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Cheat Taxes, Not Death} ?> When I was young, I wanted to live forever. That would be so cool, I thought. I could use all that time to learn languages, read all the books I ever wanted to read, see all the movies I wanted to see. Let me be clear here. When I talk of immortality, I mean physical immortality. As in NOT dying. I’m not talking about an afterlife or heaven. I didn’t want to die. I wanted to hang around on earth and continue living this life.
Now, obviously my definition of “cool” left much to be desired, but I think there is something quite profound about my childish wish to live forever. Though I didn’t realize it at the time (I hadn’t gotten around to reading all those books), the desire for immortality is at the heart of various myths, legends, and stories: from the Gilgamesh’s question for immortality in the epic that bears his name, to the quest for the Holy Grail, to the stories of alchemy and the mythical fountain of youth. Many people have told stories about the search for a method to cheat that most mysterious of all human experiences, death. And I think that it’s that very thing that makes death so important: it’s something we all go through. They say the only two certainties are death and taxes. Well, some people have been able to cheat on their taxes. No one I know has cheated death.
And I don’t think my younger self was out to cheat death. I can’t remember thinking that. Certainly I am not aware of an experience of death that would have triggered that kind of response. I just felt there was so much to do. As I’ve gotten older, I still think there’s a lot to do, but my perspective on death and dying has changed considerably. In part, it has been shaped by science fiction and fantasy literature where those who attain immortality discover that it is a curse.
If dying makes me human (or at least alive), then not dying undermines that and cuts me off from my humanity. Back when I was in University, I read Mary Shelley’s “The Mortal Immortal” in which the main character Winzy manages to attain eternal life, but has to watch helplessly as everyone he loves get old and die. As I read this story, I realized that Shelley was highlighting an erosion of Winzy’s connection to humanity because he knows he will eventually have to mourn anyone he loves.
In the character of Voldemort, J.K. Rowling does as good as job as anyone when exploring the relationship between humanity and immortality. In order to cheat death—an end that Voldemort is afraid of—Voldemort learns about horcruxes, objects of the darkest magic in which a wizard can place part of their soul. Before a piece of soul can be put into an object, the wizard must fragment their own soul by committing the vilest of all acts: murder. In order to ensure his continued existence, Voldemort commits seven murders to rip his soul into seven pieces.
The effect of this fragmenting on his physical appearance is pronounced; he becomes animalistic and corpse-like, “tall and skeletally thin,” with a face “whiter than a skull, with wide, livid scarlet eyes and a nose that was as flat as a snake’s with slits for nostrils, his hands were like large, pale spiders; his long white fingers caressed his own chest, his arms, his face; the red eyes, whose pupils were slits, like a cat’s, gleamed still more brightly through the darkness.” In his efforts to avoid death, Voldemort loses his humanity, loses even the appearance of being human. In an attempt to live forever, Voldemort loses his human life.
If I no longer see the possibility of an end, where is the value in living? What would stop me from becoming jaded, hardened, and cynical? (And I mean much more than I already am.)
A number of years ago, I was at a funeral where the preacher told the congregation that dying “was part of life.” I don’t think that’s right. The more I think about it, dying is a key part of being human. That we don’t get an unlimited number of years to do whatever we want, that our relationships could end in the blink of eye, that we (God willing) experience the fullness of the seasons of life. That experience makes us human. Of course, I’m not saying “I want to die.” I’m saying, “I want to live.” I just realize that dying is an integral part of really living.
Michael teaches English Literature and Film Studies. He is a professor at Booth University College in Winnipeg and his other publications are scholarly works. He's published on Hitchcock, Alec Guinness and James Bond. He likes coffee. A lot. And Jonah Ray follows him on Twitter.