“They’re so wonderful: after all that’s happened, with all the war and poverty, they still have hope.” L hates it when people from rich countries talk about people in poor countries like that. What’s so great about hope? she says. It’s just like religion: put up with the crap now because it’ll be all right after you’re dead and you can go and sit on a fluffy cloud for the rest of time.

I’ve been listening to my new CD of Gustav Mahler’s second symphony, “The Resurrection”. This is all about life after death: from both the music and what Mahler said about it, the idea is that life is good when you’re young and naive, then becomes a complex of confusion, doubt, anger and, predominantly, suffering, then you die – but that’s OK because God will call you and you will live in bliss forever:

Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n / Rise again, yes, rise again,
Wirst du, Mein Staub, / Will you My dust,
Nach kurzer Ruh’! / After a brief rest!
Unsterblich Leben! Unsterblich Leben / Immortal life! Immortal life
wird der dich rief dir geben! / Will He who called you, give you.

Wieder aufzublüh’n wirst du gesät! / To bloom again were you sown!
Der Herr der Ernte geht / The Lord of the harvest goes
und sammelt Garben / And gathers in, like sheaves,
uns ein, die starben! / Us together, who died.

O glaube, mein Herz, o glaube: / O believe, my heart, O believe:
Es geht dir nichts verloren! / Nothing to you is lost!
Dein ist, ja dein, was du gesehnt! / Yours is, yes yours, is what you desired
Dein, was du geliebt, / Yours, what you have loved
Was du gestritten! / What you have fought for!

O glaube / O believe,
Du wardst nicht umsonst geboren! / You were not born for nothing!
Hast nicht umsonst gelebt, gelitten! / Have not for nothing, lived, suffered!

Was entstanden ist / What was created
Das muß vergehen! / Must perish,
Was vergangen, auferstehen! / What perished, rise again!
Hör’ auf zu beben! / Cease from trembling!
Bereite dich zu leben! / Prepare yourself to live!

O Schmerz! Du Alldurchdringer! / O Pain, You piercer of all things,
Dir bin ich entrungen! / From you, I have been wrested!
O Tod! Du Allbezwinger! / O Death, You masterer of all things,
Nun bist du bezwungen! / Now, are you conquered!

Mit Flügeln, die ich mir errungen, / With wings which I have won for myself,
In heißem Liebesstreben, / In love’s fierce striving,
Werd’ich entschweben / I shall soar upwards
Zum Licht, zu dem kein Aug’gedrungen! / To the light which no eye has penetrated!
Mit Flügeln, die ich mir errungen / Its wing that I won is expanded,
Werde ich entschweben. / and I fly up.
Sterben werd’ich, um zu leben! / Die shall I in order to live.
Aufersteh’n, ja aufersteh’n / Rise again, yes, rise again,
wirst du, mein Herz, in einem Nu! / Will you, my heart, in an instant!
Was du geschlagen / That for which you suffered,
zu Gott wird es dich tragen! / To God will it lead you!

And it’s an astonishing piece of music, if often dense and confusing, with emotions turning on a sixpence, colossal, articulate, beautiful, lyrical, ironic, terrifying. It didn’t make me think about God or an afterlife, though, so much as the possibility of this world being better: I imagined some passages as a soundtrack to a film about some great, ideal revolution, the shat-upon masses standing up straight and coming into their own. But the piece as a whole wouldn’t fit that, because in Mahler’s world not only do you have to suffer before you get the reward of a better life, you have to take the great bungee jump of death itself. Only this bungee rope, like Tinkberbell’s resurrection in Peter Pan, only works if you believe in it enough. No faith and you’re just a skin sack of broken bones and ruptured organs. That’s the price of Mahler’s hope: faith and death.

So what use is hope if you don’t believe? Even when I did, I don’t recall thinking much about the afterlife as a reason to do the right thing or put up with stuff – that seemed a rather unworthy, self-centred preoccupation: surely a believer should do the right thing because that’s what God wants and so it’s as right as gravity and the speed of light, if we could but see it. I can see it makes good evolutionary sense to have an emotion that makes you keep trying even when all  evidence and reason suggests that there is no point; a neurophysiological response that overrides everyday rationality to keep the organism alive for another day: like God, your genes don’t care how much you suffer, just get on and keep trying to fulfil your destiny. But is there anything in it for me? I don’t think so.

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