March 14, 2012

Defying death at every turn

By Stephen Cave
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Imagine you’re walking the corridors of a dusty museum. A docent approaches and leads you to an exhibit showcasing artifacts from ancient Egypt. Suddenly, the docent transforms into Osiris, Egyptian god of the afterlife. He opens a dimly lit display case, reaches for a clay urn and offers it to you, telling you that it has the power to grant everlasting life. Would you grab hold? Or would you consider the consequences?

In his ambitious and engrossing new book, Immortality, Stephen Cave invites us to reflect on the implications of perpetual existence, arguing that whether we know it or not, every decision we make is driven by our desire to outlast death. Part historical narrative, part philosophical treatise, Immortality examines the spectrum of human accomplishment through the unique lens of our collective obsession with living forever.

Cave’s fascinating study identifies four imperatives—what he calls the “immortality narratives”—which account for nearly every feature of civilization, from advances in modern medicine to the development of sophisticated religious systems, politics and the arts. These “immortality narratives” include our biological will to survive, foundational myths of bodily resurrection, the notion of “soul” or spiritual essence, and our culture, defined here as the material legacies we leave behind for future generations. Cave makes the case for understanding civilization via these immortality narratives by supporting them with rich historical anecdotes. For example, in order to illustrate how the biological survival narrative manifests today—like, say, the popular belief in the purported health benefits of Greek yogurt—Cave recounts tales from ancient China about the Emperor Qin’s quest for a magic serum capable of prolonging life indefinitely.

These anecdotes read more like excerpts from an adventure novel than evidence supporting hard scholarship. While Cave was trained as a philosopher—in fact, Immortality grew from his doctoral work at Cambridge—he has spent much of his career writing features for newspapers like the New York Times and the Guardian. The way he seamlessly blends theory, research and narrative into a coherent and accessible whole testifies to the breadth of his talents as a writer.

The greatest strength of Immortality, then, is its capacity to appeal to readers of all stripes. You won’t need a degree in philosophy to find Cave’s argument compelling, or to appreciate the fifth “immortality narrative” he proposes in his concluding remarks, which is by any measure an elegant and appropriate solution to the problem he sets out. At one point or another we’ve all asked ourselves whether we would take Osiris’ urn if given the chance. We all share in our mortality, and reading Cave’s text reminds us that we each have a stake in the great traditions, legacies and narratives our civilization has built to keep death at bay.

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By Stephen Cave
ISBN 9780307884916

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