The Skull Beneath The Skin: Culture & Immortality
By Darran Anderson.
On Columbus Day 1936, with the Spanish Civil War raging, the Basque writer and leading intellectual of the Generation of ’98 Miguel de Unamuno gave a speech at the University of Salamanca. It would become a resonant moment, not just within the conflict but in terms of culture before and since. Unamuno had been preceded by monarchists and Falangists who’d raged against the evils of democracy, socialism and seperatism and exalted Fascism as the saving of the nation. They’d been spurred on by the founder of the Spanish Foreign Legion General José Millán-Astray, a war-ravaged veteran who’d had an eye and arm blown off in earlier colonial ventures, and his followers who roared their slogan, “¡Viva la Muerte!” – “Long live Death!” As rector of the university, Unamuno took to the podium and began by stating that, in such times as these, he could no longer remain silent. He went on to attack the “necrophilistic and senseless cry: Long live death” claiming that the militarist rabble had defiled the “temple of the intellect.” They would win, he continued, through sheer brute force but they would never persuade because they lacked “reason and right.” The speech was brave to the point of being suicidal. Through the intervention of Franco’s wife, the writer narrowly escaped being lynched, leaving the stage to cries of “Death to Intellectuals!” and further chants of “Long Live Death!” He was forcibly retired from his teaching post and died shortly afterwards, an alienated hounded figure.
The atmosphere of murderous philistinism was sadly not unique to Franco’s Spain. In Nazi Germany, book burnings and degenerate art exhibitions were already common and the incremental process towards burning human beings was well underway. Within the last decade, we’ve witnessed the video proclamations of, now departed, white-robed mountain prophets, distributed through the etherweb, “This place may be bombed and we will be killed. We love death. The U.S. loves life. That is the big difference between us…”
Unamuno’s last stand is notable not simply for its courageous personal example or for its political implications but also because it demonstrates one crucial purpose of literature itself; writing as an attempt to defeat death (and the forces of death), an ultimately doomed but noble exercise.
Many of the earliest surviving literary texts are fine examples of this quixotic attempt to defy mortality. The furthest we can go back in terms of written language is to Ancient Sumeria, 2000 years before Christ, and their earliest written story, and thus the world’s, is the Epic of Gilgamesh. It’s a work that was no doubt added to and evolved in the oral tradition before its transcription onto a surviving series of clay tablets. In one of the central tales, the hero Gilgamesh attempts to achieve eternal life by consulting the demi-god Utnapishtim who humiliates the mortal by proving he does not have the resolve to stay awake for a mere week (“sleep, like a fog, blew over him”) let alone live forever. Nevertheless, Gilgamesh persists. Learning of a magical desert-thorn that grows at the bottom of the sea and will confer youth upon the aged, Gilgamesh ties rocks to his feet and, somehow avoiding drowning and implosion (the text is elusive on these matters), strolls onto the ocean floor and digs up the plant. Believing his task to have been achieved, Gilgamesh becomes complacent and decides to take some time out on his way home to bathe in a fresh spring. When his back is turned, the miraculous plant is stolen by a serpent. We’re left with the less than valiant image of Gilgamesh, a broken man, crying like a baby. Yet his ventures have not been entirely in vain. Earlier he’d pondered whether the immortality, which would evade him in life, could be achieved through the legacy of his deeds, “Where is the man who can clamber to heaven? Only the gods live forever… but as for us men, our days are numbered, our occupations are a breath of wind… if I fall I leave behind me a name that endures.” In another translation, “I will make a lasting name for myself; I will stamp my fame on men’s minds forever.”
In One Thousand and One Nights, the idea of defying death is much more cunning. A Persian despot named Shahryar orders his vizier to bring him a succession of virgins whom he proceeds to marry, sleep with and then, old charmer that he is, decapitate the following morning. Eventually, the city runs out of virgins and the vizier is forced to hand over his own daughter Scheherazade. For all the subsequent swashbuckling tales of Aladdin, Ali Baba and Sinbad, Scheherazade is the real hero of the epic, a character who’s immense guile, wit, eroticism and imagination keep her from losing her head as her predecessors have. The very nature of the storytelling in One Thousand and One Nights is in defiance of death; by telling the series of wondrous but unfinished tales, Scheherazade prolongs the honeymoon and her life. Fiction, momentarily at least, outwits death. “Recite to us some new story,” she’s instructed “delightsome and delectable, wherewith to while away the waking hours of our night.” Writers have been doing so ever since.
It’s been an ancient tantalising prospect in many cultures, this desire to challenge the natural process of decay and demise. In Gaelic mythology, Oisín, son of the giant Fionn mac Cumhaill, the most gifted poet in Ireland and fighter of the fearsome warrior band the Fianna (Red Branch), is transported away on horseback by the enchanted Niamh of the Golden Hair to a mysterious Atlantic island Tír na nÓg where no-one grows old. Returning on a homesick visit to his place of birth three years later, he’s appalled to find that the once mighty race of Celts have descended into peasant weaklings. Stepping down from his horse to help a labourer shift a mere boulder, Oisín immediately grows old the moment his boot touches the soil. His three years in Tír na nÓg have equated to three hundred here and the intervening time wreck their ruin on him instantaneously. He keels over grey and withered. The Church realising the power of images and icons, even Pagan ones, absorbed the myth by clumsily inserting St Patrick into the closing credits, having him baptise Oisín as a good god-fearing Christian just prior to his death. W.B. Yeats imagined a dialogue between these two archetypes of different eras in The Wanderings of Oisín. Then in his Celtic Twilight phase (or “cultic twalette” as Joyce labelled it), the poet was drawn to the myth of Oisín as it embodied many of his fascinations; lost love, enchantment, feudalism, otherworlds, aging and of course immortality, “And in a wild and sudden dance / We mocked at Time and Fate and Chance… For neither Death nor Change comes near us / And all listless hours fear us / And we fear no dawning morrow / Nor the grey wandering osprey Sorrow.” Yeats would move on to become one of the pioneers of Modernism but would never shake off these fascinations which he later explored through spiritualism, automatic writing and a dabbling in the black arts.
The Greeks too envied the immortality of their gods who’d gained the power by feasting on the heavenly food known as ambrosia. Having been found guilty of corrupting the minds of Athenian youth, Socrates drank hemlock declaring no real philosopher should fear death and, as the poison took it’s hold, comforted his pupils, “Be of good cheer, and do not lament my passing… When you lay me down in my grave, say that you are burying my body only, and not my soul.” The fact we are discussing this, over two thousand years later, proves in some sense that he was right. The Greeks were wise however in countering the desire for immorality with the realisation that what might initially appear a gift worthy of the Gods could well be a curse. In Homer’s Odyssey, the travellers encounter the Island of the Lotus Eaters where they are indulged with a wealth of pleasures, seemingly outside of the squalid flow of daily boredom and dejection that is life. And yet they are forced to leave the island when it becomes apparent that absolute bliss breeds absolute apathy. Happiness is bovine. The Greeks knew that the so-called negative emotions (melancholy, rage, jealousy even abject misery) are the great dynamos of creativity and for these to work there must be some sense of finality, of present joys being fleeting, past joys being impossible to return to and it all ending inevitably in tragedy. From misery comes art whether that’s Jacobean murder-plays, dejected love songs or Post-Impressionist painting.
The Romans expanded on this with characteristic morbidity. In one of history’s few worthwhile self-help manuals his Meditations, the Emperor Marcus Aurelius taught that you can take a strange solace from the very mortality of man. “Think of the myriad enmities, suspicions, animosities, and conflicts,” he wrote, “that are now vanished with the dust and ashes of men who knew them; and fret no more… Keep before your eyes the swift onset of oblivion, and the abysses of eternity before us and behind.” His is a sort of profoundly misanthropic wisdom, a testament to the power of negative thinking, “Take it that you have died today, and your life’s story is ended; and henceforth regard what further time may be given you as an uncovenanted surplus.” It is the very temporality of life that gives it not just its poignancy but its intensity.
Sometimes the mortality question is a bit too close for comfort. With the Black Death raging across Europe, killing roughly half of the continent’s population, the Florentine author Giovanni Boccaccio wrote The Decameron, a diverse collection of tales spun by aristocrats who’ve fled the plague-ridden city for the sanctuary of an isolated country retreat, telling stories to pass the time. It’s possible the English poet Geoffrey Chaucer met the author on diplomatic duties at the wedding of Duke of Clarence and Violante Visconti in Milan. Whether or not they did, Chaucer was suitably impressed by The Decameron enough to base the structure of his Canterbury Tales on the earlier work. Mortality, and the plague, haunts these stories as it does later works like Marlowe’s Dr Faustus and Shakespeare’s King Lear. This is evident most explicitly in The Pardoner’s Tale. Three drunkards set out seeking to kill the figure of Death who they’ve heard can be found lazing under an oak tree. Upon reaching the site, they instead find a hoard of gold and, distracted by their own greed, begin to plot against one another. One of them leaves to obtain food and wine while the others stay and plot his murder. When he arrives back, they kill him and feast upon his spoils, not realising he’s poisoned the lot. In the King James Bible (1 Corinthians 15:55), there’s the lament, “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?” a sentiment which the symbolist Jan Toorop captured in pencil and chalk and which Brendan Behan, with typical gallows humour, parodied in The Hostage (“Oh death, where is thy sting-a-ling-a-ling”). The Pardoner’s Tale reveals that the victory of death is all around us. As anyone who’s watched The Seventh Seal will know (“Nothing escapes me, no one escapes me”), death always wins, with or without our assistance.
In the early modern age, scientists began to equate electricity with life-force leading to the branch of pseudoscience known as Vitalism. By accident, Luigi Galvani discovered that running an electrical current through the nerves and muscles of a dead frog you could make the corpse animate in the form of spasms or twitches. This led to various harebrained schemes, parlour tricks and scientific dead-ends (including hooking hanged criminals up to batteries for public amusement) but also to creation of one of the great literary archetypes; Frankenstein’s Monster. It was written when the Shelleys (the novelist Mary and her husband the poet Percy) were staying with the poet, cad and cocksman Lord Byron then exiled on the banks of Lake Geneva in Switzerland. Due to a major Indonesian volcanic eruption (Lake Tampora – the largest eruption in recorded history), it was the ‘Year Without a Summer’, also referred to as ‘Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death.’ Trapped indoors, the party (including their doctor John Polidori) turned to the telling of supernatural fireside recitals and a challenge was laid down as to whether any of them could come up with an original ghost story. Inspired by a nightmare she’d had, Mary Shelley created Frankenstein, Polidori The Vampyre. Thus two of the most abiding monstrous icons came out of essentially the same drink-fuelled wager.
Influenced by Golemic myth, Shelley’s remarkable work centred around the question, what if we could be reanimated after death? What would remain, if God’s plan was subverted, of our souls? It’s no accident that the novel was subtitled The Modern Prometheus, the mortal who dared to steal the secret of fire from the Gods. It was feared science was encroaching on the powers of God in creating life and manipulating its form (you could argue, in contrast to continual tabloid bleating, what’s the point of a scientist but to play God?). There’s an inherent warning in Shelley’s work that there may be a sorry price to pay for this audacity, that in attempting to become Gods we lose our humanity. We can remind ourselves that in Greek mythology perpetuity was a concept restricted not to bliss but to punishment, specifically for those who’d challenged the sovereignty of deities; Sisyphus doomed to roll a boulder up a mountain endlessly, Tantalus to forever long after nourishment just out of reach, Prometheus to have his liver devoured by an eagle every day until the end of time.
Dr Polidori’s composite creation ‘The Vampyre’ would have it’s own afterlife but it would take eighty years and “the vulgar fictions of a demented Irishman” (see Anne Rice’s Lestat series) to fully enter and haunt our times. Bram Stoker assembled Dracula from a wide range of folkloric, cultural and historic sources; his fellow countryman Sheridan Le Fanu‘s tales of mystery and suspense, chilling real-life accounts of emaciated Irish Famine victims, psychosexual myths of succubi and incubi (is there any popular story more seething with thinly-veiled lusts than Dracula?), the bloodstrewn excesses of the maniacal Carpathian Prince Vlad the Impaler, the mass murdering Countess Elizabeth Báthory (who sought to remain eternally young by bathing in the blood of virgins) and Polidori’s fiction. The creature would have many defining characteristics; he was an aristocrat, had anthropomorphic powers and was essentially immortal (provided he avoid sunlight, stakes through the heart and was sustained with a sufficient supply of fresh blood). The gift, or burden, of immortality with it’s nocturnal provisos could be passed on in a manner not unlike the proliferation of rabies – a bite to the neck and a virus administered intravenously, which then takes hold over a period of deepening feverish illness and which always results in death. The victim then returns as one of the undead. The vampire-hunter Van Helsing elaborated further, “When they become such, there comes with the change the curse of immortality; they cannot die but must go on age after age adding new victims and multiplying the evils of the world.” There are worse occupations you might think. Dracula was however disillusioned with his share of eternity, despite his vast castle and his harem of vampire triplets, and he would make the ultimately fatal mistake of attempting to move to London. The implication through the novel is that Dracula has deviated from the natural way of things, he has challenged God’s will. His existence is an unholy aberration and must be extinguished (the otherwise risible film Dracula 2000 struck upon the novel idea that Dracula was in fact Judas, condemned to be a nightstalker for his betrayal of Christ). This fear of the un-Christian, the immigrant, ‘the other,’ evident in the paranoia and superstitions of the peasants and in the fairly barbarous means by which our intrepid heroes finish off the Count and his brood, becomes more evident with repeated reading. As in Frankenstein, we can ask ourselves who are the real humans in the story, if such a thing exists?
This ambiguity also links the book to it’s gothic relative Melmoth the Wanderer, the mysterious title character of which, having sold his soul to the devil for an extended lifespan (“he constantly alluded to events and personages beyond his possible memory”), attempts to pass on his contract for damnation to the unwitting. Both are loose adaptations of the anti-semitic Wandering Jew myth in which, according to medieval thought, a Jewish cobbler Ahasver , who had mocked Jesus as he was carrying his cross to Calvary, is damned to walk the earth for all eternity never finding respite. It’s an intriguing myth and appeals to ideas of exile and diaspora but above all, in the age of Jewish ghettos and the Inquisition, it was one more excuse to persecute ‘the other’ especially a semi-nomadic self-contained people. As with Dracula, immortality is something to revile and envy and between those two emotions is the propensity for violence and persecution. It’s not a massive leap from the Wandering Jew and rumours of poisoned wells and blood libel to blood-sucking creatures in high places and from there to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and beyond. Stoker merely tapped into existing horrors born from fear and suspicion and presented them as imaginary, if it were only so.
Just as man’s capacity to attack those who are different is nothing new, neither is the urge to usurp God’s power. The decisive reason for the quest for the Holy Grail in Arthurian Legend was not simply to locate a sacred relic (they were plentiful in Christendom from Jesus’ embalmed foreskin to bottles containing the last breath of saints) but the possibility that to sip from it would confer eternal youth on the drinker. Rider Haggard‘s adventure tale She features an orientalist equivalent of this legend in the life-giving salamander-esque fires of the Pillar of Life. Similarly, the central purpose of alchemy was not merely to transform lead into gold (though this was an expected and welcome by-product) but to uncover the ‘elixir of life’ which would result in youthful rejuvenation. It was not just the prospect of metamorphosed riches that led gullible patrons to the laboratories of the occult magician John Dee (the model for Shakespeare’s Prospero and Marlowe’s Faust according to Alan Moore) and the likes but the need to keep death outside the citadel. Attempts to subvert God’s plan often backfired with successive Chinese Emperors dying from mercury poisoning given to them as supposed vitality-restoring potions.
Nevertheless some eccentrics have claimed to have obtained these very powers. The mysterious Count of St.Germain appeared in 18th century high society, dazzling his regal audiences with audacious skills (in music, chemistry and philosophical debate) and claims, one of which was to have the power of invincibility. It was a claim mocked by Voltaire in a sarcastic letter, “the Count de St. Germain is a man who was never born, who will never die, and who knows everything”. The legendary lothario Casanova was equally sceptical but still somewhat impressed, “This extraordinary man, intended by nature to be the king of impostors and quacks, would say in an easy, assured manner that he was three hundred years old, that he knew the secret of Universal Medicine, that he possessed a mastery over nature, that he could melt diamonds… All this, he said, was a mere trifle to him. Notwithstanding his boastings, his bare-faced lies, and his manifold eccentricities, I cannot say I thought him offensive.” The Count disappears in and out of history from there. He appears as a Tsarist general in Bavaria, a Parisian mime who claimed to have known Jesus on first name terms, an Austrian puppeteer, an extraterrestrial interpreter in California and most recently an erratic spiritualist on French talk-shows (in the incarnation of one Richard Chanfray). He features in the diary of Aleister Crowley and the spy reports of Napoleon III. In actual fact, the ‘real’ Count had died of pneumonia in Schleswig in 1784 but the physical death of the Count isn’t of primary importance, the enigma continued. Whatever or whoever he was as a man, the Count was something else entirely. He had become a simulacrum, a figure on whom all kinds of heresay and hoaxes could be applied. His current whereabouts are unknown.
Fortean Times admirably tried out the Count’s potion for everlasting life (elder flowers, fennel, senna pods and wine) and found it only had prodigious laxative effects. Fiction has offered other dubious methods of revitalisation. In Raymond Roussel‘s Locus Solus, a Cabinet of Curiosity-style exhibit of long-dead figures (Danton‘s severed head for one) re-enacting historical events is presumed to have been arranged by some form of mechanics or puppetry. In actuality, they are genuine corpses who’ve been brought back to life by the invention, and injection, of ‘resurrectine’ fluid. John R. Lansdale‘s even more bizarre steampunk novel Zeppelins West features as one of the main characters the disembodied head of Buffalo Bill Cody, kept alive in a jar filled with hogs’ piss and whiskey.
Given the obvious benefits in terms of power, it’s inevitable that the question of immortality would enter the realm of politics. In the mid-19th century, Leonard ‘Live-Forever’ Jones ran for Governorship of the State of Kentucky, having formed his own High Moral Party (of which he was the only member). His unique selling point was his claim that he was immortal and anyone could be if they followed his steadfast regime of clean-living, fasting and prayer. Instantaneously he became the laughing stock of public and press. He failed to receive a single vote. Unfazed he lowered his ambitions and decided to run for the Presidency of the United States. It was a disaster and he succeeded only in making his ridicule national rather than local. He persisted at every presidential election for the next twenty years and believed the assassination of Lincoln was down to the fact the Great Emancipator had stolen his rightful place as President. Struck down with pneumonia, Jones refused medical care (understandably given he believed he couldn’t be killed) and left this world shortly after at the age of 71.
‘Forever’ Jones was that rare even saintly character in politics; the fool who is a harm only to himself. The idea of indestructibility has manifested too in much more disreputable figures. The insulated, paranoid deferential world of the dictator lends itself to both delusions of grandeur and coercive power that will eventually defy objective truth, morality and mortality. The godly pretensions of dictators have been brutal and absurd, terrifying and kitsch. It’s evident in Gadaffi‘s ludicrous plastic surgery, Hitler‘s daily overdose of vitamins, hormones, testosterone and amphetamines (as well as more unusual and unhealthy concoctions such as cocaine eye drops, belladonna, atropine, E. coli, strychnine and morphine), Kim Il-Sung’s addition of ‘The Immortal’ and ‘Eternal President’ to his titles. Mussolini actively encouraged the proliferation of the myth that he was immortal when early assassination attempts on his life failed. Man make bold assertions and fate laughs as the saying goes. Hubris becomes nemesis. In Miroslav Holub‘s verse, “The fly meditates on the immortality of flies before being eaten by a swift.” Only the North Korean dictator would make it to semi-deity status, a heart attack sending him to an afterlife as an embalmed museum exhibit in Kumsusan Memorial Palace. For the rest, their ends were much more ignominious, with none of the monomaniacal splendour they’d had in mind (or the comfortable end granted to the Thatcherite and Neo-Liberal choice butcher General Augusto Pinochet); frozen in a Misratan meat locker, filed away in charred pieces in the NKVD archives, hung by his heels from a meathook on the forecourt of a Milanese petrol station.
You can almost understand why they thought they would live forever, surrounded by the apparatus of power that could bend virtually anything or anyone to their will. They had inherited the divine right to rule from Kings and Kaisers but had updated it with a suitably modern veneer; it was not God to whom they owed their authority but dialectical materialism or the will to power or providence. Sometimes it was so vacuous or protean they had to invent a name – Juche in North Korea, Jamahiriya in Libya. Before them, royalty had enshrined a dynastic view of immortality; The King is Dead, Long Live the King. Some dictators retained this; Gadaffi and Hussein attempted with their competing sons, Il-Sung succeeded with his film director-kidnapping cognac-sodden heir. Stalin‘s sociopathy sent his children into states of alienation (his daughter Svetlana), debauchery (his wastrel son Vasily) and destruction (his reputedly brave and decent son Yakov – pictured above – who committed suicide by throwing himself headfirst onto the electric fence at Sachsenhausen concentration camp following capture by the Nazis and disownment by his father). Nonetheless Stalin understood enough about dynasties and the endless nature of blood-feuds in his native Ossetia to ensure that when he destroyed his former friends and allies in the Old Bolsheviks, he took their families too (recalling Macbeth‘s line upon Banquo’s murder and his son Fleance’s escape, “There the grown serpent lies; the worm that’s fled / Hath nature that in time will venom breed”). With a ‘successful’ dictator’s death, the individual corporeal body may be gone but the position remains and it claims complete mastery even over time.
Rebels reply in kind at the loss of their heroes. Viva Che! Durruti Is Dead Yet Living! Bobby Sands Lives! claims the graffiti. Except it’s a cry that only articulates melancholy and futility and the absoluteness of these individuals’ absence. Contemplating this, you can understand why the Apostles invented the resurrection of Christ; a hounded terrified group of young men and women, each knowing they would die violent deaths (as the vast majority would), betrayed, bereaved, their movement decapitated, with a religious establishment and the forces of an empire closing in on them. Recorded many years after the event, whether it was the truth, a deliberate rewriting of history by the Machiavellian St Paul, a collective group hallucination, the Chinese whispers of rumour, lapsed memory and wishful thinking passed on down through the Catacombs, the Resurrection pathed the way for the Church which in a sense marked the end of Christianity (there’s more Christ in 95 minutes of Robert Bresson‘s Au Hasard Balthazar than in the contemporary Vatican or Westminster Abbey). You can even wonder, if you’re so inclined, where the path of ‘Doubting’ Thomas would have led had it taken hold at the time the gospels and apocrypha were being haggled over as official doctrine; a Church without Resurrection, without the Last Judgement, the Harrowing of Hell, the lysergic outsider art of Revelations and so on.
The Ancients recognised the dangers of political hubris. The preacher in Eccelesiastes warned, “All is vanity… For that which befalleth the sons of men befalleth beasts… as the one dieth, so dieth the other; yea, they have all one breath; so that a man hath no preeminence above a beast: for all is vanity.” Roman Generals would have a slave instructed to remind them at times of success, “Remember that you are merely a man! Remember your mortality!” In this way, a healthy sense of perspective would be re-established. The path to oblivion that led from the assumption of invincibility (and it’s encouragement by sycophants) to Hitler’s bunker would be avoided. An acceptance of one’s mortality could paradoxically extend your lifespan then. This idea of Memento Mori – Remember your mortality would become a rich seam of inspiration and caution throughout cultural history. Artists would include reminders often in the forms of skulls (Franz Hal‘s Youth with a Skull for example or Hans Holbein the Younger‘s optical illusion in The Ambassadors), the Danse Macabre (in which figures irrespective of rank would be forced to dance with the Grim Reaper) and Ars Moriendi instructions on how to die a good death (or a bad one as Bosch demonstrated in Death and the Miser). Breughel went furthest in depicting people delusionally trying to continue (feasting, playing cards, reciting poems and playing music – see the bottom right of his monumental The Triumph of Death), oblivious amidst the onslaught. “No matter how young, strong, beautiful and vain you are,” the paintings say as much to the painter as to the patron and audience, “you must die.” The tradition has continued to the present day, forming the bulk of Damien Hirst‘s career (and arguably say Andy Warhol and Michel Basquiat‘s) and emerging in singular works from Christian Boltanski‘s Monument Odessa to Jeff Wall‘s Dead Troops Talk to RETNA and The Mac‘s recent mural, named after the tradition.
When the Communist Nikos Beloyannis was executed by the right-wing Greek government in 1952, Picasso created the explicit memento mori Goat’s Skull, Bottle and Candle. He visited the theme of death in many different guises, often covertly. It’s said if you turn Guernica 90 degrees anti-clockwise, a human skull can be discerned just below the dying horse (alongside hidden harlequins and the silhouette of a bull). His Blue Period began with the public suicide of his friend Carlos Casagemas whom he depicted in his allegorical masterpiece La Vie (X-rays reveal Picasso had originally painted his own face beneath that of his late friend). In his paintings, his beloved little sister Conchita, who had died at the age of seven from diptheria, lived on and seemed even to age. Max Ernst would do the same for his dead sister Maria but her afterlife would be more strange even threatening (perhaps this was to have been expected from a man who claimed to have hatched from an egg his mother laid and believed his soul resided in the form of a phantom bird called Loplop that inhabited his paintings).
Poets too carried on the ritual of Memento Mori in Graveyard Poetry and the Nocturne, most famously during the Victorian Cult of Melancholia, with epics such as Gray‘s ‘Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard’, Parnell‘s ‘A Night-piece on Death’ and Edward Young‘s ‘Night Thoughts’ (pdf). It was a tradition that began long before as T.S. Eliot acknowledged in ‘Whispers of Immortality’, “Webster was much possessed by death / And saw the skull beneath the skin.” The great contemporary writer Harry Crews has emphasised this with a Memento Mori skull tattooed onto his arm, accompanied by the words of the poet e.e. cummings (from the poem ‘Buffalo Bill’s’), “How do you like your blue eyed boy, Mr. Death?” A daily reminder that our time is running out and the things we do now matter because that’s all there is.
Another creative death-seam is that of the elegy, for every one of these is written for it’s author as for it’s subject. In music, we assume Mozart‘s Requiem was as much for himself as the wife of it’s commissioner Count Franz von Walsegg for whom it was intended and we are partially right in doing so. Similarly, Tennyson, with his In Memoriam A.H.H. for his departed friend Arthur Henry Hallam (“For this alone on Death I wreak / The wrath that garners in my heart; / He put our lives so far apart / We cannot hear each other speak”).
There have also been almost miraculous technological advances, albeit ones that we are so familiar with we barely acknowledge them. We can, with a mere click of a button, listen to the voice of Skip James singing ‘Hard Time Killin’ Floor Blues’ or a Shostakovich symphony written at the time of the Siege of Leningrad or T.S. Eliot reading The Wasteland, as if from the afterlife. All created by long dead figures and yet we can resurrect them at will. Similarly we can read fragments of Sappho, written 600 years before the Crucifixion or study the Venus of Hohle Fels which is 35,000 years old. Art immortalises. The ancient cave dweller painted scenes of hunting, x-ray pictures of fish or traced handprints not just as decoration or bearing witness but to say, as modern graffiti does, “I was here, I meant something and I wish to continue to mean something.” As Iain Sinclair writes prophetically about (near-)present-day London in Lights Out For The Territory, “Broken sentences and forgotten names wink like fossils among the ruins.”
Something of the spirit survives then to inhabit the future however miniscule or metaphorical. And it will remain immortalised, as long as there continues to exist a person to experience it. Should mankind ever succeed in killing itself off, it will take a surprisingly short time for nature to erase all trace of our existence. Cities will decay or be absorbed by deserts, forests or new ice ages in a few thousand years. The last surviving relics will be those sheltered underground away from the elements (nuclear waste bunkers for example) and those protected by the vacuum of space (the time capsule of the Voyager probe and the space junk that orbits the earth and litters the moon). Percy Shelley‘s Ozymandias remains a masterful warning not just of the over-reaching arrogance of tyrants but of the vainglory of mankind’s loftiest achievements.
You could believe in God of course, each to their own, but if you don’t what is there that might fill the void or simply explain it? Those of us who doubt or dread a religious afterlife can put our faith in technology and science even though we know these will ultimately prove futile. If we stretch the bounds of possibility (and what other choice do we have?), we could see cryogenics as some form of salvation. For around $150,000 you can have your body frozen at the point of death and stored in liquid nitrogen until the time arrives (if ever) that medical science can reanimate you. You expire in the here and now and wake up in the future. If the full-blown method is too expensive, there’s the budget option of neuro-preservation in which it’s only your decapitated head stored for a mere $90,000 (the myth that Walt Disney’s head is frozen in a vault somewhere is sadly just a myth).
The Victorians, in their turn, put their faith in technology as a tool of immortalisation, primarily the photograph. Almost as soon as the medium had been invented (beginning arguably with Hippolyte Bayard’s fictionalised Self Portrait as a Drowned Man), a craze began for post-mortem images, mainly of children who had died, bearing in mind the high mortality rates of the time. They make for disturbing but compelling viewing. Dressed up in their best refinery and often placed with dolls or in nurseries, the children appear to be sleeping but that sunken waxen look, familiar to anyone who’s been to a wake, has already stolen over them. The expressions of their parents, often in the photographs too, speak of fathomless grief. In a sense, it’s an attempt to gain some small victory over death, to say this child existed. There are even attempts to revive the practise today as evidenced in the Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep service. In David Eagleman’s stunning treatise on the afterlife, Sum, one of the chapters explores not just death but a second final death which you undergo when the last person says your name for the final time. In death you merely cease to exist, with the second death of being forgotten you cease to have ever existed. The Victorians tried to counter this fear of amnesia with photographs just as they had previously used paintings and death masks. It continues to this day not just in photographs and film footage but in personal websites that become online shrines (and targets for anonymous trolls, another modern phenomena) when the owner dies. We relish, and fetishise, the illusion of stopped time, that last photo or online message, but an illusion is what it remains. In The Book of Illusions, Paul Auster reminds us that the passage of time only invests these photographs with a haunting new context, “because they were dead, they probably spoke more deeply to us now than they had to the audiences of their time.” And of course one day our own photographs will join them.
The photograph will capture us then, just as some Native American tribes feared it would our souls, for the millisecond of it’s taking. In Richard Drew‘s famous image of the Falling Man from the Twin Towers, the immediate thing we notice is the theatricality and defiance of it. He looks as if he is not simply resigned to his fate but is bravely diving into it. Photographs taken just before and after the shot reveal this to be an illusion, a pose that only existed for a fraction of a second, the figure, having been buffeted about by air currents and sheer velocity of freefall, was falling as a marionette would. The decisive moment of Cartier Bresson may deceive as much as it enlightens. Yet it is this image that is famous and not the others on his film because we want to believe he defied death. For us then the Falling Man is forever statuesque in that pose of boldness and grace, a man who chose to dive rather than simply fall or sucumb to the flames. In the photograph and only in the photograph, he never has to land. Compare this to James Dickey‘s remarkable poetic account of a real-life air stewardess falling to earth after being sucked out through an emergency door on a flight. She may seem alive again for as long as the poem takes to read but we’re acutely aware this is in memoriam. The photograph, on the other hand, deceives. We believe what our eyes tell us.
Photography can be the beautiful lie that seeks to comfort us against the harshness of truth, a counter-myth to the spectre of Memento Mori. “I am forever young” it says but perhaps it mocks us in saying this. Consider the ‘Six Young Men’ of Ted Hughes’ verse, in a photograph taken just before the war, “One imparts an intimate smile, / One chews a grass, one lowers his eyes, bashful, / One is ridiculous with cocky pride – / Six months after this picture they were all dead.” In the intervening years, the photo does not change. Neither does the backdrop “That bilberried bank, that thick tree, that black wall.” It’s a photograph as much a warning as a requiem.
And contrast the almost heroic Falling Man to the Genesee Hotel Suicide taken in 1942 by Ignatius Russel Sorgi a photojournalist for the Buffalo Courier Express. He was on his way back from a routine shoot when a police car overtook him and speed away. Out of curiosity, he followed it to the hotel where a troubled recently divorced guest Mary Miller was out on the ledge. She waved to the assembled onlookers and dropped. Sorgi caught her forever in that pose, devastating not just because of the childlike way she’s reaching out but because of the commonplaceness even mundaneness of the setting; the neon hotel sign, the traffic warden-type figure at the door, the man sitting idly watching the world go by at the Coffee Shop window, beneath signs for sandwiches and milk shakes. Life will go on even after this, one world ends yet a billion continues, a thought that seems obscene and is at the root of our delusional urge to survive indefinitely.
Photographers have sometimes fallen for the beautiful lie themselves. It’s a seductive belief and in their way they’re right to. When you create, something survives because of you (but in your absence) that would not have existed otherwise. The fact that mundane things (from advertising slogans to inanimate objects) outlive even the most extraordinary of people seems so unjust we feel we must rail against it. Surely it cannot be so. The photographer Garry Winogrand knowing that he was dying of cancer, took photos continually in his last months, leaving several thousand undeveloped rolls of film (over a quarter of a million shots) that document his attempt to somehow remain in this life. A similar story is that of Vivian Maier a remarkable photographer who captured over 100,000 street photographs during her life. She died virtually unknown and penniless, the boxes containing the collections being discovered just prior to her death. The subsequent resurrection if you like of critical discovery and acclaim can offer no comfort to her now. Something does remain however from her, from Winogrand, from Robert Capa whose last view of life we can witness in his final photograph taken prior to stepping on a landmine in Vietnam (he’d spent that morning photographing a cemetery) and from the daily Polaroid collection of Hugh Crawford up to his death. It may not be life, it may be ethereal spectacle, life twice removed, but it is something. And in absence of any alternative it may be the best we have.
One of the great techniques of literary immortality is elusiveness. Some of your thoughts will endure if, for example, your books are read or your ideas make it into the common consciousness. Some glimpses of personality, interests, loves, fears, obsessions and so on will remain dormant within the pages and reactivate upon reading. Elusiveness intensifies this experience. If your work is engaging enough a degree of indecipherability will amplify interest. “I’ve put in so many enigmas and puzzles that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality,” James Joyce famously said, spawning less a cottage industry of critical theory on his work than some vast Stakhanovite monstrosity, churning out essay after essay. Though Joyce is a literary heavyweight in every sense, it can’t be ignored that the fact his work can be endlessly explored and deciphered is one crucial reason for his renown today. It’s a blessing of Shakespeare that his work has so many layers and is so multi-faceted and yet Shakespeare the man remains an enigma (even if this mystery does regularly attract conspiratorial headcases and snobs who claim he didn’t exist or was someone else). We know less about the playwright than we do the surface of other planets. It means that we can delve through his plays and poems and never come up against the deadening full stop that is the ‘definitive’ view. In other words, we can never be fully satisfied. Similarly the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch remain not only fascinating to us but also immortal because we can never fully understand them, the metaphors and parables within them have been lost or escape us. His work is alive through, not just it’s delights and horrors but it’s obscurity. Sometimes indecipherability is virtually the only thing maintaining our ongoing interest in a work of art. The mysterious Voynich Manuscript, which has defied cryptographers for centuries, would likely join other arcane masterfully-engraved texts amongst the great halls of unread books were it not for the fact we still cannot comprehend it. If we were to unlock it’s secrets, the magic would largely evaporate. Lost books also possess this ephemeral quality. They are immortal and unassailable in a sense because we can never read them. They exist as long as our willingness to imagine does.
No matter how good your work is, you will however be dead, as non-existent as you were before you were born. This will be a difficult to appreciate given your atoms are insentient and will be scattered to the winds or the soil with no memory of ever having been part of you (one particularly mindblowing scientific concept is that which suggests the next breath you take will likely contain a molecule from Caesar’s last breath). If there is an infinity and we are to play a part in it, it will be on a purely molecular level as exemplified in Primo Levi’s masterful short story ‘Carbon’ from The Periodic Table (“Man is a centaur,” he wrote elsewhere in the collection, “a tangle of flesh and mind, divine inspiration and dust”). His countryman Italo Calvino created a recurring character in his stories called Qfwfq, a creature so old he could recall his childhood as an amoeba. In ‘At Daybreak’, Qfwfq describes witnessing the birth of the Solar System, floating around in interstellar nebula which “whirled in the void with our uncles on them and other people, reduced to distant shadows, letting out a kind of chirping noise.” The sun forms through nuclear fusion and the planets coalesce, Qfwfq losing sight of his sister who’s swallowed up in a fledgling planet. Millions of years later, he’ll bump into her by chance in “Canberra in 1912, married to a certain Sullivan, a retired railroad man, so changed I hardly recognized her.”
On the subject of dynastics and atomics, there is some vestige of truth that something of us lives on when we pass on our genes (and our mannerisms and memories and so on) through our children and the lineage continues (or runs out as in Shakespeare’s case for example). It is also a mildly depressing view for those of us without children and probably depressing for those with children too. From a purely reproductive perspective, Genghis Khan remains the most successful person in the history of the human race (some geneticists have estimated 1 in 200 men are direct descendants of the Mongol Emperor). There has to be more though than spreading seed and the possibility of making an cameo appearance on Who Do You Think You Are? when you’re turned to bones. Neither biological or artistic posterity offers much consolation then, in the words of Woody Allen, “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.” Art may be the raucous graffiti left on the walls of Pompeii but at best we are the frozen figures of Herculaneum, covered in ash and pumice stone. Only the outlines remain if they find us, cavities to be filled in with plaster to make discernible shapes.
Some might gain some solace from glimpsing their legacy for what it’s worth. Mark Twain twice opened the newspaper to be greeted with his own obituary; the first through illness, the second when thought lost at sea. He responded with the brilliantly understated, and often-misquoted, “The report of my death was an exaggeration” (he’d earlier dealt with a similar theme when Tom Sawyer and Hucklebury Finn faked their own deaths and turned up at their own funerals). Some take the news less jovially. Recovering from a stroke, the great Black nationalist writer and rights activist Marcus Garvey chanced upon his own damning obituary in the Chicago Defender, saying he had died forgotten and reviled. The shock precipitated a second stroke which definitively killed him.
In Virginia Woolf‘s Orlando: A Biography, the main character dwells despondently on the end, ‘All ends in death,’ Orlando would say, sitting upright on the ice… Looking up into the sky there was nothing but blackness there too. Ruin and death, he thought, cover all. The life of man ends in the grave. Worms devour us.” Somehow, and the reason is unexplained, Orlando does not entertain the possibility of growing old and dying any further and simply lives for centuries. The novel is understandably then a picaresque affair but also, going back to Gilgamesh and One Thousand and One Nights, it is the story of fiction itself and a demonstration of its possibilities, “Like an incantation rising from all parts of the room, from the night wind and the moonlight, rolled the divine melody of those words which, lest they should outstare this page, we will leave where they lie entombed, not dead, embalmed rather, so fresh is their colour, so sound their breathing–and Orlando, comparing that achievement with those of his ancestors, cried out that they and their deeds were dust and ashes, but this man and his words were immortal.” We return to literature as our opportunity to be Gods, the creators and the destroyers of entire worlds.
So if that is our reason for writing, where’s the reward? Well posterity may well then follow, through skill and luck but sometimes not in the form you wished for. The poet William MacGonagall is today remembered as being the author of the worst verse ever written. So atrocious are his works with their faltering rhythms, inability to scan, inept rhymes and the unrestrained bathos of their subject matter, they become weirdly entrancing. Take this glorious example from ‘The Late Sir John Ogilvy’, “He was a public benefactor in many ways / Especially in erecting an asylum for imbecile children to spend their days.” Unintentionally, they act as an absurd pastiche undermining the shrill rhapsodies to Imperial conquests and requiems for the ‘great and good’ in the Victorian British Empire and can be seen as a unintentional precursor to the poetry of Ivor Cutler, Spike Milligan and today Tim Key. MacGonagall would have been horrified with such a legacy. He was, it seems, deadly serious, seeing nothing absurd in his poetry or statements such as “I don’t like publicans. The first man to throw a plate of peas at me was a publican.” Yet there are thousands of mediocrities (and indeed fine writers) who wrote infinitely better than MacGonagall and yet their reputations have evaporated and their books are out of print and unread (Walter Scott esteemed at one time as the most popular living writer on the planet must qualify as the ‘most unread’ major writer today). You cannot entirely choose how you are remembered and even if it is for being a cultural abomination perhaps its better than not being remembered at all.
This is to presume it’s wise to want to live on. There are many writers in the modern era who’ve written warnings against such yearnings as there were in ancient times. The Marquis De Sade, in his Dialogue Between a Priest and a Dying Man, asserts through the mouth of the dying man, “After death there is nothing. This is not terrifying but consoling.” He then invites the priest to embark on a one final orgy with him, for the road. The priest duly obliges. T.S. Eliot incorporated a quote from Petronius’ The Satyricon in The Wasteland referring to the Cumaean Sibyl who was an oracle who’d been granted immortality. Accounts vary on how long she actually lived; some say for a millennia, in Ovid’s Metamorphoses she’s allowed as many years as grains in a handful of sand. In exchange, she would sleep with the Sun God Apollo. When she later spurned the deity, he looked into the terms of conditions of their verbal contract (it’s no coincidence Apollo was the God of lawyers) and found that although he’d granted her life far beyond mortal reaches, she had never asked for eternal youth. As punishment, he allowed age to ravage her. She shrivelled until she was a dried husk small enough to be kept in a jar. Pilgrims would still come to consult her, “For I myself once saw with my own eyes the Sibyl hanging in her jar, and when the boys asked her, ‘Sibyl, what do you want?’ she answered ‘I want to die.’ This was Eliot’s view of a Western Civilisation that, despite knowing everything that had come before, was in inevitable paralysis and decline. The Greeks had a male equivalent to Sibyl called Tithonus who was condemned with the same affliction of eternal decrepitude, “when loathsome old age pressed full upon him, and he could not move nor lift his limbs, this seemed to her in her heart the best counsel: she laid him in a room and put to the shining doors. There he babbles endlessly, and no more has strength at all.” His mournful pleas to rescind the deal were depicted in verse by Tennyson, “But thy strong Hours indignant worked their wills, / And beat me down and marred and wasted me, / And though they could not end me, left me maimed… / Let me go: take back thy gift… Release me, and restore me to the ground.”
In the lesser-known third book of Gulliver’s Travels, Swift has the eponymous hero land on the island of Luggnagg located in the sea to the east of Japan. Amongst the inhabitants, he encounters beings known as Struldbrugs who, because of some apparent genetic condition, are born immortal and marked with a dot above their left eye which changes colour. Gulliver rejoices upon hearing of their existence and cannot wait to see what wonders and wisdom they have attained. What he finds is an indictment not only of foolish yearning for everlasting life but of the clichéd behaviours of the elderly, “They were not only opinionative, peevish, covetous, morose, vain, talkative, but incapable of friendship, and dead to all natural affection… Envy and impotent desires are their prevailing passions. But those objects against which their envy seems principally directed, are the vices of the younger sort and the deaths of the old. By reflecting on the former, they find themselves cut off from all possibility of pleasure; and whenever they see a funeral, they lament and repine that others have gone to a harbour of rest to which they themselves never can hope to arrive.” In true Swiftian style, the observations are mercilessly scathing, “They were the most mortifying sight I ever beheld; and the women more horrible than the men. Besides the usual deformities in extreme old age, they acquired an additional ghastliness, in proportion to their number of years… from what I had hear and seen, my keen appetite for perpetuity of life was much abated. I grew heartily ashamed of the pleasing visions I had formed; and thought no tyrant could invent a death into which I would not run with pleasure, from such a life.”
Given his fate, you could say that Oscar Wilde realised the perils of decadence too late but the truth is he only underestimated the power and venom of those in the establishment he had brilliantly mocked. Nevertheless The Picture of Dorian Gray seems prophetic in terms of his destruction at their hands. The young rake of the title, corrupted by Huysmans‘ still dazzling À rebours, manages to transpose his decay in both moral and physical terms onto a portrait, staying young as it ages through some satanic covenant, “How sad it is! I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young. It will never be older than this particular day of June… If it were only the other way! If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old! For that-for that-I would give everything! Yes, there is nothing in the whole world I would not give! I would give my soul for that!” Gray manages to live a life of debauchery for eighteen years, barely aging a day in the process. As with all Faustian tales, there is an inevitable terrible payback; the devil is a lawyer specialising in contracts after all. Gray is destroyed yet could have survived forever had he lived a pious life but then where is the fun in that as Wilde knew to his ruin?
Assuming that you are spared aging or retribution, what would you do with all that time? In Douglas Adam’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series, a creature by the name Bowerick Wowbagger becomes immortal by accident and spends eternity insulting every living entity, in alphabetical order, to pass the time. Another creature by the name of Agrajag is continually reincarnated and inadvertently and unwittingly killed by the main protagonist Arthur Dent. The latter is a nod to the Buddhist and Hindu ideas of reincarnation. In the loosest most bastardised reduction of the beliefs, there’s sense of karmic justice to the process; before proceeding upwards to enlightenment or nirvana, the spirit will be reincarnated in various forms, often defined according to failings in past lives – if you’re filthy and slovenly, you’ll come back as a pig for example. Like Abrahamic concepts of life and the afterlife, there’s some spiritual guidance to be taken but similarly it’s also a potent tool of institutionalised religion to control the corporeal world. Much like the Party in Orwell’s 1984, the real hardcore theologies and ideologies seek not just political control or authority. They wish to extend their control into places they can’t physically reach – private life, the imagination, the conscience, dreams, the subconscious, all the secret realms of deed and thought.
The essential message is not ‘don’t stray from our commands’ but ‘don’t even think of straying’. You may evade punishment temporarily but the All Seeing I is taking account. Your soul is immortal and what you do now will damn or absolve you for all eternity. There’s this inherent threat to the afterlife and as a child it’s a particularly effective, and frightening, means of brainwashing. This finds expression in its most extreme form in Catholic and Evangelical depictions of hell, the former exposed expertly in Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man where a priest Father Arnall delivers a preposterous fire and brimstone sermon on the multiplying torments of hell. It’s a sermon so repetitive and hysterical it’s as if the priest himself is already stuck in some kind of hell. The motion is cyclical and inconclusive, the serpent endlessly eating it’s tail. In Arnall’s hell, the endless factor is crucial, “Last and crowning torture of all the tortures of that awful place is the eternity of hell. Eternity! O, dread and dire word. Eternity! What mind of man can understand it? And remember, it is an eternity of pain… At the end of all those billions and trillions of years eternity would have scarcely begun.” All hope is extinguished, things will never get better. Just as in the priest’s sermon though, this raises more questions than it answers. Could you get used to it? People adapt after all and experience and the perception of experience is relative. Would there be tortures marginally less bad than others? Ones you’d look forward to? Would there be blind spots in hell? How would it be administered? Who would do the paperwork? What do you do with masochists? If the threats and bribes of the religious are right and we’re wrong, we’ll have plenty time to ponder such matters.
Even modern writers who’d shook off the dictates of religion (or at least tried to) continued to be obsessed with this existential threat. Baudelaire counselled “Get drunk!” as a means to obliterate the passage of time or at least our perception of it, “So as not to feel Time’s / horrible burden one which breaks your shoulders and bows / you down, you must get drunk without cease.” Friedrich Nietzsche dwelt on the theory of eternal recurrence (as referenced at the opening of Milan Kundera‘s The Unbearable Lightness of Being), an idea at once repulsive and enviable as he notes in The Gay Science, “What, if some day or night a demon were to steal after you into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it, you will have to live once more and innumerable times more… Would you not throw yourself down and gnash your teeth and curse the demon who spoke thus? Or have you once experienced a tremendous moment when you would have answered him: ‘You are a god and never have I heard anything more divine.”
There are all sorts of echoes that resonate from Nietzsche’s exalted musings; demonic pacts, doppelgängers, parallel universes, past lives and the heretical remnants of Asiatic and Masonic ideas of reincarnation. Nowhere is the latter more chillingly depicted in literature than in Alan Moore‘s From Hell when the soul of Sir William Gull rises above Victorian London before transmuting into figures down the ages: William Blake‘s Ghost of a Flea, Peter Sutcliffe the Yorkshire Ripper, the Moors Murderer Ian Brady. Certain Hindus and Buddhists believe the soul is immortal and will assume different forms. What happens when a soul that is diseased gets into the system? “Ideas, unlike solid structures, do not perish,” Moore later qualified, “They remain immortal, immaterial and everywhere, like all Divine things.” Perhaps ideas, as Burroughs said of language, are a virus that infected us. And perhaps so too are souls or the pretensions that we even have any.
For Beckett, eternity is a never-ending gallows farce, immortality a mockery in which nothing happens and we never have the dignity to just end the wretched thing. “No, I regret nothing,” he wrote, “all I regret is having been born, dying is such a long tiresome business I always found.” In the same radio meditation From an Abandoned Work, he countered this pessimism with the dark Schadenfreude relish that we might salvage from mutual oblivion, “Let me go to hell, that’s all I ask, and go on cursing them there, and them look down and hear me, that might take some of the shine off their bliss.”
No stranger to the Fascist aesthetics against which Beckett fought in the French Resistance, Yukio Mishima sought a path of Nietzschean self-mastery and came to a gruesome end when Japan failed to follow him on his dubious quest. Against the degrading tides of modernity, Mishima tried to embody the Samurai code, and restore the glory of Nippon in the process, “To keep death in mind from day to day, to focus each moment upon, inevitable death… the beautiful death that had earlier eluded me.” This was a man who wavered between the contemplation of beauty and the worship of death, his florid prose brought to life by that very tension. Mishima’s writing trembles like the needle of a compass between these poles. By envying the marauding soldiers of the Imperial Army, who had committed such atrocities as the Rape of Nanking, and their whited sepulchre sense of honour, Mishima seemed to be drifting over to the ranks of “Long live death.” In the end however when the soldiers jeered him on the balcony and he committed seppuku, he harmed only himself. Life was still sacred to him and he spilled nobody’s blood but his own (disciples followed him shortly afterwards in suicide). It might appear that he crossed some unspoken line, in regarding democracy as degeneration and destruction as the ultimate goal, in exhibiting the juvenile desire to leave a beautiful corpse (through his body-building and exhibitionist homoerotic poses as Saint Sebastian) but his final act of ritual disembowelment and beheading demonstrates not just insane discipline and courage but a curious intention to be reborn. His Sea of Fertility cycle of books returns again and again to the concept of reincarnation and here was a writer, destined it seemed for the Nobel Prize, choosing to metamorphose into something else entirely; a martyr, as deranged and brilliant as a saint, through completely self-directed violence. So in a sense he was reincarnated as last of the Samurai. Whether it was worth anything or if anyone was really listening is another matter.
We now enter the age of reason and cynicism which we currently inhabit for our sins. Just as all utopias are now dystopias, all forms of immortality are now a nightmare. We are in an age when Dante‘s Inferno is not just infinitely more satisfying to our ungodly gratuitous tastes than his Paradiso (heaven after all is crushingly dull, absent of those who would make hell such an interesting destination) but one where the Inferno can be made into a computer game (what is more diabolical the sight of Ugolino locked in ice gnawing on Archbishop Ruggieri’s brain or grown men playing X-Box Live for all eternity?). To be undead now means not some state of perpetual grace or supernatural possibility but being included in some slavering horde of zombies that seem to have taken over contemporary mainstream pulp (a massively overexposed theme that retains interest only in those places where the concept crosses into real life through voodoo, parasitic organisms or serial killers; in other words, enough with the fuckin’ zombies).
Vastly more imaginative is the fervid mind of H.P. Lovecraft. In his Cthulhu Mythos, we get a continual subsonic sensation of unease, the feeling that there are entities out there that are impossibly ancient and malevolent, presented in his unique mix of the gothic, the modernist and the esoteric. Most explicitly, immortality takes a form in Lovecraft’s stories through the creatures known as the ‘Great Old Ones’ or the ‘Deep Ones’ who dwell in the depths of the earth and the unexplored ocean floor, tapping into all sorts of latent Jungian myths of the Hollow Earth, mine spirits and Leviathans of the sea. Occasionally these Deep Ones come to the surface to mate with a woman and a hybrid is born that initially, until adolescence, has human form before mutating into monstrous but immortal ‘Fish-Men’ before returning to the cities under the sea (again tapping into earlier myths this time of fairies stealing children and leaving changlings in their place). Lovecraft may exploit pre-existing folklore and collective nightmares but he also pre-empts the space-age epiphanies such as Earthrise and the Pale Blue Dot which revealed Earth’s vulnerability in the vastness of space. There are things out there that will make Hell look parochial. Lovecraft’s terror is an interstellar one, the nightmare of infinity to human conceptual capacity (as William Hodgson‘s was before him in The House on the Borderland). We reach the limits of our present knowledge, the points where Einstein and his colleagues can as yet go no further and Lovecraft is there like some malevolent cabaret host to suggest what’s lurking beyond.
The horror of immortality is really just the flip side of wonder at it’s possibilities. One coin, two sides. Nowhere is this more evident than in the writing of that Escher of literature, Jorge Luis Borges. In his collection of stories, paradoxes and fragments entitled Labryrinths, Borges approaches immortality (and mirrors, doppelgangers, invisibility, lotteries, mazes, libraries and everything else) from multiple angles. There’s the extended firing squad reprieve of ‘The Secret Miracle’ (inspired by a Koranic quotation), ‘The Library of Babel’ which like the universe has no beginning or end and most expressly in ‘The Immortal’. A river “cleanses men of death” and a “City of Immortals rises, rich in bastions and amphitheatres and temples.” A note of alarm is there from the beginning: “In Rome, I conversed with philosophers who felt that to extend man’s life is to extend his agony and multiply his deaths.” The narrator encounters troglodytes, subterranean winds, a city that has been constructed as a maze and which “is so horrible that its mere existence and perdurance, though in the midst of a secret desert, contaminates the past and the future and in some way jeopardizes the stars.” Though the narrator is so disgusted with immortality, he searches for the river to reverse his condition, Borges remains fascinated by the concept. “To be immortal is commonplace; except for man, all creatures are immortal for they are ignorant of death; what is divine, terrible, incomprehensible, is to know that one is mortal.” Self-awareness then seems a curse peculiar to humans. But not quite. “Death… makes men precious and pathetic. They are moving because of their phantom condition; every act they execute may be their last… Everything among the mortals has the value of the irretrievable and the perilous. Among the Immortals, on the other hand, every act (and every thought) is the echo of others that preceded it in the past, with no visible beginning, or the faithful presage of others that in the future will repeat it to a vertiginous degree. There is nothing that is not as if lost in a maze of indefatigable mirrors.” We should be glad then that we are mortal? Well no… when you examine that last quote you find yourself thinking this is precisely where we are in terms of culture, lost in the hall of mirrors that is post-modernism (Borges being one of the impish pre-post-modernists who led us here). We have the curse of both the immortal and the mortal and none of the consolation of either.
Let us turn to Kafka for comfort (a phrase you’ll not read very often). His novel The Castle ends prematurely mid-sentence, a disaster you might think, but really it’s a perfect ending. Due to the fact we never appreciate the dimensions of the bureaucracy with which K struggles or reach any positive or negative conclusion, it all becomes perpetual as does K’s sense of alienation in reaction. What better way for a book about infuriating futility and an unreachable end to finish then to not end at all? For Kafka, this was life, “Only our concept of time leads us to call the Last Judgement by that name. In fact, its a court in standing session.” So far, so bad then but there is consolation to be found if we search, and he makes us search, it’s not in The Castle, The Trial, Metamorphosis, In The Penal Colony or The Hunger Artist but in his most un-Kafka work Amerika or as Kafka titled it The Man Who Disappeared. This too ends prematurely but with the character headed to the Mid-West to sign up with a travelling theatre and offers a rare levity, the character being perpetually on the brink of a happy ending. Whether Kafka intended this or not is disputable. The end for Kafka was far from happy.
Let us follow then the Vltava from Kafka’s Prague to the sea and pick up another grand European river in the Liffey. The female personification of the river Anna Livia guests extensively in Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. The book is a notoriously difficult/rewarding/maddening experience, a maelstrom of language, puns, codes, myth and portmanteaux which famously makes more sense if read aloud in a Dublin accent and if regarded, in contrast to Ulysses‘ ‘A Day in the Life,’ as a nocturnal dream-like experience (“It’s natural things should not be so clear at night, isn’t it now?” Joyce hinted). Fittingly for a man who only ever wrote about Dublin (and was above all a Dubliner contrary to those kleptomaniacs who’ve been claiming recently he was British), the Liffey is the central presence in the book particularly in the Anna Livia Plurabelle sequence with it’s gossiping washerwomen. The rain cycle as every primary school pupil knows is one that revolves around evaporation and precipitation, the water in the Liffey and the sea beyond rises to form clouds which returns as rain in an perpetual cycle. The book mimics this process, taking the form of a circle or mobius strip, it ends mid-sentence at the beginning (“A way, a lone, a last, a loved, a long the…. riverrun, past eve and adams, from swerve of shore to bend of bay”), a cyclical book with no beginning or conclusion (an effect Joyce compared to following the incredibly intricate medieval Celtic-influenced typography of the Book of Kells). A book which never ends and Joyce’s most blatant shot at immortality. The Irishman borrowed the cyclical structure from Dante via his friend the writer Italo Svevo, whose novel The Confessions of Zeno revolves around one man’s Sisyphean existence, for one example forever giving up smoking and forever failing, always poised on the last exhilarating cigarette. Finnegan’s Wake is the novel as cyclorama where visitors would view a cylindrical painting from the inside, entering through an entrance in the floor, beginning wherever they liked. Writing as infinity, forever evading the full stop.
“God if I hear that name Joyce one more time I will surely froth at the gob.” So said Mr Brian O’Nolan, better known as Flann O’Brien or Myles na gCopaleen. It’s a necessary jibe given every Irish writer must crawl from beneath the colossal shadow of Joyce into the light but not entirely fair given Joyce was a professed fan and supporter of the Tyronian (at a time, unlike now, when it was neither profitable nor popular to be so). And also because O’Brien’s unpublished masterpiece The Third Policeman ran parallel to Finnegan’s Wake in terms of it’s cyclical nature. “Hell goes round and round” O’Brien wrote, “In shape it is circular and by nature it is interminable, repetitive and very nearly unbearable.” You forget in the wild surrealism of say a Gardai station existing inside the wall-space of a house or the laugh out loud humour that runs from very first line (“Not everybody knows how I killed old Phillip Mathers, smashing his jaw in with my spade…”) that it’s an insidiously grim novel which ends on one of the most downbeat endings in all literature. This is Dante’s Hell marketed by Failte Ireland. And, like small town Ireland, there’s no escape and it never ever ends.
Neither, in an entirely different variation of misery, does Harlan Ellison’s I Have No Mouth But I Must Scream. Much of Ellison’s visionary work is so far ahead of so-called literary fiction, it’s embarrassing (this story was published in 1967) but it’s overlooked because it’s labelled science fiction and Ellison hasn’t had the decency to be tamed or to die yet. Once he sees sense and does so, like Philip K Dick or Ballard he’ll be defused, declared finally respectable and showered with praise. The literary snobs will absorb him. Or at least they will try. I Have No Mouth… is the dystopia to end dystopias. All of mankind, bar a handful of survivors, has been wiped out. A worldwide computer network AM (Ellison predicting the internet by a good thirty years) has achieved technological singularity and become sentient. In revenge for it’s creation and limitations, it spends the rest of eternity torturing the survivors, keeping them alive through biological manipulation, allowing them to exist like Jonah in the belly of the whale, “AM could not wander, AM could not wonder, AM could not belong. He could merely be. And so, with the innate loathing that all machines had always held for the weak, soft creatures who had built them, he had sought revenge. And in his paranoia, he had decided to reprieve five of us, for a personal, everlasting punishment that would never serve to diminish his hatred… that would merely keep him reminded, amused, proficient at hating man. Immortal, trapped, subject to any torment he could devise for us from the limitless miracles at his command.” Ellison specifically states AM is not God but a machine but it’s hard not to recall that line from King Lear, “As flies to wanton boys, are we to the gods, — They kill us for their sport.” AM might not be God but it does a good impersonation.
In Will Self‘s How The Dead Live, the eternal afterlife appears as a London burrough called Dulston, administered by the useless but omnipresent Deathocracy, a place where life goes on familiarly without any sense of fulfilment but with added morbid features such as floating foetuses tethered to their mothers by umbilical cords. Self was quick to point out in interviews that this wasn’t his universal concept of the afterlife but was merely the main character Lilly Bloom’s unique view, reflecting her life experiences. Presumably we all get our own version. Except with Self and something as complex as Alasdair Gray’s Unthank in Lanark or the City of the Dead in Wyndham Lewis‘ extraordinary and largely forgotten The Childermass, maybe its not safe or wise to presume anything or reduce complex ambiguous visions to glib simplicities. All of them, like all great fantastical books, have elements of satire of the existing world. “Is there life before death?” asked the graffiti which Heaney noticed in Belfast and it’s a fair point.
“Death alone allows me to grasp what I want to attain; it exists in words as the only way they can have meaning. Without death, everything would sink into absurdity and nothingness,” Blanchot asserted. It echoes the writing of Dostoevsky in The Brothers Karamazov, “If you were to destroy the belief in immortality in mankind, not only love but every living force on which the continuation of all life in the world depended, would dry up at once. Moreover there would be nothing immoral then, everything would be permitted.” It was wisdom hard-earned, Dostoevsky standing before a firing squad, reprieved at the last moment and Blanchot, specifically in this case, witnessing a dear friend die young – Colette Peignot, a.k.a. Laure, a writer and one of Bataille’s inner circle, his secret cabal Acéphale. Blanchot is unflinching in his record of her death from TB at the age of 35, “Then she turned slightly towards the nurse and said in a tranquil tone, “Now then, take a good look at death,” and pointed her finger at me. She said this in a very tranquil and almost friendly way, but without smiling.” The title of his book crudely translated into English as Death Sentence is ambiguous in French (L’Arrêt de mor) and alludes to a possible temporary reprieve or moment of standstill which occurred, perhaps not a reprieve solely for the dying but for us, the narrator and the reader. After all we’re reading this so presumably we’re still alive. We’re immortal right now, albeit temporarily.
Do we really believe we will die? The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living is the title of Hirst’s shark installation and it’s an apt one. Aldous Huxley advised, “Ignore death up to the last moment; then, when it can’t be ignored any longer, have yourself squirted full of morphia and shuffle off in a coma.” This seems like a solution but really it’s the problem, we fool ourselves in our heads that it will be this easy while having a gut feeling it won’t. When death came for Huxley in the form of throat cancer, he instructed his wife to inject him with LSD and went out into the unknown hallucinating out of his mind. The very same day, John F Kennedy had his head blown to smithereens on Dealey Plaza (and as a side-note this writer’s grandfather fell into the River Foyle drunk and drowned). Countless others will have died and that was a merely day like any other in the grand scheme of things. Huxley’s advice was the modern way; ignore peril until the last moment possible and then, when finally unavoidable, either panic or hope someone else takes control. What he actually did was much more intriguing.
The longer an infinitesimal chance of immortality exists (or merely the sustainable irrational belief in it persists), the longer we will live in denial. When our time comes, surely something will postpone it? The medieval scholars prepared themselves for a ‘good death’ and, in the spirit of vanitas, adapted their lives to be led wisely and to the full. Now that we’re sanitised from experiencing the death of others (even when it happens), we’re much less prepared to deal with it. The modern world promises everything for the right price except more time, leaving us like Marlowe‘s Faustus awaiting the chime of midnight and the coming of Lucifer to collect hid dues, “Stand still, you ever-moving spheres of heaven, / That time may cease, and midnight never come… O soul, be chang’d into small water-drops, / And fall into the ocean, ne’er be found!”
In the past few years, Tom McCarthy has extensively examined the subject of mortality from Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison‘s technological attempts to contact to and from the afterlife to Cocteau‘s radiowaves and mirror portals to the underworld in Orphée, the possibility of communications, through osmosis, permeating the veil between life and the great beyond. The manifesto of his (and Simon Critchley’s) International Necronautical Society is as follows, “1. Death is a type of space, which we intend to map, enter, colonise and, eventually, inhabit. 2. There is no beauty without death, its immanence. We shall sing death’s beauty – that is, beauty.” In The Immortalization Committee, John Gray explored the efforts of early Soviet scientists, eccentric poets and technocrats to foil fate, “A kind of secular mystery cult, God-building was another part of the late 19th-century European current in which occultism and science marched hand in hand. The God-builders believed a true revolutionary must aim to deify humanity, an enterprise that includes the abolition of death.”
Despite our schemes and advances, the old Grimm Brothers‘ tale nevertheless remains true; Death takes his godson down into a subterranean chamber where candles of varying sizes, representing every human life are burning down at different speeds. There’s no getting out of this for any of us and any advice offered can only be hollow; be rich, lucky and healthy and you may avoid it longer. The desire for immortality is hard to shake off precisely because it is the myth of permanence, the nostalgic desire for things to stay the same or rather for things to stay as they never were except in our imaginations. When you see the much bigger picture, as for example H.G. Wells did with The Time Machine, you realise what we regard as fixed is temporal. Its all a question of scale.
Normally we have an ant level view. Perceive things beyond the meagre human lifespan, see them as an immortal might and it all changes. When viewed on a longer term, say fifty million years, Africa will have collided into Europe, squeezing the Mediterranean out of existence and pushing up a mountain range larger than the Himalayas running from Portugal to India. What we regard as absolutely rigid in terms of nations, climate, language, economies and even the human mind and body is transitory and continually often-imperceptibly evolving even as we speak, to say nothing of the fate of the earth, the solar system, the galaxy, universe. This might provoke a celestial form of nihilism or a joy that we are able to even conceive this by some great miracle of chemistry and evolution. The fact remains, nothing’s immortal. Time, as Einstein made us aware, is more treacherous and mercurial than we previously thought, as is our perception of it. We are haunted by the things we have not done, our lost futures as by the places, events and people we’ve lost or left behind along the way. By accident or design, laziness or apathy or merely that we expend too much time simply surviving (shackled to that old toad work in Larkin‘s words), time is not on our side.
In Andre Gide’s The Immoralist, the main character is at death’s door with T.B. but recovers and in doing so embraces life, that proximity of death intensifies everything. It makes all existence unmistakably finite and thus vital, “What is important is that Death had touched me, as people say, with it’s wing. What is important is that I came to think it a very astonishing thing to be alive, that every day shone for me, an unhoped-for light. Before, I did not understand I was alive. The thrilling discovery of life was to be mine.” In contrast, what could we expect from immortality but a slide into decadence like Des Essientes or inertia like Oblomov? It’s the quality of the life, the vitality of the life that counts, the magnificent achievements and glorious failures that involve an element of risk, and when the time comes, like all good parties, knowing the right time to leave.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Darran Anderson is an Irish writer. In his spare-time, he is a companion of hellhounds and a conjuror of wicked and damned spirits. This article, along with a companion piece Apocalypse Then: Georg Heym & the Art of Cultural Divination is loosely excerpted from his unpublished/unpublishable book Memento Mori: A Cultural History Of Death.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Wednesday, November 16th, 2011.