Immortality: what a daft idea

What's left for the super-rich to buy? When you have enough lucre to send a rocket into space all that's left perhaps is - immortality. The idea of living forever fills J. Attrick with horror. As it should anyone.

No-one wants to outstay their welcome. When I heard of the death of Peter Sarstedt in January, whose tinkly tune “Where Did You Go To My Lovely?” seemed to accompany my every damned school-bus journey in 1969, while I drooled over the gorgeous Corinne two seats distant (but a million miles away), you know it can’t be too long before you too check out.

Poor Peter never had such a hit single again. Before he went kaput at the age of 75, he endured a few years of misdiagnosis of dementia before finally being confirmed as suffering from a particularly horrible brain-wasting disease called progressive supranuclear palsy. If cancer or a heart attack doesn’t get you, some brain-rot probably will.

If you’re in your 60s, old enough to remember who Peter Sarstedt was, you are probably already thinking about what kind of end you might meet – and when.

For the 60+ generation, at least if you live in the UK, you’ve had it pretty good so far.

For the 60+ generation, at least if you live in the UK, you’ve had it pretty good so far. No major nasty wars that meant you got conscripted; medical advances have eliminated all the random killer epidemics; you probably have managed to buy a home; you might have a pension to fend off starvation and hypothermia; and pretty soon you won’t have to endure the cultural entropy all around you – the crap TV, the politically correct taboos, the gangs of shouty celebs, the dull-as-ditchwater popular music, the death of decent journalism, drowned by a click-bait tidal sludge.

Maybe that relatively comfortable context – shame if you were born in Syria et al – has prompted a number of uber-rich geezers to start whipping up dust and putting their fortunes into the search for physical immortality. For the life of me I can’t see why.

The idea of living forever has been the subject of many writers. Jonathan Swift got it right in Gulliver’s Travels. In the third part of his novel Swift spirits Gulliver away to several different locations. One of the places he visits is the island of Luggnagg, inhabited by the Struldbrugs, people who are immortal but nevertheless continue to age, and suffer all the progressive decrepitude of ageing. They are utterly miserable – and their only wish is that they might be allowed to die. Gulliver discovers that the Struldbrugs “at 90 they lose their teeth and hair, they have at that age no distinction of taste, but eat and drink whatever they can get, without relish or appetite. The diseases they were subject to still continue without increasing or diminishing. In talking, they forget the common appellation of things and the names of persons, even those who are their nearest friends and relations.”

In Greek mythology, Tithonus was granted immortality, but not eternal youth. So eventually he became incredibly old and withered, and was finally transformed into a cicada, begging for death. The Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges dealt with immortality in a short story: the central character becomes immortal by drinking from a particular stream. After centuries of wandering, complete ennui sets in, as there is nothing new left, only repetition. The immortal then turns to wandering the world in search for that same river, so that he can become mortal again.

In a world where people lived forever it would only be bearable if eternal life also meant eternal youth. Yet young people are rarely endowed with the kind of wisdom that, if it arrives at all, only arrives with age. Presumably the rich geezers currently making a fuss about searching for immortality also want to fix themselves at a certain age. Since they are all rather beyond that magical age of 40 – when wisdom might have accumulated, without potency having started to diminish – then their choice is limited to around 50-ish. Would you like to be fixed forever at the age of 55, even if you could stave off physical degeneration? There’s plenty of thoughtless science – and a lot of dollars – being ploughed into researching ‘rejuvenation biotechnology’, which holds out the ‘promise’ of eradicating all kinds of nasty degenerative ailments. But immortality? People who yearn for it really need to grow up.

For a moment’s reflection suggests that all the research going into the quest for immortality throws up as many problems as it purports to solve. Will it be immortality for all? Just some? By 2050, when the world will be inhabited by around 10 billion people (barring some new plague), will we really want immortality for all – or just a chosen few? As the French philosopher Jean de La Bruyère said: “If some persons died, and others did not die, death would indeed be a terrible affliction.”

The super-rich now embarked on their quest for futile immortality are stuck in their own sense of self-esteem

Yet even if you could guarantee that you would live forever, without your legs giving out or your brain turning to porridge, mathematics alone should warn you otherwise. When you are 10, a year represents 10% of your life; a year seems a very long time to a child. When you are 50, one year is only 2% of your life, and hence seems only one-fifth as long. When you’re 100, a minute will seem six seconds long compared to that same minute when you were 10. If you live for 1,000 years, a 50-year marriage spent with a woman for her entire adult life will have the same significance as the girl you momentarily lusted after on the school bus.

So it seems to me that the super-rich now embarked on their quest for futile immortality are stuck in their own sense of self-esteem. They have become so unimaginably wealthy that they are accustomed to getting what they want, purely because they have the money to do so. They might have billions, but they have no wisdom. Even if there were no ‘natural’ death, some ‘unnatural’ events would eventually snuff you out. You would be knocked down by a car. Or get caught in an earthquake. Or so bored to death that, like the Struldbrugs, you live a life of nasty, smelly, toothless, vindictive spite. Just what we really need, a world full of those.

The incredibly rich who now want to live forever should ditch their egos and listen to George Bernard Shaw: “What man is capable of the insane self-conceit of believing that an eternity of himself would be tolerable even to himself?”