Fear of Teleportation and Poe's The Premature Burial
My brother Nick and I, who are of similarly morbid minds, often find amusement in watching our mother squirm when we tell her that the only people tortured by death are the survivors. It’s an idea we both find empowering, I think, because it allows us to assert our rejection of dull afterlife mythologies while at the same time proving our love for humanity. We both have talked at length on why donating dead bodies should be common practice.
We differ on one detail, my brother and I, and it’s on the nature of the border between life and death. It’s an argument that comes up whenever we have hypothetical conversations on the advent of commercial teleportation which we both acknowledge will revolutionize global travel, but only I believe will usher in a new era of mass accidental suicide.
Under the conventional idea of teleportation - which suggests that a person enter a transporting chamber, be dissolved into base components, converted into light, and then reassembled at a desired destination - I see death as an integral part of the process. The human body, when torn apart, would die. Upon reassembly, the person with all your body and memories will be you to the outside world, but I am skeptical that it will be the same “me” that went through the in-door. My brother doesn’t contest this, but he offers the possibility that it is inconsequential.
Nick says that the present mind is the only one that is real, and that the me of yesterday is as dead as the hypothetical me that entered a teleporter in Toronto only to transfer my continued brand presence to the new me at my futuristic destination (ie. Space-Paris, Space-Berlin, Japan etc). He argues that the continuous living that I assert as my identity, my parts handing off life to the next generation like some sort of billion cell relay race, is false. My brain apparently shuts down when I sleep to the point of practical brain death. While his evidence is that of an impassioned enthusiast arguing with his brother while drinking, I can’t dispute that the reason for my stubborn stance of continuous-being is fear, especially since, as I type this sentence, I realize he is probably right.
The tenuous border between life and death is the subject of Edgar Allan Poe’s aptly titled The Premature Burial. The short story begins with folk philosophy on the nature of history and the important role genre can play in describing unpleasant happenings, then goes on to detail numerous cases of individuals who had appeared dead and thus buried alive, only to revive under darkly comic circumstances. Reading the beginning of The Premature Burial today evokes Mary Roach by way of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell - addictively curious, overwritten with the euphemism of the period, and grave-minded.
When the narrator eventually reveals himself to have had a premature burial experience of his own, the story turns to supernatural horror. The storyteller has a condition called catalepsy, which essentially sends him into comas, and therefore stokes his fear of living internment. It is in the one of these near death episodes that he is taken by some nameless gibbering entity and shown the graves of the world, some filled with living bodies.
Inspired by his deadly encounter, the narrator takes every precaution possible to ensure if he is buried alive while catatonic that he will be promptly rescued. Unfortunately, he suffers an episode while away from home and fears he must be burried in a n unmarked grave before finally realizing he is in the berth of a boat travelling down the James River and henceforth changing his life to be less controlled by his phobia. Classic Poe.
What strikes me as so prescient about The Premature Burial is its fascination with the border between life and death that’s spurred on my fear of teleportation. There is an entry to the world beyond, a tenure away from the living, and then a return to the world we know. In Poe, this is a much less convenient time for the participant, who will have not travelled very far in his or her flicker between moments of living, but the allegory fits with my brother’s theory more than mine.
The only difference between life and death is self evident, so to continue on in your journey is to negate any deaths you may have momentarily fallen into. The lesson is that death between lives is not truly death, because the only true death is one that puts us beneath the ground never to return