Interview with Sum author David Eagleman

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Interview with Sum author David Eagleman

Brian Eno composed a score for it. Stephen Fry sent sales rocketing when he mentioned it on Twitter and Nick Cave, Jarvis Cocker and Miranda Richardson have been recorded reading from it. Kirstin Innes meets David Eagleman, author of Sum, one of 2009’s most celebrated books.

In the afterlife, you’re allowed to be whoever you want to be. So you decide to be a neuroscientist, who spends his days thinking big, big thoughts about the endless mysteries and possibilities of life. You have an idea for a book composed of 40 very short stories, each positing a different idea about what happens after you die. In one afterlife, people sit in a waiting room equipped with vending machines until the last person who remembers them on Earth speaks their name for the last time. In another, you’re confronted by all the other possible versions of yourself, everyone you could have been. It’s a very simple concept, but people like it.

Six months after your book’s publication, you’re performing sections of it live on stage at the Sydney Opera House, while Brian Eno conducts an orchestra in the score he composed, inspired by your book. Nine months after publication, a famous British man tweets a message about it to all of his followers and your sales go up 6000%. A movement, possibilianism, is inspired by your book. It is translated into 16 different languages and all over the world people are touched and changed by your little book of little stories.
In the afterlife, given the choice, I want to be David Eagleman; particularly as, despite his intimidating resume, in conversation the author of Sum: Forty Tales From The Afterlives he fizzes with the enthusiasm of a particularly imaginative teenage boy.

‘I spent my adult life as a scientist, and science is, essentially, the most successful approach we have to try and understand the vast mysteries around us,’ he says, straight off, when I ask him to explain the genesis of Sum. ‘And yet, when you get to the end of the pier of science, you realise that what we don’t know vastly outstrips what we do know. There are always wonderful mysteries to confront. What has always surprised me when I walk into a bookstore is the number of books that you can find that are written with certainty. The authors tell some story as though it’s true, but they don’t have any evidence that it is true!’

It’s important to note here that Eagleman understands everything as a story – that he sees the narratives propounded by religions and by the ‘new atheists’ (Richard Dawkins et al) as equally narrow-minded and frustrating.

‘That’s all anyone ever hears now, Dawkins versus the Discovery Institute. On the one hand, you have the religious believers, who are absolutely certain in what they believe – on the other, you have these people who have written these fantastic, and very important, books, but … OK, if you’re an atheist, that means you don’t think there is anything left that’s bigger than you, or anything more mysterious, there are no questions left to be answered, we’ve got it all figured out. And that’s not terribly satisfying. People wouldn’t even go into science unless there was something much bigger to be discovered, something that is transcendent. Certainty, about anything, is an absurd position to take. You stop anyone who grew up in a religious tradition in the street and they’ll say, yeah, sure, they can kind of imagine what Heaven looks like. But ask them basic questions like “OK, and how old is everyone?”, and it all just stops making sense!’

The reception Sum has received could conceivably intimidate potential readers. One critic said it ‘fulfils the contemporary longing for a secular holy book’, while Googling ‘possibilian’, the position Eagleman invented to explain his belief system, throws up the beginnings of a worldwide movement. Reading the book in one gulp is, indeed, an overwhelming experience, but the many superlatives thrown at the book, and at Eagleman, perhaps distract attention from the very human stories he has to tell. Why does he think that there’s been this overwhelming response?

‘I think maybe people just appreciate somebody saying hey, you know what, let’s have a celebration of our ignorance and talk about all the things we don’t know. I’ve been calling this whole exercise “shining a flashlight around the possibility space.”

‘None of the stories are meant to be taken seriously, of course, they’re all just meant to be funny and interesting mental stretches, but the exercise is meant to be taken seriously. I’m just saying, hey, why don’t we try shining the beam around, instead of focussing on this one little tiny part which is the Islamo-Judao-Christian tradition and then, over here there’s the Eastern traditions. They make very tiny spots in this sort of space of bigger stories that you could be telling.’

Perhaps, as much as anything else, Sum chimes with people because it stretches muscles in the brain we leave unused all too often these days. One story, called ‘Angst’ (and pungently aware of the freight of this particular poor-me Noughties buzzword), posits the theory that our consciounesses are actually those of great beings concerned with the workings of the universe and millenia, taking soothing vacations in human minds where we ‘care only about a meeting of the eyes, a glimpse of bare flesh ... the orientation of a houseplant, the arrangement of hair.’

These stories bring perspective. They may, even, to borrow one of those superlatives, be life-changing.

David Eagleman will be discussing Sum with Richard Holloway at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, on Wed 11 Nov, accompanied by readings of some of the stories from Sum recorded by Jarvis Cocker, Nick Cave and Stephen Fry and excerpts from Brian Eno’s music inspired by the book. Sum is out now, published by Canongate.

An extract from Sum

In the afterlife you relive all your experiences, but this time with the events reshuffled into a new order: all the moments that share a quality are grouped together. You spend two months driving the street in front of your house, seven months having sex. You sleep for thirty years without opening your eyes. For five months straight you flip through magazines while sitting on a toilet. You take all your pain at once, all twenty-seven intense hours of it. Bones break, cars crash, skin is cut, babies are born. Once you make it through, it’s agony-free for the rest of your afterlife. But that doesn’t mean it’s always pleasant. You spend six days clipping your nails. Fifteen months looking for lost items. Eighteen months waiting in line. Two years of boredom: staring out a bus window, sitting in an airport terminal. One year reading books. Your eyes hurt, and you itch, because you can’t take a shower until it’s your time to take your marathon two-hundred-day shower. Two weeks wondering what happens when you die. One minute realizing your body is falling. Seventy-seven hours of confusion. One hour realizing you’ve forgotten someone’s name. Three weeks realizing you are wrong. Two days lying. Six weeks waiting for a green light. Seven hours vomiting. Fourteen minutes experiencing pure joy. Three months doing laundry. Fifteen hours writing your signature. Two days tying shoelaces. Sixty-seven days of heartbreak. Five weeks driving lost. Three days calculating restaurant tips. Fifty-one days deciding what to wear. Nine days pretending you know what is being talked about. Two weeks counting money. Eighteen days staring into the refrigerator. Thirty-four days longing. Six months watching commercials. Four weeks sitting in thought, wondering if there is something better you could be doing with your time. Three years swallowing food. Five days working buttons and zippers. Four minutes wondering what your life would be like if you reshuffled the order of events. In this part of the afterlife, you imagine something analogous to your Earthly life, and the thought is blissful: a life where episodes are split into tiny swallowable pieces, where moments do not endure, where one experiences the joy of jumping from one event to the next like a child hopping from spot to spot on the burning sand.

‘Sum’ is the first story from Sum: Tales From the Afterlives

David Eagleman and Richard Holloway

The author of 'Sum: 40 Tales From the Afterlives' joins former Bishop of Edinburgh Richard Holloway to discuss his bestselling book. Nick Cave, Clarke Peters and Stephen Fry lend their recorded readings to the proceedings.

Comments

1. Ray Ingles4 Nov 2009, 4:19pm Report

"...if you’re an atheist, that means you don’t think there is anything left that’s bigger than you, or anything more mysterious, there are no questions left to be answered, we’ve got it all figured out."

Um, what? Just because you're pretty sure that one particular answer is wrong doesn't mean that you must therefore be sure what answer's right, or that "we've got it all figured out".

2. Dan R.5 Nov 2010, 2:19am Report

I don't know what "new atheist" books Eagleman has been reading, but they must not be the same ones that Dawkins, Harris, Hitchens, etc wrote. Because anyone who is even vaguely familiar with these authors could never mischaracterize their views so badly as to say:

"you have these people who have written these fantastic, and very important, books, but … OK, if you’re an atheist, that means you don’t think there is anything left that’s bigger than you, or anything more mysterious, there are no questions left to be answered, we’ve got it all figured out. And that’s not terribly satisfying. People wouldn’t even go into science unless there was something much bigger to be discovered, something that is transcendent. Certainty, about anything, is an absurd position to take."

Where in the universe did he find such a wrong-headed portrayal of atheism? Maybe somewhere, a few remaining nihilists might think such things, but this view is not even remotely the logical consequence of simple disbelief in gods. In fact, this type of claim is the simplest, most common, and stupidest straw man used against atheists: that we know it all, that there is no mystery, that there is nothing bigger than ourselves. What atheist has ever claimed such nonsense? Once again, the only definition of "atheist" is one who does not believe in any supernatural gods due to lack of evidence.

If no one would go into science if, as his idea of an atheist would claim, there was nothing bigger to be discovered, then why does arch-atheist Richard Dawkins also happen to be one of the world's most respected biologists? Does "something much bigger" really have to include gods in order to count as bigger? In order to be intellectually honest, can we really not safely rule out gods the same way we have ruled out unicorns and leprechauns and witches and fairies? Nobody thinks that certainty is an absurd position to take with regard to these mythical creatures.

It seems to me that Eagleman is only bringing up absurd positions that do not exist, in order to tear them down in support of his own refocused, but hardly original, brand of agnosticism. After all, he's got a book of his own to sell, doesn't he?

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