Can human beings defeat death by the creating works that outlive them?
The older I get the more disconnected I feel I am from the reality of death. That’s not to say that I’m losing my mind or that I’m having an existential crisis, but that I have a difficult time rationalizing life and death as something other than an oddity, a game, a surreal play. This disconnect comes perhaps because of a subconscious denial of the truth, or perhaps because worrying about the end is a diversion from the present.
In high school I took an elective class called Death and Dying. It was a long drawn out discussion of how people all over the world contend with death. We discussed Indian Sati, which is the immolation of a woman with her husband’s corpse; Native American burials on elevated frames, used to protect the body from animals; and how some ancient people cracked open the skulls of their dead to release the spirit. We also had a discussion with the county coroner about the legalities involved in modern burial. All of this made for some interesting conversation; but, for a young man, the idea of death remained ethereal and unreal.
Shakespeare famously used Hamlet to discuss the subject of death in his “To be, or not to be” soliloquy. Hamlet contemplated “self slaughter” after learning that his uncle betrayed and killed his father, and that his mother had now married the murderer. He opines that death is “to sleep, perchance to dream.” Is death then not so frightening as our bloodied imaginations would have it? Death is the “Undiscovered country” which few return to speak of. Hamlet’s father, who makes his return as a ghost, speaks of, “sulphurous and tormenting flames,” that he is:
Doom'd for a certain term to walk the night,
And for the day confined to fast in fires,
Till the foul crimes done in my days of nature
Are burnt and purged away. But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison-house,
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy young blood,
Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres,
Thy knotted and combined locks to part
And each particular hair to stand on end,
The fear of quietus puts most through an emotional roller-coaster. We resist it by investigating means to prolong our lives whether by taking vitamins, exercising or (for the wealthiest) by having ourselves cryogenically frozen--until a time when death has been dealt its own mortal blow. Once we realize death cannot be defeated depression sets in. We either come to accept death as a natural process of life, that everything which begins must one day end, or else block it from our consciousness at every turn. We are, no matter how much we try to hide it, like a clock bound to break.
Sometimes resistance to death takes on monumental proportions. We piece together a litany of myths and fables to fool ourselves about what happens next. These fears manifest most strongly in the theology of religion. Religion provides believers with hope for an existence beyond death.
Not all religious beliefs about the afterlife are the same, but most engage in a post life contemplation of some sort. This is one of the strongest mythical oppositions humankind has offered to death. It doesn’t appease death but it does stave off the panic that overwhelms many of us. Instead of ceasing our existence we live on in “another life,” one where we are judged to be either good or evil. If we are “good” we spend an eternity peering down at those we’ve left behind. But if we’re “bad” we burn in torment for the evil deeds we’ve committed. Somehow this has become a comfort to billions despite it’s obvious brutal, childlike simplicity.
In the Epic of Gilgamesh the main character, Gilgamesh, loses his friend, Enkidu, to illness. Gilgamesh thereafter worries about his own immortality but, in a twist I personally find most satisfying, decides that it is through his accomplishments, through his deeds, that he will most be remembered and, in effect, it is the memories of others that ensures a more gratifying immortality. It is an immortality of remembrance rather than the physical (or spiritual) which cements one’s place in history. Physical death is but one aspect of our apprehension--to be forgotten being yet another. Gilgamesh’s legacy is his immortality, his method for cheating death.
Achilles comes to a similar conclusion in The Iliad. For him there are two forms of immortality. One is the immortality of the gods, the immortality of eternal youth and existence, while the other is the human immortality of glory. Achilles’ deeds elevate his life above that of his peers so that he is long remembered, while others are relegated to the dustbin of history. Immortality is achievable for Achilles and, I would argue, for us moderns as well.
I’m in no way advocating physical battle as a means of leaving one’s mark on the world. However, we have far greater means of establishing our immortality than any generation before; not because of prolonged lives but because of the Internet. Blogging, a thing I have resisted at every step, is a means by which mere mortals etch their footprints in the sands of electric time. For good or ill we blather on ad nauseum into the ether of the limitless void that is the Internet in hopes of propelling our immortal souls into history. So if one isn’t able to write music, etch statues, paint, or battle in full armor against the enemies of one’s country, blogging will have to do. That or write a book.
So while we are not yet able to walk the halls of Valhalla, wrestle angels in the dust, or pluck stars from “the firmament” we are capable of humbler things. No blood need be shed. No lives lost. Nor do we need to establish faith in the unprovable to win favors in the hereafter. We need to keep plugging away at the keyboard; thereby poking death in the eye.