The Wonderful World of the Dead: A Typology of the Posthumous Narrative
For there be divers sorts of death - some wherein the|
body remaineth; and in some it vanisheth quite away with the spirit.
In one kind of death the spirit also dieth,
and this has been known to do while yet
the body was in vigor for many years.
Sometimes, as is veritably attested,
it dieth with the body, but after a season
is raised up again in that place
where the body did decay.1
According to many systems of belief, there is a part of the human being which goes on to lead an independent existence even after physical death has set in. This part, which is usually called the soul, is assumed to be conscious and to bear the characteristic traits of the deceased's personality. Since antiquity, this supposed transformation has been used for narrative purposes.2 But even in modern times, when the belief in an afterlife has become less widespread, authors have used it as a convenient fiction for their own ends. However, the ideas of what exactly constitutes death have been somewhat modified over the centuries, as have been those about the soul and the imagined conditions of the afterlife. The smallest common denominator for the declaration of death seems to be the ceasing of the bodily functions, but not necessarily that of consciousness. As a matter of fact, some sort of consciousness - wherever it is to be located - is a prerequisite for this type of narrative, because otherwise there would be nothing to narrate but what happens to the body after death. This consciousness, however, may take on many forms, reaching from a seemingly uninterrupted continuation of the earlier form of existence to an (almost) complete break with it. This is partly correlated with the question of how far the dead are aware of the fact that they are dead. Since the circumstances of the posthumous condition depend largely upon the various kinds of awareness belonging to this condition, the following observations will be structured upon the pattern of the latter. I shall therefore first describe various types of the posthumous experience - ranging from full knowledge and acceptance of death to complete ignorance - and then speculate upon their possible uses. Although I have tried to give historically important examples of the appearance of a particular type, systemisation rather than chronology has been my concern.
Varieties of death
The conscious dead
The traditional account of what happens after death is that the immaterial soul of the deceased detaches itself from the body and goes on a journey to some other place, often characterised as heaven or hell, where it will then dwell forever.
One of the earliest fictional representations of the postmortal life in English appears in a work that is usually seen as a precursor of the novel proper: John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress (1678). Here, we find a visionary account of an after-death experience in the form of a journey which starts in familiar surroundings, but moves into less and less familiar territory until it finally reaches - or at least comes into sight of - a goal, which - when reached - will be the place of fulfillment. The main intention is, of course, to exhort the reader to look at his life and to mend his ways.
It is remarkable, however, that the novel proper hardly ever takes the idea of the afterlife in this form seriously, but rather uses it for satirical or polemical purposes, although this does not exclude a didactic element. Such is the case in Henry Fielding's A Journey from this World to the Next (1743), where in the first part the anonymous narrator, a newly departed soul, relates his adventures on his voyage to 3 This affords much opportunity for satiric swipes at doctors and tourist-guides in the style of a travelogue, since the soul is still at a transitional stage and has not yet become accustomed to its new state. The judge guarding the gates of paradise is Minos, whose criteria for admittance resemble strongly those precepts for human benevolence advocated by Fielding in his other works. The souls who fail to gain admittance are, as a rule, sent back to earth to try again. The narrator, however, gains admittance.
In the second part the narrator relates interviews with several famous persons that he meets inside paradise, and which throw quite a different light upon their characters. The last part of the work is the story of the life of Anne Boleyn, told by herself, in which she appears "more sinned against than sinning" and is admitted into paradise in compensation for what she has suffered. The whole narrative, then, attempts to be a broad satiric mirror for the various walks of life.
It is in this satiric vein, too, that Hawthorne uses the form in "The Celestial Railroad",4 in which the protagonist reenacts Christian's journey in the Pilgrim's Progress, only this time modern advancements in religion speed the traveller along without any trouble - the only drawback being that he will never reach the Celestial City.
An interesting variation of this type of narrative is represented by David Danziger's The Devil in Miss Jones, where a 30 year old catholic virgin called Justine commits suicide, because yet another frustrated boyfriend has left her after six months of a platonic relationship.5 She wakes to find herself in a sort of clearing house between heaven and hell. Since she has led a life free from sin, she would normally go straight to heaven, but of course her suicide is unforgivable. She is, however, given a week's respite on earth in order to really earn hell. Before she is allowed to return, she is given a thorough training in all the varieties of sex, which she then practices with abandon during her week on earth. When she is finally consigned to hell, her punishment consists in being forever encarcerated with a man whose sexual interest she is unable to arouse. The satirical butt of the novel is obviously the catholic religion and its prohibitive attitude towards sex.
Even more bitingly anti-religious is Stanley Elkin's The Living End which could also be called the ultimate posthumous narrative, because it ends with the destruction of creation as we know it. It tells of three men whose deaths are linked through the almost accidental murder of one of them at the hands of the two others and who meet again in hell. They all know that they are dead - but they cannot accept the consequences. The victim, Ellerbee, was the very model of a "good man" who cared more for others than for himself. The greater his surprise, when St. Peter at the pearly gates tells him to go to hell - and hell really is hell in every way. He later meets one of his murderers who died a natural death at the age of almost one hundred. The manifest injustice of this incites Ellerbee to blasphemy which actually gets him God's attention. Asked for an explanation of it all, God tells Ellerbee that the latter did neither honour the Sabbath nor his parents (whom Ellerbee never knew, being an adopted child), that he took God's name in vain, and - worst of all - that he thought, Heaven looked like a theme park.
All ideas of a God who, if not merciful, is at least just, are here put to ridicule. Veneal and cardinal sins alike assure everlasting damnation and punishment. Admission to heaven, on the other hand, depends only on God's whim. At a final great party, God gives a glorified account of his career and then reveals the ultimate motif behind everything he has done: "It was Art! It was always Art. I work by the contrasts and metrics, by beats and the silences. It was all Art. Because it makes a better story is why."6
With artistic aplomb, God has chosen the perfect moment for his disclosure, for it marks the beginning of Doomsday and bodily resurrection. But not for long, since a disillusioned God proceeds to annihilate everything, giving as his reason: "Because I never found My audience."7 This, presumably, is then really the end.
These narratives have in common, that their protagonists are searching for a meaning - if not for their lives, then at least for their deaths. This search is presented to the reader either in a didactic vein, as in The Pilgrim's Progress, or with satirical intentions, as in the other stories. But even Bunyan uses the form to show up vices, and there are certainly also didactic elements in the satirical narratives.
The puzzled dead
The previous examples showed the dead as being fully aware of their state and behaving in the traditionally expected manner - albeit with certain variations. In the following cases, the dead find it much more difficult to understand and to come to terms with their new state. Generally speaking, "real" death only sets in, when it has been accepted as such, because only then there is a sense of closure and a more or less peaceful state can be reached.
Sometimes the dead do not realise for quite a while what has happened to them. Only after they have been confronted with incontrovertible evidence do they accept the fact of death. Such is the case in Ambrose Bierce's "An Inhabitant of Carcossa".8 The anonymous first-person narrator finds himself of a sudden in unknown and completely deserted surroundings, somewhat reminiscent of a former cemetery. He remembers having been ill and believes he has somehow recovered his health, but has lost his way. A lynx and a savage cross his path, buth they don't seem to notice him. Finally, he encounters his own tombstone, and when the sun rises and he does not cast a shadow, he realises that the ruins around him belong to the town of Carcosa, in which he formerly lived.
In Mervyn Peake's "Danse Macabre" there is a husband who notices one night that his dinner suit leaves the wardrobe all by itself and has a clandestine meeting in the woods with his wife's evening dress.9 The next night, husband and wife decide to find out about this and go to bed dressed in their respective clothes. They are lead into the woods, and when the husband returns the next morning, he finds himself and his wife both dead in bed.
The indications that something strange is going on are far more subtle in Muriel Spark's The Hothouse by the East River, where the first hint is conveyed by the present tense in which the story is told throughout, thus indicating the timelessness of the events.10 Another strange feature is Elsa, the main protagonist, whose shadow, as her husband Paul maintains, falls in the wrong direction, i.e. towards the source of light instead of away from it. But the possibility that either or both are insane cannot be ruled out for quite a while, and their friends act strangely too. There are different versions of their common past, which they try to work out. It is finally revealed that they have all been killed by a V2 in London in 1944, but they strenuously try to deny this.
Various features are remarkable in all these stories: the dead person has no direct experience of his or her death, but there are certain things that appear strange - there are starkly improbable events, disorientation, and direct contradictions of physical laws. But only when the evidence becomes incontrovertible is the fact of death acknowledged, and this is then invariably the end. So these narratives tell of a transitory state, which still bears many marks of the previous life, but they keep silent about what happens after.
This transitory state is also the beginning of Alasdair Gray's Lanark, in which the eponymous protagonist finds himself unaccountably in a rather drab city.11 The only thing he remembers is arriving in a train and being given a name and some money. This experience is apparently shared by everyone he meets, as are also certain physical peculiarities, especially an illness called "Dragonhide", which eventually covers the whole body in some hard scaly substance. Lanark escapes through a giant mouth that swallows him entire and wakes up in an underground hospital to find that he has been cured. There he finds out about his past as Duncan Thaw, who killed a girl and then committed suicide. He decides to leave the hospital and becomes involved in a fight between good and evil.
This story is remarkable not only for its detailed working out of the afterlife, which seems to consist mainly of the more unpleasant aspects of the previous existence, but also for apparently giving the protagonist another chance in a new realm: the realisation of death does not entail the end, it is rather a new beginning.
In all these narratives the protagonists at some point become aware of their state, and are thus able to achieve a certain degree of closure, i.e. they acquiesce in their condition and presumably find some sort of convenient arrangement, but there are also those who fail to find out what has happened and therefore are doomed to wander - often literally - in circles.
The ignorant dead
Since only the acknowledgment of death opens the way to escape from eternal repetition, those who cannot make this step - for whatever reasons - are doomed to a hell of their own making.
Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman (1967) comes in the guise of an apologia pro vita sua: the first-person narrator gives an account of his life and doings, beginning with the startling revelation that it was him that committed a particular murder.12 It is less a desire to justify this murder than a wish to explain how it was done that prompts him to his narrative. The reader, however, soon has reason to doubt less the narrator's veracity than his ability to assess the import of what befell him and what he himself is doing, for he neither seems to realise that his mother was a (part-time) prostitute nor that both his parents have died - he rather thinks, they have just gone away. In very much the same vein he devotes his life to the pseudo-philosopher de Selby and strikes up a partnership with the parasitic layabout John Divney with whom he murders old Mathers for his money, only to be killed himself later by a bomb that Divney has planted for him. His death, however, is solely perceived by the reader, but not by the narrator who continues blithely on his way into an ever stranger world and straight into a police station, where he is arraigned for the murder of Mathers - apparently only because he just happens to be there. Among the strange things that happen to him while he awaits his hanging are a visit to a very odd place called "Eternity" and also several conversations with his own soul, which is called Joe and tells him that they will soon go different ways. (What will happen to itself, it cannot say.) After fleeing from his confinement and confronting a mortally frightened John Divney, who reveals that the narrator has been dead for 16 years, he finds himself back where he was just after the bomb killed him - only this time he enters the police-station together with John Divney.
An important feature of The Third Policeman is the anonymity of the narrator: he cannot remember his own name, although he tries out several appellations to see if they fit him. When asked by the police, he says his name is "Nobody", thinking that this is a clever ruse to escape hanging. As a matter of fact, this gets him only deeper into trouble, since the death of "nobody" will be of no import whatever. The nameless narrator has no identity to give up and, consequently, can acquire no new one, as would otherwises be usual after death. Because of this deficiency, he is trapped in an endless repetition of a purposeless existence.
Whereas it is clear in The Third Policeman that the narrator is dead, in some stories by Samuel Beckett the reader is left in doubt as to the exact state of the protagonist. However, we do find the apparently eternal repetition of the same, and there is also a circular movement. This is true for How It Is, which has a setting reminiscent of Dante's Inferno, and in which the protagonist is apparently damned to wander - or rather crawl - in circles forever, while life's necessaries are providentially provided in a sack containing cans of food and a can-opener.13 This certainly sounds like eternal damnation. Still, there is a glimpse of hope in the belief of some unreachable beyond.14. This is also true for The Lost Ones, where the inhabitants of a place that looks very much like hell are not aware of the exact nature of their plight and have a faint hope of escape.15 This escape might be the acquiescence in their death.
Looking over the brink
Some narratives concentrate on the actual moment of death. The dying are usually not conscious of what is happening to them, and, depending on the narrative point of view and the presence or absence of certain signals, the reader may only realise after a while what it is all about. Interestingly, these narratives do not seem to believe in an independent afterlife at all. When bodily death has fully set in, this is the end.
A famous instance of the transition from life to death is given in Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge", where a confederate officer in the American civil war is hanged by the Unionists who have caught him in an act of sabotage.16 In his last moments he fantasises a miraculous escape and return home until everything goes black: "Peyton Farquhar was dead; his body, with a broken neck, swung gently from side to side beneath the timbers of the Owl Creek bridge."17 Here we find a characeristic change of perspective from the inside view of the dying man to the outside view of the narrator. This also occurs in William Golding's Pincher Martin, where the eponymous protagonist creates almost a whole new life for himself in the last seconds before drowning.
Another instance where the projected afterlife is a decisive improvement on the preceding one and especially upon the circumstances of death is to be found in D.M. Thomas's The White Hotel, where the protagonist, Lisa Erdman, imagines she has been healed of her physical and mental wounds and meets again all those friends she had lost.18
These examples can be called wish-fulfillment fantasies, created by a wish to evade the inevitable and to replace it with something pleasant and gratifying in order not to have to face the fact of death. Almost the opposite could be said about a number of Samuel Beckett's protagonists who not only do not flinch before death, but seem positively to desire it, although the best they can hope for is annihilation. Thus, Malone in the novel Malone Dies tries three times - unsuccessfully - to tell the story of his life, each time in a different version.18 At last, there are only incoherent mumblings which indicate the end of his physical existence. What happens after is possibly told in The Unnamable, where a ruminating consciousness attempts to come to terms with its state, which is possibly death.20 It continuously tries on different past identities that it calls "vice-existers", which are connected with different reminiscences, but nothing ever leads to a conclusive answer, so the point of closure is never reached.
In Beckett's story "The End", the first-person narrator relates the last months of his life, although he does not seem to be aware of his approaching death.21 There are, however, many indications in the story itself that this is just what is going to happen: there is a pervading feeling of utter disorientation and the complete inability of the narrator to make sense of the occurrences. As a matter of fact, sense is not really what he is after, it is more like a fatalistic acceptance of whatever befalls him. In a final vision, he goes to sea in a boat and drills a whole into its bottom:
[...], I swallowed my calmative. [...] The memory came faint and cold of the story I might have told, a story in the likeness of my life, I mean without the courage to end or the strength to go on.22
Characteristically, death is here not a definite event but a continuous process whose beginning and end are hard to specify. The word "calmative" in the quotation above links the story to another one by Beckett which might very well be seen as its continuation. In this story the narrator knows that he has died, but he does not know when this happened, and hardly anything seems to have changed. He wanders about and meets people, but the events are similar to the ones in "The End" in their inconclusiveness. These two stories can thus be seen as mirror-images of each other: both spill over into the realm of the other without there being a strict borderline. This is summed up succinctly in "Texts for Nothing, III", where an anonymous I tries to imagine a body, but this turns out to be impossible: "There is no flesh anywhere, nor any way to die."23 Death in the old sense seems to have been abolished.
The borderline between life and death is also indistinct in the case of the Undead, who continue some sort of physical existence. The ceasing of the bodily functions does not necessarily mean a separation of the body and the mind: there are various cases, in which the two continue together, are in fact inseparable and exhibit certain properties that in other circumstances would be thought to pertain to the living. This seems to violate the criterion of death posited above, and indeed these cases have traditionally been labelled "the Undead", such as vampires and zombies. They can be differentiated from the "proper" dead by the fact that their existence is bound to their body: when the latter has been destroyed (in an appropriate way), they cease to exist. I have here also included ghosts, since, albeit not bound to a body, they intrude into the realm of the living.
Vampires suffer the death of their former being, but undergo certain bodily and psychic changes which enable them to lead a different kind of physical and mental existence, one which, however, is dependent upon a continous supply of fresh blood. Their only concern is to maintain their existence, but since their condition is contagious, they potentially eradicate their supply. Before they face extinction through starvation, though, they are usually delivered from their condition through various practices that involve the drastic mutilation of their corpses, as can be seen in Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897).
Zombies are the bodies of dead persons which are "reanimated" by somebody else, usually a sorcerer, who uses them for his own ends. They are said to possess tremendous bodily powers, but they have no will - and presumably no consciousness - of their own. An exception here is Windle in Terry Pratchett's Reaper Man.24 He is a sorcerer himself, who after his physical death continues as a Zombie because Death is reported missing. When Death checks back in to work, Windle can at last find his long-desired rest.
In Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1818) the parts of various dead bodies are put together and are reanimated to form the monster. The resultant creature has no knowledge of his previous existence(s), but rather resembles a new born child. As to his bodily strength, he shows the characteristics of a zombie. The creature could be said to be a zombie which has escaped its master's control, i.e. it has a will of its own.
A special case might again be provided by Beckett in "Imagination Dead Imagine", where the bodies of a man and a woman lie immovably side by side, but are alive (in an animated state?), according to the narrator.25 It seems that "only" their minds are dead. This would constitute a complete reversal of the traditional pattern, which postulates the death of the body and the continuance of the soul.
Ghosts are related to, yet distinct from the Undead, since on occasion they can be perceived in the material world, but are not of it. They can also be said to acquire new bodily abilities, albeit not material ones, since they are not restricted by physical circumstances. They interact, however, with the world of the living, i.e. they have to manifest themselves somehow, often visually, but also aurally or through direct communication with the mind of the perceiver, often in a dream or in a trancelike state.
Ghosts are usually not very communicative as regards their mode of existence. Sometimes they converse with the living, usually in order to complain of some wrong that has been done to them or that they have done themselves, in consequence of which they are damned to wander the earth until they are redeemed. They often have to perform repetitive tasks, i.e. reenact the decisive moments before their demise or something similar.
Ambrose Bierce's "The Moonlit Road" combines various of these features:26 through the medium Bayrolles, Julia Hetman tells how she appeared as a ghost to her husband, who has presumably murdered her. By means of her appearance she has probably driven him crazy, but apparently she neither understands what happened to her nor what happened to her husband.
Certain types of life after death require a physical basis, as we have already seen in the case of vampires and zombies. This does not have to be the actual body of the deceased, but can be a mechanical substitute. Here we are obviously not so much concerned with the soul, but rather with the mind, which need not, however, be fully continuous with its previous state.
In Joseph McElroy's Plus the brain of a fatally ill person has been removed and is now installed as the central computer of a space capsule orbiting the earth. Since the rest of the body has physically died, and since "Imp Plus" has only the dimmest recollection of what happened, this can be seen as an entirely new lease of a completely different life: "Imp Plus" evolves a new identity and even certain outgrowths of his brain, which make him ideally adopted to his new existence.
Researchers in Artificial Intelligence have suggested the possibility that consciousnes - in fact the whole personality - may exist independently of an organic body, because it can be seen as some kind of computer programme. Since this is posited not only for the creation of machine intelligence, but is said to be applicable to humans too, it is only a small step further to envisaging the possibility of transferring a given mind onto a machine. Apparently this is best done at or near the instant of death, when the exact state of the neural activities of the brain is read and copied onto another medium. Whenever this medium is activated, this state is then replicated and consciousness regained for as long as there is technical support. The rest of the time is spent in absolute nothingness.
There are two instances of this in William Gibson's Cyberspace-Trilogy, namely Dixie in Neuromancer and the Finn in Mona Lisa Overdrive.27 Neither of them seems to relish this state very much - Dixie actually asks Chase to erase his personality construct, i.e. to kill him for good, whereas the Finn leads a not very happy existence as a kind of public oracle.28
The idea of "beaming", i.e. the teleporting of matter, especially of humans, is also based on the assumption that a complete description of the physical state is a sufficient basis for reduplication. This is not usually thought of as involving death, but as a matter of fact the "original" physical being is usually destroyed before it materialises in some other place. (This is a matter of convenience, otherwise there would be multiple identical beings.)29 Since there is no actual transfer of matter involved, this process can be said to imply physical death - even repeatedly.30 It is, however, not usually experienced as such by the participants, who may nevertheless be said to lead posthumous lives.
The uses of the posthumous narrative
The tradition of the posthumous narrative suggests that its main use lies in the giving of a new and unexpected perspective upon the events of the former life and the personality of the deceased. It can thus be closely related to satire on the one hand, on the other it can be used for didactic purposes, as a means of exhortation to rectify one's life. Both approaches are facilitated by a clear division between and awareness of the live and the dead state, which through contrast allows reflection and reassessment. The didactic purpose is more difficult to see, however, in those narratives where the protagonists lack this distinctive awareness and therefore are not able to make comparisons - the reader, on the contrary, may be quite aware of the dilemma. This almost unbroken continuity between life and death is invariably shown to lead to unhappiness, because of a feeling of senselessness and of being lost: there is no past and no future, no wherefrom and no whereto, therefore we often encounter the image of the circle from which there is only the faintest - and usually delusive - hope of escape. Apparently there is nothing worse than being condemned to continue in invariably the same way forever - this is traditionally seen as the condition of hell. This could also be an explanation why stories of the Undead have proved so popular in the 20th century: in them, the daunting prospect of an unchanging life without the hope of an end can be studied.
The question is, of course, why the borderline between life and death has been so much blurred in the 20th century. The lack of a belief in a life after death can only be part of the answer, since neither Fielding nor Hawthorne can have believed that the afterlife would resemble their descriptions. It seems rather that death itself has vanished from the horizon, i.e. there is a lack of conviction that their will be an end to one's sublunary existence. Otherwise there would be a point of reference against which to judge one's life. But if this is missing, there is nothing to distinguish life from, no negative to judge a positive, and therefore no possibility of a transcendent view. It is therefore not surprising that in many stories by Samuel Beckett, it is hard, if not impossible to tell whether the protagonists are dead or alive, because they are really neither. It seems, as if contemporary life were seen as almost indistinguishable from death. Paradoxically, since there is no belief in an ultimate redemption anymore, the afterlife becomes a playground for alternative lives. Fictional representations of the afterlife therefore do not only ask the question "What is death?", but also "What is life?". The latter, of course, is a question that is implicitly asked by every novel. At the same time, since every text is of necessity over and finished at some point, the novel also draws attention to the fact that it has its own affinities with death.
1 Ambrose Bierce, The Collected Writings, ed. Clifton Fadiman (New York 1946), 532.
2 A short history of the posthumous narrative and some of its recent uses can be found in Herbert G. Klein, "Grave Matters: Posthumous Narratives in Postmodern Times", in: Anglistentag 1996, Dresden, ed. Uwe Böker/Hans Sauer (Trier 1997), 373-80.
3 Henry Fielding, A Journey from This World to the Next (London 1973).
4 Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mosses from an Old Manse (Boston and New York 1892), 212-34.
5 David Danziger, The Devil in Miss Jones (New York 1973).
6 Stanley Elkin, The Living End (New York 1985), 144.
7 Ibid., 148.
8 Bierce 1946, 532-35.
9 Muriel Spark, The Hothouse by the East River (London/Basingstoke 1973).
10 Mervyn Peake, Peake's Progress. Selected Writings and Drawings of Mervyn Peake, ed. Maeve Gilmore (London 1978), 134-42.
11 Alasdair Gray, Lanark. A Life in 4 Books (London 1991).
12 Flann O'Brien, The Third Policeman (London 1974).
13 Samuel Beckett, How It Is (London 1964).
14 Of course, this story can also be read as some grim parable on human existence.
15 Samuel Beckett, The Lost Ones (London 1972).
16 Ambrose Bierce, The Complete Short Stories of Ambrose Bierce, ed. Ernest Jerome Hopkins (Lincoln/London 1984), 305-13.
17 Bierce 1984, 313.
18 D.M. Thomas, The White Hotel (Harmondsworth 1981), 225-40.
19 Samuel Beckett, Molloy - Malone Dies - The Unnamable (London 1959).
20 Beckett 1959.
21 Samuel Beckett, No's Knife. Collected Shorter Prose 1945-1966 (London 1967).
22 Beckett 1967, 95.
23 Beckett 1967, 85.
24 Terry Pratchett, Reaper Man (London 1992).
25 Beckett 1967, 163.
26 Bierce 1946, 417-26.
27 William Gibson, Neuromancer (London 1986).
28 William Gibson, Mona Lisa Overdrive (London 1989), ch. 22.
29 It is possible to argue that the process of "scanning" itself is destructive.
30 One wants to be careful about one's company, though, since beaming may also go desastrously wrong, as shown e.g. in David Cronenberg's film The Fly.