers, he might be able to influence the outcome of the random number generation. In exploring this possibility, David ponders the nature of time. "He has often wondered about the split between future and past. Why, in a sliver of a second, does something that was once in the future become something now in the past? And why does it not also go in the opposite direction? What causes that razor sharp line between future and past?"

The R box tests are inconclusive: twice they indicate that he influenced it; once they indicate that he has not. The skeptics insist that if you tested enough times, it would be prove to be random. If you get results that indicate that the random number generator has been influenced, well then, keep testing. Keep testing to infinity and beyond. Eventually, it will be random.

""I'd like to do the experiment one more time," says Dr. Tettlebeim (the believer). "I believe Mr. Kurzweil may have had trouble concentrating."

"Right," says William (the debunking scientist). "Now come the excuses... Keep the data you want, throw out the data you don't want. You know something, I don't care what you believe. Believe in whatever you want. Believe in goblins and fairies if you want. But don't promote your garbage to the public. The public is ignorant. The public is vulnerable... And if I can, I'm going to put you out of business. I'm going to shut you and your organization down."

And finally, when the testing once more indicates "something" is at work, "He smells of cologne," says William of Dr. Tettlebeim. "He's worse than an ignorant person. Much worse."

"Hocus-pocus to me," says Mr. Chee, a man David meets at a paranormal conference. "It seems to me that what (we're) really talking about is the imagination. Don't you think? The imagination is connected to the metaphysical, and the metaphysical is connected to the second world. That would be my guess."

"Here's what I have to say," contends Mr. Chee's wife. "There has to be another world because there has to be something after we die. Death can't be the end. All of this beautiful life. To have it end would be such a waste. And so sad. There's got to be something else. That's what I think."

But maybe, suggests a physicist at the conference, "everything we experience in our physical world is simply a lower-dimensional space trapped within a larger space of six dimensions or more, as if we were all water bugs skating on the surface of a lake, spending our entire lives on that ruthlessly flat surface while oblivious to the third dimension."

And David wonders, "Is everything in the mind? Is there no external reality?"

And of course, for a man working in a mortuary there is the ever-present question of death. "How does it happen so suddenly? The movement from living to not living? A world, and then nothing. How does it happen? Where is the line and the break? The moment of crossing? A world, and then nothing. The thousands of memories gone, certain words of parents, the nervous piano recitals, the rows of shoes in a closet... all of it gone in an instant, gone not just for now but always."

At times, David seems like a teenager on his first marijuana high. "He feels that he is connected to everything around him and, at the same time, separate, with a mind of his own, different from every other mind. Why does he have such intense feelings? Where do they come from? Perhaps this is part of the totality, the simultaneous merging and separateness... Is this what it feels like to be alive? Do other people feel this way?"

For all his searching, David - like that high teenager - never concludes anything. Life goes on around him: his ex-wife comes and goes, his boss suffers an accident, people die and are brought to the mortuary to be prepared for the grave. David confronts the nature of memory: "Could it be that he misremembers?... Did it actually happen? He cannot remember... How can he be certain of anything that occurred in the past?... Hasn't he built a universe of thoughts? Unrecorded, except in his mind. Untested and untestable."

In a moment of possible intentional irony, Lightman sums up the great divide between belief and skepticism that seems to grow ever more entrenched in modern thought:

"You don't believe me, do you," says David.

The president (of the university) has taken two steps toward the door, Ms. Lanier following close on his heels with a cell phone already out of her purse. "I acknowledge your beliefs," says the president.

"I'm not asking that," says David. "I'm asking if you think that I saw something unusual at the mortuary."

The president pauses. He glances at Ms. Pillbeam. "How could I know what you saw?" says the president. "I wasn't there."

"But I was," says David. "And I'm telling you that I saw something unusual. It was like a vapor. It came out of a dead body. For five seconds. It looked at me." Everyone in the room has become silent. "That's what I saw at the mortuary, on April twenty-third."

"That's certainly something unusual," says the president.

"Do you believe me?" asks David.

"I believe our meeting is finished, " says Ms. Pillbeam.

"No, it's not finished," says David. He is standing now.

"I believe that you think you saw something unusual," says the president. "What more can I say? I wasn't there." He turns to the other faculty, as if to get their support for his reasonable position."

And in the end, we have no idea if David saw something, or he didn't; what he saw; why he saw it; or whether it had any deeper significance than a momentary play of light and shadow. And so ends the story of St. David of the Mortuary, 2007.


Amana said…
You write very well.

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