We have no reliable guarantee that the afterlife will be any less exasperating than this one, have we?
Death lies in wait for each of us, the full stop at the end of our story. All our strivings, our achievements, our catastrophes, the struggles with ourselves, our families, and our bodies are suddenly, mysteriously, over. It is the one unavoidable fact of our lives, yet most of us prefer to ignore it. Half the adults in Britain have not even made a will.
One of the oddest things about our attitude to death is that most of us still don’t think it is the end. In the International Social Survey Program completed at the end of the last millennium, almost 80 percent of Americans claimed to believe in life after death. In Britain the figure was 56 percent, and this was the same or higher in most European nations. Quite what form this life will take is unclear—in Ireland and Portugal more people believed in the existence of heaven than in life after death itself, which seems illogical—but despite the best efforts of militant atheists, the afterlife is an idea, however sketchy, that many of us refuse to let go.
This may have less to do with organized religion than the fact that most people, at some point in their lives, undergo a form of inexplicable experience that has traditionally been labeled “spiritual” or “religious.” These altered states, whether induced by drugs or meditation, intense emotional trauma or illness, all point us back to the mystery of consciousness itself. We don’t know where consciousness comes from, how it works, or why it appears to stop. The question of where we go once our bodies cease to function continues to intrigue us. Here are five lives dominated by the question What happens to us when we die?
St. Cuthbert (634–87) is the most famous saint of northern England. As well as having the gift of holy visions, he was a hermit, healer, and bishop of Lindisfarne. Most of what we know about him comes from the Venerable Bede (673–735), a fellow Northumbrian monk and author of the first major work of English history, the Ecclesiastical History of the English People (731). Bede’s Life and Miracles of St. Cuthbert was written in 721, only thirty-four years after the saint had died. It includes many firsthand accounts by people who had known Cuthbert well. Though studded with improbable mystic occurrences, it has a historical immediacy that the lives of many other medieval saints lack.
Cuthbert was a shepherd boy in the far north of the kingdom of Northumbria, near Dunbar. He walked with a limp, thanks to a painful tumor on his knee. All attempts to cure it failed and his condition grew so bad he was unable to walk. One day, as Cuthbert sat disconsolately outside his hut, a horseman pulled up beside him. He was dressed from head to toe in white. He examined the knee and instructed the boy to apply a poultice of wheat flour and milk. Cuthbert followed his instructions and was cured immediately. Only after the horseman had gone did he realize the stranger had been an angel. Deeply affected by this, Cuthbert returned to his work. He became increasingly devout. When five monks were swept out to sea while salmon fishing, he knelt on the shore, surrounded by people weeping and blaming the disaster on their sinful nature, and calmly prayed for a change of wind. To everyone’s amazement, the wind obeyed and the monks were saved. Soon after this, aged sixteen, he was watching over his sheep one night on the hillside, when he saw the soul of St. Aidan, the Irish monk and founder of the abbey at Lindisfarne, being carried up to heaven by angels. He didn’t know who Aidan was at that stage (and he certainly didn’t know that Aidan had died at that moment) but he knew he was a great man and wanted to follow him. The next day he abandoned his flock and became a novice at Melrose Abbey in the Scottish Borders. Many years later, he would succeed St. Aidan as Abbot of Lindisfarne.
Cuthbert was destined to become famous for his piety and for his miraculous gifts. Rather than spend time in the monastery, he chose to be an itinerant missionary, preaching and healing among the remote villages and hill farms of northern Britain. He founded a chapel at Dull in Perthshire and built a monastic cell in Fife, which eventually became the monastery out of which the University of St. Andrews was founded in 1413. Like St. Francis of Assisi, Cuthbert loved nature and had a particular affinity for wild animals. On one occasion, after spending the night up to his waist praying in the icy North Sea, he was visited by two otters, which first breathed on his frozen feet to warm them and then dried them off by tousling them with their furry backs. Another time, an eagle saved him from starvation by bringing him a fish, which he insisted on sharing with the kindly bird.
In 669 his wanderings came to an end when the Abbot of Melrose sent him on a special mission to Lindisfarne. He was given the task of persuading the monks there to accept the authority of Rome, as ordered by the Synod of Whitby in 664. The Synod was a major turning point in the early history of the British church. It marked the end of independent Celtic Christianity, a loosely administered, missionary-based religion, introduced into Ireland by St. Patrick in the fifth century and taken to Scotland and northern England by St. Columba. Theologically, the Synod had concerned itself with technical matters such as the date of Easter and whether or not monks should shave their heads into a tonsure (a Roman custom symbolizing the Crown of Thorns). Politically, however, it was about Rome imposing a central set of rules. Many British monastic institutions (including Lindisfarne, which had been founded in the Celtic tradition) were resistant to the changes.
Cuthbert was the perfect man to make them see the light. He had all the credibility that came from wandering the wilds as a missionary in the Celtic mode, but was also a pious and obedient member of a Benedictine monastery, committed to the authority of Rome. His time at Lindisfarne was stressful—Bede writes of his being “worn down by bitter insults”—but he managed to win his brothers over by praying harder and longer than anyone else. And his piety was matched by a sunny temperament, which meant he never held a grudge or returned an insult. He gave the credit for his behavior to the Holy Spirit working within him and giving him “the strength to smile at the attacks from without.” Once, having stayed up for several nights in a row praying, he had finally fallen asleep when a novice woke him up again on a trivial matter. He waved away the apologies saying: “No one can displease me by waking me out of my sleep, but, on the contrary, it gives me pleasure; for, by rousing me from inactivity, he enables me to do or think of something useful.”
Having persuaded the monks to submit to Rome, Cuthbert withdrew from the daily life of the community and retired to an isolated cell where he spent his days in constant prayer and meditation. In 676 a vision commanded him to leave Lindisfarne altogether and become a hermit on the inhospitable island of Inner Farne, two miles off the Northumbrian coast. It was a life of extreme austerity: just him and the elements and thousands of pairs of guillemots, puffins, and eider ducks. With his own hands, out of stone, he built a two-roomed house surrounded by a high wall. This meant he could spend much of his time praying outdoors, “with only the sky to look at, so that eyes and thoughts might be kept from wandering and inspired to seek for higher things.” He was soon inundated by visits from pilgrims. News of the “Wonder Worker of Britain” had spread and there was a constant stream of visitors asking for healing and counseling. As Bede describes it: “Not one left unconsoled. No one had to carry back the burdens he came with.” In return, Cuthbert asked only that his uninvited guests respect the local animals, and he absolutely forbade the hunting of all nesting birds—probably the world’s first piece of wildlife conservation legislation. In his honor, the locals there today still call eider ducks Cuddy ducks.
As the years passed, Cuthbert grew ever more isolated. He withdrew further into his sanctuary, communicating with the outside world through a small window and only emerging to have his feet washed by fellow monks on Maundy Thursday, in remembrance of Christ’s doing the same before the Last Supper. It was the one time in the whole year he removed his leather boots, and the monks noticed that his shins bore long calluses caused by the endless hours of kneeling in prayer.
In 684 Cuthbert was elected bishop of Lindisfarne. After almost a decade as a hermit, he was reluctant to accept. Only after a personal visit by Ecgfrith, king of Northumbria, was he persuaded to leave his refuge. For two years, he threw himself back into missionary work: traveling all over the diocese, preaching the virtues of frugality and prayer, healing the sick, performing the occasional miracle, and taking “delight in preserving the rigours of the monastery amidst the pomp of the world.” By the end of 686 he’d had enough. A premonition of his impending death led him to return to Inner Farne and prepare for the end.
In the last year of Cuthbert’s life, a monk called Herefrith visited him on his island and was taken aback by the level of his self-denial. The saint showed him his weekly rations, which consisted in their entirety of five onions. St. Cuthbert told him: “Whenever my mouth was parched or burned with excessive hunger or thirst I refreshed and cooled myself with these.” Only one of the onions had been touched. Cuthbert had successfully managed to fight off the devils of luxurious sensuality—though he confessed that “my assailants have never tempted me so sorely as they have during the past five days.” He died quietly, stretching his arms upward and commending his soul to God. The monks who were with him lighted two beacons, telling their brothers over the water at Lindisfarne that their beloved bishop had passed away.
Cuthbert was fifty-three years old. He had always wanted to be buried where he lay, by his little stone house on his lonely island, near his friends the otters, eagles, and seabirds, but shortly before he died, he gave the monks permission to bury him at Lindisfarne. His grave became the site of a miraculous cure. A boy, possessed by demonic fits, was brought to the holy place. The monks located the spot where the water used to wash Cuthbert’s body had been poured into the ground and gave the boy some of the soil to eat. At once the demons left him and the boy was calmed.
The monks decided to honor the saint by building him a proper shrine. In 698, eleven years after he had died, his coffin was disinterred and opened for the first time. The miraculous discovery was made that his body had not decayed. Not only that, but his limbs were flexible and his clothing had not faded. Those who saw his body reported that he appeared to be not dead but sleeping, a sure sign of sainthood. The new Abbot, Eadfrith, commissioned a copy of the Gospels to be made in Cuthbert’s honor. The Lindisfarne Gospels are regarded as the supreme fusion of Anglo-Saxon and Celtic religious art.
The years that followed were precarious ones for the monastery. Viking raids began in earnest in 793 and a major attack in 875 prompted the monks to shift Cuthbert’s coffin and his Gospels to the mainland. For more than a century, they were venerated at the parish church of Chester-le-Street, a small town eight miles inland from Sunderland. In 995 further Danish raids forced a move farther south to Ripon Abbey. During the journey, the cart carrying St. Cuthbert’s coffin became stuck in the mud. The monks prayed for help and the saint appeared to them in person, asking to be buried somewhere called Dunholme. Shortly afterward, by pure chance, they overheard a milkmaid mention the name as the place where she had lost her cow. She led them to a steep, rocky peninsula on a bend in the River Wear and the monks laid the saint to rest. This was the origin of the city of Durham.
By the eleventh century, the tomb of St. Cuthbert had become the most popular pilgrim destination in northern England. The sacrist (or keeper) of the shrine was one Elfrid Westoue. He opened the saint’s coffin regularly to trim his hair and nails with a pair of silver scissors and traveled up and down the north scooping up the relics of other local saints and placing them in bags in St. Cuthbert’s tomb for safekeeping. One of the bags contained the remains of the saint’s biographer, the Venerable Bede. In 1020 Elfrid had shamelessly stolen his skeleton from the monks at Jarrow. In 1027 the Viking king Cnut, on his way back from a pilgrimage to Rome, paid reverence to the saint, covering the last six miles of the journey in his bare feet.
In 1069 William the Conqueror began his bloody suppression of the north. As he worked his way up from York, burning every house and murdering every person in his path, the monks at Durham hurriedly tried to move Cuthbert’s coffin back to Lindisfarne. Caught out by the tide, they were intercepted by King William, who commanded them to open the casket. No sooner had he done so than he was seized by a violent fever. Taking this as a sign of the saint’s displeasure, he countermanded his order and left Durham, never to return. The monks put Cuthbert back where he’d come from.
In 1104, more than four hundred years after Cuthbert’s death, the magnificent new cathedral at Durham (begun in 1093) was ready to receive his remains. The decision was made that his body should be inspected once more. They found the saint lying on his side as if in a deep sleep, accompanied by “an odor of the sweetest fragrance.” Next to him was a tiny, exquisitely lettered version of St. John’s Gospel, the oldest known leather-bound book to have survived in Britain. Any spare space was taken up with the linen bags parked there by Elfrid, in which were found the relics of eight local saints and the bones of Bede. (Bede wasn’t a saint in those days, although he had been declared venerable in 836. He had to wait until 1899 before being canonized by Pope Leo XIII, who made up for the oversight by appointing him a “Doctor of the Church,” the only native of Great Britain ever to be so honored.) On the outside of the coffin was a painting, later identified as the first recorded representation of the Virgin and Child in Western art. At some point over the years, an unknown artist of Anglo-Saxon Northumbria had been keeping the flame of Western civilization alight.
To authenticate the evidence, the coffin and its contents were examined by a gathering of forty-seven senior clerics. The abbot of Sées, in northern France, even went as far as touching the corpse, moving its arms and legs about and tweaking its ears to show that rigor mortis had still not set in. The miracle was confirmed and, for the next four hundred years, Cuthbert’s corpse lay undisturbed.
In 1534, as part of Henry VIII’s reforms of the Church of England, the church commissioners were instructed to destroy Cuthbert’s tomb, removing any treasures that might have been buried with him. Opening it up, they took out his golden staff and other jewelry, but once again, to their amazement, they found St. Cuthbert “fresh, safe and not consumed” and sporting what looked like a fortnight’s growth of beard. The monks were then allowed to rebury his physical remains—and those of his eight saintly companions—in the floor of the cathedral, where the shrine had once stood.
Somewhere along the line, a legend grew up that Cuthbert hated women, so none was allowed to approach his tomb too closely. Given his regular and apparently cordial dealings with abbesses during his lifetime, this feels like an unjustified slur invented by misogynistic monks. A second legend was that at some point in the late seventeenth century, his body had been stolen and replaced. In 1827 the dean and chapter decided to see if they could locate the body under the cathedral floor. After a long search they eventually came across a coffin whose exterior closely resembled the one described in the 1104 account. They lifted the lid. Inside, wrapped in five layers of silk, was an ordinary skeleton, an ivory comb, a portable silver altar, and, lying on the skeleton’s ribcage, a beautiful square Anglo-Saxon gold cross, inlaid with garnet, which has now become the emblem of Durham University.
In 1899–1,212 years after Cuthbert had died and the year Bede finally got his sainthood and his doctorate—the coffin was opened for the last time and medical tests were made on Cuthbert’s bones. These matched the known details of his life—such as they were—and they suggested that the body had been mummified for a long period after death. More recent scholarship has speculated that the combination of Cuthbert’s emaciated state at the time of his death and the high sand-and-salt content in the Lindisfarne soil might well have resulted in mummification. In any event, his legend started a trend and there are now more than a hundred Christian saints who have been reported as “incorrupt” at some time after burial, although few have endured such a busy posthumous schedule as Cuthbert.
In 1835 the remains of an expatriate Englishwoman were exhumed from the cemetery in the hamlet of Watervliet in upstate New York. In this case, the reason for the exhumation wasn’t to see if the corpse was “incorrupt,” but to check that it was there at all. Ann Lee (1736–84), known to her followers as Mother Ann, or “Ann the Word,” was the leader of the Shaker movement in North America. Her personality was so dominant that even though she was a woman, many of her followers believed she was the resurrected Christ and simply refused to accept that she could ever die.
Ann Lee was born in Toad Lane, Manchester. The illiterate daughter of a blacksmith, she came from a large, poor family who sent her out to work as a velvet cutter when she was only five years old. The job involved hours of walking backward and forward with a special knife, slitting open the tightly woven loops of silk to create a velvet pile. In the course of a day, a velvet cutter might expect to cover twenty miles. By the age of eighteen Ann was working as a cook at the new Manchester Infirmary. She was a strong, big-boned girl with light chestnut hair and intense blue eyes. Despite her good looks, she conceived a deep hatred of sex from an early age, and most of the visions she witnessed (from her early teens onward) focused on the depravity of human nature and the evils of lust. As second youngest of eight children, she had grown up in a tiny house with her elder siblings, several of whom were cohabiting with their spouses. It may have been this exposure to sexual activity at close quarters and at an early age that was the source of Ann’s revulsion. She had such a compelling gift for persuasion, however, that she managed to get her own mother to take up celibacy. This infuriated her father, who threatened Ann with a whip.
Her own marriage confirmed Ann’s worst suspicions. She had avoided it until she was twenty-six, when her father forced her to marry one of his employees, Abraham Standerin, a junior blacksmith. He was also illiterate and the couple each signed their marriage certificate with a cross. Ann and Abraham would go on to have eight children in quick succession, though four of them were stillborn and none made it past the age of six.
In the meantime, Ann had joined a fledgling religious sect called the Wardley Society. Started by James and Jane Wardley, two married tailors from Bolton, it was colloquially known as the Shaking Quakers (or Shakers for short). The Wardleys had developed the belief that the soul could be purified of its lusts only by the action of the Holy Spirit, which manifested itself by violently shaking the physical body of the sinner. The greater the sin, the more extreme the shaking—and thus the more noise produced in the supplicant. As a result, Shaker meetings were deafening: They could sometimes be heard several miles away:
One will fall prostrate on the floor, another on his knees and his head on his hands, on the floor; another will be muttering articulate sounds which neither they nor any body else can understand … others will be shooing and hissing evil spirits out of the house; all in different tunes, groaning, jumping, dancing, drumming, singing, laughing, talking and stuttering, shooing and hissing makes a perfect bedlam; this they call the worship.
Ann’s reports of her visions entranced the group, and the moral leadership of the sect passed to her from the Wardleys. To be a Shaker meant plain and simple living, common ownership of property, and most important of all, complete rejection of sexual activity—even for married couples. Men and women were expected to live and work apart to avoid the temptations of lust, and children were separated from their parents and fostered by other believers. This liberated Shaker women from their roles as wives and mothers and made them the equals of men. The Shaker god was male and female, both father and mother, and not “a trinity of three men.” Since no one had sex, they rapidly ran out of children to pass the faith on to: Shakerism could grow only by making converts.
By the early 1770s the Manchester Shakers had grown in number to about sixty and their odd behavior and unsettling social practices made them deeply unpopular with regular churchgoers. Their meetings were disrupted by mobs and they were pelted with dung on the street. Ann was arrested for disturbing the peace and imprisoned in a small stone cell. She later claimed she survived only because another leading Shaker, James Whittaker, fed her a mixture of wine and milk smuggled inside in his clay pipe. While in jail Ann had her most powerful vision, which she called “a special manifestation of Divine Light,” showing her that the second coming of Christ was imminent.
Ann’s imprisonment enhanced her authority, and when she emerged, the other Shakers (including the Wardleys) began to refer to her as their “Mother in spiritual things.” In 1774 she had a new vision where she saw that she must take the most faithful followers and set up a new community in America. Only nine of the sixty made the voyage. At one point their singing and dancing were so annoying that the other passengers threatened to throw them overboard. However, the weather turned rough, and the captain later claimed it was only the Shakers’ faith that kept the vessel afloat. The community of less faithful Shakers, left behind in Manchester and without the sustaining intensity of Ann to lead them, rapidly disintegrated.
In her vision, Ann had seen, in precise detail, the place that was destined to be the home of the new community. Once in New York, the tiny Shaker group wasted no time in finding the house that Ann had described and presenting themselves to the family living there. The family listened patiently to Ann’s tale of how she had been directed there by an angel and invited the whole group in. The unexpected arrangement worked, perhaps because Abraham brought his skills as a blacksmith and Ann was an excellent housekeeper. As a female journalist reported at the time:
The women are the ugliest set of females I ever saw gathered together, perhaps their particularly unbecoming dress added to the plainness of their appearance; it seems to be adapted to make them look as ugly as art can possibly devise … their petticoats are long and trolloping, and there is nothing to mark the waist. They are, however, most scrupulously clean.
After two years in New York, the Shakers moved out to the countryside near Albany, where their community began slowly to grow and develop its special character. The center of their devotions was the meeting room, where they kept at their spiritual labors around the clock, operating a shift system for meals. As one group ate and drank, the other brethren sang and danced in front of them. An eyewitness recorded that when they were spinning, the women’s skirts would become “full of wind to form a shape like a tea cup bottom up.” There was also a regular program of intensive exorcisms. One man was spun around off his feet for more than three hours, while all about him there was “yelling, yawing, snarling, pushing, elbowing, singing, dancing.” The observer concluded that “the worst drunken club you ever see could not cut up a higher dash of ill behavior.”
In the middle of it all, though rarely participating in the shaking, was Mother Ann herself. She ruled with a rod of iron, making sure that there was no backsliding. Like St. Cuthbert she hardly ate at all, scraping the “driblets” off other people’s finished plates but upbraiding others for not eating enough. She was also obsessive about cleanliness, claiming “there is no dirt in heaven.” At the merest hint of familiarity between men and women she would regale them with her vivid visions of hell, where molten lead was poured on the genitals of the lustful. After a time, this all proved too much for her husband, Abraham. Driven from the marital bed by her spiritual “moanings and weepings,” he one day turned up with a prostitute, saying that either Ann performed her wifely duties or he would have to find someone else who did. She threw him out, declaring he had “lost all sense of the gospel.” He was never heard of again.
Ann was equally ruthless with her spiritual rivals. The eccentric cult leader Shadrack Ireland had invented and preached the cult of Perfectionism, the idea that heaven was achievable on earth and that, as a result, he would never die. When the inevitable happened—in 1778—his followers left him sitting in his chair until the smell became so bad they had no choice but to bury him. Ann, quick to spot an opportunity, castigated him as an agent from hell and converted many of his flock to the Shaker faith. On another occasion, when smoke from a prairie fire in upstate New York blotted out the sun, Ann used it as a powerful recruitment tool: a clear sign that the Last Days were nigh.
As the community settled in, many of the more attractive things we now associate with the Shakers began to take shape. Their aesthetic teaching was as plain as their morality—“Beauty rests on utility”—and their elegant furniture, buildings, and music became renowned. Their early melodies were simple and wordless, but over time these developed into beautiful three-part harmonies. By the early twentieth century, more than twelve thousand Shaker songs had been written, so many that a unique shorthand musical notation was devised to record them all, using letters of the alphabet rather than the familiar notes on staves.
Ironically, given their commitment to pacifism, the Shakers were continually at war with neighboring communities. When the War of Independence broke out, they were subjected to frequent violence. Ann was accused of being a British spy and a man in disguise. She was arrested, beaten, and forced to strip to prove she was telling the truth. In 1782 James Whittaker, from whose pipe Ann had drunk in prison, was whipped by a mob “till his back was all in a gore of blood and the flesh bruised to a jelly.” Apparently, he sang Shaker songs all the way through his ordeal.
As Ann grew older and her health began to fail, her visions intensified. She paid personal visits to those suffering in hell, imagining herself as “the woman clothed with the sun” from the Book of Revelation who sprouts the wings “of a great eagle”:
I felt the power of God come upon me, which moved my hands up and down like the motion of wings; and soon I felt as if I had wings on both hands … and they appeared as bright as gold. And I let my hands go as the power directed, and these wings parted the darkness to where souls lay, in the ditch of hell, & I saw their lost state.
She reported back to the living relatives of the damned how much their prayers had soothed the torments of those who had died unshriven. This led many of her followers to believe she was indeed the second incarnation of Christ. As one young Shaker wrote: “Every trew believer believes that Christ has made his second appearance in the world clothed in flesh & blood in the form of a woman by name Ann Lee.”
Ann died of leukemia at Waterlievt in 1784. She was only forty-eight. Worn out by the frequent confrontations and beatings, she ended her life peacefully, after several weeks of sitting in her rocking chair “singing in unknown tongues … and wholly divested of any attention to material things.” Her passage to the spirit realm was helped on its way by a lively Shaker funeral, but for many years, rumors of her impending return persisted. She herself had never claimed any such thing. Her consistent view was: “The second appearing of Christ is in His Church.” She never expected the personal return of Christ because she believed he had already turned up in the establishment of the Shaker faith.
By the time Ann’s skeletal remains were exhumed fifty-six years later to see if she was actually inside her coffin, the Shaker community had more than six thousand members living in nineteen different settlements. This was to be the movement’s high-water mark. In 1863, midway through the Civil War, President Lincoln, in recognition of their pacifist views, exempted them from combat, making them history’s first official conscientious objectors. But gradually, what many people saw as the big drawback of Shakerism—the insistence on celibacy—led to a slow decline in converts. In 1965 they voted to accept no new members. Today there are only three Shakers left, in the last Shaker settlement at Sabbathday Lake, near New Gloucester in Maine. They have the distinction of being America’s smallest religious or ethnic minority.
For all Ann Lee’s strangeness, her emphasis on equality for all—particularly women—and a democracy based on social justice and religious tolerance were well ahead of their time. Her view of life after death, like everything else, was bracingly clear: Give up sex—the curse that had afflicted humanity since Adam and Eve—and you would be saved. As she had seen hell and could describe it in detail, who would dare risk not believing her?
Another regular visitor to hell was the English poet and painter William Blake (1757–1827). Unlike Ann Lee’s hideous vale of torments, Blake’s hell, though the opposite of heaven, was its equal—and every bit as necessary:
Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate, are necessary to Human existence. From these contraries spring what the religious call Good & Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing from Energy. Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell.
These insights are from his visionary work, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, published in 1790. Unlike Ann Lee, Blake didn’t descend into hell like an eagle; he sauntered around it like a tourist: “As I was walking among the fires of hell … I collected some of their Proverbs….” Just as the proverbs of different countries give a clue to their character, so the “Proverbs of Hell” would provide a better idea of the place than describing what the locals were wearing, if anything. The bits of “infernal wisdom” he collected there would have appalled Ann Lee:
“The nakedness of woman is the work of God.”
“Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.”
“Damn braces: Bless relaxs.”
“The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom.”
Blake was a favorite of the Beat poets of the 1950s and the hippy movement of the 1960s. For him, full expression of sexuality—for both men and women—was an essential part of worship. The spirit and flesh were one; Blake had no time for the concept of sin or for the denial of passion. In his notes on his (now lost) painting A Vision of the Last Judgment (1810) he writes:
Men are admitted into Heaven not because they have curbed & govern’d their Passions or have No Passions, but because they have Cultivated their Understandings.
To Blake, the afterlife was neither remote nor frightening. In a letter to his patron and collaborator (the wealthy and popular writer William Hayley) in 1800, Blake comforted him on the loss of his young son:
I know that our deceased friends are more really with us than when they were apparent to our mortal part. Thirteen years ago I lost a brother, and with his spirit I converse daily and hourly in the spirit, and see him in my remembrance, in the region of my imagination. I hear his advice, and even now write from his dictate.
Blake’s younger brother Robert had died of consumption when he was twenty-five, a loss that affected Blake deeply. In a scene reminiscent of Cuthbert’s vision of the death of St. Aidan, Blake observed his brother’s released spirit ascend through the ceiling “clapping its hands for joy.” Robert regularly visited Blake in dreams. One such encounter produced a brilliant advance in printing technology. In the eighteenth century, pictures called etchings were printed in the following way: Copper plates were covered with wax. The artist scratched a picture in the wax with a needle and then dipped the whole thing in acid. The acid bit into the exposed metal but left the wax alone. The wax was then removed by applying heat to melt it, and the copper plate was inked. After being wiped to remove excess ink, so there was only ink in the indented lines, the plate was then pressed onto paper, providing a print of the original picture. Robert’s idea reversed the process. The artist painted directly on to the copper using varnish. When the plate was dipped in acid, the acid cut away the metal around the acid-resistant varnish, leaving the picture standing out in relief. Dispensing with the wax speeded the whole thing up, and painting in varnish gave the artist far more freedom of expression than scratching away in wax. Blake’s invention could have made him a great deal of money; instead it brought him only delight and immortality. Relief etching allowed him to “body forth” the visions of his imagination and create his illuminated books, the striking combinations of poetry and images for which he is now famous.
Today, Blake is known as one of England’s most original artists and thinkers, but this was far from the case during his lifetime. He mounted only one exhibition of his work, in 1809. He sold nothing at all and attracted only one review. The Examiner dismissed him as “an unfortunate lunatic” who had published “a farrago of nonsense, unintelligibleness, and egregious vanity, the wild effusions of a distempered brain.” It was a view widely held. On being shown some of Blake’s drawings, George III shouted “Take them away! Take them away!” Even the poet Wordsworth thought he was mad—although, to be fair, he qualified this by saying “there is something in the madness of this man which interests me more than the sanity of Lord Byron or Walter Scott.”
How mad was Blake? It sounds as if he might have had bipolar disorder. He suffered from debilitating fits of gloom alternating with periods of visionary intensity and high productivity. At the age of four he saw God’s head leaning in at a window. As an eight-year-old, on Peckham Rye, he saw a tree full of angels. Blake’s images have a verve and simplicity that makes them feel both wild and oddly real. Today we think of him as imaginative rather than mad.
In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, Blake dines with the Old Testament prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel. He asks them how they dare assert that God spoke to them. Isaiah answers that he “saw no God, nor heard any” but that he had perceived “the infinite in every thing.” The voice of God, continues the prophet, is nothing but “the voice of honest indignation.”
“Honest indignation” describes Blake to a tee. Short, stocky, and ginger, as a small child he had such a temper and hated rules so much that his father didn’t dare send him to school. Instead, William was educated at home by his mother and his own reading. “I have a great desire to know everything,” he once remarked. He had an exceptional gift for languages, teaching himself Latin, Greek, and Hebrew as well as some French and Italian. His natural intelligence (and his sudden insights) meant that he never felt intellectually intimidated by anyone. His scribbles in the margins of other people’s works are always lively and often very funny. Annotating the rather pompous Discourses of the great artist Sir Joshua Reynolds, Blake peppers the pages with exclamations like: “Villainy!” “A Fine Jumble!” “Liar!” but can be generous when he agrees with a passage: “Well Said Enough!” In one of his own notebooks, Blake suddenly goes off on a tangent about Jesus’ nose:
I always thought that Jesus Christ was a Snubby…. I should not have worship’d him if I had thought he had been one of those long spindle nosed rascals.
What really got Blake’s honest indignation going was injustice. No less than the Shakers, he was enraged by the class system, by slavery, and by the urban poverty he saw around him in London. The values of his society seemed to him to be upside down. What mattered in England was not
whether a man had talents & Genius, But whether he is Passive & Polite & a Virtuous Ass & Obedient to Noblemen’s Opinions in Art & Sciences. If he is, he is a Good Man. If not, he must be Starved.
Blake didn’t exactly starve, but he certainly struggled to make ends meet. His parents were both in the clothing trade—his mother’s first husband had died, leaving her a hosiery business in Soho, and Blake was born above the shop. He had no desire to join the family firm: He was “totally destitute of the dexterity of a London shopman.” When he was ten, his parents encouraged his natural love of sketching by sending him to a drawing school in the Strand, where he was nicknamed the “Little Connoisseur.” As a teenager, he spent hours drawing in Westminster Abbey (where he had more visions of Christ and the Apostles) and set out to be apprenticed as an engraver, a relatively humble profession at the time. While casting around for the right master, his stargazing skills came in handy. He turned down one position flat, declaring: “I do not like the man’s face, it looks as if he will live to be hanged.” Sure enough, twelve years later, the engraver, William Ryland, was hanged for forgery—the last person ever to be executed at Tyburn.
Blake showed great talent as an engraver and soon received a regular flow of commissions, particularly from booksellers wanting illustrations. By the mid-1780s he had earned enough money to buy his own press. But the business didn’t last long. Blake wasn’t really interested in money and he lived so much in his own head that deadlines were always a problem. He couldn’t bear his clients telling him what to do, and resented the shallow tastes of “Fashionable fools.” He refused to be pigeonholed: He didn’t care for the Romantic school’s obsession with landscape and was equally contemptuous of Neoclassical life drawing, which he described as “looking more like death, or smelling of mortality.” Blake had honed his technique by relentlessly copying the works of the Renaissance masters—Dürer, Michelangelo, and Raphael—but his subject matter came directly from his own luminous daydreams. For him, the visible world was just the outward “mortal” manifestation of an eternal reality. Where others saw the sun rising as “a round disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea,” Blake saw “an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying, ‘Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord God Almighty.’ ”
Wondrous as all this was, it wasn’t exactly commercial. He and his wife, Catherine, lived from job to job, subsidized by handouts from friends, for the whole of their married life. When Blake met Catherine (or Kate, as he always called her) in 1781, he was recovering from rejection by another woman and was vague and distracted. She, on the other hand, was instantly smitten—so much so that she fainted on being introduced to him, knowing instantly that this was the man she was meant to marry. They were wed within the year.
Catherine was illiterate: like Ann Lee, she signed her wedding contract with a cross. She ran the household and made Blake’s clothes; he taught her to read and write and she learned to help him with his engraving and coloring. They had no children, but it was a warm and happy marriage. In periods of financial hardship, she would put an empty plate in front of him at mealtimes as a hint, but she supported him through all his mood swings, missed deadlines, and aborted grand plans. In forty-five years, they spent less than a fortnight apart.
Not that there weren’t tensions. During some of Blake’s more fevered raptures, Catherine would sit up at night and keep him company; at others, she would leave him to it. In the long and painful gestation for the most ambitious of his prophetic books, Jerusalem(1820), she confessed to one of his fellow artists: “I have very little of Mr. Blake’s company; he is always in Paradise.”
There is a persistent rumor about Blake’s marriage that he tried to persuade Catherine to experiment with a more open relationship, perhaps through the introduction of a young unmarried woman as a sexual partner, and that she rejected this tearfully. A strong sexual element runs through all Blake’s work, and his nonconformist religious background may have instilled in him some radical ideas. London in the 1780s was home to a number of religious groups known as antinomians. The term means, literally, “lawless” and it was used—usually as a term of abuse—to describe extreme Protestants whose belief in “justification by faith alone” meant that they were supposedly able to ignore normal morality. His mother had been brought up as a Moravian, the oldest of the Protestant sects, founded in the late fourteenth century in the area of central Europe after which it was named. His father was a follower of Emmanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772), the Swedish scientist, theologian, and mystic. There is some evidence of open marriages being tolerated among both Moravians and Swedenborgians. The recent discovery and publication of Swedenborg’s Spiritual Diary has inflamed this further. Swedenborg—who was a Moravian for a while—practiced an intensely sexual mysticism. He had researched in detail the attainment of spiritual ecstasy by delaying orgasm, as practiced by some Kabbalistic Jewish sects and by the Tantric school of Buddhism.
How much Blake was aware of this we shall never know: The more pious-minded of his friends destroyed most of his explicitly erotic drawings and manuscripts after his death. What we do know is that Swedenborg’s best known work, Heaven and Hell (1758), was a major influence on Blake. One of Blake’s engravings shows a female figure whose vulva has been translated into an altar, with an erect penis standing like a holy statue at its center. This is a visual representation of Swedenborg’s idea of sex as a religious sacrament.
Blake was unambiguous on the importance of sex in marriage:
Abstinence sows sand all over
The ruddy limbs & flaming hair
But Desire Gratified
Plants fruits of life & beauty there
In a wife I would desire
What in whores is always found
The lineaments of Gratified desire
One day, Blake’s friend Thomas Butts came across Kate and William sitting naked in their summerhouse in Lambeth reading each other Paradise Lost. Blake—far from being embarrassed—welcomed him in, saying, “It’s only Adam and Eve you know!”
In 1800 William Hayley encouraged the Blakes to move near him at Felpham on the Sussex coast. At first it was a refreshing change (“Felpham is a sweet place for Study, because it is more spiritual than London,” Blake wrote), but it was also wartime. The coast was under threat of a Napoleonic invasion and the towns and villages were full of soldiers. One day, Blake found one of them, John Scolfield, lurking in his garden. His assertive streak and his dislike of authority took hold. Blake accosted the soldier and “taking him by the elbows” manhandled him down the street. A fight followed, cheered on by a number of Scolfield’s comrades, who were drinking in the Fox Inn. When it turned out Blake’s gardener had invited Scolfield into the garden, Blake was formally charged with assault and—a much more serious matter—sedition: During the tussle he had yelled “Damn the king. The soldiers are all slaves!” Given the delicate military situation, a conviction might well have cost Blake his life.
The jury acquitted Blake (the locals didn’t like the drunken squaddies any more than he did), but he plunged into a depression. By the time he appeared at Chichester assizes in 1804, he had fallen out with William Hayley and he and Kate had moved away from Felpham. Ironically, it was while he was awaiting trial for treason that Blake penned the preface to his prophetic poem Milton, which contains his most famous lines, the hymn now sung as “Jerusalem,” sometimes called England’s other national anthem. Blake had loved to ride across the Sussex downs: “England’s green and pleasant land” was his tribute to the magnificent view from Trundle Hill above Chichester.
Blake died in harness, having spent his last shilling on a pencil to keep working on his illustrations for Dante’s Divine Comedy. He had been complaining for some time of “shivering fits & ague” and the “torment of my stomach.” The most likely cause of death was liver damage resulting from fifty years of inhaling toxic copper fumes as he toiled at his engravings. Catherine was with him, and his very last act was to ask her to pose for him: “Stay Kate! Keep just as you are—I will draw your portrait—for you have ever been an angel to me.” One of his younger admirers, the painter George Richmond, was there too:
He died … in a most glorious manner. He said He was going to that Country he had all His life wished to see & expressed Himself Happy, hoping for Salvation through Jesus Christ—Just before he died His Countenance became fair. His eyes Brighten’d and he burst out Singing of the things he saw in Heaven.
He and Catherine had always enjoyed singing together, both old ballads and his own songs, many of which had the simplicity of Shaker hymns. After his death, Catherine lived off his work and kept in close contact with him, “consulting Mr. Blake” before agreeing to any deal. She herself died four years later, calling out to him “as if he were only in the next room, to say she was coming to him, and it would not be long now.”
It took most of a century for Blake’s reputation to rise to the summit of English art and letters. These days, his Songs of Innocence & Experience are recognized as classics and “The Tyger” is the most anthologized English poem of all time. The longer, prophetic poems may be read less often, but the illustrations that accompany them are exhibited all over the world as masterpieces of spiritual art; few people have ever transformed their mystical experiences into such simple and instantly recognizable images. Blake’s philosophy also seems to resonate deeply with the modern age. The last line of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, “For everything that lives is holy,” reaches out far beyond a narrow Christian interpretation. It would do very well as the slogan for a contemporary environmental charity. But Blake was never a conventional Christian. As he once remarked, relishing the paradox: “Jesus is the only God … and so am I, and so are you.”
Blake’s reputation, rather like St. Cuthbert’s body, had many adventures after his death. In contrast, the posthumous fate of Blake’s contemporary, the social philosopher and reformer Jeremy Bentham (1748–1832), was planned down to the last detail. The father of utilitarianism (the philosophy of the greatest good for the greatest number) wanted to do something useful with his mortal remains. Instead of leaving them to molder in the ground, he chose to put them on permanent public display. In his will, Bentham left his body to his friend Dr. Thomas Southwood Smith with very precise instructions on how to turn it into what he called his Auto-Icon. It is still visible today, preserved in a glass-fronted wooden cabinet at University College, London.
Bentham first toyed with the idea of preserving his own body while in his twenties, when he asked a doctor friend to get him a human head so that he could experiment with drying it in his oven. He explained that he wanted to leave his own body to science “with the desire that mankind may reap some small benefit by my decease, having had hitherto small opportunities to contribute while living.”
Six decades later, Bentham got his wish. He had specified in his will that his body was to be offered up for public dissection, a useful thing in itself. At that time, because of the doctrine of the resurrection of the flesh (when Christ will supposedly return at the Last Judgment to open the graves of the dead), there was still a Christian taboo against not burying bodies. This meant there was a general shortage of specimens for pathologists to work on.
Before the dissection began, at London’s Webb Street School of Anatomy, twenty-eight of Bentham’s friends gathered to say farewell. His corpse lay before them in a simple nightshirt. In a scene straight out of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (then just into its second edition), the funeral oration was dramatically accompanied “with thunder pealing overhead and lightning flashing through the gloom.” Once the eulogy had finished, Dr. Southwood Smith made sure, as Bentham’s will had specified, “to ascertain by appropriate experiment that no life remains.” He then carefully stripped the flesh from the bones and placed the internal organs and “the soft parts” in labeled glass containers “like wine decanters.” His cleaned bones were then pinned together with copper wire and the skeleton dressed in a suit of Bentham’s clothes, padded out with hay, straw, and cotton wool. A sachet of lavender and naphthalene was placed in the stomach cavity to discourage moths. Again adhering to the instructions in his will, the body was seated in “a Chair usually occupied by me when living in the attitude in which I am sitting when engaged in thought.” The whole ensemble was to be enhanced by the presence of Dapple, his favorite walking stick, and topped off with his actual head (well preserved and with a suitable hat on it).
Dr. Southwood Smith succeeded in all save the preservation of the head. He later explained:
I endeavored to preserve the head untouched, merely drawing away the fluids by placing it under an air pump over sulphuric acid. By this means the head was rendered as hard as the skulls of the New Zealanders; but all expression was of course gone. Seeing this would not do for exhibition, I had a model made in wax by a distinguished French artist.”
Some of Bentham’s own hair was attached to the waxwork head, and (for some years) his actual (poorly mummified) head sat at his feet in the glass cabinet, out of which stared the disconcertingly blue glass eyes he had carried around in his pocket for six months before he died. The final flourish, also specified in the will, was the presentation to his close friends of signet rings containing his portrait in miniature, painted using a brush made from his own hair. He hoped that they would meet regularly on the anniversary of his death and that his Auto-Icon would be wheeled out to join them. His wish was fulfilled, and Bentham—dressed since 1939 in new, moth-resistant underwear—still occasionally graces university functions. The mummified head, once a victim of regular undergraduate pranks, is now locked away in storage.
Jeremy Bentham was never in any danger of being described as conventional. The son of a solicitor, he was a child prodigy who began learning Latin at the age of three and by the age of five could play Handel sonatas on his violin. He was physically weedy, described as having a “dwarfish body coupled with a hawkish mind.” His mother died when he was eleven and his father sent him to study classics at Oxford soon afterward. The young Bentham was far from impressed: “I learned nothing,” he concluded. “We just went to the foolish lectures of tutors to learn something of logical jargon.” At seventeen he entered Lincoln’s Inn as a lawyer, but the self-serving complexity of English law led him to disparage it as “the Demon of Chikane.” What really interested him was the flood of Enlightenment ideas crossing the English Channel arguing for the reform of a society based on injustice and privilege. By the time he was twenty he had begun writing about the evolution of society and the rights of man. He described himself as “eeking and picking his way, getting the better of prejudice and non-sense, making a little bit of discovery here and there.”
Bentham was gradually recognized by a small circle of London intellectuals; his first publication was A Fragment of Government (1776), a spirited attack on the English legal system. For some years, he relied on the patronage of members of the aristocracy, especially Lord Shelburne (1737–1805), the Whig home secretary and prime minister, who frequently invited him as a houseguest. In 1792 Bentham’s father died and his inheritance allowed him to move into a house in Queen Square Place, Westminster, where he lived for more than fifty years. In An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation (1789), he was the first person ever to use the words “international” and “monetary,” and he defined “utility” as “the property in an object which tends to produce pleasure, good or happiness, or to prevent the happening of mischief, pain, evil or unhappiness.”
In recognizing the “utility of things,” Bentham’s conclusion was that the law should be used to ensure “the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people.” This was revolutionary stuff: The idea that ordinary people were entitled to happiness struck at the heart of the entrenched rights of the aristocracy, the Crown, and the judicial system. In order to define happiness precisely, the ever-practical Bentham devised his own system for calculating it, which he called felicific calculus, listing fourteen pleasures and twelve pains—though even his closest allies thought it a bit complicated to apply in real life.
The establishment saw Bentham as deeply dangerous. His “algebra of utility” seemed to eat like an acid through centuries of accumulated privilege and injustice. He opposed slavery and both capital and corporal punishment; he believed in equal rights for women and for animals; he called for the decriminalizing of homosexuality; he praised free trade and the freedom of the press; he supported the right to divorce and urged the separation of church and state. Most of what we now call liberalism can be traced back to Bentham. Many other people—not least William Blake—espoused the very same causes, but utilitarianism provided the legal and philosophical principles upon which liberal democracy would be founded. In his lifetime Bentham was much more influential outside Britain: In 1804 Napoleon transformed the European legal system with his Code Napoleon, based on Bentham’s ideas.
In Bentham’s view, English case law, which was administered by judges, had a poor record in delivering justice. He pointed to the absurdity and viciousness of more than two hundred separate offenses being punishable by death, including “breaking and entering by a child under ten” and homosexuality.
As well as intellectual acumen, Bentham’s other weapon was his work rate. He cultivated friendships—by letter, as he disliked meetings—with the great and the good: from Catherine the Great of Russia to Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in the newly independent United States; from Francisco da Miranda, the Latin American revolutionary, to Talleyrand, the French master statesman. His ideas were so admired in France that in 1792 he was made an honorary citizen.
Nor did he confine his work to abstract theory. He designed a prison: the Panopticon (“see-everything”), whose revolutionary circular design gave prisoners a reasonable amount of space in their cells, but allowed both jailers and inmates to be seen from a central viewing area. This allowed one person, the prison warden, to keep an eye on everything that happened. The fact that everyone was under constant surveillance would, Bentham thought, allow the prison to function efficiently and peacefully and make its design applicable to lunatic asylums, schools, and hospitals. The Panopticon influenced the layout of penal institutions all over the world, including those at Pentonville in London and Joliet Prison in Illinois. Bentham also made practical suggestions for electoral reform, all later adopted, including universal suffrage and the secret ballot. In Defence of Usury (1787) he persuaded his friend Adam Smith to accept the charging of interest on loans. The writer G. K. Chesterton called this “the very beginning of the modern world.”
Despite his relatively low profile in the Anglo-Saxon world at the time, Bentham could make a serious claim to being the most influential philosopher since Aristotle. And he may yet have more surprises in store for us. As he produced, without fail, fifteen to twenty pages of notes every day, he left an archive of more than 5 million manuscript pages behind him, fewer than half of which have ever been published. The Bentham Project at University College London, begun in 1968, is now up to twenty-five volumes.
The regularity and sheer pace of his work life protected Bentham from social engagements, which he avoided as much as he could. He didn’t need company, describing himself as being “in a state of perpetual and unruffled gaiety.” This, and his personal fortune, meant he could pick and choose the people he associated with. He refused to see the French intellectual and writer Madame de Staël (1766–1817) when she asked to meet him, saying she was nothing more than a “trumpery magpie.” He once met Dr. Johnson but declared him to be “a pompous vamper of commonplace morality.” Apart from two early dalliances, he seemed to have no intimate dealings with women, although even at the end of his life, memories of his romantic youth would quickly move him to tears. “Take me forward, I entreat you, to the future,” he would beg his guests. “Do not let me go back to the past.” He did occasionally allow friends to dine with him, making lists of conversational topics beforehand. At ten o’clock, he took tea. At eleven, a nightcap of half a glass of Madeira, the only alcohol he ever drank. By twelve, his guests would find themselves unceremoniously ejected. He slept on a hard bed and suffered from bad dreams and loud snoring (“If a Bentham does not snore,” he said, “he’s not legitimate”). By day his favorite pastime was badminton—then known as battledore, where the players simply kept the shuttlecock in the air for the highest number of hits possible. In Bentham’s lifetime, a Somerset family set the record, managing 2,117. He was also one of the first joggers, startling people by suddenly taking off at high speed while walking in London parks or in his garden on what he called ante-prandial circumgyrations. He once confessed he couldn’t swim or whistle, but “saw no reason to complain.”
As he got older, his eccentricities multiplied. He kept two walking sticks, Dapple and Dobbin. On meeting friends he would use one or other of these to tap them on the shoulders, in mock knighthoods. He also had a “sacred teapot” called Dickey, which he referred to as a pet. His (real) pet pig allegedly shared his bed for a time, and he was also fond of cats, in particular a tomcat called Langhorne that he referred to as “Sir John” for several years, before redesignating him a vicar to be addressed as “The Reverend John Langhorne.” His collection of mice ran wild in his office, destroying manuscripts and terrifying guests. “I love anything with four legs!” he proclaimed. Bentham’s house had once belonged to John Milton, to whom he erected a plaque in the garden calling him the Prince of Poets, though he personally found poetry a “misapplication of time.” “Prose,” he said, “is when all the lines except the last go on to the margin. Poetry is when some of them fall short of it.” It’s hard to know whether he was employing the same dry wit when he wrote to the London City Council asking if he could replace the shrubs beside his driveway with mummified corpses, which he said would be “more aesthetic than flowers.” This idea was developed further in his book Auto-Icon; or Farther Uses of the Dead to the Living, in which he proposed the wholesale transformation of corpses into varnished garden ornaments. On the basis that this suggestion was unlikely to enhance his reputation, his literary executors delayed its publication until a decade after his death.
Bentham liked a joke, but his writing on the Auto-Icon can’t simply be dismissed as either a prank or the onset of dementia. His value as a philosopher was in his unswerving application of the principle of utility. Death, then as now, was a taboo, steeped in fear and religious superstition. Burying corpses and letting them rot in the ground seemed to him wasteful, repugnant, and unhygienic. Graveyards had been fearful places to him since childhood. He recalled going through one at night, his heart “going pit-a-pat all the while, and I fancied I saw a ghost perched on every tombstone.” The Auto-Icon solved both problems at once. It made death useful, offering the safe disposal of corpses, while providing a permanent memorial to the dead person. Bentham’s own Auto-Icon at University College is the perfect Enlightenment object, a triumph for rationalism, materialism, and utilitarianism, and a rejection of fear, superstition, and the tyranny of the Church. The fact that it is also very odd and faintly off-putting somehow seems entirely in character with its inventor:
Twenty years after I am dead, I shall be a despot, sitting in my chair with Dapple in my hand, and wearing one of the coats I wear now.
Bentham’s publicly displayed three-dimensional version of the afterlife might not shine with the mystic intensity of Blake’s, but starting from opposite ends of the spiritual spectrum, they both ended in the same place. Both had faith in the power of their own imaginations. Both used their imaginations to release themselves from the old myths of heaven and hell that had so tormented Ann Lee, and in the process, both made themselves feel a lot happier about dying.
Practical philosophy and mystical visions come together neatly in the life of the American architect, inventor, poet, philosopher, author, teacher, entrepreneur, artist, and mathematician, Richard Buckminster Fuller (1895–1983). He was also preoccupied with salvation, both individual and collective. “We are not going to be able to operate our Spaceship Earth successfully, nor for much longer, unless we see it as a whole spaceship and our fate as common. It has to be everybody or nobody,” he wrote in 1969. Like each of the other lives in this chapter, his story is about having a vision and trusting it. “Faith,” he once remarked “is much better than belief. Belief is when someone else does the thinking.”
The Fullers had always done their own thinking. They were New England nonconformists known as Transcendentalists, who rejected religious authority in favor of personal inspiration. Like Blake, the Transcendentalists saw both humanity and nature as manifestations of the Divine. They included among their number the philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–82), the nature writer Henry David Thoreau (1817–62), and Fuller’s great-aunt, Margaret Fuller (1810–50), author of Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845), the first major feminist work in the United States.
The young “Bucky,” as he was called, was extremely shortsighted. Until he was fitted with glasses, he refused to believe that the world was not blurry. His father, like so many of the fathers in this book, died at a young age, but his family was well established and wealthy, and so, like four generations of his family before him, Bucky was sent to Harvard. It was there that his long battle with authority began. Halfway through his first year he withdrew his entire college allowance from the bank to romance a Manhattan chorus girl and was promptly expelled. He was readmitted the next year and thrown out a second time for “irresponsibility and lack of interest.” He would later write:
What usually happens in the educational process is that the faculties are dulled, overloaded, stuffed and paralyzed so that by the time most people are mature they have lost their innate capabilities.
In the end, the man who was to become the greatest architect of his age didn’t graduate. The only degrees he ever received were the forty-seven honorary doctorates he was awarded many years later.
After brief stints in a textile mill and a meat-packing company, Fuller joined the navy during World War I. As a boy in Maine he had amused himself by making tools out of odds and ends, and he put this talent to good use by inventing a winchlike device for rescuing the pilots of navy airplanes, who often ended up head down underwater. Thanks to this, he was selected for officer training at the U.S. Naval Academy, where he studied engineering. Leaving the navy to marry his wife, Anne, in 1917, he started a business with her father making bricks out of wood shavings, his first environmentally aware project. Both the marriage and the business were very successful until 1922, when the Fullers’ four-year-old daughter, Alexandra, suddenly died from polio.
This affected Fuller terribly. He was devoted to her, and he and Anne had already nursed her through the 1918 flu epidemic and a serious bout of meningitis. The day before she died she had asked him for a walking cane similar to the one he had used since he had damaged his knee playing football. He then left the family home on Long Island for an overnight trip to watch Harvard, his old college team, play. When Harvard won, Fuller spent the night carousing with his friends. By the time he rang Anne the following afternoon, Alexandra had fallen into a coma. He rushed back home, and when he arrived, she regained consciousness just long enough to ask if he had got the cane. He had forgotten all about it, and Alexandra died shortly afterward. Fuller was inconsolable, and his life began to fall apart. He started drinking heavily and neglecting the business. Eventually Anne’s father lost patience, bought him out, and then sold the company for a fraction of its potential value. Fuller began an intense affair with a teenage girl. When she ended it, his mental health deteriorated sharply. In 1927, aged thirty-two, he walked to Lake Michigan and stood at the water’s edge, contemplating suicide.
At that moment, Richard Buckminster Fuller found himself suspended several feet above the ground, surrounded by sparkling lights. Time seemed to pause and he heard a voice say:
You do not have the right to eliminate yourself. You do not belong to you. You belong to the Universe. You and all men are here for the sake of other men.
It was at this point that Fuller realized he had faith—faith in what he called “the anticipatory intellectual wisdom which we may call God.” This inspired the conception of his “lifelong experiment,” which was “to discover what the little, penniless, unknown individual might be able to do effectively on behalf of all humanity that could not be accomplished by great nations, great religions or private enterprise.” Specifically, his mission was to plan the survival of humanity. He started compiling his “Chronofile,” a vast scrapbook that included a daily diary, recording all his ideas, copies of all his incoming and outgoing correspondence, newspaper clippings, notes and sketches, even his dry-cleaning bills. In it, he called himself Guinea Pig B (B for Bucky). By the end of his “lifelong experiment,” this “lab notebook” took up 270 feet of shelving. Fuller claimed, with some justification, that he had the most-documented life of any human being in history.
After his mystical experience, he locked himself away for a whole year to read and think. He emerged convinced that the secret to saving the world was better design. His axiom was “maximum advantage from minimal energy,” a principle he observed throughout the natural world in the structure of plants and animals. He started with housing: He already had some experience in construction and knew that cheap, efficient “machines for living” (as he called them) were needed all over the world. Ignoring thousands of years of building tradition, he went back to first principles. What if he based house design on the human frame, or a tree, hanging everything off a trunk or backbone—a system that used gravity instead of fighting it? And what if he made it from the lightest materials, like those already being used in aircraft manufacture? The result, a prototype for which was built in 1929, was the first entirely self-sufficient, portable house. Looking like an aluminum yurt, it was suspended on a central pole, ran on a diesel generator, and recycled its own water so it didn’t need plumbing. And it was light enough to be airlifted anywhere it was needed. It was called the Dymaxion house, from a contraction of “dynamic,” “maximum,” and “tension.” It slept four and was priced at $1,500 (about $40,000 today), which meant it could be marketed as “a house that costs no more than a car.” Although it never went into mass production, it put Fuller’s name—and Dymaxion’s—on the map.
Over the next two decades, Fuller created Dymaxion cars and Dymaxion bathrooms and, especially, the Dymaxion globe. This was an atlas of the world projected onto an icosahedron (a solid geometrical figure with twenty sides, each of which is an equilateral triangle) rather than a sphere. It had no up or down, south or north, and it could be unfolded into a flat map of the world. Unfolded one way it showed how the world’s land masses join together; the other way did the same thing for the oceans. Laid out flat either way, it was a much more accurate representation of the world than traditional atlases, but being composed of twenty triangles, it was startlingly unfamiliar to look at.
Few of these conceptual innovations made Fuller any money, but he persevered, taking part-time jobs to keep his wife (and his second daughter, Allegra) clothed and fed. In order to be taken seriously, he gave up smoking and drinking and started eating carefully. “I found that if I was talking about my inventions and drinking, people just wrote them off as so much nonsense,” he explained. His diet consisted exclusively of prunes, tea, steak, and Jell-O. He experimented with a technique for sleeping as little as possible, to squeeze more out of his day. “Dymaxion sleep,” as he inevitably called it, involved training himself to take a thirty-second nap at the first sign of tiredness. He tried it for two years, averaging only two hours’ sleep a day, but had to stop because his colleagues at work couldn’t keep up.
Then, in 1948, came the great leap forward that changed it all. Fuller had been teaching at Black Mountain College, a liberal arts foundation in North Carolina that acted as a summer camp for the elite of American avant-garde culture. Other faculty members included the composer John Cage, dancer Merce Cunningham, and abstract Impressionist painter Willem de Kooning.
Always trying to “do more with less,” Fuller had gone on thinking about the lightest and strongest possible building. The simplest way of enclosing space is a regular pyramid, or tetrahedron, each side of which is an equilateral triangle. (It is also much stronger than anything with rectangular sides.) The most efficient way to enclose space is a sphere, because it uses the least possible surface area of any three-dimensional shape. In the back of his mind were the yurt-shaped roof of his Dymaxion house and the twenty equilateral triangles on the surface of the Dymaxion globe. Then came his eureka moment. What if he built a sphere out of triangular planes? Wouldn’t that have the spatial capacity of a sphere and the strength of a pyramid? And so it was that one summer evening at Black Mountain, Fuller and his students took a pile of wooden slats and built the world’s first geodesic dome.
It was an approximation of a sphere made out of triangular planes and then cut in half—and it was the perfect structure: the largest possible volume of interior space with the least amount of surface area, offering huge savings on materials and cost. The ratios were simple and beautiful: Double the dome’s diameter, and its footprint on the ground quadrupled while its volume grew eight times larger. It was also extremely stable, and because air could circulate freely inside, it was up to 30 percent more efficient to heat than a conventional rectangular building. Fuller called it geodesic because a geodesic line is the shortest distance between any two points on a sphere (from the Greek, geodaisia, meaning “dividing the earth”). Most remarkable of all was this: proportionally speaking, the larger the dome, the cheaper, lighter, and stronger it became.
The first commercial application of Fuller’s design came in 1953. The Ford Motor Company commissioned a geodesic dome to cover the central courtyard of its Rotunda building in Dearborn, Michigan. The U.S. military followed with a second order, and soon the world went dome crazy. His immediate success turned Buckminster Fuller into a household name and even made him some money. He took out the patent in 1954, but always refused to set up as the exclusive manufacturer. When asked why, he said:
Whatever I do, once done, I leave it alone. Society comes along in due course and needs what I have done. By then, I’d better be on to something else. It is absolutely fundamental for me to work and design myself out of business.
There are now more than half a million geodesic structures across the world, including the Eden Project in Cornwall and the Houston Astrodome in Texas.
Fuller’s inspiration for the dome was the way in which the protons, neutrons, and electrons of the atom fit together to create matter. In fact, he came to believe that the natural geometry of the whole universe is based on arrays of interlocking tetrahedra. He already had seen how the light-but-strong structure was used all over nature: in the cornea of the eye, in the shape of some viruses, and even in the configuration of the testicles. In 1985 his discovery was to receive the ultimate endorsement when a team of scientists in Houston, Texas, discovered a new class of carbon molecule (C60) shaped exactly like a geodesic sphere. Its discovery won them the Nobel Prize and they named the molecule buckminsterfullerene (or the “buckyball”). It is the third known form of pure carbon in nature, after diamond and graphite.
More recently, buckminsterfullerene has been found in meteorites that date from the time of the earth’s formation, suggesting that the elements needed for life originated in space—something that Fuller himself had long believed.
The later years of Fuller’s life were spent traveling back and forth across the world lecturing and inspiring people, particularly the young. He could talk for ten hours at stretch, without notes, and would wear three watches, reminding him of the time where he was, where he was going, and at home. He was on tour in 1983 when he learned that the cancer his wife was suffering from had worsened. Anne had been in a deep coma for some time when he made it back to her bedside. As he held her hand, Fuller felt her move. “She is squeezing my hand!” he exclaimed. Still holding her hand, he stood up, and immediately suffered a massive heart attack. He died soon afterward, “with an exquisitely happy smile on his face,” according to his daughter. Anne, his wife of sixty-seven years, died a few hours later.
Way to go. Fuller’s inventions may not yet have transformed our daily lives like Nikola Tesla’s or even Bill Gates’s. We don’t live in Fuller-designed houses or drive Dymaxion cars—and geodesic domes have a tendency to leak. None of this would have troubled Fuller: He wasn’t interested in inventions as such. Instead of the dome, he said, “I could have ended up with a pair of flying slippers.” His designs were merely a by-product of his larger quest: “My objective was humanity’s comprehensive success in the universe.” Fuller’s real influence has been in the worldview he has helped to create. Words we now use as standard, such as “synergy” and “holistic,” are a direct result of Fuller’s work. Every global campaign against poverty, or in favor of sustainability, owes something to Fuller’s vision outlined in his book Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth (1969) and to his “doing more with less” mantra. As his friend John Cage wrote, “His life was so important that it shines almost with the same intensity now that it did when he had it.”
The lives of all the visionaries in this final chapter were changed by something they could not control, whether they called it inspiration, the Universe, an altered state, or the voice of God. Few of us have visions of anything like the same intensity (and let’s face it, given a life like Ann Lee’s, few of us would want them) but anyone who has ever been so absorbed in something that they forget where they are will recognize the phenomenon described by the great Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell: “What is done by what is called myself is, I feel, done by something greater than myself in me.”
This is one of the great mysteries of life and (like most of them) it is also a paradox. If I’m most myself when I’m least aware of myself, then, who, or what, am I? As Buckminster Fuller put it: “I live on Earth at present, and I don’t know what I am. I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process—an integral function of the universe.”
Standing inside the vaulting lightness of a geodesic dome or admiring the beauty of a Shaker bowl, a Blake engraving, or St. Cuthbert’s shrine in Durham Cathedral brings us face-to-face with another mystery. Where do ideas come from? The lives of all the people in this book have survived because they left behind them something they made: a body of work, an idea, a bundle of stories. We have seen some of the common factors that unite those whose achievements were built to last. A few of them are obvious advantages—a positive outlook, a gift for languages, good luck. But the majority—terrible childhoods, parents dying young, being hopeless at school, illness, psychological trauma—look more like distinct drawbacks. The Dead were no better than us—they made mistakes, behaved badly, lost the plot, lost hope, treated one another cruelly—and, as we have seen, they certainly cannot be said to have had better lives. Ultimately, though, whatever they started with, and however badly it sometimes ended, all of our distinguished Dead did something that made a difference—and they did it by making something of themselves. And so can you. As a watchword for living, the old Lebanese proverb cannot be bettered:
The one who is not dead still has a chance.