To Transcend Death

To Transcend Death

August is Summer Reading Month in Daily Nutmeg, and Carlos Eire is this week’s featured author. Please enjoy this excerpt from Eire’s 2009 academic text A Very Brief History of Eternity.

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Death always intrudes rudely, uninvited; very few living beings ever consciously seek it out, even when they refuse to wear seatbelts and smoke three packs of cigarettes a day. Scientists affirm this concept, emphatically and without question. This is why no credible scientist has yet attributed the extinction of any species to mass suicide. Human beings in particular are not exempt from this encoding, which is crucial to the survival of all life on planet earth. We even pass laws making suicide a crime.

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Nonetheless, the fact that our preference for life over death is a survival tactic genetically encoded by nature in every fiber of our being does not necessarily make death seem any less rude to us, or repulsive, or scandalous, or unfair. And it is precisely this incongruity, this chasm between what we are compelled to feel and what we know must happen, that makes death seem so heinous and unnatural, and worthy of our contempt. And this scorn is perhaps one of our chief unquestioned assumptions, universally embraced. Who, for instance, would not resonate with one of the most famous poems of our time?

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Countless texts, both ancient and modern, offer us proof that human beings have been raging for a very long time. Sixteen centuries ago, when the Roman Empire was teetering on the brink of collapse, St. Augustine of Hippo gave voice to this sensibility, and to the ultimate unquestioned assumption, saying to his congregation: “I know you want to keep on living. You do not want to die… This is what you desire. This is the deepest human feeling; mysteriously, the soul itself wishes and instinctively desires it.” Three and a half centuries ago, in the earliest days of the so-called scientific revolution, one of the brightest minds of that day, Blaise Pascal, burned and raged against the human predicament with icy logic. Ambushed by death at an early age, he left behind only formidable fragments of what would have been an even more formidable book on the human need for transcendence. Many of these fragments touch on the absurdity and unfairness of our mortality. One in particular sums up his moral outrage over the extinction of human life:

Man is only a reed, the weakest in nature; but he is a thinking reed. There is no need for the whole universe to take up arms to crush him; a vapour, a drop of water is enough to kill him. But, even if the universe were to crush him, man would still be nobler than his slayer, because he knows that he is dying and the advantage the universe has over him; the universe knows none of this.

This is but one side of the coin, so to speak. In addition to raging, we human beings have also tried to transcend death in positive ways. No matter how brief our collective presence on earth has been, relatively speaking, we human beings have sought to do more than simply survive, thrive, and reproduce, as our DNA impels us to do. We have also imagined more than this, more than the birthing, eating, digesting, reproducing, and dying. Human beings have imagined something beyond material existence, something beyond space and time. Inchoately and precisely, and in myriad ways, human beings have imagined an enduring life, some state of being beyond constant flux and evanescence. Human beings have imagined eternity, a permanent state of being. Whether by means of rituals and symbols or of clear, cold logic—or anything in between—we as a species have been intuiting or imagining or constructing very elaborate and sometimes elegant conceptions of forever, of permanence and endurance: we have imagined and even pined for whatever is the opposite of transience and impermanence and the nothingness from which we came, which always engulfs us, on all sides.

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A Very Brief History of Eternity
by Carlos Eire
Where to buy: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | IndieBoundRJ Julia

Image, photographed by Dan Mims, depicts Carlos Eire in Yale’s Hall of Graduate Studies.

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