A Very Brief History of Eternity

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Overview

"As learned as it is lively, Carlos Eire's A Very Brief History of Eternity traces the elusive history of a very big idea. Eire teaches us to understand our ways of thinking about the future—as well as the present and our past—with new clarity and insight."—Anthony Grafton, Princeton University

"A Very Brief History of Eternity is vintage Eire: erudite and witty, profound and written with a light touch. Eire compellingly narrates the ways in which complex beliefs about eternity are intertwined with the way life is lived in time. It is an invitation to reflect on how eternity, even when it is absent from view, can make, as he puts it, 'a hell of a difference.'"—Miroslav Volf, Yale University Divinity School

"Carlos Eire doesn't disappoint. The breadth of detail, the depth of imagination, the ability to synthesize and to identify the telling example—and all for such an impossibly expansive topic as eternity—are astonishing. We get glimpses throughout of the creativity that graced his memoir of Cuba, and evidence everywhere of his massive learning."—Craig Harline, author of Sunday: A History of the First Day from Babylonia to the Super Bowl

"Carlos Eire's A Very Brief History of Eternity is precisely what you would expect from a formidable historian who is also an acclaimed memoirist. Strikingly erudite and profound yet accessible, this book will appeal to anyone who takes pleasure in being enlightened and entertained at the same time."—Peter Iver Kaufman, University of Richmond

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Editorial Reviews

The Age
You could say that Carlos Eire goes on and on about eternity—but most of the time he does so informatively and entertainingly. And without sacrificing the intellectual rigour the subject requires.
— Steven Carroll
Wall Street Journal
It's a fascinating story. . . . Happily, there is consolation in A Very Brief History of Eternity, hidden in plain sight. . . . As long as God's problems with living in eternity mirror what our own would be, maybe mortality isn't so bad after all.
— Andrew Stark
Booklist
A profound and unsettling inquiry.
— Bryce Christensen
Forbes
Carlos Eire's A Very Brief History of Eternity reminds us that our puzzlement over what comes after death has a history. The ways in which we ask about our relation to death and the hereafter do not take place in a vacuum. Instead, our wondering arises within particular historical contexts, where life and death are related in particular ways.
— Todd May
Australian
A lively trot around the literature, referring to everything from the Reformation to ghosts to Karl Marx to tattooing, in the company of a skeptical believer. A tough topic tamed by a lively mind.
— Miriam Cosic
New Haven Advocate
Eire is an avuncular companion. While his subject may be beyond comprehension, Eire himself is imminently accessible and genuinely concerned for the reader's edification. And his dashes of humor, witty and sharp, are a welcoming leavening to a sometimes heavy read. Yet this book is ideal for lovers of The Big Idea, people who enjoy an author's attempt at explaining something they always thought about but didn't know what questions to ask, and people who enjoy reading about the most basic things, like being and nothingness, here and eternity.
— John Stoehr
First Things
[The book] contains many good things and is especially good on the symbiosis between understandings of eternity and the ways the dead and the living relate. It is written in a relaxed and lively style.
— Paul J. Griffiths
Choice
Eire intimately addresses the weighty subject of eternity in this delightful volume. His skill at engaging readers conceals the rigorous, thoughtful research and methodology that went into this volume. . . . As it stands this thought-provoking book is sure to be a classic.
EDIS Bulletin
Eire's erudite, engaging, and often witty history should interest anyone interested in Dickinson's 'Flood subject' (L319), as she called her understanding of immortality.
— Barbara Kelly
Church Times
[Eire] writes with style, wearing his erudition lightly. . . . A Very Brief History of Eternity achieves very well what it sets out to do: to enlighten while proceeding at pace.
— Reverend Dr. Andrew Davison
Magill's Literary Annual
A Very Brief History of Eternity . . . is both erudite and entertaining. Eire's ability to explain complex ideas and to elucidate the ways in which concepts of eternity have affected the way human beings live as well as being themselves affected by human activity, have made the book popular among readers. While the topic chosen by Eire, eternity, is thought-provoking and momentous, requiring the readers' full attention, Eire saves his book from being too formidable a treatise with gentle humor and witty asides.
— Shawncey Webb
Catholic Historical Review
A history of the concept of eternity in Western thought is a brilliantly original idea, and Carlos Eire makes complex ideas easily accessible. Eire is deeply learned in history, philosophy, theology, literature, language, and popular culture. . . . [T]his is a book that deserves a lot of attention by historians, philosophers, and theologians, and it is written so clearly that it will also interest the literate public.
— Jeffrey Burton Russell
Journal of Church History
While his style is relaxed, he covers so much ground . . . that readers will find and feel that, in its own way, the book is weighty. . . . Eire knows that we know that one cannot think or write historically about eternity. So his book is a history of human questionings, ponderings, and sometimes foolishly or frighteningly bold dealings with the concept. What he finds and details, yes, briefly, should enrich the reflections of historians as they deal with time.
— Martin E. Marty
Wall Street Journal - Andrew Stark
It's a fascinating story. . . . Happily, there is consolation in A Very Brief History of Eternity, hidden in plain sight. . . . As long as God's problems with living in eternity mirror what our own would be, maybe mortality isn't so bad after all.
Forbes - Todd May
Carlos Eire's A Very Brief History of Eternity reminds us that our puzzlement over what comes after death has a history. The ways in which we ask about our relation to death and the hereafter do not take place in a vacuum. Instead, our wondering arises within particular historical contexts, where life and death are related in particular ways.
Booklist - Bryce Christensen
A profound and unsettling inquiry.
Australian - Miriam Cosic
A lively trot around the literature, referring to everything from the Reformation to ghosts to Karl Marx to tattooing, in the company of a skeptical believer. A tough topic tamed by a lively mind.
New Haven Advocate - John Stoehr
Eire is an avuncular companion. While his subject may be beyond comprehension, Eire himself is imminently accessible and genuinely concerned for the reader's edification. And his dashes of humor, witty and sharp, are a welcoming leavening to a sometimes heavy read. Yet this book is ideal for lovers of The Big Idea, people who enjoy an author's attempt at explaining something they always thought about but didn't know what questions to ask, and people who enjoy reading about the most basic things, like being and nothingness, here and eternity.
The Age - Steven Carroll
You could say that Carlos Eire goes on and on about eternity—but most of the time he does so informatively and entertainingly. And without sacrificing the intellectual rigour the subject requires.
First Things - Paul J. Griffiths
[The book] contains many good things and is especially good on the symbiosis between understandings of eternity and the ways the dead and the living relate. It is written in a relaxed and lively style.
EDIS Bulletin - Barbara Kelly
Eire's erudite, engaging, and often witty history should interest anyone interested in Dickinson's 'Flood subject' (L319), as she called her understanding of immortality.
Church Times - Andrew Davison
[Eire] writes with style, wearing his erudition lightly. . . . A Very Brief History of Eternity achieves very well what it sets out to do: to enlighten while proceeding at pace.
Magill's Literary Annual - Shawncey Webb
A Very Brief History of Eternity . . . is both erudite and entertaining. Eire's ability to explain complex ideas and to elucidate the ways in which concepts of eternity have affected the way human beings live as well as being themselves affected by human activity, have made the book popular among readers. While the topic chosen by Eire, eternity, is thought-provoking and momentous, requiring the readers' full attention, Eire saves his book from being too formidable a treatise with gentle humor and witty asides.
Catholic Historical Review - Jeffrey Burton Russell
A history of the concept of eternity in Western thought is a brilliantly original idea, and Carlos Eire makes complex ideas easily accessible. Eire is deeply learned in history, philosophy, theology, literature, language, and popular culture. . . . [T]his is a book that deserves a lot of attention by historians, philosophers, and theologians, and it is written so clearly that it will also interest the literate public.
Journal of Church History - Martin E. Marty
While his style is relaxed, he covers so much ground . . . that readers will find and feel that, in its own way, the book is weighty. . . . Eire knows that we know that one cannot think or write historically about eternity. So his book is a history of human questionings, ponderings, and sometimes foolishly or frighteningly bold dealings with the concept. What he finds and details, yes, briefly, should enrich the reflections of historians as they deal with time.
Church Times - Reverend Dr. Andrew Davison
[Eire] writes with style, wearing his erudition lightly. . . . A Very Brief History of Eternity achieves very well what it sets out to do: to enlighten while proceeding at pace.
From the Publisher
"Eire's erudite, engaging, and often witty history should interest anyone interested in Dickinson's 'Flood subject' (L319), as she called her understanding of immortality."—Barbara Kelly, EDIS Bulletin

"[Eire] writes with style, wearing his erudition lightly. . . . A Very Brief History of Eternity achieves very well what it sets out to do: to enlighten while proceeding at pace."—Reverend Dr. Andrew Davison, Church Times

"A Very Brief History of Eternity . . . is both erudite and entertaining. Eire's ability to explain complex ideas and to elucidate the ways in which concepts of eternity have affected the way human beings live as well as being themselves affected by human activity, have made the book popular among readers. While the topic chosen by Eire, eternity, is thought-provoking and momentous, requiring the readers' full attention, Eire saves his book from being too formidable a treatise with gentle humor and witty asides."—Shawncey Webb, Magill's Literary Annual

"A history of the concept of eternity in Western thought is a brilliantly original idea, and Carlos Eire makes complex ideas easily accessible. Eire is deeply learned in history, philosophy, theology, literature, language, and popular culture. . . . [T]his is a book that deserves a lot of attention by historians, philosophers, and theologians, and it is written so clearly that it will also interest the literate public."—Jeffrey Burton Russell, Catholic Historical Review

"While his style is relaxed, he covers so much ground . . . that readers will find and feel that, in its own way, the book is weighty. . . . Eire knows that we know that one cannot think or write historically about eternity. So his book is a history of human questionings, ponderings, and sometimes foolishly or frighteningly bold dealings with the concept. What he finds and details, yes, briefly, should enrich the reflections of historians as they deal with time."—Martin E. Marty, Journal of Church History

Publishers Weekly
Readers of Eire’s award-winning memoir, Waiting for Snow in Havana, won’t be surprised by the tongue-in-cheek title of the Yale history professor’s latest book. Despite its heady topic, Eire’s engaging style and sense of humor keep things light enough to carry readers through a history of “how conceptions of forever, or eternity, have evolved in Western culture, and what role these conceptions have played in shaping our own self-understanding, personally and collectively.” Beginning in the ancient cradle of civilization and ending with the postmodern present, the author addresses both religious and secular notions of eternity in the context of how people throughout time have treated such mysteries and conundrums as what happens after death and the relationship of time to space. Diagrams, photos and artistic representations accompanied by Eire’s commentary illustrate difficult concepts or provide visual representation of how people have conceived of eternity in reincarnation, mystical experience, heaven and enduring truth. Eire gives readers so much to think about and in such an entertaining manner that he can be excused for occasionally overreaching. (Nov.)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691152509
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 9/26/2011
  • Pages: 288
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.70 (d)

Meet the Author

Carlos Eire

Carlos Eire is the author of the memoirs "Waiting for Snow in Havana", which won the National Book Award for nonfiction in 2003, and "Learning to Die in Miami". His other books include "War Against the Idols" and "From Madrid to Purgatory". He is the Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies at Yale University.

Biography

Carlos Eire was born in Havana, Cuba, on 23 November 1950. At the age of eleven he fled to the United States without his parents, as one of 14,000 unaccompanied Cuban children airlifted by Operation Peter Pan. Before joining the Yale faculty in 1996, he taught at St. John's University in Minnesota and the University of Virginia, and spent two years at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton.

His memoir of the Cuban Revolution, Waiting for Snow in Havana (Free Press, 2003), which won the National Book Award in nonfiction for 2003, has been translated into many languages, but is banned in Cuba. A second memoir, Learning to Die in Miami, was published in November 2010. It focuses on the early years of his exile in the United States.

Good To Know

In our exclusive interview with Eire, he shared some fascinating facts, anecdotes, and observations with us:

"Although Spanish is my native language, I think in English. Consequently, it is difficult for me to write well in Spanish. I tried translating my own book and gave up after one chapter, for the results looked like something a fifth-grader would have written. And that is just about right, since it was at the age of 11 that my education switched from Spanish to English. I am currently looking for a Spanish-language publisher who will buy the book and pay for a translator. Ironically, it has already been translated into Dutch and German, and a Finnish translation is in the works, but there is no Spanish translation anywhere on the horizon. This means that my own mother can't read my book. Though she has lived in the United States since 1965, she never learned English and has never been able to read anything I have written."

"I am constantly being asked: ‘Have you ever been back to Cuba?' or, ‘Would you like to go back?' My reply is: I will not go back while Castro is in power and human rights are routinely trampled. No way. When things change, as they will, I suppose I might go back. But the world that exists in my memory is so vivid only because I have given up on the idea of ever reclaiming it, physically. Unlike most people I know, I can't revisit my childhood haunts, so that world survives in my mind and in my soul, intact. I know that if I were to go back the squalor and the crushing oppression of present-day Havana, it would have a devastating effect on me. I got a good sense of that by trying to watch the film Buena Vista Social Club. I couldn't watch more than 15 minutes because the physical destruction of Havana -- and of my own people, and my past -- is so evident in that film. I started weeping so uncontrollably that I had to return the film to the video store, unwatched. As far as I am concerned, Fidel's Cuba might as well be the lowest circle of hell. I don't want to go to either place."

"I am also constantly told that Waiting for Snow in Havana reads more like a novel than a memoir. There is a good reason for this. I wrote the book as a novel and marketed it as a novel. I didn't really want to tell my story and expose details of my life to the whole world. My intention was to tell a story about a boy who grew up during the Cuban Revolution, and to expose through small details the horrors of what many people in the world still consider some benevolent humanitarian experiment. Soon after I began writing, however, I discovered that what had actually happened in my childhood was far more interesting than anything I could invent, so I simply kept writing straight from my memory, changing everyone's names.

"But after the publisher had purchased my manuscript and I revealed that 98 percent of what was in it was history rather than fiction, it became clear to all involved that it had to be published as a memoir. Since one of my reasons for writing a ‘novel' rather than a memoir was that I thought a novel would sell more copies and expose the real Cuba to a wider reading public, I agreed to publishing it as a memoir after it was pointed out to me that nonfiction sells better than fiction, and that my story would have a much greater impact if it were presented as a factual account. The funniest thing that has happened since publication is that many reviewers have praised the book's ‘magic realism' or even praised my imagination in coming up with such outlandish things as my father, the judge, who believes he is the reincarnation of King Louis XVI of France. I am still laughing and will always laugh at this. What a sweet irony: I expose the facts, and many believe them to be fiction, or even worse, ‘magic realism.' One reviewer actually accused me of making false claims and exaggerating. Another thing that makes me laugh is when people compliment me on the title. The fact is that the original title was Kiss the Lizard, Jesus. I still prefer that title and can never think of the book as Waiting for Snow in Havana. My editor found Kiss the Lizard repulsive, however, and asked me to change it. So I came up with a list of 150 alternative titles, and out of all of those Waiting for Snow jumped to first place. In my household, we still call the book The Lizard."

"I don't have time for hobbies -- other than writing books without footnotes -- but I do like to work with my hands. I love gardening and carpentry. I recently built a shed in the back yard, and am as proud of that as any book I have written, even though someone else did all the thinking for me and came up with the plans and measurements. Having failed trigonometry in high school, putting up a well-proportioned structure with straight angles on level ground was no small feat."

"We have four cats. Three are males: Sparky, a brown tabby; Wolfie, a gray Maine coon; and Ralph, an orange tabby. The fourth is a calico female: Oblyna. We keep them indoors all the time because we have a lot of coyotes, foxes, and skunks around our house. Sparky is our escape artist, but we have always been able to retrieve him from the woods. Once, however, our female, Oblyna, disappeared for two weeks. She had slipped out unnoticed. When she returned one Mother's Day morning, she had a huge gash along her back. Apparently, she had a run-in with the wildlife or a neighbor's dog. After being stitched up, she recovered nicely and has never gone out again."

"Speaking of predators and food chains: I am a vegetarian and therefore a huge pain in the neck to my wife and my kids and for anyone who invites me to dinner. I can't bring myself to eat anything that was once a living being. This might be due to the fact that a chimpanzee bit me when I was a child, showing me what it feels like to be eaten. I do eat eggs and milk products, but that is as far as I will go along with the exploitation of the animal proletariat. Since I often travel to Europe for my work, I have a hard time eating over there, especially in Spain, where vegetarianism tends to be considered a disease or a bizarre deviant behavior, akin to self-mutilation."

"And speaking of deviant behavior, here are six of my favorite ways to unwind: shoveling snow, raking leaves, mowing the lawn, splitting wood, digging large holes, and hauling heavy stones from one place to another. I also find any task that involves sledgehammers, axes, picks, and chainsaws very, very relaxing. This is what a revolution can do to your personality."

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    1. Hometown:
      Guilford, Connecticut
    1. Date of Birth:
      November 23, 1950
    2. Place of Birth:
      Havana, Cuba
    1. Education:
      B.A., Loyola University, 1973; M.A., Yale University, 1974; M. Phil., Yale University, 1976; Ph.D., Yale, 1979

Read an Excerpt

A Very Brief History of Eternity


By Carlos Eire

PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS

Copyright © 2010 Princeton University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-691-13357-7


Chapter One

Big Bang, Big Sleep, Big Problem

The death of any human being is an outrage; it is the out rage par excellence, and all attempts to diminish this out rage are contemptible, no more than opium for the masses.... Death is the unacceptable. The annihilation of one memory cannot be compensated for by the existence of the universe and the continuance of life. The death of Mozart, despite the preservation of his work, is an utterly evil thing.

Why dawdle? Let's stare the monster in the eye, close up, right away: this book amounts to nothing, and so do you and I, and the whole world. Less than zero.

So the experts tell us.

These pages and all the words in them will burn up and vanish into oblivion some day, along with every word ever written, every trace of our brief existence and that of every living creature that has ever squirmed on the face of the earth or in its waters.

So we might as well revel in brusqueness.

Never mind that you and I are both headed for certain death, or that our species might face extinction. That's not the worst of it. No. Ponder this: not a speck will be left of you and me; no trace at all. And no number of progeny we engender, and no amount of technological marvels they in vent, will make any difference either. Nothing can thwart the ultimate ecological and cosmic crisis.

First, about a billion years from now-whether or not humans still exist-the sun will grow hot enough to evaporate our oceans, burn away the atmosphere, and incinerate all living organisms. Forget global warming, the melting of the polar ice caps, the depletion of the ozone layer, the shrinking of the glaciers, the swelling of the oceans, the inevitable reversal of magnetic fields, and all the dire predictions that bombard us nowadays, ceaselessly. Forget any other cataclysm anyone might forecast, even a collision between earth and a comet or a giant asteroid. This solar flareup will be the real deal, the mother of all disasters. Global incineration.

Then, to add insult to injury, in five billion years or so the sun will balloon into a red giant and consume what is left of the earth. Shortly afterward, relatively speaking, this bloated sun will extinguish itself and shrivel into a dark, dwarfish cinder, a pinpoint shadow of its former self, adrift in an ocean of subatomic particles. Planetary and solar annihilation.

But that's not the end of the story. It gets worse. Even if our progeny manage to colonize other planets in distant galaxies and evolve into a smarter, less violent species, even if they manage to prolong their lives for centuries or millennia, or eradicate pain, poverty, and disease, or find a way to live in constant ecstasy, certain annihilation lies in store for them.

Since our material universe is in perpetual flux, ever expanding, it's bound to vanish, in one way or another. Scientists propose several models for the eventual destiny of the cosmos, none of which is comforting. Whichever fate ultimately befalls the whole shebang depends on how fast the universe is actually expanding relative to how much matter it contains-something that has not yet been determined. But no matter where it's headed, exactly, our universe is in for a very rough and tragic ride.

One possibility is that the universe will expand forever and suffer a "cold death," as physicists call it, reaching a temperature of absolute zero. This is the Big Freeze, which could also be called the Big Stretch or the ultimate Big Sleep. Eternal dissipation: a cold, lonely, and dark eternity, ever abounding in nothingness. Linked to this is the highly paradoxical proposition that an ever-expanding universe will eventually slow to an infinitesimally minimal crawl as a result of maxi mum entropy. Physicists speak of this as "heat death," but I suppose it could also be called the Big Whimper. This, too, sounds awful: an eternal now in which nothing happens. Another possibility is that the universe will stop expanding and collapse on itself and disappear, in a monstrous self immolation. Cosmic annihilation: no more time and space. As there was a Big Bang, so will there be a Big Crunch.

But that may not be the end of everything.

For all we know, the Big Crunch could be only the prelude to another Big Bang, and then another Big Crunch, and so on, and so on, forever and ever, ad infinitum and therefore also ad nauseam. For all we know, this is how it has always been and ever will be: bang and crunch, always and forever: Yes, the Big Yo-Yo, known in earlier ages as the eternal return.

These are the endings that our scientists propose, ever mindful of their disagreements and of the humbling fact that their grand theories, like those of historians, are somewhat tentative, subject to revision. But in many ways, even before there were astrophysicists or telescopes or microwave probes or infrared spectrophotometers, human beings seemed to intuit the impending doom, fitfully.

About 2,700 years ago, the prophet Isaiah said that our earth would one day vanish, and that it would "not be remembered, nor come into mind" (Isaiah 66:15).

Seven hundred years later, one of the books of the Christian New Testament would be more explicit: "The day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the Heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up" (2 Peter 3:10).

The Zoroastrian magi of Persia, the astrologers of the Mayas and the Aztecs, the shamans of the Hopi voiced similar predictions about cosmic doom, as have clairvoyants and kooks of all sorts, all around the world, at different times, down to our own day.

It's an outrage. C'est un scandale, le scandale par excellence.

So much for my property and yours, or the Louvre, the Vatican Library, Disney World, the pyramids of Giza, the Great Wall of China, or any of the kitsch sold at these tourist traps. So much for all precious gems, every tombstone at every cemetery, every monument, every fossil hidden from view, and every coin ever minted. So much for all family photos, lovingly kept dustfree, and those old home movies and videotapes painstakingly transferred to digital video disks. So much for everything, including this book, of course, and your socks and underwear.

Everything will turn to nothing. And there will be no one there to witness this epic ontological reversal. Nobody. No one. No consciousness, so they say; nothing there, nothing left behind. Not a thing.

Nihil. Nada. Nichts. Rien.

The same question asked of the tree in the forest could be raised here: If the universe vanishes and no one notices, will it have ever existed? But that is a very bad question, une question mal posée, as some aging existentialist might say. A better question for us human beings-we who are painfully aware of our own mortality-is this: What are we to make of our brief existence, both personal and collective?

As individuals, we blink on and off in the vortex of time with appalling evanescence, each of us, much like a firefly's butt on a warm summer night. We come and go like waves on a beach, as my wife's brother John said recently, at an old cemetery on the banks of the Hudson River, while we were depositing his father's ashes in a perfectly square niche in a massive wall containing hundreds of other such repositories, all duly graced with identical plaques that record not just the names of the deceased (including a man and wife forever saddled with the surname Outhouse) but also the very symmetrically paired dates of their birth and death. Burial grounds have a unique way of conveying the message we prefer to ignore. Relative to the age of the universe, it could be said that we hardly even register as ripples in a rain puddle, or that we barely exist at all. What is a decade compared to 13.6 billion years, the estimated age of the universe? What is it compared to the time the universe has yet left to exist? What is a century? A millennium? Come to think of it, what, really, is a measly 13.6 billion years?

Not much.

Any length of time, when measured against eternity, amounts to little. Next to nothing: not even as small as the period at the end of this sentence when measured against infinite space. If you have ever had a really lousy job, a job you loathed but could not afford to quit, then you know how pathetically brief every coffee break can seem. Well, imagine a fifteen-minute coffee break in hell that comes around only every 13.6 billion years. "Kaffeepause, jetzt, schnell!" Imagine how brief that would seem. Well, now imagine a 13.6-billion-year coffee break in a hell that is eternal. Same difference, more or less: still pathetically short, still next to nothing, really. Hardly worth it.

And what might eternity be? Is it anything other than a purely abstract concept, totally unrelated to our lives, or worse, a frightfully uncertain horizon, best summed up by Vladimir Nabokov: "The cradle rocks above an abyss, and our common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness"?

We loathe death, even pledge our love forever, and yet only very few of us can hope to last for one paltry century. Jeanne Calment (1875-1997), the woman with the longest confirmed life span in history, lived for only 122 years and 164 days, which adds up to a mere 44,724 days. What is that? Less than the wink of an eye, so to speak. An old vinyl record spinning at 33.3 revolutions per minute for a mere 24 hours will gyrate 47,952 times on its turntable. So, despite the fact that someone took the time and trouble to count them, Madame Calment's days on earth amount to less than one full day in the life of a vintage "longplaying" record, a device that did not exist when she was born and was already obsolete when she died. In 1988, a hundred years after the event, at the age of 113, she could still recall meeting at Arles the now famous but then ignored painter Vincent van Gogh, whom she described as "very ugly, ungracious, impolite, and crazy." We are staggered by the thought that someone could have lived so long, and could still remember an encounter with someone long dead, whose work can only be seen in museums or purchased for millions of dollars. Nonetheless, her 44,724 days are but an insignificant sliver of time, less noticeable than a snowflake atop Mount Everest.

As for the human race altogether, the proportions of its existence are no better: as insignificant as an eyelash bobbing on the ocean. We humans have only been writing down our history haphazardly, for about five thousand years. That is an incredibly brief amount of time. Chances are that when she met van Gogh back in 1888, Jeanne Calment was within a stone's throw of the Roman amphitheater at Arles, which was already ancient and revered as a relic, despite its continual use as a Provençal bullring. Ancient Rome might seem very distant to you and me, but we would only need about fifteen Jeanne Calments, laid end to end, chronologically, to take us back to the days when gladiators killed each other in that arena. Imagine fifteen people in a room. It's a very small number. The ideal number for a college seminar. Now try to imagine forty people. That is the number of Jeanne Calments required to take us back to the dawn of civilization in Sumeria during the Uruk period, and to some old Mesopotamian lady who could remember Gilgamesh as "very ugly, ungracious, impolite, and crazy," with bad breath to boot. Forty is a small number of people, too, hardly enough customers for a fine restaurant on any night of the week.

The farther back one reaches into the past for some sense of proportion in the history of the human race as a whole, the more ephemeral that history seems, the more life-denying its relative nothingness. Before Sumerians devised writing for record keeping they had already been farming for about two thousand years. Imagining two thousand years of history without any written record of what happened is very difficult for any historian, perhaps for most people who give it any thought. What happened to all those people, during all that time? Imagining twenty or forty or a hundred thousand years without records, or without farming or cities, is even harder.

Experts now say that our species, Homo sapiens, appeared in Africa about a quarter of a million years ago, and that, oddly enough, we are all descended from one woman, as the authors of Genesis claimed way back when myths ruled the day. This means we have no record of what happened to this woman's progeny, our kin, for roughly 245,000 years. The Paleolithic age, when all we had were crude stone tools, at best, covers the greatest portion of our time on earth, or roughly ninety-eight percent of human history. That is also around 2,050 Jeanne Calments or so, if we choose to reckon time according to the longest confirmed life span. If we include our immediate hominid ancestors-Neanderthal, Homo erectus, Australopithecus, and so on-we can go back a million years, or two, which amounts to more than 8,000 to 16,000 Jeanne Calments, roughly the number of students at many topnotch research universities. Contending with such a thought is impossible. Forget it; the mind reels.

What is my life span or yours, compared to so many others that are lost in an inconceivable, impenetrable fog? And what are all human lifetimes compared to the age of the earth, or of the universe? As nothing, really. Chances are that you are familiar with the following attempt to make sense of our place on earth: If the history of our planet is reduced to a twenty-four-hour scale, with 00:00 hours equal to 4,600,000,000 years ago and 24:00 equal to our present time, then the most rudimentary life would appear at 4:10, land-dwelling plants at 21:31, dinosaurs at 22:46, and Homo sapiens at 23:59:59.3, a split second before midnight. Your lifetime and mine do not even register on such a scale, except as the smallest of fractions, with enough zeroes after the decimal point to make a seasoned accountant dizzy. The same is true of our Ur-mother, Eve, and every one of our Paleolithic ancestors.

Yet when we lay eyes on art from the Paleolithic age, we peer into a very distant mirror, and thousands upon thou sands of years seem to evaporate, instantly. We know these cave dwellers were our kin, and we are stunned. They weren't knuckle-dragging troglodytes or half-beasts but men and women with thoughts and emotions and abilities like ours. Their genius, buried in silence, lost to time, can only be guessed at, but here and there it has survived, along with evidence of cannibalism: the Venus of Willendorf (22,000 BCE); the cave paintings at Chauvet (30,000 BCE), Altamira (18,000 BCE), and Lascaux (16,000 BCE). Some might even say, as did the ancient Romans and Greeks, that those early years of human history were a golden age, an ideal stage. After visiting the caves at Altamira and seeing its antediluvian paintings, Pablo Picasso supposedly exclaimed, "after Altamira, all is decadence." Some would like to agree with this quip, or to believe it was really uttered by Picasso. Others who contemplate the leftovers from cannibalistic feasts also found in such caves, however, might agree with Thomas Hobbes, who described life in those times as "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short," or with St. Augustine, who argued that there is a beast raging within all of us, itching for mayhem at all times. Some of us might be more comfortable with ambivalence, and a quotation from Dickens: "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times."

And there's the rub: apparently, these sublimely ambiguous physical signs point to a rejection of the brevity and brutishness of life. Many experts think that the cave paintings and the fertility figurines were religious in nature, and an attempt to transcend mundane existence. Paleolithic burial customs lend credibility to this hypothesis, for the caring respect shown to the dead, and the ritualistic behavior implied by such care, point to a belief in something beyond the material world. Acceptance of the brevity and finality of human life, and of the limitations of nature, was apparently as much of a quandary for them as it is for us. Contemplating a yawning abyss of nothing after the loss of dear ones, then, could have been as tough on our cave-dwelling ancestors as it is on us, even if they ate their enemies. Perhaps tougher, for they lacked spices and antibiotics, and didn't have three hundred channels of television programming to distract them. And no cocktails, either.

(Continues...)



Excerpted from A Very Brief History of Eternity by Carlos Eire Copyright © 2010 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix
Acknowledgments xi
Chapter I: Big Bang, Big Sleep, Big Problem 1
Chapter II: Eternity Conceived 28
Chapter III: Eternity Overflowing 67
Chapter IV: Eternity Reformed 100
Chapter V: From Eternity to Five-Year Plans 157
Chapter VI: Not Here, Not Now, Not Ever 220
Appendix: Common Conceptions of Eternity 229
Notes 233
Eternity: A Basic Bibliography 255
Index 259

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