Thursday, November 29, 2012

Living Forever

Was Plan A for human beings to be immortal and thus never to know death? It’s a good question, even a critical one. Yet the Bible is more than a bit equivocal about the answer.

Lots of people read the biblical text in lots of different ways. The way to read the narrative that seems the most cogent and reasonable to me, however, seems to require focusing on the fact that Adam and Eve were never specifically forbidden to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Life, but were instead ordered never to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Moral Discernment (the one popular called the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil). Leaving aside the arresting question of why God would not have wished the first two human beings to have ingested as much as there is to know about the difference between right and wrong (supposing that is what “good” and “evil” in the tree’s name are meant to denote), we are left pondering God’s pensive, almost broodingly introspective, lament at the end of the story, the one in which God justifies the decision to expel Adam and Eve from the garden.  “Look what it’s all come to,” God says grimly, “now that human beings have transcended their humanity and become almost divine in terms of their ability for moral discernment. The next thing that will happen is that they will reach out and take also of the fruit of the Tree of Life, then eat it and live forever.”  That sounds as though the Tree of Life, the fruit of which presumably has the power to grant immortality to those who eat it (“…then eat it and live forever”), was there all along for Adam and Eve to enjoy. It wasn’t forbidden. It was clearly visible there in the garden. (The narrative elsewhere places the Tree of Life at the very center of the garden, presumably to make explicit the point that no one seeking the tree could possibly fail to find it.) Humanity thus had a chance to transcend its native mortality and presumably eventually would have…had Eve not listened to the serpent, and Adam not to Eve.  But because they did sin, they were denied the right—which they appear to have priorly possessed—to overcome the innate limits life placing on the living and thus to live on forever.

If that’s the right way to read the story—and I know there are others—then Plan A and Plan B were the same plan with respect to the possibility of dealing death out of the deck entirely: human beings were created mortal and lost the ability to overcome that aspect of how things were by disobeying a direct divine edict that appears to have nothing to do with mortality at all. So the story is one of nothing, not something, happening.

What would have happened had Eve instead gotten Adam to eat of the fruit of the Tree of Life when they still could have? Would they have continually aged, growing older and increasingly decrepit with each passing year, then each century, then each millennium? Or, as most of us fantasize in this regard naturally, would they have attained the fullest measure of adult health and then just stayed there, the key to immortality being the absence of aging as much (or perhaps even more so) than the absence of death? Since their descendants would presumably also have been immortal, the problem usually featured in fantasy and science fiction novels to explain why no one would ever really want to live forever—the concomitant obligation to watch everybody you know and love eventually pass away while the immortal one lives on forever,  doomed to existence in a never-ending loop of love and loss—would not be such an issue. Nor would the obvious problem of convincing the government to issue a passport or a driver’s license to someone several thousand years older than the next oldest person waiting on line.

When I was in college, I remember reading the now-mostly-forgotten novel of Eugène Sue, The Wandering Jew, and being sufficiently entranced by the idea to want to read more, only eventually to find the theme almost totally  co-opted by anti-Semitic authors in whose works the concept of living forever—and particularly when the immortal in question was Jewish—was depicted as punishment rather than reward, and as a fate in many ways worse than death. (In that regard, I especially recall being shocked by first exposure to My First Two Thousand Years, a novel by Georg-Sylvester Viereck, the once well-known Nazi sympathizer who, among other things, invented the genre of gay vampire fiction.) There were other books as well, mostly now forgotten, that tempered my enthusiasm for the theme…and yet the concept itself of transcending death (and, ideally, disease and decrepitude as well) remained and remains a major fantasy.

And so it was with all that in mind that I encountered the almost unbelievable article in the paper the other day (accessible to readers seeing this electronically by clicking here) that reported on the discovery of an immortal being. Neither an eternally wandering Jew nor a half-mechanical cyborg, the being in question is, of all things, a lowly jellyfish, one of the kind known technically as a Turritopsis dohrnii. I’ve always hated jellyfish. I had an unfortunate encounter with one at the beach—or rather in the ocean off Rockaway Beach—when I was a child and haven’t really revised my sense of jellyfish as disgusting squishy things that contribute nothing to the world. (I’ve since learned that there are people who eat jellyfish, and particularly the kind called the cannonball jellyfish. Interested readers—and how could anyone really not be?—can find a long, fascinating account of one man’s effort to eat his way through the edible jellyfish of the world on, a very interesting site well worth the visit for dozens of other great essays as well.) But maybe I need to revise my thinking.

Jellyfish are not much like people. They have no brains. (I heard that. But they really, physically, have no brains.) They have no hearts. (Ditto.) They have one single orifice that serves them as the counterpart, to put the matter as little disgustingly as possible, of both ends of our alimentary canals. Feh! But the biggest, fattest way they are unlike humans is that they appear to have the Benjamin Button-like ability when they are old and weary not to die, but instead to initiate a complicated regenerative path that regresses them backwards through the stages of growth they have earlier experienced until they return to the original polyp state from which they developed in the first place. The polyp then begins the generative process from scratch, slowly developing back into a mature jellyfish. This is not quite like lobsters, which creatures have the amazing quality of not growing weaker or less fertile as they age and which, because they display what scientists call “negligible senescence,” could theoretically live permanently until captured or killed.  Nor are jellyfish in this regard exactly like planarian flatworms, which have the remarkable—the truly remarkable—ability to regenerate lost body parts and, when split lengthwise or widthwise, simply to morph into two separate worms, each free to pursue its own destiny…and also to turn itself into two more discrete worms. That is surely a kind of immortality, but it is not at all the jellyfish’s. Indeed, as far as I can tell, there has emerged a scholarly consensus that the ability scientists attribute to the Turritopsis dohrnii is unique in the animal kingdom. (Benjamin Button was a fictional character invented by F. Scott Fitzgerald, so he doesn’t count.)

So it turns out that there is such a thing as immortality. When we fantasize about living forever, most of us think more along the lobster model of simply not aging, not weakening, not surrendering to senescence and its attendant indignities. Very few of us fantasize along the flatworm model. But what of the jellyfish model of reaching the end of the line and then turning back? It’s a bit like a New York City subway train that has no room to turn around in its narrow underground tunnel and so simply heads off backwards along its route to the beginning of the line, the first car becoming the last and the conductor merely moving to the other end as the train moves forward in that direction. Eventually it must become impossible even for the subway personnel to say with certainty which is the front of the train. Or perhaps the point is more exactly that both ends are its front, that it has no specific front, that the lead-off car in whatever direction the train is headed is its front. For the moment. Until it reaches the end of the line again. And it turns around again. And heads off again in the opposite direction. Just like a jellyfish!

I didn’t much like Benjamin Button, although I thought Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett did admirably well with what struck me then as a ridiculous storyline.  Perhaps the key to finding the concept appealing lies in a detail I passed just a bit too quickly by above: that Turritopsis dohrnii jellyfish, in addition to having no natural limit to their lives, also have no brains. They therefore, I’m supposing, have no memories, thus also no frameworks for evaluating the progress and regress  of their lives through the years: unlike Brad Pitt’s character in the movie, they do not recognize high school when they get there again after having gotten to the end of the line and turned back to head off to the beginning. And in that perhaps lies the answer to the question: life as we know it—made rich with memories of things past, the texture of evolving relationships, the pleasures and anxieties of family life as it brings us forward from being the children of our parents to being the parents of our children,  the challenges of overcoming the obstacles that life throws down in each our paths, even the worries that accompany our march through the decades towards an indistinct, uncharted future—that kind of life can only be savored in one direction. We are neither subway trains nor jellyfish, neither lobsters nor planarian flatworms. Nor are we characters in a play hired by an unseen playwright to depict ourselves in some cosmic drama none of us can step far enough back from fully to fathom. We are…just ourselves, anchored in time and challenged to make meaningful the years of our lives not despite their finite nature but precisely because of it.

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