At the insistence of my son, who is a dedicated fan of both Pi and Requiem for a Dream (I only marginally enjoyed Pi and skipped Requiem), I went with him to see Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain (OK, I also agreed because I have crushes on both Rachel Weisz and Hugh Jackman). Without getting involved in an argument with any of you about this film, which has encouraged highly disparate readings from its audience, it’ll have to suffice to say that I was equally bored and intrigued, equally impressed with the story and repulsed by its pretensions. What I have been taken with, however, is the number of people I know who found themselves mulling over one of the questions the film asks: “What if you could live forever?,” and I’ve been wondering about what drives such an obsession.
Now, on the one hand, the answer to this question is obvious. The drive to live forever, or to escape all human limitations, arguably motivates all human activity. Indeed, Marshall McLuhan famously argued that we should see all media as “extensions of man” (sic), as routes by which we extend ourselves in space and time. For example, a phone call allows us to extend our voice in a global sense while recordings allow our voices to remain after our bodies have decomposed. In addition to prosthetics to allow us to replace “failed” parts of our bodies (e.g., mechanical hearts can replace ones that have stopped working), we work on medications to help us defy age. One recent MSNBC article discussed some of these medications and offered that we are entering an age where “life begins at 100.” So, in short, I understand why we are intrigued by the question—no one really wants to posit the limits of their own existence. This is why, according to some, we invent conceptions of heaven—such concepts are metaphorical prosthetics that allow us to continue beyond the limits of the body. If you take this line of thinking, then, most human “inventions”—ideological and physical—derive from some interesting in overcoming the human condition.
OK, so, there’s not a lot new to this; it’s in some sense the same navel gazing we all engage in from time to time. Here’s the thing, however: while I understand why any conception of heaven might be appealing in that we live forever unburdened by pain or limitations—it’s a high quality lifestyle, that--I’m baffled by our individual impulses toward living forever on this earth. Do we really think about what this would be like? Forget greenhouse gasses and limited oil resources—I assume people think we’ll solve both of those problems. No matter how many issues we find solutions to; we can not sustain unlimited populations of human beings. While I can understand why each individual wants to live forever, why the dickens would we all want to continue to live together, all while we continue to create new versions of ourselves, often far beyond the number we need to replace ourselves (how many people do you suppose only produce two children per couple?). It doesn’t lead to a pretty future: more people fighting over increasingly limited resources. What good could possible come out of such a scenario? Is living forever on this earth an unqualified good?
Well, of course it’s not, but what would it mean to abandon the search for the Fountain of Youth. I like health care advances; I like anything that makes my life more comfortable, my pains more durable. So, ultimately, how do we balance our desires to delay aging and death with a more sustainable planet? As always, I just don’t know.