Jeanette Winterson at Manchester Literature Festival: Ghosts, AI, and conversations with the dead
Happy Halloween, everyone! Given that we are now and officially in the Season Of The Witch, perhaps Jeanette Winterson’s new title, Night Side of the River: Ghost Stories, might seem like a bit of a gimmick. Her new book certainly is something of a departure from her previous works.
These were my preconceptions, anyway. But after attending Winterson’s In Conversation With, hosted at HOME cinema, as part of the Manchester Literature Festival, I was blown away. I quickly realised that this book is so much more than just a seasonal commodity.
In the book (an amalgamation of various stories about the afterlife, ghosts, the living, and artificial intelligence), Winterson imagines what might happen to our loved ones after they pass, as well as what happens to those who are left behind. The book speaks to our persisting obsession with death, ghosts, and the supernatural. And crucially, it asks what the afterlife might look like in this new age of AI.
Given it being a Sunday night, I hadn’t come prepared for such a philosophically challenging topic, having probably not quite realised what I was getting myself into. And, as I listened, the muscles making up my brain felt literally strained under the weight of Winterson’s wisdom.
“Now, we’re at a point where death itself, that hard barrier, might be breached. Because possibly, we will find ways of uploading consciousness, we will certainly live alongside non-biological entities, who will not experience death anymore than they have experienced birth.”
If, as Winterson observes, “The whole of the human endeavour has been to get past our boundaries, our barriers, to outsource our puniness,” then what is stopping us from passing the unpassable, this boundary of death?
In this contemporary age of artificial intelligence, where you can “put your dead loved ones into your current family photos” and “download an app which sends you emails from dead family or friends”, Winterson asks how our understanding of the afterlife might transform, and how the clear boundary between death and life will, inevitably, start to blur.
As well as this, Winterson’s book takes us into the more familiar territories of the supernatural. The happening of inexplicable events, like lights switching on and off despite you having not touched them – a possible sign from a passed loved one? Or the falling of a white feather, or the sight of a butterfly.
During her talk, she described that “It doesn’t matter how sceptical we are, how secular we are, or how cynical we are, as a loved one approaches death, or as we do, there is always the hope that perhaps this is not the final word, the end of the story. Perhaps we do go to another place, a better place. That there might be some chance of a life beyond this one, beyond this bounded condition.”
Jeanette read from a chapter of her book: a kind of stream-of-consciousness diary entry from a man who had recently lost his partner, as he questions what his other half is doing now, and as he navigates his new life without him. It was a truly heart-breaking, cathartic, but also very funny passage, that made me very quickly want to buy the entire book.
Winterson indulged us with some of her own experience with the supernatural, particularly in her self-confessed “haunted house” down in London, where she often wakes up to the radio being inexplicably turned on, or the sound of “the fire irons banging around in the kitchen”.
Winterson describes her ambivalence to the actual existence of ghosts: “I live with these things. And I accommodate them whilst holding in my mind this tension that this is probably absolutely batshit bonkers, right? It probably is. But I wanted to talk about it. I wanted to write about it. And that’s what some of these stories are.”
As she stepped out onto stage, to a backdrop of haunting music and a sulphurous-glowing book beneath her chin, Jeanette Winterson’s vibrancy was immediately obvious. It was an evening of open-mindedness, of laughter, and of heart-breaking short stories. I thoroughly enjoyed myself, and will be allowing myself to fork out on Winterson’s new book, Night Side of the River, as a spooky seasonal treat.