Ever since the year one, and probably even before, people have speculated about death and what could be done to defeat it, as in John Donne’s famous sonnet. But live forever not in Donne’s Christian faith, but in nature’s gift to you. There have been surely others who thought about living forever, as there are some who carefully differentiated between the act if dying and the fact of death. Futile as most of this speculation may be, I imagine it to be inexhaustible, truly undying.
Any number of serious people, including some famous ones, have meditated, usually in advanced age, about what it would be like to be given the opportunity to relive your life, on the chance of this time doing improving on it. But that would not be a matter of perpetuity, merely a chance of making the same thing better the second time round. A kind of postponement rather than infinite continuity. A matter of duplication versus singularity, not the same as eternity. The big question remains: what would it be like absolutely never having to die.
To comfort themselves, people have explained away such durability as undesirable. They would stress how boring, frustrating, dehumanizing such a dispensation would be. Your job in life—call it grandly your calling—must have proved to many ultimately dull, routine, unexciting, and thus unpleasant enough. How much more so if it had to be kept up without cessation. It could drive you mad, arguably a worse fate than dying. Or if there was relief in constant change, change itself would become an addiction like every other, drink or drugs, only more confusing and fatiguing, eventually even detrimental. You would no longer be able to distinguish memories from fantasies, what you are remembering from what you are imagining.
Just think what it would do to marriage. How stupefying if it meant endless fidelity. How debilitating if it involved constant change of partners. Worst of all, time would become meaningless, because it could all just as well happen sooner or later, it would make no difference. Eternity is the same as timelessness, and timelessness means the meaninglessness of a specific time, and thus of time itself.
Just think how easy it is, even under present circumstances, to delay things, whose taking place at a specific time is important and facilitating. But if, let’s say, a get together for tomorrow would lack a precise time and urgency, it might easily turn into a miss, into not eventuating at all. Time exists because it makes us older and wiser, if it does not do so, it might as well not exist.
Things need to, have to, go away. If they don’t, how long ago was the Civil War? Why are Trafalgar and Actium still with us, the Punic Wars and the Crusades still upon us, ditto the Inquisition and Waterloo, Catherine the Great and Bismarck, Abraham Lincoln and Haile Selassie, all with us; and how on earth would there be room for all the undying anonymous multitudes on our little Earth?
In an essay by Hans Magnus Enzensberger, which I translated for the Partisan Review, the author argued that what distinguished real writers from successful hacks is that the latter aim for immediate popularity, while the former strive for lasting posthumous fame. What kind of a world would throw together all Stephen Kings and William Faulkners for ever and ever, all Emily Dickinsons and Ella Wheeler Wilcoxes? There would be no Rona Jaffes and Edith Whartons breathing the same air, no difference in their longevity and survival. Death the Leveler would be replaced by Life the Leveler of trash with masterwork.
I could go on enunciating, ahem, forever the awkwardness of an everlasting present, with the great injustices bred by mere simultaneity. The trash writers could not be outlasted by the geniuses, and their sheer increasing numbers, an ever greater threat. Who or what does not bow to quantity, more easily measurable than quality? If Peter’s garbage steadily outsells Paul’s art, tell me which is the greater.
There even exists a Serbian folk poem, according to which the emperor Dus(h)an, by losing the battle against the evil, outnumbering Ottoman Turks and dying, chose over a mere earthly kingdom the far superior heavenly kind, so proving himself truly worthy. Death in a righteous cause is more glorious than victory in a worse one, and earns you genine immortality.
Or take the case of Origen, who castrated himself for the sake of the Kingdom of Heaven, and so affirmed his sainthood. What are balls compared to a halo? What you lose in an earthly, lower region, is more than compensated for by gain in a nobler upper one, as the lowly crotch loses out to the higher brow, sensuality to saintliness, mortality to immortality.
As for my readers, I can only hope that, without gaining immortality from me, I can at least reconcile them to our shared mortality. There is no question of my agreeing with the incomparable poet Rilke about death being the great final adventure to which he looked forward. It is no more really so than the angels he kept writing about are real. But I do believe that a painless death in one’s sleep beats the hell out of protracted, painful dying. If there is such a thing as soul, not even it is immortal.
I am amazed when a clever man like William Buckley believed in being reunited with his predeceased spouse in an afterlife.
Let’s face it, leaving a fruitful, happy existence is not a good thing, even if it comes upon us during sleep. The best we can say for it is that ignorance is bliss, but it is a bliss hard to luxuriate in. If we are ordinary mortals, we do not look forward to that so-called great adventure, a thought that, even if we don’t let it constantly oppress us, lurks in our unconscious. To be fully inured is achievable only by unthinking brutes. Well may we envy those true brutes, the animals, unaware of what’s in store. For them. But, again, that bliss is contingent upon our not making full use of hat cognition we do have.
Still, if ignorance is bliss, can its exact antithesis also be blissful? Is there a terrifying knowledge inhabiting our quotidian selves (“O que la vie est quotidienne,” Jules Laforgue), secretly gnawing away at them, but intermittently rising to the surface with fearful stabs?
For that, there is the obvious cure: religious faith in an afterlife. Yet what if the cure is worse than the malady? What if all religion is a lie? The problem with atheism is that the temptations away from it are not easy to resist. Thought made us atheists, but may it not also make us fear our being mistaken?
I can’t help feeling superior to all those sheep (as I see it) who unquestioningly accept Christianity or Judaism, Islam or Buddhism, or whatever, but am also more vulnerable, more apprehensive about total, irrevocable cessation, deprivation, death.
Like Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, we have immortal longings, but no Caesar or Antony to lean on for occasional support. So I must conclude with a question mark, and accept that any further dwelling on immortality can only finish in depression. I would like to have asked T. S. Eliot--surely what the French Academy calls their members, an immortal--and a true convert to Christianity, whether Death really has no sting,, and whether he could point out on the map the whereabouts of heaven and hell.
And then I would ask him whether immortality, possessed or believed in, is a true anodyne.