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What have we not done to live forever? Adam Leith Gollner, the critically acclaimed author of The Fruit Hunters, weaves together religion, science, and mythology in a gripping exploration of the most universal of human obsessions: immortality.
Raised without religion, Adam Leith Gollner was struck by mankind’s tireless efforts to cheat aging and death. In a narrative that pivots between profundity and hilarity, he brings us into the world of those whose lives are shaped by a ...
What have we not done to live forever? Adam Leith Gollner, the critically acclaimed author of The Fruit Hunters, weaves together religion, science, and mythology in a gripping exploration of the most universal of human obsessions: immortality.
Raised without religion, Adam Leith Gollner was struck by mankind’s tireless efforts to cheat aging and death. In a narrative that pivots between profundity and hilarity, he brings us into the world of those whose lives are shaped by a belief in immortality. From a Jesuit priest on his deathbed to antiaging researchers at Harvard, Gollner— sorting truth from absurdity—canvasses religion and science for insight, along with an array of cults, myths, and fringe figures.
He journeys to David Copperfield’s archipelago in the Bahamas, where the magician claims to have found “a liquid that reverses genes.” He explores a cryonics facility, attends a costume party set in the year 2068 with a group of radical life-extensionists, and soaks in the transformative mineral waters at the Esalen Institute. Looking to history, Gollner visits St. Augustine, Florida, where Ponce de León is thought to have sought the Fountain of Youth.
Combining immersive reporting, rigorous research, and lyrical prose, Gollner charts the rise of longevity science from its alchemical beginnings to modern-day genetic interventions. He delves into the symbolic representation of eternal life and its connection to water. Interlaced throughout is a compelling meditation on the nature of belief, showing how every story we tell about immortality is a story about the meaning of death.
“Part journalist, part detective, part scientist.” (New York Post). Adam Leith Gollner has written a rollicking and revelatory examination of our age-old notion of living forever.
Book of Immortality
It is apparent that there is no death.
But what does that signify?
—Edna St. Vincent Millay, “Spring”
Because they believed in nothing, they were ready to believe anything.
—Lucian Boia, Forever Young
IMMORTALITY DOESN’T ACTUALLY EXIST. It’s not something tangible we can point to, see, or demonstrate. It resides in thought but not in reality. Immortality is an abstract concept that helps us make sense of death. The idea emerged from our fear of dying, from the sense that life must go on in some way.
Immortality means nonmortality, undeath, never-ending existence in this world or some other. It is the permanent absence of death. It entails evading or outliving the end. But that can’t be done, or at least we can’t prove that it can be done. No examples of anything immortal have ever been found by science. There are just visions, tales, hopes, fears, and maybe some inferential cognizers.
In most definitions, immortality occurs after death. The unending perseverance of a mind or a soul following the decay of the physical body is spiritual immortality. The basic premise of this cosmology is simple: we die but our soul (or some other part) doesn’t. Just as our flesh must necessarily decay, our spirit or intellect or entelechy returns to the primordial source. An energy or force within us outlives its mortal container, ending up in the afterlife or hurled back into rebirth.
Spiritual immortality is a narrative of numberless incarnations, from eternal sanctification to damnation to reincarnation. The very word immortality conceals infinite possibilities. It’s a one-word poem. It can mean whatever we want it to mean, whatever we believe it to mean. In recent years, the idea of the indefinite persistence of an undying material body has captivated us. But physical immortality is also a mythology. It, too, helps followers cope with an uncertain world, just as a Christian uses the idea of redemption.
We tend to imagine that these are secular times. The facts suggest otherwise. Belief in posthumous immortality is very much alive today. Data collected by the General Social Surveys show that 80 percent of Americans believe in life after death. The figures are around 70 percent in Canada, 65 percent in Australia, 60 percent in the UK, and above 50 percent throughout much of Europe. According to the World Values Survey, close to 100 percent of those surveyed in parts of the Middle East believe in the afterlife. Not exactly a faithless world.
For those of us who don’t believe in immortality, we can either dismiss it or contemplate it. Either way, it’s not something we can resolve. Immortality is a matter of belief, not fact. Like death, immortality is something we dance with. But there’s no denying the existence of death. We can believe we won’t die, but dying is ineluctable, devastating, real.
Every single day around two hundred thousand people die worldwide. There are two deaths every second. Six people just died. Make that eight. Ten. It can happen to anybody at any time, and yet exposure to death profoundly bothers our mind precisely because we can’t understand it. Death is what’s called a “meaning threat.” When confronted with the incomprehensible—such as losing a loved one—our mind scrambles to find another pattern that alleviates the confusion. For some, it’s enough to say, “They’re gone.” Others have such an urgent need to escape feelings of meaninglessness that they create alternate, more coherent plausibilities, such as myths about immortality.
Grief forces us to have an opinion about the end. Imagining that everlasting life exists is a common reaction. We tell ourselves the loved one is somewhere else now, somewhere better. To make sense of insensateness, we wrap ourselves in beliefs. We’re all apprentice magicians trying to master the trick that transforms loss into understanding.
Thoughts of eternal life shuttle between the terminals of knowledge and belief. There are things we can know and things we can’t know. The knowables are gathered into knowledge. We deal with everything else through belief. Science is our means of exploring all that can be known; belief is how we approach that which cannot be known. Beliefs allow the brain to assert truths when lacking material evidence. Death tells us nothing knowable, only that we are currently alive and that our bodies won’t last forever.
As a result, psychologists claim we’re all frightened of dying, but it isn’t simply anticipatory worry; it’s the not knowing that bothers us, the lack of control. What we want is something that doesn’t exist: resolution.
Because patternlessness cannot be borne, the brain represses thoughts of its eventual extinction. It’s impossible to understand what it would be like to have no more thoughts. We have a central incapacity, a bug built into the operating system: our consciousness cannot imagine a lack of consciousness. Trying to imagine our own death is like trying to think thought. We cannot do it. “Try to fill your consciousness with the representation of no-consciousness, and you will see the impossibility of it,” wrote Unamuno. “The effort to comprehend it causes the most tormenting dizziness. We cannot conceive ourselves as not existing.”
Nonexistence is nonconceivable. The brain conceptualizes things as being somehow similar to other conceivable things, so we compare death to life, minus the body—which is why we imagine that our consciousness (whatever that is) will outlive us. All our fantasies of stymieing the inevitable stem from an inability to grasp the fact of finality.
Consider what would happen if certain species did not die. They would simply keep on breeding and accumulating. In the time it takes to read this sentence, several hundred million ants will have been born across the planet. It would take a single tiny bacterium mere hours to generate a mass equivalent to that of a human child—and there are countless billions of bacteria within a hundred-foot radius of everyone. Imagine if they could live forever? “In less than two days, the entire surface of the earth would be covered in great smelly dunes of prettily colored bacteria,” explains zoologist Lyall Watson. “Left similarly unhindered, a protozoan could achieve the same end in forty days; a house fly would need four years; a rat eight years; a clover plant eleven years; and it would take almost a century for us to be overwhelmed by elephants.” We can thank death for the fact that our atmosphere isn’t clogged with hedgehogs all the way to the ozone layer. Like everything else in nature, we’re all terminal cases.
The oldest person who ever lived whose true age could officially be verified died at 122 in 1997. (She only gave up smoking at 119.) From the dawn of the Homo genus up to the 1800s, the majority could expect to live for approximately twenty-five to forty years. Largely due to basic realizations about hygiene, life expectancy has increased significantly over the past century and a half. Some demographers argue that life spans have attained their utmost and are starting to decrease slightly. Others disagree, suggesting that 125 is a reasonable target for baby boomers. Most scientists maintain that human life has a maximum expiry date, but immortalists speak of Plastic Omega (omega being the end of life, and plastic being malleable). As of 2013, all parties can anticipate living somewhere between seventy to ninety years unless an accident, disease, or disaster strikes—or immortality becomes reality.
Intriguing, genuine discoveries are being made in the field of gerontological studies. Scientists have dramatically increased the life spans of simple organisms such as yeast, roundworms, fruit flies, even mice. So far, those breakthroughs haven’t yielded human applications. But even if we learned to cure every major disease, to resolve every cause listed on death certificates, some biologists argue, we’d still only add ten or fifteen years to human life expectancy. Research being made on a genetic level could eventually prove beneficial to our health span. Even so, death will become us.
There’s an important distinction between medicine and miracle work: miracles prevent death; medicine counteracts illness. The main aim of mainstream medicine is prolonging health, and contemporary doctors know more about keeping people alive than ever before. That doesn’t mean we can make people stop dying. The average Westerner only gets eighty years, not eighty trillion. And there’s a price to pay for extended life: the degenerative diseases of senescence. Our bodies aren’t supposed to live forever, which is why they have built-in obsolescence mechanisms.
Longevity is starkly different from immortality, yet somehow the two have fused in public consciousness. Most of us will live longer than our ancestors did, but all of us can still die at any moment. Spurred on by our gains in life expectancy, a pandemic of magical thinking about science’s unlimited capabilities has led to a wider discussion about the possibility of eternal life.
Prime-time TV specials with titles like “Can We Live Forever?” fuel the mass delusion. Every year more conferences pop up purporting to reveal the latest means of attaining eternity through technology. “Immortality Only 20 Years Away,” blare newspaper headlines. Philanthropic organizations (the Immortality Institute, the Methuselah Foundation, the Fuck Death Foundation) are joining together to eliminate death. “There are people living today who may extend their life spans indefinitely,” declare salesmen, triangulating faith, biology, and magic into a unified worldview.
This confusion has led to an alarming increase in the availability of untested antiaging remedies over the past two decades. Countless products are presently being sold as having life-extending qualities, even though there aren’t any demonstrable means of increasing human life. “No treatments have been proven to slow or reverse the aging process,” announced the National Institute on Aging in 2009, trying to staunch the hype. Contrasting the claims made by life-extension companies with the genuine science of aging, fifty-two scientists signed a “Position Statement” on longevity that clarified the situation explicitly: no currently marketed intervention—none—has yet been able to stop or even affect human aging. “The prospect of humans living forever is as unlikely today as it has always been,” they wrote, “and discussions of such an impossible scenario have no place in a scientific discourse.”
The dominant mythology of triumphalist scientism is the idea of progress. For the most part, we don’t question the idea that everything is constantly getting better and better and better. It’s just the way things are, we tell ourselves. We’re so close to perfection. And progress necessarily leads somewhere: to a world in which we’re all immortal.
A solid belief system is one we don’t realize is a belief system. Because science’s veritable achievements are so impressive, almost everybody today believes in the unidirectional march of progress. Technology is unceasingly propelling us forward, and science has become synonymous with progress, so it becomes easy to imagine that life everlasting is around the corner. We take it for granted that suffering can be eliminated, that poverty will ultimately be eradicated, that we should never be sick again, that science will soon make everybody never die. The illusion of continual betterment is a pervasive enough mythology that it can overlook the environmental crises, the scale of warfare, and the fact that over a billion people live on less than $1 per day.
Is progress even real? Microchips certainly get smaller and processing speeds faster, but not everything has progressed over the past centuries. Have our emotions changed since Shakespeare’s time? Since Sophocles’s time? Are we moving toward a time of universal happiness? Genocide is not an anachronism. Neither is inequality. Is progress a law of history, or is it a story we tell ourselves?
In 1869, the avant-garde writer Comte de Lautréamont published Les Chants de Maldoror, a book exploring “the spiritual crisis brought on by scientific progress.” In it, he characterized immortality as “the terrifying problem that humanity has not yet solved.” A century and a half later, we’re still nowhere close to solving it.
Although our congenital belief in progress means we’re more ready than ever before to believe in physical immortality, misinformed life-extension stories have been around for millennia. There’s nothing new about bearded hustlers such as Aubrey de Grey vowing to help us live forever and cryonicists who claim to have “cured death itself.” They’re all tapping into a longing that has always been with us.
Yellowing medical journals are filled with stories about how “the great alchemical dream, the ‘Elixir of Life,’ seems almost ready to be bottled.” Following World War II, the personal goal of attaining immortality moved from religious aspiration to “actual possibility.” In 1966, biophysicists at the California Institute of Technology wrote, “We know of no intrinsic limits to the life span.” In the 1970s, a group of molecular biologists and gerontologists mobilized as “the Immortalist Underground.” In 2010, a special issue of Time magazine about longevity announced that “elixirs of youth sound fanciful, but the first crude anti-aging drugs may not be so far away.”
We’re drowning in misinformation. How-to books such as Why Die? A Beginner’s Guide to Living Forever and Young Again! How to Reverse the Aging Process and Physical Immortality: The Science of Everlasting Life each outline various ways to defeat reality by harnessing miracles of technology. Finding such miracles is abundantly easy, especially online. Searching “immortality device wanted” leads to a site called www.achieveimmortality.com that claims to own US patent number 5,989,178 for “the most imporatnt [sic] invention in human history,” a gear-based magnetic pinkie ring that “ALLOWS HUMANS TO STAY PHYSICALLY YOUNG FOREVER.”
Entire subcultures of enthusiasts are dedicated to deathlessness. There are bloggers with “a passion to create an environment where all sickness, aging and death are eliminated.” There are amateur philosophers who argue that everyone is bodily immortal until proven otherwise. Facebook Transhumanists list their religious views as “the abolition of suffering.” They end posts with the movement’s abbreviation: H+, as in “human plus.” Superlongevist manifestos confidently assert that we can all live for hundreds of years, that the “eventuality” of a “modern Fountain of Youth” is nigh.
It is utterly ordinary to not want to die. But, as Dame Edith Sitwell once wrote, ordinariness carried to a high degree of perfection is precisely the definition of eccentricity. In her view, eccentricity entails “some rigid, and even splendid, attitude of Death, some exaggeration of the attitudes common to Life.” As she concluded, there’s something askew about people who don’t understand they will die—or that they are actually dead, in the case of cryonicists buried upside down in frozen thermoses, five per container, wrapped in sleeping bags, awaiting reanimation.
Eccentrics really, really don’t want to die. Caloric restrictors, sun gazers, nightwalkers, potion peddlers, cybernetic Nostradamus-types, and outright charlatans: the immortality community boasts a plethora of unorthodox individuals. Most noneccentrics consider physical immortality a nonsensical fantasy, but physical immortalists don’t care. They’re convinced that science will soon unlock the codes that regulate aging. In their hunger to live forever, or at least to confirm their bias that science can solve all problems, they’re so willing to put their critical faculties on hold.
I am not personally interested in living forever, but I am interested in writing about people obsessed with the impossible. Nonfiction writers are characterists—we look for characters living real stories. Perhaps not unexpectedly, people who want to never die may appear unsavory: a hint of the corpse hangs about them, a whiff of swamp yawn. Those seeking endless physical existence are undoubtedly peculiar, but there’s also something profoundly human about them. More than human, they would say. Human after all might be more accurate.
We all believe. A belief is a relationship, something we fall into or grow up with; we can cherish it, desert it, stay loyal or cheat. A peculiarity of all belief systems is that those in the throes of belief do not see themselves as believers, but rather as those who know the Truth—even though the Truth cannot be known. We can view ourselves as believers or as nonbelievers. It’s a personal choice. Either way, we all don’t understand death. So whatever anyone sees death as is what it is.
Building palisades of belief is what we do when we can’t understand something that has no provable explanation. When it is impossible to know something with any certitude, we turn to belief to feel like we know. Beliefs are mirages that provide the illusion of certainty. Unlike a fact, a belief can persist even when disproved.
To this day, belief precedes knowledge. Before we can know whether something is true or not, first we have to perceive or experience it, and then believe or disbelieve it. All scientific tests begin as beliefs before becoming testable hypotheses—but once we come up against the limits of the knowable, we either turn back to rational ground or take a leap into faith.
Examining our own base assumptions invariably means realizing that some things we take as knowable facts are simply beliefs. We may find it hard to distinguish between what we believe and what we know. We’ve classified ourselves as the species that knows: sapiens. But there is so much we don’t know, that we can’t know. We believe that we know; that’s all. Homo credulis would be more accurate.
We all believe, and we all need mythologies. As Einstein brokered it, “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” In his view, nonbelievers don’t realize how many unattainable secrets surround us. Einstein tended to be more critical toward debunkers than those of faith. “The fanatical atheists,” he wrote, “are like slaves who are still feeling the weight of their chains which they have thrown off after hard struggle.” He espoused an approach of humility, rather than one of hubris. Just as religious zealots deserve to acknowledge the truths of science, rabid unbelievers could benefit from recognizing the limitlessness of the unknown.
We are pattern seekers. And so-called nonbelievers, like the devout of any denomination, are simply doing what humans have always done: they are looking for meaning. The conviction that disbelief is a preferable alternative to religious belief has, paradoxically, transformed atheism into a religion. It isn’t very organized, but it is a system of thought based on a relationship with the unknowable. And any story purporting to explain death is an indication of faith.
Approximately 5 to 10 percent of Americans don’t believe in God. Somewhere between 0.7 and 2 percent of Americans define themselves as atheists. The central tenets of atheism are that humans have no soul, that God doesn’t exist, and that nothing happens after death. None of these are provable or disprovable—they’re matters of belief. Calling atheism a “belief system” is anathema to atheists, who insist that their position is one of no beliefs whatsoever. But they do believe. They believe they know what death means, just like others. And they also have key texts, prophets, myths. They attend atheist gatherings, where they can feel that sense of belonging and community others find in traditional churches, temples, or places of meditation. As with traditional believers, they insist things would improve if everyone adhered to their view.
Merely talking about belief can be particularly emotional for those who think they “understand” that the way for the world to be perfect is to dispense with belief. This position stems from a fundamental misapprehension of what belief actually is, and is itself a means of imposing one’s own belief system on others. I tell such people that I respect all belief systems (including theirs) as long as nobody’s getting hurt. Then again, I hasten to add, I’m the sort of centrist who believes that intelligence and faith can coexist—and who also believes that conflict is never-ending. Such conversations are akin to discussing abortion rights with evangelical Christians. But just because something is difficult to talk about doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about it. Quite the opposite.
Atheists aren’t the only nonbelievers. A large percentage of that unbelieving 5 to 10 percent identify themselves as nothing in particular. Others are agnostics, or undecided. Agnosticism was defined by Thomas Henry Huxley in 1869 as a way to “neither affirm nor deny the immortality of man.” But being noncommittal does not exempt a person from the need to believe. Even those agnostics who would remove themselves from any position are nonetheless eventually forced into a belief-officiated relationship with death.
Whether we take out billboard advertisements calling for religions to be dispensed with or whether we protest the teaching of evolution in schools, it’s as erroneous to assume scientific theories are the literal Truth as it is to imagine that a religious text contains accurate history. Both methodologies are thought games, tools that allow us to contend with a universe whose ultimate nature will always elude us.
An ingrained certainty about eternal life helps many people function, including physical immortalists, even though thanatologists (the technical term for those who advocate an acceptance of the inevitable) think thanatophobes are delusional. Conversely, prolongevists deride “deathists” as pessimistic pushovers. “As a physician,” Carl Gustav Jung once said, “I am convinced that it is hygienic to discover in death a goal toward which one can strive; and that shrinking away from it is something unhealthy and abnormal.” But physical immortalists are convinced that human beings think too much about death rather than too little; that we have all been too accepting of death—and that such a viewpoint is self-defeating, serving to perpetuate death. Their fondest hope is to render thanatology obsolete.
Attempts to do justice to both sides of the argument rapidly spiral into meaninglessness, which is as it should be: beliefs are illogical. Demonstrable evidence has no place in belief. Regarding death, the only certain thing is uncertainty.
My own inquiries into the topic of immortality began on a fog-enshrouded fall night in London. There to research the history of labyrinths, I had spent the afternoon walking Hampton Court’s seventeenth-century hedged maze. The train back to town passed a dilapidated brick brewery with a story-high sign saying TAKE COURAGE. In my hotel room, jotting down some observations about the silvery mirror I’d come across at the center of the labyrinth, I fell asleep on the couch, an overstuffed, royal-blue antique.
Shortly before dawn, I was startled from my slumber by an unsettling, beauteous dream of the fountain at the source of all life. The liquid gushing forth resembled water mixed with mercury. Its droplets crystallized into a blindingly radiant sea of diamonds. The fountain’s location wasn’t specified, and the rest of the dream is hazy, but the image of a crescendo of water bursting into the sky stayed with me.
Turgenev spoke of his stories beginning as visions hovering before his eyes, soliciting him. The apparitions that inspired his writing, he said, often seemed to embody the complexities of existence, intricacies he couldn’t yet understand, subjects he could only arrive at by completing his story. I didn’t know what the fountain was, let alone what it represented, but the dream had an urgency, as though it were a demand, more than a clue, something to pursue.
In the end, the dream became the start of a story. Philip Roth, when beginning a book, would always ask himself, “If this book were a dream, it would be a dream of what?” I felt the reverse. “If this dream were a book,” I wondered, “it would be a book of what?” There was only one answer: a book of immortality.
The common impulse toward making one’s life worthwhile stems from our ambivalence about the meaning of death. We’ve been granted the opportunity of a life’s time, so we try to be significant, notable—but why? Beyond the necessities of earning a living or of achieving status, every answer points toward our being terrified of death. The accomplishments we pursue, whether shooting for athletic excellence, expressing ourselves creatively, having children, striving to build a legacy that helps our fellow humans, or volunteering in the service of a charitable or spiritual cause, are all undertaken in the hopes of transcending mortality, of garnering a dash of salvation. We do and make to deal with oblivion.
The urge to be a writer taps into this well as well. Poets “write their poems to ward off dying,” explains Harold Bloom. Horace felt that his contributions to the poetic arts ensured his immortality: “I shall not altogether die.” Anyone worried about living and dying in obscurity, wrote Chekhov, “reflectively snatches up a pencil and hastens to write his name on the first thing that comes handy.”
Writing is an attempt to find a way out of a situation from which there is no way out, like Houdini escaping from a water-torture chamber, or a soul escaping a body. In John Fante’s view, writers try to “endow posterity with something like a monument” to their days upon this earth. But so do sculptors. And architects. And painters. And so on. It’s not just artists who are like this. In all our deepest reveries, immortality is always only a few synapse bursts away.
Marketers long ago figured out how to tap into this basic desire to escape death. Gucci’s clothes are “what lasts forever.” The Canadian cookware company Paderno offers “pots for eternity.” Wine critics call the 1961 Jaboulet Hermitage “truly immortal,” but it’ll taste like vinegar in a few thousand years. Grocery stores stock utopia: in their gleaming aisles, everything is always in season and you can eat anything you want whenever you want. Even the meat there doesn’t seem to have come from actual living beasts. Nothing ever dies under those neon lights. Aeterna is the name of a flashy funeral home near my studio. Aeterna: a place to help you live on after death. Forever—for a fee.
The rich, powerful, and important have always tried to circumvent destiny by throwing money at it. But we cannot bribe our way out. PayPal founder and Facebook board member Peter Thiel has invested heavily in foundations dedicated to ending aging. In 2009, he sank millions into a Silicon Valley nanotechnology start-up called Halcyon Molecular. Its founder, William Andregg, told TechCrunch.com he plans to live for “millions, billions, hundreds of billions of years.” Halcyon Molecular quietly went out of business in the summer of 2012. Other technocrats are still trying. Google’s Sergey Brin has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Ray Kurzweil–affiliated Singularity University. And Larry Ellison, CEO of Oracle software, has vowed to defeat mortality. As his biographer notes, Ellison sees death as “just another kind of corporate opponent he can outfox.” But in this case, the house always wins.
We may daydream of becoming godlike, but distressingly human we remain. Julius Caesar was deified, despite accomplishing the one thing no divinity could: he died, as did his heir Augustus, the self-designated Son of God. Subsequent emperors fantasized about making it to forever, but Tiberius was smothered, Caligula stabbed, Claudius poisoned, Commodus strangled. Killed in battle. Drowned. Struck by lightning. Their profiles were permanently sutured into coins, but they spent themselves. Starvation. Decapitation. Apoplexy. The plague. The end.
Yet, we continually long for something greater. This yearning to go beyond, to transcend our current state, is built into our DNA, because that’s precisely what DNA does. It takes on new forms of complexity. Its impetus is to overreach, to overextend, to mutate on up, and the miracle (or reality) of life is precisely that it has managed to express itself in such an infinity of shapes and sizes. There is something in life that wants to replicate variations of itself, something vital and revitalizing, something as creative as creation, something that opens a passage through inertia and pulsates into being: call it the Life Force.
“Your own fate you can’t escape,” wrote Turgenev. My fate, as that dream fountain decreed, became researching eternity.
At the outset, I had no idea what immortality even meant. I started by reading the oldest stories ever written, the newest discoveries in molecular biology, the densest philosophy, the soaringest poems, the freakiest online message boards. Nothing dealing with immortality offers any closure. Some thinkers out there have spent decades attempting to prove or disprove eternal life. Their treatises invariably conclude with lines about how the belief in personal immortality “inevitably and inescapably involves unresolved and perhaps unresolvable tensions.” Perhaps. Grappling with such books can be a thrilling speculative workout, but the mental gymnastics inevitably and inescapably drop you where you were at the start, only more confused. “He is convulsed,” wrote Byron. “This is to be a mortal and seek the things beyond mortality.” Finding certitude in the world of immortality is like trying to paint with air.
Immortality doesn’t want to be understood. It wants to be believed in. And trying to comprehend how the believing mind works often left me feeling autistic. Medieval alchemists deemed investigations into the nature of eternity to be voyages into the sylva sylvarum—the forest of forests. In no time, the topic possessed me. I lived under its canopy. The forest dictated the rules, the timetable, even some of the words. I’d find myself writing sentences that made no sense. But then, months later, I’d understand what I’d been getting at. The forest guided me.
Part of the magic of exploration is its unpredictability. False starts, painful detours, dissolving paths: mistakes are how stories, and lives, take shape. The word error derives from the Latin term errare, which has a dual meaning: to be wrong and to wander, two verbs about being human. We are built for the hunt, for losing our way, and in hopes of finding the unfindable we can only continue searching, always moving forward, never arriving, until we actually die. We’re never really out of the forest.
As I familiarized myself with the literature, I started speaking with geneticists and gerontologists about the tumult surrounding scientific promises of indefinite life extension, with classicists and mythologists about the fountain of youth in history, with balneologists and homeopaths about the powers of healing waters, with mystagogues about the meaning of rebirth and regeneration. I embarked on countless concentric conversations plumbing their, and my, innermost values. The leaders of different religious denominations told me about immortality in their respective faiths. Quacks demonstrated their products, and philosophers of science shared their insights.
I wholeheartedly loved learning about never-ending life, but the subject often felt so endless that I despaired of ever completing a manuscript. I hung a poster of a skull over my desk and tried to keep calm and carry on. I joined a yoga studio, bought bottles of burgundy (wine being a means of realizing mysteries), and attempted to understand the ways we can’t understand.
I had entered the dark woods. Groping my way out took five years. That’s normal. Descending into the underworld isn’t complicated, as the Cumaean Sibyl informs Aeneas: “But to return, and view the cheerful skies, / In this the task and mighty labor lies.” I chipped away at a never-ending book. I grew older. I broke some bones. I took up whittling. I always only saw infinity. Whether or not I believed in free will, I couldn’t not continue. Life’s inextinguishable current had zapped me in a dream.
Throughout the process, my dreams overflowed with fountains, bodies of water, magical liquids. I dreamed that I was in Water School, that I was chewing on the ocean’s blue flesh, that I’d found the formula to explain water’s mysterious link to the symbolic realm. I dreamed that a bird made of water flew into my room and told me I could ask it one question. “Are you really here?” I asked. It didn’t respond. I dreamed I was crawling up a mountain, deliriously stopping at every puddle in case it contained the fountain of youth. On the atoll of Apollo, I dreamed I saw Dionysus with my own eyes. Sacred light shone down, filling me with awe and terror.
Waking from these dreams, I struggled to relax. There is no need to stay in the narrative, I’d remind myself. There is only this moment, unconnected to what came before, to any others, there is only now. I learned to breathe deeply.
In hopeful moments, I’d envisage the book’s unfinishedness as a stay of execution. If some chthonian dream deity had wanted this project to be undertaken, then—simply by following through—I was protected unto completion by that subterranean force majeure. In bleaker climes, however, I felt haunted for not moving fast enough, and I often thought the book would kill me if I didn’t kill it first. Such is the believing mind, or at least the writing mind. I can vouch for Margaret Atwood’s formulation; she describes writing a book as an act of “negotiating with the dead.”
One afternoon in my studio, surrounded by heaps of paper, on the verge of giving up entirely, I got a call from an unfamiliar number.
“Infinity of Manhattan,” said the voice on the other end of the line.
I assumed it was a friend messing with me, or maybe a telemarketing scam. “Okay. Infinity? What is that?”
“We’re returning your call,” the man explained. He sounded serious.
“You left us a message. Your inquiries weren’t totally clear, so I’m calling back.”
“I made some inquiries to Infinity?” I asked incredulously.
“Yes, you did, or maybe someone else did and they’re using your number. You wanted to know about long-distance endurance?”
If this was a prank, it was pretty cosmic in nature.
“It can’t have been me,” I stammered. “I didn’t realize I could call Infinity.”
“This must be a wrong number—we’ll take note of it. Sorry for the confusion.”
Googling the number on my call display, I learned that it was a car dealership, for the luxury-vehicle brand Infiniti (“Accelerating the Future”). Regardless, the message sank in. Long-distance endurance. Perseverance. I pressed onward.
An ancient tale about Alexander the Great describes his encounter with a wise old man in the Land of Darkness. The sage asks Alexander why he wants to venture further into the uncertainty. “I have heard that therein is the Fountain of Life,” replies Alexander, “and I desire greatly to go forth and see if, of a truth, it is there.”
Humans are alphestes, Homer wrote; searchers. Searching for immortality is an age-old impulse; that doesn’t mean it can be found. Still, an impossible quest is a good quest. “Sometimes it doesn’t help to know what it is you are really hunting,” explains the shaman Martín Prechtel, “because the beauty that the hunter becomes and creates through his willingness to fail in pursuit of what he deeply longs for and doesn’t yet understand can cause the incomprehensible thing to show its divine face.”
The cuneiform tablets of Nineveh, among the earliest written documents, tell of King Gilgamesh, whose best friend dies. He is stricken with grief. But he is the omnipotent king of Uruk, the one who has gazed into the depths—the one who slayed the Bull of Heaven!—surely he’s almighty enough to bring dead loved ones back to life. Mute with sorrow and pride, he buries his friend beneath a river and sets out to find eternal life. The scorpion people, whose knowledge is fathomless and whose glance is death, warn him about dangers ahead. A lady of the vines tries to console him, telling him that love is the closest mortals can come to immortality. Crossing the Waters of Death, he discovers a marvelous underwater plant that contains the secret of perpetual youth—the watercress of immortality, as the clay etchings call it, or the “never-grow-old”—but, alas, a serpent promptly steals it away. History’s prototypical protagonist fails, yet his story ends the only way it can: with acceptance of reality. Of mortality.
Any story about immortality is really a story about death, the greatest mystery, the stumping question, the undiscover’d country from whose bourn no traveler returns. Because we can’t comprehend it, we have a need for stories about continuing—or to see death as a complete stop. Physical immortalists live a mythology in which dying is avoidable; their story isn’t far off from the story of floating up to heaven. The atheist notion that death simply means the end of the “neurons that store the informational patterns of our bodies, our memories, and our personalities” is also unverifiable. But myths don’t need to be real to be true. Stories provide something stronger than facts. They satisfy our craving for cohesion, for a thread in the maze of experience, for a beginning, middle, and end. (And possibly a sequel.)
The deaths of others bring with them a faint hope that the void will explain itself, that we’ll grasp mortality’s incomprehensibility, but surviving grief cannot reveal what, if anything, lies beyond. That will be disclosed only when we pass into something else or nothingness. The language of the dead is off-limits to the living. The only way to become fluent is to die.
Until then: life, the sea. As the waves sweep by, part of the journey from innocence to maturity, from magic to reality, entails coming to a deeper understanding of human nature, of our vulnerabilities and limitations. “Charity,” as Saint Paul put it, “believeth all.” Being charitable means being aware of others’ beliefs. It means accepting that others are like us (even if their beliefs differ). This requires seeing ourselves as one of them. Charity also involves recognizing the importance of belief in creating that most precious substance: meaning. To be human is to hunt for meaning. Death makes no sense. But imagining that we’ll live forever—whether physically or spiritually—is an elemental solace. Immortality renders death meaningful.
“The question of immortality is so urgent, so immediate, and also so ineradicable that we must make an effort to form some sort of view about it,” wrote Jung. “But how? My hypothesis is that we can do so with the aid of hints sent to us from the unconscious—in dreams, for example.” But our dreams can lead us astray. The Persian king Khosrow Anushirvan reigned from 531 to 579 CE, at which point he vanished into a mysterious fountain that he’d been told, in a dream, would unite him with the Creator. According to one account, Khosrow plunged into the water and was never seen again: “And not a trace was left behind, not a dimple on the wave.” Before his death, Khosrow had sent physicians to India in search of the secret of eternal life. All they found were stories.
Our beliefs have magical powers. They can prevent us from seeing reality; they can also allow us to accept reality, a double yellow line we’re forced to cross whenever we’re confronted with death. For the fortunate few, decades can go by without a funeral. But sooner or later, what Heidegger called a “sudden inflashing”—the realization that one day we’re going to die—forces us to contemplate our own encroaching mortality. A gaping gate opens. Losing someone is a reminder, the most potent memento mori. And the bereavement it brings has a way of reacquainting us with ourselves, with the need to believe, of making us hold on to something, anything, as we fall.