Interiority, Inner Light, and Living On
In 1993, Douglas Hofstadter, author of the brilliant Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid and many other subsequent books, lost his wife Carol quite suddenly while on sabbatical in Italy. From the Carol Ann Brush Hofstadter Memorial Scholarship page:
In 1985, Carol married Doug Hofstadter, who had been an IU professor from 1977 to 1983 but who had recently moved to the University of Michigan. In 1988 Doug was hired back by IU and the young couple returned to Bloomington and started a family -- Danny, born in 1988, and Monica, born in 1991. One of Carol and Doug's fondest dreams was to bring up bilingual children, and so they decided to spend Doug's first sabbatical year (1993-94) in Italy. In August of that year, the family moved to Trento, in the Italian Dolomites, with views of beautiful mountains on every side. In early December, Carol had a series of intense headaches and on December 12, she suddenly fell into a coma. Ten days later, never having regained consciousness, she died of a brain tumor. Though devastated, Doug resolved to finish out the year in Italy in the way Carol would have wanted, and Danny and Monica became truly bilingual, thus realizing Carol's dream.This is from a January 2007 American Scientist interview with Hofstadter:
In the book you mention losing your wife quite suddenly in 1993, and I was struck by how that affected your thinking and your work. It's a consoling idea that your wife's personality or point of view might persist somehow. Do you still feel that way?I find this passage quite affecting. Partly it's because it so closely mirrors how I think I would feel in Hofstadter's place. Even more, though, I think it's because it reminds me of the reality of my agnosticism and what I believe the limits are to "living on" after death.
Absolutely. I have to emphasize that the sad truth of the matter is, of course, that whatever persists in me is a very feeble copy of her. Whatever persists of her interiority is not her full self. It's reduced, a sort of low-resolution version, coarse-grained. Otherwise it would be a claim that "it's all fine, she didn't die, she lives on in me just as much as she ever did." And of course I don't believe that. I believe that there is a trace of her "I", her interiority, her inner light, however you want to phrase it, that remains inside me and inside some other people, people who really had internalized her viewpoint, people who really had interacted intimately with her over years, and that trace that remains is a valid trace of her self -- her soul, if you wish. But it's diminished; it's very dilute relative to what existed in her own brain. So there are two sides to the coin. It's consoling on the one hand that there's something left, but of course it doesn't remove the sting of death. It doesn't say, "Oh, well, it didn't matter that she died because she lives on just fine in my brain." Would that it were.