Monday, December 29, 2014

Why Does Immortality Still Beckon?

Let us call this ‘cultural reproduction’. By dying young, Achilles and James Dean gave up opportunities to reproduce biologically, but successfully managed to reproduce themselves culturally – and on a grand scale. Countless images of both, from marble busts to film reels, have populated the world like an army of clones.

This might not seem like real immortality to a skeptic – such as the comedian Groucho Marx, who asked: ‘Why should I care about posterity? What’s posterity ever done for me?’ Indeed, when we think about it, it seems that posterity has not done much for us, and won’t do even if we populate it with statues of ourselves. But that is only when we think about it. The underlying urge to reproduce in the cultural realm comes from a place much deeper than thought. When we reflect on it, the spell is briefly broken, but it beguiles us again as soon as we stop our reflecting. This is, I believe, because our compulsion to seek renown – to culturally reproduce – is built into our brains.

It is, however, a kind of by-product, a clash of pre-historic instincts with advanced cultures. In other words, we are willing to die for glory because of a cognitive blip. Or, to quote another 1980s hit, by the Smiths: ‘Fame, fame, fatal fame/It can play hideous tricks on the brain.’


Homer himself, however, takes a much darker view. Having described in great detail the bloodshed of the Trojan War, he has the hero Odysseus descend to Hades to visit the spirits of his dead comrades. There he meets Achilles, who he believes must be revelling in his renown as the most celebrated of heroes. But no: ‘do not you make light of death, illustrious Odysseus,’ Achilles replies, ‘I would rather work the soil as a serf to some landless peasant than be King of all these lifeless dead.’ So it was all for nothing – as Homer hopes we will learn from Achilles’ lesson.

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