Thursday, September 21, 2006

Considering immortalism

Bennett Miller, the director of last year's Capote, is now getting read to delve into the realm of immortalism. That's the philosophy - that some people have tried to put into practice - of escaping the inevitability of physical death. So you have some people who have died and had their bodies frozen in liquid nitrogen (or saved money by having just their heads cut off and preserved) in the hopes of someday medical science getting to the point where whatever killed them will be cured and their bodies restored to life. I wrote something about this back in January, in case anyone's interested. Here's part of the story from the Hollywood Reporter...
'Immortalist' finds home at Vantage

Paramount Vantage is getting into the Bennett Miller business. The indie unit, along with producer Plan B, will develop Miller's latest project, "The Immortalist." The project, which has yet to be written, is a "character-driven drama set in the emerging world of life extension." Details of the plot are still under wraps, but Miller describes it as "not a science fiction film ... (but) a drama set in the very real world of those pursuing biological immortality." He adds: "It's a pursuit that attracts some extremely brilliant, wealthy and influential people. It also attracts tragic figures. This story follows one such person on his disturbing foray into it."

Personally, I find exploring this subject matter to be utterly fascinating. All the more so because it wasn't that long ago that I would have agreed with the motivation of these people and thought that it would be a worthwhile goal to achieve physical immortality.

But today, I don't agree with it at all. Some of my reasons for that have to do with practicality: the chances of "reviving" a dead person who has been cryogenically preserved are infintesimally small, because of a lot of factors (simply repairing the damage from freezing at the cellular level is probably the biggest hurdle). But mostly it has to do with how I've come to understand what it means to grow as a person... and that like it or not, death is part of the growth process, too.

Three of the biggest sagas of fantasy storytelling have explored this theme. In J.R.R. Tolkien's realm of Middle-Earth, the people of Numenore lusted for physical immortality so much that they dared attempt to seize the Undying Lands by force... and incurred the wrath of God Himself. They failed to take something on faith: that death - at least in Tolkien's worldview - was not a bad thing at all. In fact death was a gift to Men from God so that Men would not have to forever be bound within the circles of the world. Incidentally, the Elves of Middle-Earth were envious of their mortal kindred, because it was the Elves' lot to be bound to the world and endure all the mounting weariness that ages upon ages would bring with them. In The Lord of the Rings Tolkien went to pains to describe the curse that comes with physical immortality: living, but not gaining any more life, until every moment was a weariness. Clearly, the spiritual nature of Men and Hobbits was not intended to remain indefinitely anchored to the physical realm: trying to do so had horrific consequences on both body and mind (see Gollum and the Nazgul for evidence of this, as well as the later Numenorean kings who refused to lay down their lives when weariness overtook them). It was only when a person surrendered the attempt to control his mortal fate that he was then able to grow again, as Bilbo did when he gave up the Ring.

More recently, immortalism was touched upon in the Star Wars movies. In Episode III: Revenge of the Sith Anakin is looking for a way - any way at all - to stop what he believes is Padme's inevitable death. And in the process of leading him toward the Dark Side, Palpatine told Anakin the tale of Darth Plagueis: a Sith Lord so powerful that he was able to stop people from dying. But doing so was something that Palpatine hinted at as being "un-natural" (not that THAT would stop somebody like Palpatine). But Palpatine was very much correct: trying to extend one's life past the point when it should be finally surrendered can be considered an accursed thing. It marks the conscious end of life as a growth process and the beginning of physical existence for its own sake... and the only way to ensure that is to accummulate more and more power for one's self. This was something the Sith had embraced completely... but it was not something compatible with the understanding of one such as, say, Yoda. Yoda too realized that death was a natural part of living and growing, and that death was something to be rejoiced for in many ways, not to grieve and be bitter about. And I'm really looking forward to 2008 when a novel about Darth Plagueis is published, written by James Luceno. When it comes out we should come to know a lot more about the Sith and the Jedi and how each, in their own way, pursued immortality.

But lately, the most fascinating examination of the consequences of physical immortality has been found in the pages of the Harry Potter novels. We were given a lot of clues in the first five books but it was Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince when things really fell into place about Lord Voldemort and what desire it is that has motivated him to commit such horrible crimes. For all his power and influence and in spite of all the fear that others have of him, Voldemort is a person who is afraid to die, which he sees as something shameful and contemptible. It is this fear of death - and his failing to realize that there are things in this world that are worse than physical death - which is Voldemort's greatest weakness, according to Professor Dumbledore. In Half-Blood Prince we learn that when Tom Riddle - the future Voldemort - was a student at Hogwarts, he became fascinated with the subject of Horcruxes: physical objects containing a portion of one's soul. After leaving school Riddle set out to create seven Horcruxes, committing one murder for each one so as to split his soul and imprison a portion of his being into each object. Destroying a Horcrux will destroy that portion of Voldemort's soul with it... but so long as one Horcrux remains intact, Voldemort is physically immortal and cannot be killed. But his immortality is not without its price: Voldemort no longer even looks fully human, so shattered has become his essence. But Voldemort does not care about the damage done to either his body or his soul: death has been cheated, and that is all that matters to him.

There is one more Harry Potter book left, and I have to wonder about what is ultimately going to happen to Voldemort. As Dumbledore put it in the very first book, "to the well-prepared mind, death is but the next great adventure." It certainly seems that Dumbledore accepted his own death without reserve... but how much of Voldemort's mind and soul is there that will meet his almost-certain final destiny? It could very well be that we will come to understand fully what Dumbledore meant when he said that there are things worse than death that can happen to a person.

These may be examples of how the realm of fantastical fiction handle the very real notion of life and death, but I believe there are some great truths to be gleaned from them. As a Christian, I am reminded by them how the world we now live in is not our true home, and that we are not meant to abide within it forever... so why should we desire to have power over it at all? Trying to bargain for more life or more control over the time allotted us just takes away from the time we do have to try and make it worth living while we still have it to live. That's not time I want to waste trying to lord over other people and situations for my own sake, when it's not even within my grasp to have absolute control over it anyway.

Well, I could write more about this, but it's getting late as it is. And I can always write more about this or anything else some other time if/when the notion crosses my gray matter to do so. In the meantime, it's time to give the ol' synapses some much-needed downtime :-)