In this episode of High Theory, Laura Wittman tells us about near death experiences. The central feature of these experiences is a vision and a story, which it turns out are a lot stranger than the “best seller” version. These narrative encounters with death often inspire people to make dramatic moves in search of a more meaningful life, from newfound religious faith or activist commitments to career changes and divorce.
In the episode, she talks about the changes in what makes a good death, from the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries, and how the narratives of near death experiences reflect our desires for older forms of sociality around life’s passing. She references Oliver Sacks’s book Hallucinations (Random House, 2012) in regards to the visions patients experience in hospitals, and their desire for a witness in the moments of lucidity that often occur before death.
Laura Wittman is an associate professor of French and Italian at Stanford University. She teaches nineteenth and twentieth century literature, and her research focuses on what happens to religious experience in the so-called secular modern age. Her book, The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Modern Mourning, and the Reinvention of the Mystical Body (Toronto UP, 2011) has recently been translated into Italian as Il Milite ignoto. Storia e Mito. (LEG, 2021) She also coordinates the Medical Humanities Working Group at the Stanford Humanities Center.
This week’s image is a photograph of the Ellen Browning Scripps Memorial Pier in La Jolla, California, taken by Kim Adams in November 2022. On the top of the pier is a research site for the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego.