Saturday, October 11, 2008

Immortality: a thought

Tennyson, who really was quite an extraordinary sort of chap as fellow devotees of A.S. Byatt will know, once wrote a poem about the myth of Aurora, Greek goddess of the dawn, and her lover and husband Tithonus, who was a mortal man until she went off to Zeus and asked him to grant Tithonus eternal life so the couple could stay together forever.

This, obligingly -- and obligingness was not Zeus's forte as a rule -- he did. But the catch, and there's always a catch in these myths, was that they forgot to ask for eternal youth for him while they were about it. So Tithonus got older and older, but could not die.

Tennyson's 'Tithonus', in which the helplessly ever-aging man is speaking, begins like this:

The woods decay, the woods decay and fall,
the vapours weep their burthen to the ground,
man comes and tills the field and lies beneath,
and after many a summer dies the swan.

Me only cruel immortality
consumes: I wither slowly in thine arms
here at the quiet limit of the world,
a white-hair'd shadow, roaming like a dream
the ever-silent spaces of the East,
far-folded mists, and gleaming halls of morn.

Tithonus is, in fact, the Undead. And what made me think of this poem is the gory vampire novel I have chosen to replace the unreadable Dean Koontz one (see previous post). For much is being made in this book, as well it might be when you are trying to fight them off, of the fact that vampires cannot die or be killed unless you utterly destroy their hearts.

And it occurs to me for the first time (although Ken Gelder probably had this idea in Chapter 1 if not the Introduction to his book on vampires) that they are the shadow side of that eternal life in quest of which humankind continues, usually to its detriment, to go. But lift that rock -- look under the Philosopher's Stone -- and what will crawl out from underneath it is something seven feet tall with shark's teeth that wants to rip your head off and drink your blood.

I assume therefore that one of the morals of the vampire story, as of so many stories, is 'Be careful what you wish for', and that it belongs to that powerful old family of narratives that show the horrible fate awaiting the Over-reacher, the mortal who dares to try to usurp the prerogatives of gods: Prometheus, Faust, Viktor Frankenstein, and all the dead bodies who litter the stage at the end of every Renaissance revenge tragedy.

None of this stuff belongs, however, in a 180-word newspaper review. Which is why I have a blog.


Ann O'Dyne said...

"None of this stuff belongs, however, in a 180-word newspaper review. Which is why I have a blog"

... and is why I come here and enjoy reading it.
Last night I saw on television, a document of The Angels recent zimmer-frame tour. No Gods were involved. References to the films 'Still Crazy' and 'Boy Town' were, lacking the humour of those two unfortunately.

peace and love to you dear Cat

Bernice said...

Arr your blog - for which we are eternally thankful, in a non-necromancer eternal kinda way.

Often tempted to consider "be careful what you wish for" as the starting point of all rational philosophising about the human condition. Placating jealous gods should always run a distant second.

Fyodor said...

What Ms O'Dyne said. It's because most newspaper reviews don't have stuff like that in them that I don't read them. Unless they're written by K. Goldsworthy, o'course, in which case I read them with a small amount of frustration with the word limit.

On the post itself, it's possible to draw a distinction between the Greek trope of the over-reacher and the Christian conception of immortality as necessarily unholy. The Greeks saw immortality as the preserve of the gods, naturally coveted by mortals but jealously guarded. In contrast, post-Christian narratives obviously see the aspiration to immortality on Earth (as opposed to heaven) as an explicit rejection of God, Christ, the Whole Shebang. Which introduces a dominant layer of immorality and guilt to the aspiration - hence the moralising and demonic aspects to the characters of Dracula, Faust and Frankenstein.

Also, apologies for being pedantic, but Aurora was the Roman equivalent of Eos.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Thank you Ms O'Dyne, I could use a little peace and love around here. Bernice, yes, I agree that the distinction between the discourses of the spiritual and the secular must be made, but to my mind 'be careful what you wish for' is the humanist equivalent of the rule about jealous gods. And I think of jealous gods (particularly the Greek/Roman pantheon) as metaphors, and therefore feel free to mix them, so to speak.

Fyodor, thank you too for your kind words. I identified the Dawn Goddess as Aurora (see Mixed Gods, above) only because that is what most people know her as, and one does not wish to interrupt the flow of one's narrative with too much explanatory back-story.

Like Bernice's it's an important distinction, the one about Christian v Greek notions of immortality. Excellent point about guilt -- hadn't thought through that one at all. My own point of view is anthropological/psychological and therefore tends to bundle these things = major sacrifice of nuance. A third and wholly secular frame of reference could be introduced by discussion of the advances in medical science that are keeping people alive long enough to sink into tortuous mental and physical decrepitude.

Highly recommended to anyone interested in these things and/or in early 20thC Eng Lit: Aldous Huxley's After a Many a Summer, to my mind his best novel after Brave New World.

Actually I think it's better than Brave New World.