A Brief Review of Immortality in Literature (and Film)

Jo Hedesan

One of the tablets of the Epic of Gilgamesh at the British Museum

It is perhaps not a surprise that the first epic poem known to humanity deals with the subject of immortality. The Epic of Gilgamesh (c. 1800 BC) has the eponymous hero, shocked by the premature death of his best friend, Enkidu, travelling in search of eternal life. Gilgamesh seeks out Utnapishtim (‘the Distant’) and his wife, who were the only mortals to ever be granted immortality by the gods. After numerous wanderings, he comes to their abode, but fails in the basic test that Utnapishtim gives him, not to fall asleep for seven nights in a row. Having thus proven his unfitness to be immortal, Utnapishtim sends his home, but gives him a consolation prize – a plant that restores Gilgamesh’s youth. Even this is lost, however, when Gilgamesh goes bathing in a lake; a snake comes and picks it up, shedding its own skin and becoming young again.

The conclusion of this poem is clear: human beings are mortal and cannot escape their fate. There is no solution to this reality, so one must accept it, with some consolation given in the fact that those worthy will be remembered in the following generations. It is true that there are two aspects that complicate this straightforward assessment. For one, the poem also allows for the existence of an underworld where the dead live, but this is a sad and grey existence deprived of pleasure. For the other, the unique case of the deification of Utnapishtim opens the rather intriguing possibility that humans could be immortal, though only some (or in this case, two) people can actually achieve it.

Tithonus being pursued by the goddess Eos, ceramic at the Louvre

The sense of doom that pervades most literature about immortality is unescapable. Many writings have analysed the subject only to conclude that immortality is fundamentally undesirable, and its pursuit ludicrous. One of the most pervasive themes is that of achieving immortality without the preservation of youth. This theme originates in The Homeric Hymns, which features the myth of Tithonus, a hero pursued by the goddess Eos. Tithonus demands, and lo and behold, is actually granted immortality, but doesn’t ask for eternal youth. The result is dire, as Tithonus becomes an old man who ‘babbles endlessly’ and ‘has strength no more.’ Mindless immortality strapped in a bed seems the stuff of one’s nightmares. Tithonus’ myth was reprised by several famous poets, like Sappho, Johann Gottfried Herder and Alfred Tennyson but its most famous retelling is that of Jonathan Swift’s satire Gulliver’s Travels. In his Voyage to Laputa, Swift describes a race of humans called Struldbruggs, who live forever but cannot stop aging. The mortals pronounce them dead at eighty, and their existence is pathetic and pitiful. The story of Swift gave birth, in the twentieth century, to a story by Jorge Luis Borges, The Immortal (1949). Here, the hero encounters a race of ‘troglodytes’ who live in shallow pits, naked, withered, indifferent and apathetic. But his story is not so much of one of decay, but of loss of interest in life, a theme that recurs in the twentieth century.

Unhappiness is another theme that is linked to immortality. That arch-defender of prolongevity, William Godwin, who wrote in his upbeat Enlightenment manifesto Political Justice (1793) that one day people could become immortal through the powers of progress, presented a much toned-down perspective of immortality in his novel St Leon (1799). His alchemist hero discovers the recipe of the philosophers’ stone and becomes wealthy and immortal, but his life is one of isolation and unhappiness. Godwin’s daughter, Mary Shelley, would also write her short story, The Mortal Immortal (1833), in a similar style. Her hero Winzy accidentally consumes an elixir of life and becomes immortal, but turns melancholy after seeing everyone else, including his beloved wife, grow old and die. He sets upon himself to commit suicide, though the success of his endeavour is by no means guaranteed and seems in fact impossible.

The first Czech edition of Karel Čapek’s The Makropoulos Affair (1922)

The theme of the boredom of immortality, which we already saw in Borges, had already occurred in Karel Čapek’s play The Makropoulos Affair (1922), which has particularly become more famous as an opera by Leoš Janáček. The play centres on Elina Makropoulos, who has already lived 300 years due to an elixir discovered by her alchemist father. Elina is adulated as a diva of the opera, but she has become incredibly bored, indifferent, and cynical. Although the story begins with her looking for the elixir to extend her life another 300 years, she eventually gives up on it.

The same theme also occurs in the third volume of Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1982), albeit in a tongue-in-cheek manner. Adams invokes the character Bowerick Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged, to point out the incredible boredom of being immortal:

To being with, it was fun… But in the end, it was the Sunday afternoons he couldn’t cope with, and that terrible listlessness which starts to set in at about 2:55, when you know that you’ve had all the baths you can usefully have that day, that however hard you stare at any given paragraph in the papers you will never actually read it.   

Still, Wowbagger does come up with a solution: he invents a game whereby he decides to insult everyone in the universe in alphabetical order. When he finally insults a being that is more powerful than him, the Great Prophet Zarquon, the latter kills him, ending his torment.

Such readings can make us conclude that there is no point whatsoever in attempting to become immortal, that immortality can only be accompanied by decrepitude, loneliness, and boredom. Can we imagine a circumstance where immortality can actually be happy and fulfilling? If we now briefly look back at the Utnapishtim story, there is no indication that the latter feels lonely or isolated in his private paradise. It is true that he is not alone there, but with his beloved wife, and he has commerce with the gods. There is another, recent example that counteracts the prevailing narrative – except it doesn’t come from literature, but film. The series Black Mirror (on Netflix) is usually known for its dystopian technological themes. However, in the acclaimed episode ‘San Junipero’, the ending is uncharacteristically positive. The two protagonists, Yorkie and Kelly, find themselves in a technologically-driven simulated reality made for the elderly and the dying. This place is a kind of paradise where the minds of the deceased can live forever. Yorkie and Kelly, falling in love, choose to live in this paradise forever. The fairy tale theme of ‘happily ever after’ finds here a technological embodiment. In other words, love can give sense to immortality.

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