Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé, The Good Day I Died: The Near-Death Experience of a Harvard Divinity Student, Penguin, 2019. 248 pgs.
I’m listening to Johan Johansson’s Orphic Hymn, a congregation of angelic voices singing what seem to me vocalisations rather than actual words. The effect is at once comforting and overwhelming, revealing yet mystifying. Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé recounts listening to the piece while writing The Good Day I Died, and indeed, the impressions described above are not far off from the experience his quasi-memoir delivers.
Kon’s latest offering is a collection of canvasses recounting his eponymous near-death experience (NDE), and expectedly, the book has far more to offer than just narration of the event. There are interspersed explications on all things spiritual, samples of his past writing influenced by the ordeal (consciously or otherwise), and an abundance of references to satiate even the most seasoned of bibliographic appetites. Fourteen “realisations” round up the book’s wisdom by somewhat sublimating the memoir’s central message(s) and the author’s own understanding of the world, this summarising no doubt a trait gleamed from his years of teaching.
Interestingly, the “quasi-memoir” can’t help but appear part autobiography as well; the account of his NDE is rather matter-of-factly written, and other points in his life relevant to the premise are sometimes presented to us almost as sections of a Wikipedia page (albeit in the first person). The book is also written as a call and response to self-administered questions, a format which he, in the capacity of questioner and therefore audience, admits is “very peculiar.” Memoirs tend to employ novelistic styles of writing in which experiences are recounted through the manoeuvred lenses of fiction, and while the book is prosaic in parts, and the self-interviewing format meta in its own right, a combination of this with a recounting style narration invokes a non-negotiable element of factuality.
It is this aspect of “non-fiction-ness” that seems to most attract the book’s supporters and critics. Attending a public reading of the book, I am joined by academics, NDE survivors, the curious, the affirmation seekers and vocal sceptics, marked not just by sceptical questions, but periodic scoffing at mentions of less than tangible concepts such as astral projection and tunnels of light.
But Kon cautions against this non-fiction aspect, and periodically insists on the quasi-ness of his memoir (“a quasi-memoir” appears first thing on the cover, just above the title). In doing so, he invokes a meta-fictionality that ties in handily with his book’s—and life’s—subject matter; something akin to a verisimilitude in its problematic nature of arousing questions pertaining to the work’s (and by association his NDE itself) closeness to the truth. Desmond anticipates this, and states through Hegel that “Truth is found neither in the thesis nor the anti-thesis, but in an emergent synthesis which reconciles the two.” It is this highly self-aware aspect that elevates The Good Day‘s status from a straightforward tell-all to a work that is both example and enchiridion for the nebulous relationship between truth and experience, and the medium of language in which it presides. This kind of “authorial witness,” as Desmond writes, aims to “bridge the gap between experience and language, to approximate as much as humanly and personally possible the truth of my NDE.”
After all, the flaws of language and recollection will result in “subjective” truths in the recounting of all experiences, let alone such surrealistically existential episodes as NDEs. Indeed, Desmond himself states the need to reread the entire book before any reading in order to get his “facts straight,” these facts being more beacons of his book’s integrity than actual objective realities. This doesn’t make his recounts any less credible however, and instead proves his point of the multiplicity of truth and how even since the point of completing his book just under a year ago (October 2019), his idealisation of his experiences’ veracity has shifted. Writing on postmodernism and the autobiography, Ashley and Gilmore reiterate that “writing identity is not simply an expressive act, but a process of negotiating the conflicting terms and terrains of subjectivity.” As a confrontation to what his life after death signifies, this subjectivity thus seems to both resist and produce identity; it resists a straightforward categorisation of a man’s life galvanised by postmodernist study, but it produces a unique encapsulation of what it means—for Kon at least—to be human.
Still, the question stubbornly remains: why write the book then, if the truths that shape it appear to be subjective and in a traditional sense “unreliable”? Kon’s NDE takes place a few months after completion of his graduate studies at Harvard Divinity School, a path embarked upon in his search for “the meaning of life.” Herein lies a quick and easy answer, one that sceptics would likely reckon: having immersed himself in religious study, the author has a hallucinatory, neurochemical episode in which he subconsciously conjures up everything he’s learnt about the afterlife in one intense waking dream of nigh-lucidity. Of course, Desmond himself anticipates such a position, and devotes a chapter to address this, stating (for the necessary record):
What do I think of all this? It’s all intriguing and illuminating, but I’m no expert… That said, I do not think a scientific explanation for the visions takes away the phenomenological nature of these visions. The visions do happen to those who experience them, and the effects… are palpably real.Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé, The Good Day I Died: The Near-Death Experience of a Harvard Divinity Student.
Understanding the phenomenological nature of his NDE is thus key to reconciling many of the different stances not just toward NDEs, but spirituality and religion encompassed. It’s certainly easy—and not necessarily misguided—to direct theories and ideologies toward the big encompassing questions such as “Is there a God?” and Kon doesn’t try to transcend this need for an unequivocal answer. Rather, through recommendations to excellent references on the subject as well as his own cautious introspection, he offers up a middle ground of awareness and affirmation that, hopefully, anyone can reside within.
Dealing with such questions seems to be second nature for Kon, and with fair reason. Inquiries surrounding his faith remain the “inevitable question[s]” that “crop up in [his] classes.” The state of his spirituality and knowing what faith he subscribes to is for most people indication or even evidence of his life after death, and posits the notion that to many, words only mean anything through practice and action. But Kon’s point, or anti-point, is that no simple answer or categorisation will suffice such curiosities just as how this book does not fall under any specific religious category. Questions not just imposed by others but potentially by himself, such as why he even returned from the “dead,” will never have quantifiable explanations; that there will never be “enough” finality attained through one’s flawed seeking of answers so long as the language used to question for them remains inadequate.
The book’s almost inexhaustible list of external references along with the unquantifiability of some of its most pertinent points is thus metaphor for Kon’s open-minded curiosity and his admission not just to the myriad of things he does not understand, but to the infinitely more that he never will, an approach that has been informed by his years of experiences, pre-religious study till now, and which informs his understanding of his NDE and consequently the writing of this book. But the relativism being seemingly championed here does not necessarily mean that these experiences and their counter arguments are reduced to the intellectual realm. Instead, Desmond proposes the possibility that spirituality visits us unearned and uncalled for, in order to allow us some organic form of inner comprehension and catharsis, even if this comprehension is not overtly available for others to understand, or even for ourselves to articulate coherently. In this way Desmond proposes to approach each day, and “each and every moment within the day. To accept its time, no matter how fleeting, as a divine gift.” For all his emphases on the inadequacy of language, he articulates this mindset quite efficaciously in concluding his tenth realisation:
Indeed, when you’ve died once, and come back to life, birth takes on a whole new meaning… every moment becomes a birthing moment, of new experience. And more importantly, of new opportunities to receive life with grace and gratitude.Desmond Kon Zhicheng-Mingdé, The Good Day I Died: The Near-Death Experience of a Harvard Divinity Student.
Known primarily for scoring films, Johansson wrote Orphic Hymn as an autonomous work seeking to explore its own grandeur. In the same vein, The Good Day I Died is more than an accompaniment to an event; more than a debrief of Kon’s NDE, or NDEs in general. Among other things that this reviewer will never grasp, it is an exercise of spiritual significance for Kon, having finally come to terms with the NDE and the flawed but serviceable language behind its telling. It’s also a rumination on how experiences shape art, specifically the literary arts, and as such is a reflection not only on Kon’s writing process, but also on how his words embody truth in so far as whether his ethereal form staring down at his “lifeless” body truly embodied a life after death. Whatever it is, and whatever “it” means, the meaning manifests itself to the reader alone, just as the experience, and its conclusion, manifested itself solely to him.
How to cite: Ho, Kin Yunn. “The Gift of Returns: Reckoning with Desmond Kon’s The Good Day I Died.” Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, 10 Nov. 2020, chajournal.blog/2020/11/10/the-good-day/.
Ho Kin Yunn’s work has appeared in Twenty-Four Flavours, Anima Methodi: The Poetics of Mirroring, SingPoWriMo (2020), and Food Republic: A Singapore Literary Banquet, among others. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.