Guillaume Apollinaire, one of the few great poets who were also charming, has a delightful book of essays, Le Flaneur des deux rives (The Stroller Through Paris), about his walks through the quarters on both sides of the Seine. He meets a library buff, a chap who has sampled libraries all over the world.
One such was the St. Petersburg Library, where “one could see young girls (gamines) age twelve who were reading Schopenhauer.” If this is so—and why not, if even the fancy stripper in Pal Joey thinks of Schopenhauer while she works—it is true immortality: to be read ages after your death by twelve-year-old girls (note the plural); there surely can be no greater proof of undying fame.
Unfortunately, though, this is not the kind of immortality the nonphilosophical majority of us seek—the kind that works for everyone else except for the dead immortal. We want immortality for us ordinary folk, and we want it to be physical--to defeat death.
That means those of us who might take John Donne literally: “One short sleep past, we wake eternally,/ And Death shall be no more: Death thou shalt die.” A promise not just from Donne, but also, more importantly. from almost all existing religions, which affirm some kind of Paradise. But where exactly is that Heaven located? Formerly, one could believe it to be somewhere in the heavens above. But now that the skies have been duly crisscrossed, and no Heaven found, isn’t it surprising that otherwise perfectly intelligent people believe in it? Or, for that matter, now that we know the interior of the Earth, that there should still be belief in Hell. Quite aside from the fact that the Earth is far too small a place to contain all those dead who would have headed for its insides.
And yet there have been people like T. S. Eliot, for example, who, despite a colossal intellect, have swallowed Christianity whole, ergo, whether or not he discussed it, belief in Heaven and Hell. Even as smart a man as Bill Buckley affirmed that he could not live without his firm belief of reuniting with his predeceased wife. I am less surprised when an Argentine tennis player, having won a set, crosses himself and looks to heaven even on an indoor court. And we all know the footballer who kneels and thanks Christ after a touchdown, as if Jesus had nothing better to do than help him win.
Then there are all those brave people who assert that they are not afraid of death, only of protracted dying. In other words, eternal sleep is no problem, only the discomfort of prolonged insomnia preceding it. Believe them as much as you do actors who claim never to read their reviews. A vast majority wants to go on living physically, no matter how precariously or where, even if their religion doesn’t promise them sex with 72 virgins in the afterlife. This even though sex with one virgin can spell trouble.
A writer as brilliant as Julian Barnes writes a whole book about how we shouldn’t fear death, although almost every page of that book testifies to the opposite. To my knowledge, only one religion, Judaism, doesn’t make paradisiac promises—well, maybe also Unitarianism, if indeed that qualifies as a religion.
To be sure, nobody said that atheism comes cheap. I myself cannot help envying the comforts of belief in Heaven, even by those who could barely rate Purgatory. These are people who have no need for either John Donne or Julian Barnes, and count on the kind of wings that cannot crash by colliding with a flock of birds.
What consolation is there for atheists? Or, to quote the aforementioned Eliot, after such knowledge, what forgiveness? I suppose a feeling, earned or unearned, of superiority. Condescension is not without its questionable satisfaction: “You poor fellow, you actually believe you are going to Heaven? And the moon, I assume, is made of green cheese?” (As if anyone wanted his cheese green.) But wouldn’t one trade superiority for faith, if only one were capable of the Pascalian gamble?
And what about those good souls who believe that having children is a form of immortality? Lots of luck to them when they wake up—or, rather, don’t—in their coffins. Think of the dead Heraclitus in William Cory’s famous poem, concluding: “Still are thy pleasant voices, thy nightingales, awake;/ For death, he taketh all away, but them he cannot take.” That may be good enough immortality for Cory and Callimachus, on whose poem Cory’s is based, but hardly for Heraclitus. And what about those of us who have no children or nightingales, not so much as a canary?
The best we can come up with is an enlightened hedonism—having lived life to the fullest. Or else its opposite, stoicism, poohpoohing the pleasures of life. Yet I am not sure whether even Epicurus or Epictetus—Marcus Aurelius at least had his imperial privileges—made it to full fearless happiness, and death be damned. So what can we lesser ones aspire to? The good life and peaceful death are only the snake scotch’d, not kill’d. Possibly the best way is to expire on top of a sexy woman just after orgasm—the John Garfield and Nelson Rockefeller way, and the obverse, of course, for a woman. Not for nothing did we learn in our lit. courses that for the Elizabethans “to die” meant both death and orgasm. Coming and going, as it were. But what of all that long, unorgasmic time before?
Consider the modus operandi of two wonderful writers, Jules Renard and Peter Altenberg, skeptical Frenchman and euphoric Austrian. Renard, in what is surely one of the greatest journals ever kept, wrote in 1898: “Your head is bizarre, carved in big strokes of the knife, like that of geniuses. Your brow brightens like that of Socrates. By way of phrenology, you remind us of Cromwell, Napoleon and so many others, and yet you will be nothing.” And, likewise about himself: “You will be nothing. You understand the greatest poets, the most profound prose writers, but, though you pretend that to understand is to equal, you will be as comparable to them as a minuscule dwarf can be to the giants.”
The superb humorist Altenberg wrote in 1901: “I was nothing, I am nothing, I will be nothing. But I live out my life in freedom and allow noble and compassionate persons to participate in the adventures of that inner freedom in that I commit it, in the most compact form, to paper. I am poor, but I myself. The man without concessions. What does that get you? 100 guilders a month and a few ardent fans. Well, those I have! My life is dedicated to the unheard-of enthusiasm for God’s greatest art work, the female body.”
And he goes on about the nudes with which he has papered the walls of his poor little room, and the inscriptions under them, such as “Beauty is Virtue.” And he concludes with the joy of waking up gazing at this “sacred magnificence,” which reconciles him to the neediness and burdens of existence.
So there you have it. The stoic, skeptic or cynic Renard (though even he relished beautiful women), and the exultant hedonist Altenberg. They may have had the antidote for mortality. Or maybe not.