Some years back, when I was planning to step down as director of UNC’s Institute for the Arts and Humanities, someone asked me what I wanted my legacy to be. My predecessor in the job (and the founder of the Institute), Ruel Tyson, who died recently at the age of 89, and whose funeral was this week, was very legacy conscious. He wanted his name associated with the Institute—and cared deeply about the direction the Institute, and the University more generally, took even after his retirement. He took pains not only to continue being involved with the Institute, but also to get into writing materials relevant to the Institute’s history and to its ongoing evolution.
Ruel’s death has me dwelling on such things, along with Martin Hägglund’s assertion in This Life (Pantheon Books, 2019) that “It is a central feature of our spiritual life that we remember the dead, just as it is a central feature of our spiritual life that we seek to be remembered after our death. This importance of memory—or recollection—is inseparable from the risk of forgetting. Our fidelity to past generations is animated by the sense that they live only insofar as we sustain their memory, just as we will live on only insofar as future generations sustain the memory of us” (181-82). Elsewhere he states baldly: there is “no afterlife apart from those who care to remember” us (167). And continues: “The death of the beloved is irrevocable—it is a loss that cannot be recuperated—since there is no life other than this life” (167-68).
I fully believe that there is no life other than this life. But I find myself uninterested in, unattached to, the idea of an afterlife in the memories of others. Why should I care? I will be beyond caring. I have never thought of the books I have written as messages sent to some future. I wrote them to address my contemporaries and desired a response from those contemporaries: to stir up their thoughts, to change their minds, to win their praise. I wanted to be part of the conversation of my time—not a part of some conversation from which I was absent because dead. Similarly, in my work at the university, I wanted to enable all kinds of intellectual adventures for my colleagues and students. I was not at all focused on building the conditions for things that would happen after I was gone. The here and now was all.
Yes, I care about my children’s lives—and the world they will inherit to live those lives in. I want to give them the wherewithal to have good lives. That wherewithal involves money, but plenty of other things, all I hope given as a gift of love. But my children are not my “legacy.” They are people with their own lives, albeit people I care deeply about.
I certainly don’t think of them as under any obligation to remember me or (worse) to memorialize me. I have little filial piety myself (a fact I intend to ponder as I go along), but am made more uneasy by the thought of my children having filial piety than I am by their lacking it. (Only a coincidence that I am writing this on father’s day, a day not celebrated in our household.) I want my children’s love, not their reverence or piety. And I want them to take the gifts I have given them (of all sorts) for granted, as the daily and completely unexceptional manifestation of a love that is like the air they breathe, simply an unquestioned fact of daily existence, sustaining but unremarkable.
It is not simply that I will be dead—and thus in no position to know that I am being remembered or to care. It is also that memory is abstract. It is leagues away from the full experience of being alive, in all its blooming, buzzing confusion, its welter of emotions, desires, hopes, and activities. Those who knew you while you were alive know some of that concrete you, but soon enough you are just a name on a family tree, with only the slightest hints, some bare facts, maybe a photograph, maybe some letters, suggesting the actual person. Such attenuated selfhood is nothing like life—and holds no appeal to me. It seems a mug’s game to care about that time to come—just another way of not attending to the present, of focusing in on “this life.”
Jane and I went to another funeral yesterday (after Ruel’s on Tuesday). This memorial service was for a lovely man who taught both of our children at the Quaker high school they attended. Conducted as a Quaker meeting, we had 90 minutes of people sharing their memories of Jamie—and those memories did capture him to a remarkable degree. He was concretely witnessed and imagined in what people had to say. His lived reality, his personality, was caught and conveyed.
Now that is a memory process I can endorse; we were all filled with his spirit during and after those ninety minutes. But I don’t think it helps—and don’t find myself wishing—to claim that kind of specific memory will last for more than ten or so years, or to think of even the fullest kind of memory in any way counts as a satisfactory afterlife. To paraphrase Woody Allen (this catches the spirit, and nowhere close to the letter of his comment): I want the kind of afterlife where I am worrying about the mortgage that is due next Tuesday and what gift to buy for my beloved, whose birthday is next week. In short, not an afterlife, but this life is what I want. And I am perfectly happy to let the time after my death take care of itself, without its occupants feeling any obligation to keep me in mind.