Listen to: Immortality
Immortality in Literature
I am about to dive deep into a controversial opinion. This blog is about immortality – and how it is essentially ultimate-level horror when taken to its full and truest sense. So much of our literature and art delves into immortality, which humans have been chasing basically since we understood the concept of death. Up to this point, though, nobody’s figured out the immortality thing. We are, for better or worse, very definitely mortal.
There is a superb podcast called This Podcast Will Kill You (thanks so much, Carol Ann, for the recommendation, it’s fantastic). Two disease ecologists talk about a different disease in each show, from their history to how scared you should be (the answer is often: very). It’s a brilliant podcast and excellent fodder for horror, but one of their most interesting recent shows has been on immortality (listen here). In this case, the “disease” is not immortality, but rather mortality, and how we humans have chased its cure for eons. Hint: so far mortality is winning.
Despite this, or perhaps because of this, we continue to chase immortality in our imaginations and our art. It’s a common fantasy trope, to discover a way to stay young forever, the Elixir of Youth, a way to reverse the ravages of time, to become invincible even to death.
Even as a young child, the concept of living forever horrified me. Do you know how long that is? Cause, like, no one does. I’m not saying I’d turn up my nose at a few extra hundred years, who wouldn’t? But we’re talking far longer than our imaginations can actually process. Eight-year-old me, terrorized, said no thank you.
But I might not be in the majority. There is a substantial body of work, often young adult, that describes immortality as the be-all and end-all (often of young love).
“… we’ll get to do the two things every American should have the chance to do: die young, and stay pretty.”-Buffy the Vampire Slayer, S2:E7, “Lie to Me”
Twilight, by Stephanie Meyer
Therein is the temptation, I think, the reason why we’ve made up vampires. The idea of not just living forever, but being young and beautiful forever. There is a huge difference. Could you imagine if Edward and Bella were middle-aged and overweight? Less people would be sighing over the perfection of their lives stretching out into the centuries.
The Invisible Life of Addie Larue, BY V. E. SCHWAB
Another YA that dives more deeply into the concept of immortality is The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue. You may have read it: it’s one of the most hyped YA books to come out in the past few years. The concept is cool: Addie LaRue makes a deal with the devil that she can live forever … but nobody will ever remember her. Like, if she passes out of their vision for a moment, they have no idea who she is. It makes her immortal life hard.
One of my major problems with the book is that though it’s supposed to be the ultimate wanderlust dream, it seems like the dream of a very young person who doesn’t know much about the world. She hung out in France for a bit, saw some big cities in Western Europe and the US. … that’s not exploring the world.
But my major problem with the book is that despite being supposedly influenced by 300 years of philosophy and knowledge, Addie gains no wisdom. She remains in the mind of a 23-year-old, narcissistic and looking out for her own pleasure. In the end, she chooses … more immortality, and I was so disappointed. I thought there would be a deeper message about life, love and death, or at the very least something approximating “quality over quantity.” I read one reviewer getting into it, saying anyone who doesn’t want to be immortal doesn’t have enough imagination. This gave me pause for a long time, because I believe the exact opposite is true.
Death Becomes Her
This is best shown by one of the most brilliant movies from the ’90s, Death Becomes Her. Two aging beauties are offered immortality and eternal youth, and jump at the chance. However, their pettiness gets in the way of a happily ever after, and they brutally sabotage each other until they are basically just body parts weirdly assembled together. It sounds horrifying, but it’s actually hilarious (time for a rewatch?) Bruce Willis plays the part of their shared love interest, and he’s the wisest of the bunch.
“I don’t want to live forever. I mean, it sounds good, but what am I going to do? What if I got bored? … everybody else will [get old]. I’ll have to watch everyone around me die. I don’t think this is right. This is not a dream. This is a nightmare!”-Death Becomes Her
Bruce Willis gets it. So does one of my favourite shows of all time, The Good Place, where a group of recently deceased people try to figure out the ins and outs of heaven (or is it?) The ending was pitch-perfect, because they took the eventuality to its full conclusion. No matter how wonderful life, or the after-life is, there has to be an end.
Jitterbug Perfume, Tom Robbins
One book that explores the positives of immortality from a more adult perspective is Tom Robbins’ Jitterbug Perfume. A pair of lovers from 8th century Eurasia discover the secrets to immortality. In a duel storyline, a perfumer and a philosopher attempt to recreate a perfume found in traces amounts in a 300-year-old bottle. There’s a lot of metaphysical stuff, and the secret to immortality also involves bathing a lot and having lots of sex. Basically, if you’re into Tantra, you’re about as close as your going to get to living forever.
While the book was at times funny, kooky, definitely written in the ’80, at the heart of it, it seems to revolve around a bunch of narcissists – I suppose because the search for immortality is essentially narcissistic? Come at me about this if you want – I would LOVE to discuss. Also, the reality is that even if there was a secret oil of immortality, or a fountain of youth, not everyone could use it. The reason why is showcased in one of the books that has haunted me most throughout my adult life.
The Postmortal, by Drew Magary
The Postmortal, by Drew Magary, is a brilliant, though disturbing read, and I recommend it to anyone. This is probably the most realistic portrayal of what would happen if humans achieved immortality, and the result is a total shitshow horrorscape.
A vaccine to end aging has been discovered, and so people start taking it. And there are so many unforeseen consequences, most of them devastating. The overpopulation? Famine? The world descends into utter chaos, and people have to choose suicide to end their own lives. It seems pretty clear that if people could live forever, not everybody could. There’s not room for all of us. And people kind of suck, anyways. So it seems there can only be an elite group of people who could be immortal.
Living Dead in Dallas, Charlaine Harris
Enter our obsession with vampires, which I didn’t realize I would talk so much about when I started this blog, but it does make sense. An elite group of people (who are typically beautiful) are elevated to immortals, and then they need to bloodily contain their population so the world doesn’t completely fall to shit. But even they don’t want immortality in the end, because, as the thesis of this blog concludes: Immortality is a curse. In the Sookie Stackhouse book Living Dead in Dallas, a vampire who had lived for 2000 years chose death by sunlight rather than live any longer. I think no matter how hard we search for immortality, this will in fact be the end. Humans with any amount of wisdom will eventually choose death. Because we are meant to end.
Tuck Everlasting, Natalie Babbitt
Which brings me to the sweetest of the books on immortality, Tuck Everlasting. This is a childhood classic, and everyone should read it. Talk about the wisdom of children. The Tucks are an unassuming family of settlers in America who, in their search for land, stumble across a lovely spring in a wood. Upon drinking it, they eventually discover the (horrible) truth: they have found and drank from the fountain of youth, and they can never age, never die.
For the better part of a century, they have resolved to protect the spring and not allow anyone to drink from it. Because immortality isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The world keeps changing, keeps moving on without them, they watch people grow and die, and it is heartbreaking. They endure wars, and can’t end the suffering that comes from within.
When young Winnie Foster stumbles across the spring itself, the Tucks kidnap her to ensure she doesn’t tell anyone about the secret. They are well-meaning, but the events lead to the Tucks being forced to flee for their (everlasting) lives, in order to preserve the secret. But the youngest of the Tucks, Jesse, gives Winnie a bottle of the spring water, telling her to drink it when she is seventeen (his age), so that she can join in his immortal life.
The ending is bittersweet, because so is life. It is a perfect book.
“Don’t be afraid of death; be afraid of an unlived life. You don’t have to live forever, you just have to live.”-Tuck Everlasting
I’ll end things with this song, which I loved when I was younger, still do … in my head, it’s about life in general. “No one’s getting out of here alive …” DOA, Foo Fighters
Looking for more book recommendations? I got lots. Check out these book posts, with a little something for everyone:
Books I Still Think About Years Later
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