September 20, 2009

The Immortality That We Already Have

Justin Katz

As we slide into autumn, with the sensations and associations that it brings, Michael Ledeen's musing on the relationship between the living and the dead in Naples seems more relevant now than it did in the summer edition of First Things. He makes some very interesting points, which resonate with greater strength as the trees promise (or threaten, depending on your perspective) to shed their leaves:

The great divide between Naples and the rest of Europe came in the second half of the nineteenth century, following the unification of Italy. For several hundred years, the continent had seen enormous religious and political wars, culminating in the Napoleonic war that came to an end at Waterloo in 1812. From then until the outbreak of the First World War, there was no continent-wide war. In that remarkably tranquil century, the Western attitude toward death underwent a striking evolution. Previously, death had been understood as altogether normal. In the nineteenth century, it came to be viewed as a violent intrusion into human affairs. The thought of leaving the world of the living became unbearable, and the requirement to remember the dead became a social imperative. ...

It would require a greater understanding of the human spirit than we possess to explain why the passionate Western embrace of the dead emerged at the moment when, for the first time in hundreds of years, so few people were actually dying in combat or in violent epidemics of the sort that had ravaged Naples so many times. But the new vision of death—and the importance of the dead—undoubtedly had something to do with the rise of modern nationalism, which incorporated religious rituals into secular political ceremonies. As religion was driven out the front door of respectable thought, it crept back in through political cults of the sort that eventually destroyed the heirs of the Enlightenment in the mass movements of the twentieth century. The core beliefs of the Enlightenment were unable to satisfy human passions, and, the more vigorously the intellectual elite asserted that science and logic could explain everything and eventually solve all problems, the more passionately people believed in otherworldly forces. The dead insisted on intruding into the otherwise ordered universe of the scientists and the philosophes.

Especially insightful is the mention of nationalists' usurpation of some of the compelling attributes of religion. To some extent, one could argue that nationalists leverage fear of death as a means of control, even as they present national identity as the path toward a sort of immortality. It's only natural that people would therefore create a darker mythology around the deceased.

Perhaps we're seeing something similar, now, as medical scientists push back death's boundaries, winning battles in the fight against it. A people can only ponder even more distinctly what it means to lose the war against death when they've been told that it's feasible to win.

If humanity somehow manages to approach worldly immortality, I suspect that the dead will become a universally ugly breed. More frightening than any staggering-zombie movie can convey. I also suspect that fear of death will become an even more potent weapon against the timid.

The remedy and defense has not and will not change, however. As the song says, just remember that death is not the end. Presented with a choice of two versions of immortality, that spent with God is more enticing than that spent gripping the thin reeds of an attenuating version of life. At least in my book.