“Necessity is blind until it becomes conscious. Freedom is the consciousness of necessity” – Karl Marx
I prefer not to think of myself a lightly-electrified bag of bones, wandering around bumping into things and exaggerating my own importance. Perhaps this is just conceit or unjustified optimism, but I’ve managed to survive over four decades gainfully employed, without preternatural abduction, diabolical possession, or being eaten by a sabretooth tiger, so good on me. And the occasional existential thought flickers across my gray matter and I jot it down on paper, so heck, there must be something to this whole consciousness thing that merits consideration. “I think, therefore I criticize”, which is how Descartes would have phrased it if 24-hour cable news existed in his era.
The most pertinent question that nags at us is what happens after we die. We’re so charming, we find it hard to believe that we just go blank and feed the worms. This is simple species prejudice against worms. And of course, we have the skeptic position that points out that nobody’s ever come back to conclusively tell us what the heck is going on out there in the universe (except historically we have an abundance of instances), which when you consider the sheer number of ghost sightings, reports of communications from the great beyond, and outright religions created around such intelligence as we’ve received across the millennia, simply sounds like sour grapes. But, let’s ignore ghosts, prophets, and the various an sundry critters that promulgate the idea that consciousness persists after death. If you’ve got something to say, manifest on CNN and debate with the living. Otherwise, rest in peace, my friend.
I don’t want to talk to the dead on any regular basis. They’re such downers and unbelievably needy. And they tend to smell. Don’t tell me about your unfinished business, injustice, care and feeding of orphans and task me with a bizarre set of instructions designed to rectify your mortal shortcomings. Go strum a harp. It’s over. Or they’re involved in some sort of concerted afterlife public relations effort in assuring us that we are awesome and will persist unto eternity. I think we must epistemologically prefer the experiences of the “almost dead”. I’m not talking about your neighbor with six kids, a mortgage, and an unhappy marriage, who’s just praying to die. I mean traumatic near-death experiences. Not the guy passing away quietly in his hospital bed from some wasting illness. He’s had ample time to prepare, warn his enemies that he will haunt them and assure his friends he will watch over them. Which is of course really the point. It’s all about us, not the dispensation of the dead.
In perusing the literature, it seems rather common that somebody undergoing a traumatic or life-threatening event will sometimes communicate with loved ones involuntarily, a cosmic shout into the void of “Hey, I’m dying here”. Sure, some folks slip quietly into the light accompanied by glorious hymns and hosannas, but that’s so cliché. We want to know about those hardy souls that teetered on life’s edge and opted to keep a firm grip on this mortal coil, occasionally shouting out into eternity in protest. Consider the case of Commander T.W. Aylesbury, who by 1897 was deader than a mackerel, and eulogized as “late of the Indian Navy”, and described, “when nearly drowning as a boy, he had a vivid vision of his home circle, engaged as they actually were at the time, while they simultaneously and distinctly heard his voice, and were thereby rendered apprehensive that evil had befallen him” (Myers, 1915, p122).
As jobs go, employment in the Indian Navy was probably not the ideal career choice. You didn’t get the romance of serving on those big Man-O-Wars that would later be captained by dashing heroes like Russell Crowe, playing games of cat-and-mouse and exchanging impressive cannon fusillades with the foe of the week. The Indian Navy was basically the Coast Guard, fighting piracy throughout South Asia. Not that there’s anything wrong with that (except for the whole colonial oppression thing). While India had its own rich maritime history, when the British moved in by 1600 the English East India Company formed the Honourable East India Company’s Marine to protect merchant shipping and ensure the flow of money to the Empire. They saw action in the three Anglo-Burmese Wars from 1824-1885, fought in the China War of 1840, and went through a series of name changes, from His Majesty’s Indian Navy to the Bombay Marine to the Indus Flotilla to Her Majesty’s Indian Marine, finally winding up as the Royal Indian Marine in 1892.
T.W. Aylesbury of Sutton, Surrey, England enlisted in the Indian Navy and by the tender age of thirteen (possibly earlier, given the fact that child labor wasn’t a thing) was sailing the ocean blue in the name of the British Monarch, was commended several times for his stalwart seamanship and military accomplishments. In the 19th Century, he participated in a mission in Bali, that nearly cost him his young life, which he later wrote about.
The writer when thirteen years of age was capsized in a boat when landing on the Island of Bali, east of Java, and was nearly drowned. On coming to the surface after being repeatedly submerged, the boy called out for his mother. This amused the boat’s crew, who spoke of it afterwards and jeered him a good deal about it. Months after, on arrival in England, the boy went to his home, and while telling his mother of his narrow escape he said, ‘While I was under the water I saw you all sitting in this room; you were working on something white. I saw you all—mother, Emily, Eliza, and Ellen.’ His mother at once said, ‘Why, yes, and I heard you cry out for me, and I sent Emily to look out of the window, for I remarked that something had happened to that poor boy.’ The time, owing to the difference in longitude, corresponded with the time when the voice was heard (Osgood, 1897, p289-291).
It would seem that our consciousness is rather free-floating, projectable, and desperate to hang on to those folks we prize dearly. Now, we could chalk this all up to the reminisces of a boy about to die far from home, except for the curious fact that his family simultaneously experienced the disconcerting phenomena of a disembodied voice calling for his mother. Aylesbury noted why the event stuck in his memory.
‘I think the time must have been very early in the morning. I remember a boat capsized the day before and washed up. The mate said we would go and bring her off in the morning, but the exact time I cannot remember. It was a terrible position, and the surf was awful. We were knocked end over end, and it was the most narrow escape I ever had and I have had many; but this one was so impressed on my mind with the circumstances the remarks and jeers of the men “Boy, what was you calling for your mother for? Do you think she could pull you out of Davey Jones’s locker,” etc., with other language I cannot use’ (Funk, 1904, p316-318)
In subsequent letter from Aylebury’s sister, she corroborated the strange occurrence. This is what them Victorians, with a gift for a turn of phrase would call “double prescience”.
‘I distinctly remember the incident you mention in your letter (the voice calling “Mother”); it made such an impression on my mind, I shall never forget it. We were sitting quietly at work one evening ; it was about nine o’clock. I think it must have been late in the summer, as we had left the street door open. We first heard a faint cry of “Mother “; we all looked up, and said to one another, Did you hear that? Some one cried out ‘Mother’. We had scarcely finished speaking when the voice again called “Mother” twice in quick succession, the last cry a frightened, agonizing cry. We all started up, and mother said to me, “Go to the door and see what is the matter. ” I ran directly into the street and stood some few minutes, but all was silent and not a person to be seen; it was a lovely evening, not a breath of air. Mother was sadly upset about it. I remember she paced the room, and feared that something had happened to you. She wrote down the date the next day, and when you came home and told us how near you had been drowned, and the time of day, father said it would be about the time nine o’clock would be with us. I know the date and the time corresponded’ (Funk, 1904, p316-318).
This certainly doesn’t tell us anything about what happens when we die. Worms everywhere rejoice , but it does pose some interesting questions about human consciousness, which seems on its face to be somewhat detachable and projectable. It would seem it’s a rather cruel world that requires us to be staring into the precipice of oblivion to gain mastery of our higher being, but as Carl Jung said, “There is no coming to consciousness without pain”.
Funk, Isaac K. 1839-1912. The Widow’s Mite And Other Psychic Phenomena. New York: Funk & Wagnalls company, 1904.
Mason, R. Osgood 1830-1903. Telepathy And the Subliminal Self: an Account of Recent Investigations Regarding Hypnotism, Automatism, Dreams, Phantasms, And Related Phenomena. New York: H. Holt and company, 1897.
Myers, F. W. H. 1843-1901. Human Personality And Its Survival of Bodily Death. New York [etc.]: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1915.