But you know what? We have met. We have met right there on that page. A person who lived and died thousands of years ago and I met, because the words of that person were preserved long enough for me to get to read them. Now, there’s immortality for you!
כִּי הַחַיִּים יוֹדְעִים, שֶׁיָּמֻתוּ; וְהַמֵּתִים אֵינָם יוֹדְעִים מְאוּמָה, וְאֵין-עוֹד לָהֶם שָׂכָר–כִּי נִשְׁכַּח, זִכְרָם.
For the living know that they will die; and the dead know nothing, for they have no reward and their memory is forgotten.
Who are You?
What we mean by immortality depends to a certain extent on what we mean by “us”. Who are we? Are we our bodies, our brains, our minds or our souls? It makes a difference which part of yourself you identify with the most. Are we our words? Can a text represent us to future generations? For that matter, can it represent us to people whom we see face to face? Or people we speak to on the phone? People we know only online?
Is there a real world, and is it separate from the virtual one? Can we continue to live online long after we have died?
I’ve had the jarring experience of being told that someone enjoyed talking with me on the phone, because he liked the sound of my voice. He would call, and we would talk at great length on a great many topics, but he never remembered anything I had said from one call to the next. I asked him, if he wasn’t paying attention to what I had to say, why did he keep calling? “Because I like the sound of your voice.”
Can people be so distracted by the physical details of the bodies we inhabit that they miss the content of our minds? Can the sound of a voice or the touch of a hand or the shape of a brow or the scent of our breath mean more than who we are inside?
When we love another person, which part do we love? Is it their body or their mind? Can you love one person’s mind in another person’s body? If you had to preserve only one, which would you choose?
Life After Death: Who is Julia?
Who is Julia? is a not so memorable TV movie from 1986 based on the novel by Barbara S. Harris. I don’t necessarily recommend it for its artfulness or its subtlety, but it dealt with this issue head on, in a way that most current day mind/body discussions don’t.
I’m just going to copy part of the plot summary here from imdb.com, eliminating a couple of adverbs and adjectives as I go: ” A beautiful and wealthy woman is hit by a truck and nearly killed. At the same time, a very plain looking lower middle class woman faints and suffers brain death. The beautiful woman’s brain is fine, so doctors transplant her brain into plain Jane. Problems ensue when plain Jane’s husband continues to believe she is still his wife.”
The husband who believed he was married to the body and not the mind was striking in his pathos. Despite the fact that this is hardly great literature, I never forgot the movie, even though I saw it only once, because I think it touches on a really important point, and many, many relationships are based on this kind of misunderstanding.
Well, okay, I don’t mean that brain transplants happen every day. What I mean is: people mistake our bodies for ourselves. Not just husbands. Friends and family members — mothers, daughters, sons — often think they know someone, when all they know is the outermost shell.
Cyrano de Bergerac and Immortality
For the flip side of this dilemma, consider Cyrano de Bergerac, a French drama by Edmond Rostand. In this play, a woman falls in love with the words of one man spoken to her by another. Roxane is captivated by the eloquence of Cyrano, but only when his words are attributed to a better looking man.
Did you know that there really was a Cyrano de Bergerac? He was a French duelist and playwright, the author of many works, but today we remember him for the character with the big nose who appeared in the play by Rostand. The Wikipedia assures us that while the real Cyrano de Bergerac did indeed have a big nose, it was not nearly as big as Rostand made it out to be in his play!
Did Rostand immortalize Cyrano de Bergerac? Or was it the other way around? Do we remember Rostand thanks to Cyrano? Whose words were placed in whose mouth? Did Cyrano speak to Roxane through Christian? Or did Rostand speak to us disguised as Cyrano?
Does it matter who the author is or whose name appears under the title? Do we care more about the signature at the end of the love letter or the person who composed it? That is the question.
Immortality: Are we our words?
Men lie. Women, too. Chimpanzees are notorious liars. So if we are not our bodies, and we are not simply our brains, could it be that who we really are is somehow present in our words? If so, it isn’t really what we say that contains the essence of our character. It is how we say it, and what we choose not to say. And, of course, there’s also what we do. What we say in the context of what we do, and what we do in the context of what we say, is who we are!
Statue of Cyrano de Bergerac
The Immortal Word
I recently got into a really big discussion with some other linguists on Funknet. Many of them maintained that language is a series of connections in the brain, and that when the brains that contain the language are gone, the language dies, too, never to be resurrected. To these linguists, language spreads and is reborn every time it is copied from one brain to another, but in the absence of living brains, language cannot be stored or held in abeyance or kept or preserved.
I brought up the question of Hebrew. The Hebrew language was revived after dying out. There were no native speakers, and only written texts which were learned by rote kept the record of how the language was spoken. Some of the linguists told me I was mistaken, and that some people kept writing and speaking in Hebrew all the way through the middle ages. Others told me, okay, so it was revived from a written text, but that’s like “tracing over a palimpsest” and surely it’s not the same language. The “real” language was made of flesh and housed in the brains of its speakers until they died.
I disagree. Language is not made of flesh and blood. Neither are we. There’s more to every person than the body he inhabits. And while a text is not our soul, you can read the soul of the writer in the spaces between the lines. We know them by what they say, and even more by what they think goes without saying.
Immortality: Making Copies
I do think that making copies is the key to immortality. I just don’t think it matters what the medium of storage happens to be. We makes copies of ourselves, albeit imperfect copies, when we have children. Then we try to transmit our language and our culture and our ideas to those children, and this transmission is also imperfect. But that’s why we have books. Books preserve knowledge longer than mere word of mouth. And books in turn have to be copied over and over again or they are lost forever. The reason we have the Bible is because of the many scribes who generation after generation copied the same text over, letter by letter, word by word, whether they understood it or not.
The Bible is a best seller even today. That’s a major achievement for any book. It does not matter that most of the people who buy a bible do not even bother to read it, or that those who do read it ignore what it actually says. The reason I was able to have a meeting of the minds with the author of Ecclesiastes 9:5 and to agree with what he had to say about the dead, is thanks to the millions of people who may disagree with that verse, but who made it possible for me to have access to those words.
The words of the Bible, and of any other ancient text, come down to us in an unbroken line of imperfect copies. Sure, a few scribal errors are introduced here and there in the process. But the work as a whole speaks for itself, and when we read it, we are getting a message from people who died long, long ago. Their brains have been consumed by worms and have turned to dust. But the words they left us can still be read today. That is immortality!
(c) 2010 Aya Katz
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