Much contemplation, debate, and consternation has been directed at the possibility and potential nature of the afterlife. The numerous perspectives have generated an array of overlapping conceptualizations of the experiences that persons might or might not expect after death. This paper will explore how perceptions of the underworld have evolved through time and across cultures. The Greek story of Odysseus’ journey to the underworld will be contrasted with the contemporary film What Dreams May Come. In the past, the underworld was perceived as a place under the control of some ultimate being wherein people would lose their identities and will power. However, the course of this discussion will show that the underworld is now viewed as more of a personal sojourn for the individual. Heaven or hell is thus relegated to a place that is specified to the particular experience and thought-pattern of each person. Whether or not there is a higher being, it is not such a presence which determines the nature of the state of being of the departed soul.
The film What Dreams May Come presents a rather novel perception of the underworld. In the film, Chris, portrayed by Robin Williams, meets death and finds himself in a landscape marked by artistry and vivid colors. In his new world, he meets his old mentor as well as his children who had in a vehicular accident prior to his own death. It takes him some time before he recognizes each of these people as they have taken forms and figures reflective of the people whom each of them had wished to be to the protagonist. As the movie progresses, Chris’ wife commits suicide and lands in Hell. Chris attempts what previously was deemed impossible as he sets out on a journey to rescue his wife.
The movie reflects how the afterlife is nothing more than what people imagine it to be. A conversation between Chris and Albert, his son disguised as his afterlife guide, reflects this precise concept:
Albert: So what is the “me”?
Chris : My brain I suppose.
Albert: Your brain? Your brain is a body part. Like your fingernail or your heart. Why is that the part that’s you?
Chris : Because I have sort of a voice in my head, the part of me that thinks, that feels, that is aware that I exist at all.
Albert: So if you’re aware you exist, then you do. That’s why you’re still here.
Thus, the greatest danger a person could face is to lose his or her mind or ability to identify him or herself. This would entail the ceasing of existence itself. In the movie, Chris’ wife goes to hell rather than to heaven where she could join her husband and children. Chris’ wife committed suicide.
For the religious, the reason for this automatic reclusion to hell would be the mere act of giving up on her own life. However, following the theme of the film, it can be seen that the only reason why Chris’ wife is separated from her family even in death is because she refuses to believe that there is any other way to exist. She gave up not only on her life when she committed suicide but she also gave up hoping that she could ever be reunited with her family. Farance (http://www.celebritywonder.com) explains that it is the inability to forgive one’s self which causes the sustenance of the state of hell or purgatory. The denial of exoneration from perceived wrongs committed renders the person incapable of changing the bondage that translates into his or her reality.
This shows that hell is nothing more than the coming into existence of situations and circumstances which people fear or dread the most. Just as heaven, alternatively, is the realization of the desires and dreams of people. Thus, the underworld or the afterlife becomes a place where the strongest emotions or prevalent thought patterns of individuals transform and shape the direct environment of each one.
The strongest message of the film regarding the character of the underworld is the continuity of life after death. Rather than portraying death as an end of being, the underworld becomes a passage allowing for the rebirth of persons. It is seen that few limitations were imposed upon the deceased. First, nothing held Chris back from trying to communicate with the living world. He was thus able to watch his wife sink into depression as well as attempt to communicate with her through her paintings. More so, the film shows that the afterlife is an imagined life allowing thought to create and shape whatever reality is experienced by individuals. The state of being and becoming does not cease therefore. Persons are still free to interact and to influence just as they are able to in their life before death. Moreover, the afterlife seems to be an enhanced life, one where people’s wishful thinking consciously or unconsciously translates to actuality. There is no distinction between dreams and reality – two conceptions which are entirely opposite from each other. It becomes an enhanced life since a person who is able to let go of past faults would be able to build a reality that is free from pain and failure.
This perception of the afterlife is quite different from the view espoused by the ancient Greeks. In Homer’s Odyssey, there are recurrent scenes of underworld voyages. Let us first take into consideration the death portrayed by Telemachos’ state of resignation towards his mother’s suitors. Telemachos believes that his father is dead and will not return. His state of inaction is believed to be a symbolism of death (Death and Rebirth, 123HelpMe.com). He believes that his father is dead and so he too is unwilling to save his home from abuse and disrepair. He would join his father thus in the inability to act. This symbolism of death is repeated in the experience of Odysseus’ character. In the island of the Kalypso, Odysseus himself walks in the afterlife. He becomes dead to the living world and he is caused to forget his past or the possible roles he might play in the present. In both symbolisms, it is shown that the underworld is a place wherein persons cease to act or cease to influence others around them. This is all the more emphasized in the symbolism of the underworld through Odysseus’ encounter with Polyphemus. When Polyphemus asks him for his name, Odysseus answers that he is Nobody. This is further supported by the actual journey that Odysseus takes to the underworld in Book XI of the Odyssey. Those in the underworld are truly non-existent and have no identity since they are unable to interact with anyone in the living world.
Also, the underworld as portrayed by Kalypso’s island is a place of seclusion, bondage, and involuntary surrender. Odysseus is kept on the island only by the sheer will of Kalypso. He is also released from the same through that same will. Death is therefore a state of being imposed upon by forces and persons greater than one’s self. Unlike the conceptions established in the film, Homer espouses the belief that death is not something that one can enter willingly. Nor is the state of heaven, hell or purgatory made relevant. The afterlife is a mere state of nothingness where individuality is a mere shell lacking in essence or substance. That a person continues to live means nothing because that person is still not able to act, decide, or change his or her environment.
This presents us with a view completely different from that shown in the film What Dreams May Come. The dead therefore have no state of being to speak of unless they are reborn to the living world. Death itself is not a process of rebirth. Instead, it is a state imposed upon the deceased from which he or she cannot escape unless set free by higher beings or circumstances beyond his or her own making.
However, in both the film reviewed and the book discussed, it is shown that a journey to the underworld allows that the sojourner meets the people with whom he or she had been acquainted in the living world. Chris meets very few people in heaven and all three were the closest people that he had around him when he was still living. In much the same way, Odysseus’ visit to the underworld brings him across fallen comrades and kings. This of course, may simply be a tool in showing the change that an individual undergoes when passing from the living to the dead. Thus, the protagonist must be able to show knowledge regarding the past character of the person encountered in order that present reformations may be explained and appreciated.
The different conceptualizations on the nature of death and the afterlife are quite stark with few to no similarities presented. The two portrayals are similar only in the sense that upon reaching the afterlife, a person’s memory of his or her experiences in the living world is still intact and he or she is able to further such memory through interaction with the people he or she meets in the underworld. Furthermore, a voyage through the underworld does not disallow the communication and interaction with others undergoing the same journey. More often than not, these people with whom the traveler interacts are those with whom he was well acquainted while in the living world.
However, in the contemporary depiction of the afterlife the traveler is also able to interact with the living world whereas in previous conceptions the afterlife was completely cut off from the living. Not only this but in the contemporary portrayal of the afterlife, the individual is able not simply to interact with others in the afterlife but he or she is able to determine the form and character of the world wherein he or she is forced to move after death. Furthermore, contemporaneous thought eliminates the presence of a greater being upon whom rests the decision of rebirth. In the past, rebirth was brought about only with the permission of the gods and only through a rejoining of the living world. In the contemporary view, death itself is a process of rebirth and the nature of such a reborn life is determined solely by the power of thought of the deceased. The shift from external to internal loci of control is undeniable. More than anything, the change in the perception regarding the nature and character of the afterlife is a reflection of a localization on humanistic ideologies.
Fagles, Robert, trans. “The Odyssey.” By Homer. New York: Viking, 1996.
Ward, Vincent. “What Dreams May Come.” USA: Polygram 1998.
Farace, Jeff. “What Dreams May Come.” Celebritywonder.com. 16 June 2008 <http://www.celebritywonder.com/movie/1998_What_Dreams_May_Come.html#REVIEWSMARK>.
“Free Essays on Homer’s Odyssey: Death and Rebirth.” 123HelpMe.com. 16 June 2008 <http://www.123HelpMe.com/view.asp?id=17004>.
“Memorable quotes for what dreams may come.” IMDb.com. 16 June 2008 <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0120889/quotes>.