That death is a shadow of a shadow called life has long been the central tenet of many spiritual credos. Now hard-headed science—which often tends to dismiss spiritual insights as bromides, the equivalent of a psychological alka-seltzer—is coming around to share this view. In The Romeo Error, the noted British biologist-turned-author Lyall Watson explores the phenomenon of death, Hamlet’s “undiscover’d country from whose bourn no traveller returns”, and deconstructs it with the combined skills of cultural anthropology and biology. The title encapsulates the theme of the book, that death is a fictive device, a stage illusion.
In the familiar love story, Romeo comes to his rendezvous with Juliet, who has been given a sleeping draught. Mistaking sleep for death, Romeo despairs and takes his own life. Juliet, awakening, sees her beloved dead and kills herself, compounding Romeo’s error.In the hands of Shakespeare, the story makes for good romantic tragedy. But, as Watson points out, it constitutes not only a spiritual solecism, but also bad science. What we grieve as ‘death’ is not the absolute that we take it to be; not an ultimate terminus, but only another stage in a continuum which precedes apparent birth and survives seeming extinction. Unlike in Romeo and Juliet, in the ‘real’ world death does not represent the final exit; it is another unfolding of the scenario of a far vaster play.
Watson begins by distinguishing between the various ‘types’ or ‘stages’ of death currently recognised by medical and forensic science: coronary death; brain death etc. Death is not a ‘thing in itself’ but a process which derives significance from the interpretation given to it by others. This can and does create a tangle of cultural, philosophical, ethical and legal complexities.
In Future Shock, Alvin Toffler quotes a bizarre case in the US in the 1970s in which a man was shot in the head by a would-be assassin. Rushed to hospital, the victim was pronounced by the surgeon to be brain dead, though the heart was still pumping. The surgeon tried to transplant the functioning heart to a car crash survivor whose own heart had stopped beating, but whose brain was still ‘alive’.
The procedure failed, and both the victims were officially pronounced dead. But at which stage did the gunshot victim ‘die’? When the killer’s bullet destroyed the brain, or when the surgeon failed in the attempt to transplant the still-beating heart? The counsel of defence for the assassin tried to make a case that it was the latter, and that the real murderer was not his client, but the surgeon. This ingenious argument was, of course, dismissed on the basis of motive—the killer’s to kill, and the surgeon’s to save—but it underscores the hazards of misinterpreted mortality.
In a complementary work called Lifetide, Watson outlines a hypothetical genesis—a ‘scientific myth’—of the seamless web which underlies all seemingly discrete and separate existences, a surging tsunami or giant wave on whose crest foams the spindrift of all living phenomena: suns and planets and islands and men, cabbages and kings. From the many parallel myths of creation, he quotes that of the Zuni Indians: “In the beginning of the new-made, the All-container conceived within himself and thought outward in space, whereby mists of increase, steams potent of growth, were evolved and uplifted… he made himself in person and form of the Sun whom we hold to be our father… and with the brightening of the spaces the great mist clouds were thickened together and fell… impregnating the world-holding sea.”
Watson notes: “It would be difficult to produce a scientific description of the universal big bang, the accumulation of interstellar clouds under gravitation, the coalescence of cosmic dust into stars, the formation of planets and the birth and arrival of a comet in more precise terms than those. And impossible to design a way of putting life and man more elegantly, more lovingly, into cosmic perspective.”
We are, literally, star-stuff, born of and indissolubly linked to a Mother who is more “parent than planet”. “Dust to dust. The imagery is vivid and the decay inevitable, but it is difficult to imagine man arising from dust. Unless you believe in miracles. Or unless you happen to be a chemist at the University of Glasgow.” In the 1970s, Alexander Cairns-Smith of Glasgow was among the first scientists to propose the theory that men—and by extension, gods—had, truly, “feet of clay” in that it was this material, which was the matrix for our primordial genetic building blocks.
What we call ‘reality’, concludes Watson, is only what we structure our consciousness to perceive; a metaphor in a wordless language we invent in order to invent—and uninvent—ourselves and everything around us: rising and setting suns, birth and death, erring Romeo, whose pathetic fallacy differentiated between the two, the cosmos itself, ephemeral bubble on the ebb and flow of lifetide.
Writer, columnist and author of several books