Immortality, Five Years Later

My first WordPress article, posted in 2012, was titled “Immortality.” Five years (and a ton of writers block) later, I’ve decided to revisit this post to see how my thoughts have changed.

In a sense, we are all crashing to our death from the top story of our birth to the flat stones of the churchyard and wondering with an immortal Alice in Wonderland at the patterns of the passing wall. This capacity to wonder at the trifles–no matter the imminent peril–these asides of the spirit, these footnotes in the volume of life are the highest forms of consciousness.

This excerpt from “Lectures on Literature” by Vladimir Nabokov is a lot deeper than I originally found it five years ago. I had a very shallow interpretation of his words; that eventually we will die and because we don’t know when death is coming, we have to “wonder at the trifles,” otherwise we won’t have time to reflect when death does come. I related this to writing, in that it’s the only way to achieve immortality. We may die but our words will live on; our writing evolves with us and the only way to reach that highest form of consciousness is to continue writing and evolving.

Looking back on this blog entry, I’d like to think my thoughts are much more coherent when put to paper (well, computer screen) now. While my interpretation hasn’t entirely changed, it’s certainly much less shallow.

Nabokov is right: we are crashing to our death from the moment we are born. We’re never as young as we are in this moment, while it’s simultaneously the oldest we’ve ever been and we never know when there’ll be a stone with our name on it six feet above us in a churchyard. While we’re living, for the most part, we aren’t constantly in a state of existential crisis (though it’s certainly a common occurrence). We are “wondering at the patterns of the passing wall.” That is, we are in the moment and focused on what’s happening in our life as it is happening and has happened and we’re planning our futures despite not knowing if that future will come for us.

calvin-gets-existential
This kid gets it

There’s always imminent peril in our lives – just because we aren’t focused on the fact we’re growing closer to our death than we are to our birth – doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. I believe Nabokov is saying that human’s ability to not constantly be living in a state of existential crisis is the highest form of consciousness. We know death is inevitable and yet we are still able to enjoy the trifles, even if they are insignificant in the grand scheme of things.

But this is where I am uncertain if I agree (and also unsure if this is a thought I’ll be able to coherently express).

Is it fair to call events in life “trifles” just because they’re insignificant in the face of death? Yes, we will die. Yes, most of what the average person does with their life will make no difference after death. But unless you are specifically living your life for some sort of afterlife or are doing significant things that will impact humanity, isn’t enjoying your time on Earth the whole point of living?

Maybe it’s because I’m borderline atheist/agnostic and am doing nothing significant with my life, but I believe the trifles are all I have. I wont be able to take anything to the grave (or wherever they’ll put me after I donate my body) so why shouldn’t I wonder at everything? I don’t plan on having children, my family will be long gone (here I am, assuming I’ll live to be old) and I haven’t done anything significant that will leave a mark on the world after I’m gone. I will have no legacy. Everything I have done and will do are going to die with me.

But there’s my dilemma.

Everything is a trifle because it’s insignificant in the face of death while everything is simultaneously not trifles because it’s all I have to live for.

Is there any point of living if we’re only focused on death? Or is there any point of living life when death is the only thing we’re guaranteed?

Existentialism is a bitch.

Jean Paul Sartre on Existentialism and Indeterminism

“Humans are not only free, but condemned to be free; condemned to create themselves and their own reality.” Jean Paul Sartre’s quote addresses two theories: Existentialism and Indeterminism. He believed that man is not only ‘condemned’ to be free, but we also have the freedom to make decisions entirely on our own. I agree with Sartre’s theory of existentialism and indeterminism based on the fact there are numerous real world examples that clearly demonstrate humans have the freedom to make decisions free of external forces and can attribute their own meanings to the world around them.

Existentialism is the theory that humans are entirely free, and are thus responsible for what they make of themselves. Sartre was an atheist, which, I believe, influenced his diction in saying that we are ‘condemned’ to be free. Since there is no God, no moral laws exist; therefore individuals are free to make their own decisions and will be held responsible for the outcomes. A high school dropout, for example, isn’t forced by any outside factor to make that decision. They didn’t have any predisposition to doing it, either. Dropping out is a choice they are able to make entirely on their own, without the forces of anyone (i.e., God or the Devil) or anything (i.e., society) making them do it.

When Sartre said we are condemned to create our own reality, he was referring to the free will we have to make decisions and to deal with the consequences. Free will goes along with indeterminism, which is the theory that humans are able to make their own decisions based entirely on deliberate choices, instead of preceding events or conditions. Let’s say I have two test to study for: algebra and English. I can freely choose to study for one, the other, or both. The decision to only study for English instead of algebra had not been previously decided, therefore, I had the option to choose what to study for.

Sartre combines both existentialism and indeterminism in his quote. To further show how much evidence there is of both, let’s say you’re walking into a store and there is a man with a donation bucket sitting outside. What do you do? You could either donate money or ignore the man. There is nothing forcing your decision, it’s entirely up to you. Now, let’s say you choose to ignore the man. Was your mind already made up before you saw him? Or did you choose an option while approaching him? The fact that there is nobody telling you which to choose and the decision wasn’t previously decided shows that Sartre’s theory of existentialism and indeterminism are both likely true.

There are many arguments that can be made against both theories. Taking a look at existentialism, one could say that the government is a controlling force in our lives. The government enacts certain laws that tell us what we can and cannot do, and therefore we base all of our decisions on the expectations of this external force. However, this can easily be argued against. Laws are broken all the time. Humans are guilty of theft, destruction, and even murder. If government were really the controlling force in all of our decision making, then there wouldn’t be any crime at all.

There are also many arguments that can be made against indeterminism. If you look at Newtonian physics, the argument is that everything in the universe operates according to a fixed set of knowable laws. If a glass plate falls from a certain distance at a certain speed, you will (in theory) be able to predict how many pieces it will shatter into. However, if you look at the Copenhagen Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, it is impossible to predict where an atom will hit when being shot repeatedly from the same spot. There was no pattern; the atoms hit randomly by chance.

There are many examples in life that show humans are not being controlled or guided by any outside forces, nor is everything that happens based upon previous events. Existentialism can be confirmed from the ostensible ability of humans to attribute their own meanings to the world. Indeterminism, likewise, manifests itself in the practice of human understanding and can be freely stated to exist and therefore falsify determinism. I believe that Sartre’s existential and indeterminist outlooks are correct; this believe creates a world of opportunity, interpretation, condemned to experience cultivation from the mind. 

Immortality

“In a sense, we are all crashing to our death from the top story of our birth to the flat stones of the churchyard and wondering with an immortal Alice in Wonderland at the patterns of the passing wall. This capacity to wonder at the trifles–no matter the imminent peril–these asides of the spirit, these footnotes in the volume of life are the highest forms of consciousness.” -Vladimir Nabokov.

    From birth we start the countdown to our death. We never known when the “flat stones” are coming, but we know it’s inevitable. While we “pass the wall,” or go throughout our lives, we must “wonder at the trifles,” otherwise it will all be a blur when we reach the end. As a writer, this quote is the same. We start out young, vulnerable, and dying. We become immortal through our work; when the physical being is gone, our words live on. When we go through life our writing evolves with us. So, once we reach the end we will be at the highest level of consciousness, so to speak, and that spirit will be immortal.