28 August 2020

NAVIGATING NOWHERE

Emma Gee, Mapping the Afterlife: From Homer to Dante, Oxford University Press, 2020

This isn’t a book about the reality or otherwise of the afterlife, or beliefs about life after death in general. It’s a study of how the afterlife is presented in a selection of classical (and one medieval) works, chosen to ‘represent particular stations in the period from Homer to Dante’. Which is fine as far as it goes – but how far is that?
🔻Those stations are (not necessarily the order in which Gee deals with them), Homer’s Odyssey, Hesiod’s Theogony, three works of Plato’s, Cicero’s Dream of Scipio, Virgil’s Aenid, Plutarch’s On the Face in the Moon’s Disc, Lucian’s Dialogues of the Dead, Claudian’s On the Rape of Persephone and Dante’s Divine Comedy.

All describe a journey through the afterlife, usually the underworld, in the form of a ‘linear progression marked by a series of staging points in the form of figures’ – crossing the Styx, getting past Cerberus, and so on – in which the afterlife is given a specific geography. It’s the geography and topography, and why these writers chose to set their afterlife narrative in them, which is Emma Gee’s primary concern, hence the ‘mapping’ in the title.

Gee, an independent scholar who teaches Classics, tells us a lot about her chosen writers’ conceptions of the afterlife but doesn’t attempt, or even intend, to show how representative they were of those of the societies in which they lived. So nothing about the afterlife beliefs of the majority of fourth century BCE Athenians or fourteenth century Florentines, or about the mystery cults or Christian concepts of the hereafter, even Dante being examined from the perspective of his attempts to reconcile Platonic ideas with Christian doctrine, with the emphasis on the former. And the trail she follows is strictly a Western cultural one, so there’s nothing about the otherworld journey in, say, the Egyptian Book of the Dead or the levels of Paradise and Hell in Islam.

Gee’s aim is to explore how concepts of the afterlife and related matters such as the soul changed and developed in her chosen chain of works, which she likens to an archipelago of islands made up of the peaks of a submerged mountain range, acknowledging that many other texts could have been included. All of which makes for a very narrow study that’s aimed at a highly specialised academic audience. It’s very scholarly in presentation and assumes a fair knowledge of previous work on the subject.

As for why these philosophers and poets concerned themselves with after-death journeys, Gee takes a strictly psychological approach, seeing belief in an afterlife as the product of an inner urge - and not even an urge to deal with the fact of death. To her, the goal of these works is ‘psychic harmonization’, a way for the individual to understand their place in the cosmos as a whole - ‘alignment between the soul and the universe’ in her words. The afterlife, which she identifies with the unconscious, is a ‘fictive space’ in which the writers try to achieve this. Similarly, she identifies the soul with the self.




This isn’t a parapsychological study, so the notion that there might actually be a soul or spirit, or that we might really go on beyond death isn’t considered for a moment. From the perspective of her study that’s understandable: her chosen writers were clearly dramatizing afterlife journeys as a way of exploring and presenting wider cosmological and philosophical visions, not intending them to be taken as literal depictions of a near-death experience. I suspect, though, that Gee would give short shrift to any suggestions that people can and do survive death.

Not that her study is without interest; dealing with these thinkers and questions, and being by someone with such a mastery of the subject, it could hardly be otherwise. But, in the end, it only tells us what those particular philosophers and poets thought (or imagined) about the afterlife and what they personally were trying to convey in their writings; would choosing other islands in the archipelago have led to a different destination?

The book’s main thrust is to explore how the afterlives in these works relate to the way the world and cosmos as a whole were conceived and understood, for example showing how the afterlife geographies share similar ways of mapping space with real-world geographies, such as those of Eratosthenes and Ptolemy. The afterlife experiences of the works’ various protagonists ultimately involve a revelation in which the entire cosmos – material as well as ethereal - is, at least temporarily, understood: ‘the moment of cosmological revelation, that essential component of afterlife narratives, in which souls are given knowledge of the universe.’

In her discussion of concepts of the harmony of the spheres in Plato, Cicero and Dante, Gee brings in (with due apologies to those of us not versed in it) a lot of musicological theory, as she considers a proper understanding of musical concepts essential to understanding the ways in which these imaginary cosmologies were put together.

In short, she demonstrates that these imaginary portrayals of the afterlife incorporate then-current ideas about how the universe as a whole works: ‘we find “scientific” content in all afterlife representations, whether that content be cosmological, geographic, or musicological.’ (When referring to her chosen texts she always puts ‘science’ and ‘scientific’ in quotation marks ‘to indicate their anachronism in the ancient context’.)

Mapping the Afterlife isn’t only a book by an academic for other academics in its presentation but also in its orientation, as there’s an assumption throughout that that this literary-scholarship approach to the afterlife is the only one that matters – indeed, only one there is – with Gee repeatedly describing the study of Western classical eschatological texts as ‘afterlife scholarship’ as if that’s all there is to the subject. 

This leads her to present the conclusions she draws from these works as if they have a wider, even universal, application, making statements such as ‘At the fundamental level the afterlife is about the nature of the human entity. The afterlife speaks about the nature of the soul – what we call the Self – now; it penetrates every moment of life’, which are only true (if at all) in terms of the afterlife as dealt with by her chosen writers. This epitomises Gee’s wider presumptions, implicit throughout her study, that only the ideas of intellectuals, as officially recognised by academia – not just those of the past, but today’s too - are important, and that Western scientific-rationalist culture is the best there is or ever has been. --  Clive Prince.

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