Stay the Course

Some second thoughts on immortality, which one organization believes may finally be within our grasp  

The first I heard of the Arizona-based self-help group CBJ was during a trip through the Midwest recently, when I opened up a copy of the Des Moines Register and saw the headline 'JUST SAY NO TO DEATH.' CBJ (the name comes from the first initials of its founders, Charles Paul Brown, BernaDeane, and James Russell Strole) claims that despite evidence to the contrary, it is possible for human beings to achieve physical immortality. To do so, one must have experienced something called 'cellular awakening,' which is achieved not through life-style changes or physical drills but rather through an altered state of mind—one that simply refuses to accept the 'death program.' 'Most people,' James Strole was quoted as saying, 'actually encourage each other to die, not consciously but unconsciously. We program each other, even from a small child, that you have to die some day, and we prepare ourselves for that because we live in a belief system that death is inevitable.' Strole also said, 'There is a support system for death, and most people don't realize that.'

The existence of a support system for death does seem hard to deny. Looking beyond the obvious—the funeral parlors and cemeteries and crematoria—we see the insurance companies, the doctors, the lawyers. And it gets worse. Examine almost any facet of social organization at all and you come to realize that it is actually premised on people's dying at fairly regular intervals. Consider the job market. The real-estate industry. The Social Security trust fund. Family structure. Organized religion. Much has been made of the ability of powerful interests in Washington—bankers, dairy farm-ers, the oil industry—to keep congenial policies inviolate. The death lobby must be the most powerful of all. No wonder immortality has been such a tough nut to crack.

Is physical immortality in fact possible? The article I read in the Register, which had been picked up from a Tucson newspaper, quoted two doctors in Arizona who were skeptical of the idea, and I'd probably put myself in the same camp. On the other hand, how do we know that some people haven't been immortal all along-changing jobs, changing languages, changing civilizations, millennium after millennium, even as they maintained a more or less constant appearance? This is the case with the protagonist of Leos Janacaek's opera The Makropulos Affair, who, in a life prolonged by an elixir, has had to change her identity with each new generation: from Elina Makropulos to Elhan MacGregor to Eugenia Montez to Emilia Marty. I would not be surprised to learn that Ralph Nader was also such a survivo—indeed, that he was turn-of-the-century personage we know as John Harvey Kellogg, the inventor of flaked cereal and a promoter of colonic irrigation. I would also not be surprised to learn that Ed McMahon, George Hamilton, and Cher had been alive since the dawn of time, or that Jeane Kirkpatrick was previously the people known to history as Catherine de Medicis, Caligula, and the Maid of Kent. So it may be that immortality has been around for a long while, and most of us just never knew it.

If physical immortality were possible, would it also be desirable? This is one of those questions on which snap judgment and mature reflection may never be reconciled. As an abstract proposition we would all, I guess, like to live forever, but what happens when one gets down to cases? A considerable portion of the world's literature has in fact been devoted to the subject of immortality, and I spent a few days recently conducting an informal survey. The results were in an odd way reassuring. Although some of the literature, including much recent science fiction, turns out to be in favor of physical immortality, most of it focuses on the darker side of living forever and at least implicitly makes the argument for life—and death—as we know it. Message: Stay the course.

From antiquity to the present day, the dark literature has spoken with one voice. Tamper with the rhythms of nature and something inevitably goes wrong. Consider the oft-cited story of Tithonous, in Greek mythology. Eos, the goddess of dawn, asks Zeus to make Tithonous, her lover, immortal. Zeus complies. Eos has forgotten, however, to request perpetual youth for Tithonous in addition to immortality. Tithonous, though immortal, becomes progressively more feeble and senescent. The problem of immortality without perpetual youth shows up again and again. It is the fate, for example, of the struldbrugs in Gulliver's Travels, and after an encounter with these hideous creatures Lemuel Gulliver writes, 'The reader will easily believe, that from what I had heard and seen, my keen appetite for perpetuity of life was much abated.'

Still, there are a lot of characters in literature who have been endowed with immortality and who do manage to keep their youth. Unfortunately, in many cases nobody else does. Spouses and friends grow old and die. Societies change utterly. The immortals, their only constant companion a pervading loneliness, go on and on. This is the pathetic core of legends like those of the Flying Dutchman and the Wandering Jew. In Natalie Babbitt's Tuck Everlasting, a fine and haunting novel for children, the Tuck family has inadvertently achieved immortality by drinking the waters of a magic spring. As the years pass, they are burdened emotionally by an unbridgeable remoteness from a world they are in but not of. In one scene Pa Tuck tries to explain to a girl named Winnie, who is not immortal, that living forever is no great blessing. Winnie has just stated stoutly that she does not want to die:

'No,' said Tuck calmly. 'Not now. Your time's not now. But dying's part of the wheel, right there next to being born. You can't pick out the pieces you like and leave the rest. Being part of the whole thing, that's the blessing. But it's passing us by, us Tucks. Living's heavy work, but off to one side, the way we are, it's useless, too. It don't make sense. If I knowed how to climb back on the wheel, I'd do it in a minute. You can't have living without dying. So you can't call it living, what we got. We just are, we just be, like rocks beside the road.'

To the loneliness one must surely add weariness. In Japanese mythology the character Wa-So goes out fishing one day and is suddenly caught in a storm. His boat washes up on a distant shore—the Land of Immortality—whose inhabitants know neither illness nor death. What they do know is a boredom so intense that they pray desperately to the god of death to put an end to their lives-desperately, and in vain. George Bernard Shaw eloquently argued the merits of ever greater longevity in his Back to Methuselah, but the playwright himself, age ninety-four, waiting impatiently to die, could be overheard muttering in his garden about 'this damned vitality of mine.'

The prospect of being overcome by an unbearable weariness runs through much of the immortality literature, and I suspect that few will find the notion implausible. Most of us have had experiences that offer a fleeting hint of what eternity could hold. I have scarcely completed my fourth decade, and yet already certain regular occurrences unfailingly bring on a grim languor, a sense of having been worn down as if by drops of water. I experience such feelings, for example, every time a joyous beer commercial is shown on television. I experience them when exposed to imitations of James Cagney, to the sound of the snooze alarm going off for a second time, to the discovery on the radio of yet another redoubt of classic rock. For some reason I experience them whenever I hear aging actors on talk shows refer coyly in anecdotes to 'Larry' ('Larry and I were doing Coriolanus in Shropshire, and— well, he had this scarf—and our little joke was...'). I could no doubt endure another hundred years or so of all these things. But an eternity?

Coming to the conclusion that physical immortality could be something we don't really want may, of course, be making a virtue of necessity. Judging from material I was sent by the group CBJ, at least 15,000 people on five continents have not come to that conclusion. Those people have taken the pledge—have just said no to death. Last summer many of them gathered in Arizona for a Convergence to celebrate 'an awakening of the body to its true and natural state of being'—that is, physical immortality. Whether the future they are heading into is one of happiness and fulfillment or dystopian anomie remains to be seen. They will certainly have plenty of time for second thoughts.

As for the leaders of CBJ, I hope they can be prevailed upon to keep the overall numbers down. Immortality may be a manageable life-style option for some small percentage of humanity, but if embraced by the species as a whole, it would obviously wreak havoc. Even leaving aside the most obvious drawbacks—overpopulation, resource depletion, pollution—think of the potential strain on personal relationships of every kind. Think of how arduous certain tasks would eventually become—remembering names, planning a wedding, breaking into show business. Think of what successive editions of Gail Sheehy's Passages would be like as we surpass age 100, 200, 1,000.

You can say what you will about the 'death program,' but it sure is good at what it does.