To live is to die, as many before me have observed. Yet, due to humanity’s pronounced metacognitive abilities, we have both the ability and the desire to speculate, to question this most essential and inevitable dichotomies of existence, to wonder about a life divorced from death (the reverse being a logical impossibility), to ponder the concept of immortality through the vehicle of narrative.
I suspect I’m not the only person who counts TV Tropes as a valuable reference tool. It lists “immortality” as a “Super Trope” and says of it:
“Eternal life is ingrained in the collective human consciousness, having been present in literature and myths for as long as they’ve been around. Literally. The Epic of Gilgamesh (the oldest heroic epic known to the modern world) is, in large part, about the titular character’s search for a way to live forever.”
It then goes on to list some sub-tropes that relate to immortality:
– “Purpose-driven immortality” which involves “someone who is immortal to complete a purpose” that once fulfilled, results in the character’s dissolution.
– Tropes of “incomplete immortality”, such as Age Without Youth, Came Back Wrong and The Undead.
– “Retroactive immortality”, meaning a “character can die, but won’t stay dead.”
– “Biological immortality” which means a character is “immune to the ravages of time, although usually still mortal to physical injury.”
Of the last, the Elves of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth are an example. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Galadriel says to Frodo:
“For the Lord of the Galadhrim is accounted the wisest of the Elves of Middle-Earth, and a giver of gifts beyond the power of kings. He has dwelt in the West since the days of dawn, and I have dwelt with him years uncounted; for ere the fall of Nargothrond or Gondolin I passed over the mountains, and together through the ages of the world we have fought the long defeat.”
The Elves, as a species, fought the “long defeat”, encountering death only in one of two ways: either through combat or via an overwhelming grief.
Now, that phrase, “the long defeat”, is curious. It signals a somewhat melancholy response to the curse of immortality. But changing its final word reveals a link between mortality and immortality, a thread that ties together the mortal beings we are and know and the immortal characters of narrative that we create and love to spend time with.
Invisible Planets is a collection of short stories by Hannu Rajaniemi. One of the stories, The Viper Blanket, contains the following passage:
“I held Marketta’s hand when she died. It was a warm hand, even after she stopped breathing and closed her eyes, and her grip did not have enough strength left for me to know the difference between life and death.
“Remember to pray,” she said, just before the final sleep. It was good that she went like that, sleeping, even though I couldn’t say goodbye. But we had been saying our goodbyes for many months already, so maybe they didn’t have to be said aloud.”
Not the “long defeat”, but the “long goodbye”. That is what Rajaniemi’s character had been saying to Marketta, and that is what the entirety of existence—both mortal and immortal—amounts to. Every act committed as part of a relationship stands a chance of being the last; every place we go is also a place we must eventually leave; every instant we experience is also an instant that must suffer dissolution. In isolation, every moment of a life is a goodbye; collectively, life is a prolonged farewell to what is and once was.
Yet it is not all gloom. What we see depends on how we look. The long goodbye is also a long hello. One moment’s departure is another moment’s arrival. Every inch of a person’s soul you get to know doesn’t just fade and become part of an intertwined past, it also becomes a prophecy of collaborative exploration in the future.
Immortality is a long defeat; mortality a decidedly quicker one. But both offer, at the same time, countless opportunities to savour what has been and immerse ourselves in what has yet to pass.