The Evasion of Death

Art is one attempt to evade death: make a monument to what is true and beautiful, and hope it will outlast you. Children are another attempt, perhaps more sensible than art. And then there’s sex (not unrelated to children), which offers its participants the ability to forget about death and, in moments of self-erasure, accept it, too. But orgasm lasts a few seconds, and children a few decades. People are still reading poems from thousands of years ago.

Much like Achilles, gaming out whether he wants a short life of glory or a long life of anonymity, someone preoccupied with their artistic reputation might well ask: glory now or later or perhaps never? Would you like to be much discussed but little read, or read and treasured by a few? Of course, none of these tradeoffs guarantee an outcome; most of us do not have a goddess mother to insure our fate. You might get everything—fame now, fame later—and you might get nothing at all. Writers know that talent is real, success is arbitrary, and that the relationship these two facts bear to each other is a mystery.

B. D. McClay, “‘Divorcing’ Is Literature That Looks Beyond Life,” The New Yorker, Feb 10 2021

I started this morning by reading that last line—Writers know that talent is real, success is arbitrary, and that the relationship these two facts bear to each other is a mystery—as the pull quote from the morning’s feed from The New Yorker. I liked it quite a lot, read it to Nora, and then back to read it in the context of McClay’s essay on the one novel from the brief life of Susan Taubes.

I think that this pair of paragraphs above is a fuller expression of the fundamental idea of the essay. People think about creativity as a way to achieve immortality: that we make something that will live beyond us. But I think that’s the partial case of what McClay expresses more fully: that art is an attempt to evade death.

Immortality is one relatively unimaginative way of thinking about that, which is why an afterlife is so easy for people to grasp. Nora and I were at a funeral service a few years ago for a local young man who’d died of a drug overdose. I was downstairs helping to organize the post-service reception, but Nora was upstairs at the funeral proper. And she talked later about how much the idea of the afterlife would serve as a relief for most people: that you have a second chance, identifiably as yourself and surrounded by your family, but with all of your flaws removed. You will be the ideal self you always knew you could be if you weren’t surrounded by all of this earthly burden and temptation.

(Hell is unimaginative, too, whether it’s the lake of fire or the Sisyphean task that can never be fulfilled. You’re still identifiably the same person, but now placed into a perfectly refined soup of suffering.)

Science has given us contemporary and agnostic versions of immortality: the brain in the jar, the cryogenically frozen and restored self brought back once the re-animation technologies are complete. Or “the singularity,” in which we become machine enough to self-repair, to rewrite DNA or to have blood-cleansing nanobots, and our machines themselves are intelligent enough to be treated as a new culture with its own goals and norms. Again, not especially creative—we’re still recognizably us, just better. (And this has its own image of hell, too: when the machines take over and enslave us.)

A somewhat more subtle version of immortality is genetic lineage—that our children and their children and their children after that will live on, somehow representing us to history. Monarchies are based on this, the idea that the royal family endures beyond any of its individual members. It’s not as direct as the afterlife, because we as identifiable selves don’t get to experience it; it’s just that we assume that our successors will give us some credit for our kids’ traits and successes.

A more complicated version of immortality is reincarnation: the idea that, after death, our souls are redeployed into the world in a new bodily form, each time in order to experience a new learning of the world and of the self. The notion of karma isn’t so much about “what goes around comes around” as it is about the things we do in this life determining the lessons we need to learn in the next. We are absolutely NOT reincarnated as the same self the next time around; we might change genders, ethnicities, caste or class, even species. The only continuity is “the essence” or soul, not the fuller sense of our identity. This is more difficult for Westerners to accept, given our drive to individuality; the foundation of western metaphysics is that we’re special little snowflakes, each of us unique and irreplaceable. And, ideally, perpetual.

Let’s go back to the larger idea of evading death, though, the general case for which immortality is one unique instance. Another instance would be the creation of a thing or a system that goes beyond us. Henry Gantt has been dead for 101 years, but every architecture and engineering firm in the world has used a Gantt chart for project management. We don’t know much about Henry, most of us, but some scrap of his thinking is with us on a regular basis. So to with the Mona Lisa or the Maple Leaf Rag, the Pythagorean theorem or PopTarts. The details of their inventors’ lives are mostly unknown to each of us, a sentence or two we might remember about them at most, but the inventions continue to offer applicability or bring delight well after the passing of the individuals behind them.

Cemeteries, archives, libraries, halls of fame… all of those are efforts to attach some ongoing recognition to the lives of those gone by. The drive to write The Great American Novel is in part an attempt to have this afterlife, to become one of the marble busts in the pantheon. We’re gone, but our thing… identifiably ours, with our name attached… remains.

But let’s go beyond that, to accept what McClay calls “moments of self-erasure.” That’s a remarkable form of evading death: to simply disappear, to have our selves not matter. The philosophers have talked about this in terms of “transcendence,” of being beyond earthly concerns. Victor Frankl wrote that “The essentially self-transcendent quality of human existence renders man a being reaching out beyond himself.” Empathy is one form of this, that we can subsume our interests by trying to more fully understand the interests of another. Psychologists, following on the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, have used the term “flow” for peak experiences in which our sense of time and self are lost to full immersion in some external force. Mob behavior is another form, in which we temporarily surrender our will to the collective hive mind. And the libertines have taken orgasm to be their foundational model of “self-erasure,” drawing on the French term le petit mort or the small death. In all cases, the mode is the same: we have utterly and entirely lost concern for ourselves and our enduring existence. The fact of our unique selves, at that small moment, is irrelevant.

And that is the mode of evading death that I find most compelling about writing. When I’m in… when I’m really dug in, listening to and watching characters, trying to see clearly… I’m just not present at all. I have no experience of my self as self, no hunger or tiredness, no aspiration, no goal, no readers, no pride or shame. I’m gone. The story has replaced me.

Reading—good reading—does the same thing. Listening to music does the same thing. We leave one world, and enter another.

I have no control over, and no particular interest in, whether my work is read after my demise. That material immortality is of no concern to me. The paradox of creativity is that the fullest life is indistinguishable from non-life. We’re just gone.

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