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The AgeYou 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
What is eternity? Is it anything other than a purely abstract concept, totally unrelated to our lives? A mere hope? A frightfully uncertain horizon? Or is it a certainty, shared by priest and scientist alike, and an essential element in all human relations?
In A Very Brief History of Eternity, Carlos Eire, the historian and National Book Award-winning author of Waiting for Snow in Havana, has written a brilliant history of eternity in Western culture. Tracing the idea from ancient times to the present, Eire examines the rise and fall of five different conceptions of eternity, exploring how they developed and how they have helped shape individual and collective self-understanding.
A book about lived beliefs and their relationship to social and political realities, A Very Brief History of Eternity is also about unbelief, and the tangled and often rancorous relation between faith and reason. Its subject is the largest subject of all, one that has taxed minds great and small for centuries, and will forever be of human interest, intellectually, spiritually, and viscerally.
"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
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?
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.
Excerpted from A Very Brief History of Eternity by Carlos Eire Copyright © 2010 by Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission.
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