Hanging On Forever

The deeply human desire for everlasting life

I once asked Jay Scott, The Globe and Mail film critic, a number of years before his passing from AIDS, if he was afraid of dying. “I’m afraid of not being alive,” he said, responding with his usual alacrity to loose ponderings in our tweedy arts ghetto at the newspaper. “There’s a difference.”

While some Buddhists discern little difference in being or not being alive, seeing death as simply part of an infinite churn, humans have echoed Scott’s concern since time immemorial: Neanderthals buried kin in a fetal position in anticipation of rebirth. We have run with remedies to extend life from harvesting the lichen from the skull of a hanged man (medieval superstition) to the transplanting of ape testicles onto human gonads (1920s science). Semang pygmies believed that having all bones broken and eyes reversed to look inwards would permit immortal access to breast-milk fruit on an island for souls. Barely less fanciful to those who insist on a strictly rational reckoning, a contemporary cryogenics movement freezes corpses with the notion that there will eventually be a means to reanimate them with personality intact.

If it sounds as though there are not always discernable lines between legend, faith and scientific adventure when it comes to the matter of what comes next, that is exactly the ongoing reveal in Adam Leith Gollner’s The Book of Immortality: The Science, Belief and Magic Behind Living Forever. A Montreal-based journalist who previously took readers on a global search for exotic edibles (The Fruit Hunters), Gollner goes calling at sites ranging from the nursing home of a priest who had taught him cinema in university to a tourist-trap fountain of youth in Florida to the Harvard Medical School. Along the way he encounters outlandish assertions about immortality or receives blunt admissions from clergy and researchers alike that the answers are not forthcoming. “The smartest longevity scientists in America are gathered here today,” one expert told him at the Harvard conference, “and none of them know how aging works.”

Gollner opens his book with the ultimate well-that’s-that pronouncement: “Immortality doesn’t actually exist.” Mindful of the need to secure reader engagement for the next 370-plus pages, however, he soon follows with “immortality is an abstract concept that helps us make sense of death.” It is from this premise that Gollner takes us on a somewhat improvisational journey among those who articulate the urge to evade death or be reconciled with it. As flagged in the subtitle, the book is divided into sections on belief, magic and science. The tasty irony is that since science is also caught without plausible avenues to endless life, all such impulses hinge on a form of faith, including the version that has us glibly extrapolating from progress in stem-cell research to an unlimited corporeal existence that leaves intact all the psychological tics that have already maddened our spouses for the last 20 years. Indeed, we are told that 70 percent of Canadians believe in life after death. In the long struggle between belief and knowledge, neither side can fully prevail.

Death starts as a mystery to children, one whose properties seep through inexorably to generate fearful wonder. When I was very small, my parents pulled the car over at some rural gas station where another vehicle sported freshly shot deer on its roof. “Are they sleeping?” I asked my mother, unable to understand the alternative. Jung counselled that we find a goal in death, Gollner reminds us, but that is an undertaking only for the ripest maturity.

Yet to the fear of not being alive, some forms of “immortality” have traction, the author allows. Worms eat our corpses and nourish the soil and thus new life; or our genetic presence is granted extension through children. But this is not what Pope Innocent VIII had in mind in drinking on his deathbed the blood of three boys who lost their own lives in a futile effort to continue his. Woody Allen’s non-joke on the matter was that he did not want to live on through his work, but by not dying. “We want immortality so badly that we’re always ready to be swept away into unthinkingness,” remarks Gollner.

This last point is readily bolstered with a quick trip to St. Augustine, Florida, where the sometimes pure tawdriness of the quest for endless life is on impressive—or is it depressive?—display in the putative Ponce de Leon stomping grounds. At the turn of the 20th century there, the tall tales of a woman best known to posterity as Diamond Lil (wife of Eddie “Easy Money” McConnell), drew visitors to pay 25 cents a glass for sulphur-inflected spring water. With its birth, rebirth and beginning-of-life-on-Earth associations, water is present in much mythology of our coming into being, but is sometimes overpriced even for a quarter. The St. Augustine site is in a ramshackle state today, with the water pumped from below ground rather than burbling above it like an ejaculate of divinity, and that town’s own historical society disavowed any longevity claims since 1929. The episode confers a kind of road-trip jauntiness to Gollner’s inquiry, although readers may wonder why they must tarry so long in examinations of unvarnished hucksterism, a global tradition in the peddling of immortality for millennia.

So the author provides his share of wry observations, but also does something slightly unexpected—he largely favours a tone tempered by respectfulness. On one hand, we see that science, or pseudo-science that passes as the real thing for a while, is as given to credulousness at times as any other belief system; on the other, the value of mythologies that underpin religious thought hinges on releasing factuality in favour of evoking faith. “We can’t understand,” says Gollner’s old teacher, the priest, of the life force, “so stop trying.” While rationality cannot access the unseen, Gollner tells us, whatever we cannot prove, we can believe in.

Gollner brings this courtesy to views such as an Islamic principle that physical immortality is unavailable but the immortality of the soul “is obvious.” A Hasidic rabbi tells him that life is a hallway in which we work on repairing the soul before it is housed in another body to repeat the process. Then again, it also turns out that mainstream Judaism is mostly unconcerned with an aftermath to death. And on the scientific side, some paths to continuity would be unattractive even if they were plausible. A mind-machine meld, for example; without sex or pizza, what is the point?

Gollner’s concession to the human need for belief is most apparent in the book’s central portion on magic, anchored by a long description of interactions with celebrity magician, David Copperfield. The star eventually permits Gollner to visit an exclusive resort he has created in the Bahamas, where there is talk Copperfield has come upon vivifying waters. Even in a billionaire’s luxury version of St. Augustine, there is something almost poignant in the way the master illusionist reveals his craving for the magic that operates on the unseen plane far from his triumphant stage shows. Gollner never gets to see these waters but permits himself a kind of yearning for them that transcends journalistic query.

But, as if with a whiff of the shaman Jim Morrison in his nostrils, he snaps back soon enough: “[Death’s] our condition, and we deserve to celebrate it. Death, too, is inescapable. It awaits all of us always. It’s our one true friend, our constant companion, our soul mate.”