ON THE IMPROBABILITY
OF MY EXISTENCE
an article by Barrington J.
Yes, well death,
of course, or perhaps Death, or even D-E-A-T-H, is a subject close to my heart, I being
one of those people who generally feel that life is not quite worth the trouble, not quite
the full two bob, and occasionally I have envied my elder brother who had the good fortune
to be strangled by his own umbilical cord, or so Im told. But why so gloomy, old
chap, I hear you saying, after all you havent got long to go. Indeed sir, indeed I
have not. And that leads me to ponder my funeral arrangements. Increasingly in the modern
world, funerals are likely to be conducted by the deceased. Ah yes, and so I imagine
friends and relatives gathering and taking their places (with the absence of my daughter,
who has given me advance notice that she will be far too busy to bother with such
mediaeval nonsense), their emotions worked on by solemn, sonorious music shot through with
hints of passion and uplift composed by myself, of course and then, after a
trailing, floating chord, there suddenly appears on the large monitor screen the face of
the dead man, myself, to deliver my taped valediction. In it I shall remind those in my
captive audience of the transience of life, impressing upon them their own mortality,
something along the lines of You who still breathe the air and feel the sunlight
upon your faces, remember that none of you knows that he will see tomorrow, and the time
is brief before you find the oblivion in which I now rest... What a pity one cannot
be there to see it, though I believe there have been those curious enough to arrange even
that, faking their deaths and attending the subsequent ceremony. Maybe that is a better
arrangement? Paying ones respects to the soon-to-be-deceased, rather than to one
just gone? I do feel that the undignified and bizarre part of the proceeding is holding it
in the presence of the corpse. Its a bit like holding a public ceremony over the
disposal of ones dung.
So what is death?
Has it ever struck you that most writers of parallel-world novels have
got one itsy-bitsy little detail wrong? Usually the alternate Earths have different
histories but throng with the people we know, though living different lives Hitler
is a bicycle mechanic, Einstein is a dictator, and so on. But that simply couldnt
happen. To rehearse what has often been pointed out, the pre-meeting odds against the
arising of any individual are stupendous. First of all the parents have got to meet, and
as we know most people in the world never get to know of one anothers existence.
Then they have got to mate on a particular day when a specific ovum has been released by
mother, and of the huge number of sperm cells made available for ejaculation by
fathers testicles that day, one specific sperm cell has got to penetrate the ovum
first. Once that is done the genes from the respective germ cells have got to combine at
random in our own particular permutation, about like shuffling a pack of cards and
having them come out in numbered sequence suit by suit.
It is astonishing that I am here, especially as I have never won a
lottery in my life.
On the other hand, historical processes are large-scale and perhaps
dont depend much on individuals. There is something to be said for the argument that
history throws up individual roles and shapes candidates to fill them. A parallel Earth
might be almost indistinguishable from our own in its general features. But if it varied
the tiniest in its small-grain resolution, it would be populated by an entirely different
set of people.
So what is death? Thats easy. Death is all the people who once
existed but now dont, death is all the people who will exist but dont exist
yet, but most of all, death is the vastly greater number of people who never will have
Should we feel sorry for them?
Not unless you think there is some immaterial store of
potential people, only a tiny proportion of whom get expressed into the air and the
sunlight. (And not, of course, if you think there is an infinite number of parallel worlds
in which every possible person gets expressed somewhere.) Death, really, doesnt
exist. Life exists, but death doesnt. Its one of those poetical
misconceptions, like love, something else people get anguished about.
But enough of morbidity. Let us not be negative. Instead we should be
concentrating on the exciting issues of todays world. For instance, why hasnt
the EEC declared a decimalised calendar? The old one is far too arbitrary, much too
unscientific. We could have a year of ten months, each of a regular 4x10 days, each day
divided into 10 hours. Of course, this means that we shall have a day consisting of 0.913
planetary rotations. But with our quartz watches and computers and stuff, why that
isnt going to be any problem at all.
Or what about the fascinating phenomenon of synchronicity? Do you know
that there are forty-eight houses on my side of the street, and I live at number
Can that be a coincidence?
I think not.
copyright 2000, Barrington J. Bayley
previously published in "Arrows of Desire"
please include your email and name for a response.