People Who Live Forever: Indiana Jones’ Father, The Narrator in Borges’
March 13, 2015 11:23 PM   Subscribe

“In the seminar on death that I taught, there were moments where we were talking about death, and the class would just go quiet, because it was clear it was there in front of us… there wasn't really anything to say at that moment, because each of us just has to look."

Todd May is the Class of 1941 Memorial Professor at Clemson University—a very fancy title for a very non-fancy guy. He is bald, plays basketball, has a wife and two kids, and kind of looks like Michel Foucault (which is weird, because Todd has written a book about him). He’s written nine other books, too—including a volume about poststructuralist anarchism and another about friendship under neoliberalism—but with Todd, talking about his resume somehow feels beside the point.
posted by the man of twists and turns (34 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I was under the impression that the effects of the grail didn't last beyond the seal at the entrance to the cave, and so Dr. Jones Sr. is simply cured of his wounds, not immortal. That's why the knight didn't leave the cave. Someone back me up here? Am I imagining things?
posted by barnacles at 12:29 AM on March 14, 2015 [9 favorites]

Recognizing the fact of one’s death helps one sift through projects in order to separate out those that contribute in some way to making us who we want to be

It can work like that, at its most benign. But you can also be paralysed by the prospect of death; you can give up on those self-defining projects because, what does it matter when you're going to be dead? (Or because you've turned to hedonism or religion).

The thing about living forever is there's only so much of each of us, and eventually we've run through it all. After that, the longer you live, the more you start repeating yourself; thoughts, experiences, anecdotes, God help us.
posted by Segundus at 12:53 AM on March 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

No I'm with you barnacles. That's the curse of the grail! Sure, it does grant you immortality, but only HERE. I haven't RTFA but I can't imagine how Sr. Jones would get to live forever.
posted by wyndham at 12:58 AM on March 14, 2015

(I think it's shoddy research)
posted by wyndham at 3:05 AM on March 14, 2015 [3 favorites]

Believer: "Could true love exist among immortals?"

TM: "Part of loving is the urgency of recognizing that the person you're with may not always be there."

A third obvious option not discussed in the first linked interview is that of lovers with immortality or indefinite longevity, with the possibility of accidental death or optional exit. (An idea entertainingly reconsidered by Jim jarmusch in Only Lovers Left Alive..)

Maybe the (foreseeable and unavoidable) demise of a 50-year love affair among mortals is somewhat less tragic than the termination of a pairing that has survived five centuries (which, with conscientious avoidance of garlic and sharp wooden implements etc., could have survived for 5,000 or even 50,000,000,000,000+ years.)
posted by rub scupper cult at 3:23 AM on March 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

The power of the compound interest of love. Maybe the reason why parents love their children has something to do with time travel. Or maybe it's like the accumulation of body thetans, but good ones.
posted by XMLicious at 4:11 AM on March 14, 2015

This is how I phrase it:

You have two choices. Try to live forever and fail or do something right with your time.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 5:17 AM on March 14, 2015

May is taking up the argument that Bernard Williams makes in his wonderful essay "The Makropulos Case: Reflections on the Tedium of Immortality". I'm sympathetic with the Williams-May line that one the likely outcome of an endless life is endless boredom. My students are almost always skeptical of this, but they haven't been around long enough to see how quickly they will turn into middle-aged bores.

The most compelling response, I think, is to accept that an immortal life would gradually cease to be a human life. The affections, concerns, and projects that shape us are comprehensible only within the confines of a brief existence. It's not even clear that someone who lives long enough would have anything that we'd recognize as a personality. The risk is that as an immortal you will become something that, from your current perspective, you would find terrifying or horrible. (This also connects up with themes in Laurie A. Paul's wonderful new book, "The Transformative Experience".)

So immortality is fine, so long as you can take a non-anthropocentric perspective on your own life and its value; or perhaps if you have only a slight attachment to yourself anyway.
posted by informavore at 5:28 AM on March 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

There's also the fact that Dr. Jones Sr. Is dead by Crystal Skulls, so that'd be some shoddy immortality.

More importantly, what kind of asshole God puts a curse on the holy grail? "You get to live forever, but you gotta stay in the Cave! Haha, fuck you and your quest, Knight!"

Speaking of which, if the knight can't leave the cave, how does anyone know his story? Were there a series of visitors to the cave? Construction workers to build the traps? Why does God want killer traps again? I don't remember that chapter of the Gospels. The Beatitudes don't go: "Blessed are the killer trap makers."
posted by leotrotsky at 5:41 AM on March 14, 2015 [7 favorites]

The Beatitudes don't go: "Blessed are the killer trap makers."

I'm pretty sure it was in the Apocrypha.
posted by fairmettle at 5:47 AM on March 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

Book of Armaments?
posted by leotrotsky at 6:01 AM on March 14, 2015 [4 favorites]

There's also the fact that Dr. Jones Sr. Is dead by Crystal Skulls, so that'd be some shoddy immortality.

It's not entirely impossible that Jones Sr.
changed his name and skipped the country after it became apparent he wasn't aging at the normal rate.

Indy's quaff certainly did something for him. The lingering protection of the screenwriter heaven is the only feasible explanation for how he survived a nuclear detonation, and in The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles we see him feisty and mobile at the age of 93.
posted by Iridic at 6:12 AM on March 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

The Beatitudes don't go: "Blessed are the killer trap makers."

Well obviously it's not meant to be taken literally. It refers to any manufacturers of deadly security products.
posted by PlusDistance at 6:12 AM on March 14, 2015 [8 favorites]

It's more complicated than most people who get into this argument realize.

My most infamous riff on the idea takes the most obvious approach; immortality leads to boredom and ennui and increasingly desperate attempts to feel anything is real about it.

But Bringer Tom also became immortal, and he didn't go mad, but he did forget that he was ever human for a long time, and the being that he became was so different that he was horrified to become human again.

And as a couple of people here have already hinted, even within the span of our short mortal lifetimes we change a great deal. And in fact I think this is the more important thing to consider about something like the technological Singularity; it's not immortality that is the central point. Transformation is the central point, because that kind of experience is going to change us, possibly and even likely into something we would not recognize or like very much from our current vantage point.

I don't worry much that humans wouldn't be able to handle immortality. Experience has shown that humans can get used to damn near anything. What we should worry about is what we will become, which is of course a central point in most vampire tales that aren't Twilight.

Another really good example of how not to do it is Larry Niven's Known Spacers who act exactly like college students doing a bar crawl even when celebrating their 200th birthday. I can predict with some confidence that I would probably not be acting like Louis Wu if I actually make it to 200. I might not be acting much like Caroline Frances Hubert either, but it is quite thinkable that I could be on my way to becoming Bringer Tom -- or Hannibal Lecter.
posted by localroger at 6:14 AM on March 14, 2015 [3 favorites]

Dunno man. I know I'm in the minority on this but the universe is infinite; if you're bored with immortality I feel like that's on you.
posted by Poppa Bear at 6:44 AM on March 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

I sold a story once in which humans had immortality and as a result let the world go to hell. Shops sold temporary diseases so people could feel as if they were alive again.
posted by Peach at 7:02 AM on March 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

Alternate hypothesis: rather than providing meaning, the inevitability of death drains all potential meaning from life, and makes the concept of a self absurd. Past events are things experienced in the present, being the experience of thinking in the present about the traces left in memory by the past. As such, death's revocation of all future presents ends not just the possibility of new events happening, but also retroactively obliterates all past events. Death isn't just the revelation that you are nothing and will bear no future relationship to anything, it's the revelation that you have never been anything and have never born any relationship to anything at all. As such, any hypothetical existence that exists resembles in no way the existence of a self. (I think the way the Buddhists get at this is through the concept of "sunyata," but I don't actually know very much about Buddhism.)

For my part, I like it here; existence in terms of a self is lovely. Sure, we've built really ugly things here in existence — human society is a little bit like Los Angeles, in that it consists of the ugliest possible things built in the loveliest possible place — but the ugly things we've done with existence don't begin to touch the underlying greatness of existence as a thing experienced by a self. If it were at all possible to grant permanence to the experience of existence as a self, and thereby to strip the experience of existence as a self of its self-contradictory absurdity, then of course that would be a good thing.

I love this place, existence. The only real, deep problem with it is that it's not real. If we (or a god, or a sip from a grail, or whatever) could fix that unreality, yes, that would be nice.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 7:02 AM on March 14, 2015 [5 favorites]

All good things are temporary. The feeling of joy provided by a new car, relationship, an amazing discovery... diamonds in the rough.

We are hardwired to normalize joy and perhaps luckily, pain. A fulfilled life is an ever expanding one, and at some point, an immortal existence limited by the corporeal will cease to offer new experiences both good and bad. It may take a hundred million years, but at some point, the infinite mind will become a prisoner of the finite body and enivronment.

This is why the stereotypical concept of Heaven seems like an eventual torture to me. A place in the clouds, full of peaceful existence with no challenges to overcome, populated with all our loved ones and the great, "worthy" people of the world, would eventually (even at a million years) become a prison from which there is no escape... [shudder]

Not to mention that one of the things that gives life its value is its own predestined end.

If immortality were sold in a bottle, I would decidedly NOT be among its consumers.

In order to even partake in anything resembling immortality, one would have to transcend anything resembling humanity... in mind, body and spirit.

"There is no pain so great, or joy so sublime that will not fade before the grindstone of time."
posted by Debaser626 at 7:45 AM on March 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

I'm not that convinced the humanity is any great shakes, so if immortality gave me a chance to try something different, I'd be happy to give it a shot.
posted by maxsparber at 8:08 AM on March 14, 2015

Sunyata is often misunderstood as oblivion, but "space," "possibility," "infinity" or "eternity" would be better (still not quite accurate) analogues. The usual image is of an open sky: where are the "parts" of an open sky? If there are clouds, what is the shape of the clouds? If there are no clouds, what is the shape of the sky? This POV kind of obliterates our habit of thinking of the world as something that has definite boundaries, full of objects and beings with separate existences, when on whatever approximation of an ultimate scale we can imagine, it all kind of blends into a continuum or web. So: yeah, there is no atomic self that transcends death, time and change, but there is something real to the self as it expresses change within the continuity of existence. But its reality is borderless.

With the trope of the bored immortal, I think writers are getting close to the idea that maintaining the integrity of borders (in persistent personality) is work. An immortal that gets stuck in being itself for thousands of years is sort of pathetic and boring from our point of view, while an immortal who radically changes and abandons their humanity over the course of millennia is terrifying to us. We kind of want it both ways; to live forever, but to live forever as ourselves. But we can't even make it through a finite lifetime with a fully persistent sense of self; we just feel like we do because we experience change gradually. At the same time, we crave change and perceive successful patterns as stagnant, but we want change we control and we're pretty much kidding ourselves about that in the long run.
posted by byanyothername at 8:54 AM on March 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

Yeah idk I think upon extensive reflection that I'd still be quite willing to risk boredom and becoming non human or non self or whatever philosophical brain teaser is at stake if it meant getting more than these few brief years. I like the universe, really don't want to leave it.
posted by ead at 9:23 AM on March 14, 2015

Actually, more than that: the thought of changing into something/someone else entirely over the course of an extended life seems ... quite comforting, even exciting.

People would seriously rather cease to exist than accept change? Talk about mixed up priorities.
posted by ead at 9:26 AM on March 14, 2015 [3 favorites]

re: love and immortality. I feel that the original Highlander movie handled it well. Connor Macleod tries to stop loving because he knows that mortal lover will age and die while, as long as he keeps his head, he remains forever youthful.

The TV show kind of addresses love between "immortals" and ends up saying that people get tired of each other and need time outs, and that passionate love banks down over time and needs to be renewed.
posted by porpoise at 9:35 AM on March 14, 2015

Speaking of which, if the knight can't leave the cave, how does anyone know his story?

In the legend according to the movie, there were three knights (brothers fighting in the crusades) that originally found the holy grail. After each drinking from the grail, two of the brothers leave while the third stays behind. I think one of the two brothers is considered lost to history, whereas the other makes it back to Europe and recounts his tale before dying of "extreme old age".

Why yes I have seen The Last Crusade a number of times.
posted by dephlogisticated at 9:59 AM on March 14, 2015

People would seriously rather cease to exist than accept change? Talk about mixed up priorities.

The choice is false. A sufficient amount of change is equivalent to the cessation of existence.
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 10:10 AM on March 14, 2015

Death has moved...
posted by onlyconnect at 10:41 AM on March 14, 2015

The choice is false. A sufficient amount of change is equivalent to the cessation of existence.

I think you're making a category error by conflating change within existence with the revocation of the conditions of existence themselves.

I am not the person I was ten years ago, and the world that I am experiencing today is not the same as the world that other guy experienced ten years ago, and so it is possible to argue that that guy is dead, and that world is dead, and time steals as much from us as death does, and so forth.

However, the conditions of existence as a self are relatively unchanged from ten years ago — the presence of sensations, including sensations of past events that exist in the present as memory, the presence of something that appears to be a self experiencing those sensations, and a present for these sensations (which may or may not correlate to the things of the world that produce them) to happen in. Even if there's no necessary meaningful continuity of memory — like, I could get hit in the head just right and survive, but forget everything about myself — the possibility of experience itself continues.

A lot of people are talking in terms of temporariness, saying that death shows that everything is temporary, gives us motivation to carpe that diem, and so forth. What I'm talking about isn't how death imposes temporariness, because death does not impose temporariness; temporality itself does that just fine. What death imposes is absurdity. Death's eventual removal of future presents doesn't indicate the cessation of all future experience, but instead the retroactive revocation of all experience altogether, along with the presents in which that experience could occur.

Death shows that any existence that hypothetically exists — right now, not in the future — is wholly disjoint from existence as a self. Which is a hell of a thing, knowing that what you think of as you, and what you think of as existence, is not temporary (something that is here but will be gone) but instead absurd; a contradictory thing that always already isn't, that actually can't be, even though it appears to be. It's a pity; this place, despite all its problems, would be unspeakably beautiful if only it actually existed.
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 11:27 AM on March 14, 2015

A sufficient amount of change is equivalent to the cessation of existence.

As YCTaBuick suggests, this is entirely wrong on multiple levels. The person I was 25 years ago may not exist any more, but I carry a lot of his memories and experience and while that person probably wouldn't have been too happy about turning into modern me, the fact is modern me is who I am now and that guy was hopelessly naive.

This kind of transformation happens to us right now, all the time, and we take it for granted because most of the time it's modern me looking back and understanding how the transformation occurred. The "problem" of immortality is that the transformation we experience is likely to be so extensive that our previous selves, or others who have not transformed as much or as quickly, might find the result unnatural or horrific.

However, it is unlikely that we ourselves having undergone the transformation would have such a problem. Immortality would force us to really confront the fact that life is more of a journey than a destination, and that we're not wired to find happiness in stability. Of course, one possible transformation we might make is to find a state where there is happiness or contentment in stability. From our current vantage point, it's likely that we would regard such an outcome as vegetative or nonexistent, and something to be avoided.
posted by localroger at 12:01 PM on March 14, 2015

I'm pretty sure that Borges narrator is unreliable, though. Dude's probably dead by now. The mention of the Italian professor of rhetoric named Giambatistta, whose arguments (i.e. that Homer did not exist as an individual man but is a personification of the poetic wisdom of the Gentiles)) "seemed irrefutable " is a not very subtle hint.
posted by thelonius at 12:07 PM on March 14, 2015

What I ultimately find shocking is that most people take the reality of this material world -- and death -- so much at face value.

To me, setting aside for a moment any particular religious or philosophical conception, it's stunningly visceral to me that this is all a kind of absurd dream. I'm always surprised that so many cannot relate to that sense of sheer bizarreness. We've each of us suddenly and inexplicably found ourselves in a room where literally none of the deepest questions we have about it are resolved or even resolvable: not the passage of time, not consciousness, not free will, not the meaning of other people, not existence.

There's something quite inconceivable -- by definition inconceivable -- beyond our little rooms.

The idea of death being a simple and final discontinuation seems to me not so much alarming or sad but laughable. People really imagine all this -- this magic spell, this infinity of mystery -- ends when we "die"? My goodness, what shocking lack of imagination, what a comforting illusion.

What on earth would make us think we understand the mystery of existence remotely well enough to come to that conclusion?

HP Lovecraft was likely much closer to the truth: there are unimaginable things beyond us, things that if we saw them we'd probably call monsters -- or gods.
posted by shivohum at 1:20 PM on March 14, 2015 [2 favorites]

You're a jerk, Dent. A complete kneebiter.
posted by dragstroke at 4:56 PM on March 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

shivohum, Brian Magee talks about this in his autobiography. As a child he became just seized by philosophical problems, which sometimes almost crippled him with terror. And he quickly found that most people around him thought that those problems were just silly and a waste of time. In a way, they are right - everyday life gets along without solutions to them, after all. And there is no shortage of practical difficulties to cope with. But it's just really sad to have no curiosity or capacity for awe, no desire to examine the common sense view of life and see if it holds up at all well, no sense of how strange it is that the world exists.
posted by thelonius at 6:21 PM on March 14, 2015

But it's just really sad to have no curiosity or capacity for awe, no desire to examine the common sense view of life and see if it holds up at all well, no sense of how strange it is that the world exists.
posted by thelonius at 6:21 PM on March 14 [+] [!]

God, you people and your insistence that things exist.

Ontological nihilism: there's no evidence for it, but isn't that a point in its favor?
posted by You Can't Tip a Buick at 8:47 PM on March 14, 2015 [1 favorite]

On Death
posted by the man of twists and turns at 9:05 PM on April 3, 2015

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