Thoughts of immortality enter most people’s minds before they cross the final threshold. Presidents think of their legacy. Actors imagine their hand prints cemented into a square on Hollywood Boulevard, and no tyrant ever failed to strike a heroic pose for a statue. On the question of a writer’s hope for immortality, Samuel Johnson was correct in saying, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.” I suspect he underestimated the number of blockheads in the world, however. (“From Here to Eternity by Michael Kinsley, Vanity Fair, April 2016, pg. 87.)
People seek immortality in a number of ways, as Michael Kinsley points out in his Vanity Fair essay. The super rich achieve it through charitable foundations or by purchasing buildings upon which they chisel their names. (Blog 5/18/16) Most of us settle for a headstone or an urn. Of course, none of these monuments, great and small, have the power to preserve our memory. Already Daphne Du Maurier, the most popular writer in her time, is largely forgotten. Fewer, still, have recently read a novel by Margery Sharp, a writer equally famous in her day.
Taking his cue from J. Jackson’s book, Those Who Write for Immortality, Kingsley notes if we are remembered, it’s thanks to our friends. (Blog 4/6/2015). Emily Dickinson would have died without fanfare except for the decision of those devoted to her to gather her scraps of paper and print them in a book. Having good friends also kept the memory of Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster and Henry James alive. (Blog 4/ 6/ 15) And there were others I could name. That these men and women were excellent writers helped preserve their memory, of course.
Friends may love us enough to hold us in their thoughts for a while, a warming notion to be sure. But death will come for them, eventually, and outside the light of consciousness immortality casts no shadow. One day, the planet may extinguish its life through climate change. Or be demolished by an errant comet. Or the universe may be split apart by dark matter. What’s more, Time is always at work erasing the present, unaware that one day it will succeed in erasing itself. That final disappearance is what I’ve always supposed Hermann Hesse meant by the cosmic joke.