Alternative afterlives : secular expeditions to the undiscovered country

Adriaanse, Jaco Hennig (2012-03)

Thesis (MA)--Stellenbosch University, 2012.

Thesis

ENGLISH ABSTRACT: This thesis investigates texts which are argued to construct secular imaginings of the afterlife. As such my argument is built around the way in which these texts engage with death, while simultaneously engaging with the religious concepts which have come to give shape to the afterlife in an increasingly secular West. The texts included are: Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven (1907), Mark Twain’s unfinished reimagining of Christian salvation; Kneller’s Happy Campers (1998) by Etgar Keret, its filmic adaptation Wristcutters: A Love Story (2006), as well as the Norwegian film A Bothersome Man (2006), which all strip the afterlife of its traditional furnishings; Philip Pullman’s acclaimed His Dark Materials trilogy (1995, 1997, 2000) in which he wages a fictional war with the foundations of Western religious tradition; and finally William Gibson’s Neuromancer (1984) and Feersum Endjinn (1994) by Iain M. Banks, two science fiction texts which speculate on the afterlife of the future. These texts are so chosen and arranged to create a logical progression of secular projects, each subsequent afterlife reflecting a more extensive and substantial distantiation from religious tradition. Twain’s text utilises a secularising satire of heaven, and draws attention to the irrational notions which pervade this concept. In the process, however, it embarks on the utopian endeavour of reconstructing and improving the Christian afterlife of salvation. In Chapter 3, the narratives under investigation discard the surface details of religious afterlives, and reimagine the hereafter against a contemporary backdrop. I argue that they conform, in several significant ways, to the mode of magical realism. Furthermore, despite their disinclination for evident religiosity, these texts nevertheless find problematic encounters when they break this mode and invoke higher authorities to intervene in the unfolding narratives. Chapter 4 focuses on Philip Pullman’s high fantasy trilogy, which enacts open war between the secular and religious and uses the afterlife as an integral part of the secularising agenda. With the literal battle lines drawn, this text depicts a clear distinction between what is included as secular, or renounced as religious. Finally, I turn to science fiction, where the notion of the virtual afterlife of the future has come to be depicted, with its foundations in human technologies instead of divine agencies. They rely on the ideology of posthumanism in a reimagining of the afterlife which constitutes a new apocalyptic tradition, a virtual kingdom of heaven populated by the virtual dead. Ultimately, I identify three broad, delineating aspects of secularity which become evident in these narratives and the meaningful distinctions they draw between religious and secular ideologies. I find further significance in the way in which these texts engage with the very foundations on which fictions of the afterlife have been constructed. Throughout these texts, I then find a secular approach to death as a developing alternative to that which has traditionally been propagated by religion.

AFRIKAANSE OPSOMMING: Hierdie tesis ondersoek tekste wat alternatiewe uitbeeldings van die hiernamaals bevat, wat dan geargumenteer word dien as voorbeelde van sekulêre konsepsies van die nadoodse toestand. My argument berus op die manier waarop hierdie tekste met die dood omgaan, asook die verskeie maniere waarop hul tot die religieë van die Westerse wêreld spreek. Die tekste wat ondersoek word sluit in: Mark Twain se Captain Stormfield’s Visit to Heaven (1907), sy onvoltooide satire van die Christelike hemel; Kneller’s Happy Campers deur Etgar Keret (1998), die verfilmde weergawe daarvan, Wristcutters: A Love Story (2006), asook die Noorweegse film A Bothersome Man (2006), waarin die hiernamaals uitgebeeld word as ‘n lewelose weergawe van kontemporêre samelewing; Philip Pullman se fantasie trilogie His Dark Materials (1995, 1998, 2000) waarin hy ‘n sekulêre oorlog teen die onderdrukkende magte van religie uitbeeld; en laastens die wetenskap-fiksie verhale Neuromancer (1984), deur William Gibson, en Feersum Endjinn (1994), deur Iain M. Banks, waarin die sekulêre, virtuele hiernamaals van die toekoms vervat word. Hierdie tekste is gekies en ook so gerangskik om ‘n duidelike sekulêre progressie te toon, met elke opeenvolgende teks wat in ‘n meer omvattende wyse die tradisioneel religieuse konvensies herdink of vervang met sekulêre alternatiewe. Twain se teks dryf die spot met die Christelike idee van die hemel en om aandag te trek na die irrasionele ideologieë wat daarin vervat is. In die proses poog Twain egter om te verbeter op die model en gevolglik ondervind die teks probleme wat met die utopiese literatuur gepaard gaan. In hoofstuk 3 word die hiernamaals gestroop van alle ooglopend religieuse verwysings en vervang met die ewigheid as ‘n kontemporêre landskap deurtrek met morbiede leweloosheid. Ek argumenteer dat hulle op verskeie belangrike manier ooreenstem met die genre van magiese realisme en dat, ten spyte van die pogings om religie te vermy, die tekste steeds probleme teëkom wanneer hoër outoriteite by die verhale betrokke raak. Hoofstuk 4 draai om Pullman se sekulêre oorlog wat daarop gemik is om die wêreld te sekulariseer. Die duidelikheid waarmee die tekste onderskeid tref tussen die magte van religie en die weerstand vanaf sekulariteit, maak dit insiggewend om te bepaal wat Pullman in ‘n sekulêre wêreldbeeld in-of uitsluit. Laastens ondersoek ek wetenskap-fiksie, waarin die hiernamaals omskep is in ‘n toestand wat bereik word deur menslike tegnologiese vooruitgang, in stede van religieuse toedoen. Hier word daar gesteun op die idees van posthumanisme, wat beteken dat hierdie uitbeeldings van die ewigheid ‘n oorspronklike verwerking van religieuse apokaliptiese verhale is, waar ‘n virtuele hemelse koninkryk geskep word vir die virtuele afgestorwenes. Uiteindelik identifiseer ek drie breë ideologiese trekke wat deurgaans in al die tekste opduik, en waarvolgens betekenisvolle onderskeid getref kan word om definisie te gee aan die begrip van sekulariteit. Verder vind ek dat die sekulêre hiernamaals in ‘n unieke wyse met die dood omgaan, en dat dit ‘n alternatiewe uitkyk gee op die fondasies waarop verhale van die hiernamaals oorspronklik geskep is. Derhalwe argumenteer ek dat ‘n sekulêre wêreldbeeld ‘n alternatiewe uitkyk op die dood ontwikkel, een wat die tradisies van religie terselfdertyd inkorporeer en verwerp.

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