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Posts Tagged ‘Immortality’

What’s the Use?

July 21, 2015 | by

Celebrity and oblivion in the Goncourt brothers.

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Edmund and Jules Goncourt.

Few documents provide as comprehensive—or as caustic—a view of celebrity as the diary of the Goncourt brothers, Jules and Edmond. Chronicling literary Paris from 1851 to 1896, The Journal of the de Goncourts features enough searing bons mots and scandal mongering to make Gawker look like a Sunday school brochure. In one entry from 1852, the famed cross-dressing novelist and amoureuse George Sand threatens to “publish an account” of the behavior of her son-in-law, the sculptor Clésinger; he is quick to reply: “then I’ll do a carving of your backside. And everybody’ll recognize it.” The novelist, playwright, and bohemian Villiers de l’Isle-Adam is described as having “the face of an opium addict or a masturbator”; Edmond de Goncourt dismisses Oscar Wilde’s homosexuality, like his poetry, as a “plagiarism from Verlaine.”

Whether or not one is familiar with the poets, novelists, and absintheuses of Haussmannian Paris, to read the Goncourt brothers is to plunge headlong into a world of bitter rivalries and bitterer friendships, in which every gathering around a café table on the Grands Boulevards is a chance to raise one’s status in the byzantine literary hierarchy. “Here,” as Christopher Isherwood put it, “gossip achieves the epigrammatic significance of poetry.” Of course, such a cynical, self-satisfied perspective can grate. André Gide, writing on the Goncourts’ novels, excoriated their style as pathologically shallow—a Perez Hilton of the Passages des Panoramas: “It is impossible to read a page by them where that good opinion they have of themselves does not burst out from between the lines.” Read More »

Where Have All Our Zawns Gone? and Other News

February 27, 2015 | by

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William Trost Richards, Rocky Cliff with Stormy Sea Cornwall, 1902.

  • Aquabob, clinkerbell, daggler, cancervell, ickle, tankle, shuckle, crottle, doofers, honeyfur, zawn the English language has historically teemed with vivid, precise words to describe the landscape and natural phenomena. So what happened to all of them?It is clear that we increasingly make do with an impoverished language for landscape. A place literacy is leaving us. A language in common, a language of the commons, is declining.”
  • On the shifting sands of literary fame: “It would be hard to find a poet, in the twenty-first century, who openly claims to write for glory, fame, or immortality. Yet the idea that great poetry was the surest way to achieve fame and outwit death has been very long-lived … Why has this dream of immortality vanished from contemporary literature? One reason, surely, is that in the twentieth century human beings faced a distinctively new uncertainty about the very existence of posterity.”
  • William Powell published The Anarchist Cookbook in 1971, when he was only nineteen. Thus ensued a very unanarchic quest, on his part, to remove it from print, as it tarnished his reputation and took on a new life as a terrorist ur-text: “All hippies at one time or another renounce themselves. Sooner or later they put a tie and a coat on.”
  • A new exhibition celebrates the work of Paul Rand, who designed the iconic logos for IBM, Westinghouse, and Enron, among others—and who, “like Charles and Ray Eames, spread a bright and cheerful image of pax Americana.”
  • The pioneering romance novelist Bertrice Small died on Tuesday, leaving behind an oeuvre of “bold sexual storytelling.” “Her best-known work was the Skye O'Malley series, which starred a swashbuckling pirate queen who commanded her own fleet and once bested Queen Elizabeth I in a battle of wits.” A friend said, “I had the pleasure of knowing Bertrice personally and I’m proud to say she was a true ‘broad’ in the very best tradition of the term.”

Youth, Eternal Life, and Other News

March 19, 2014 | by

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Garuda, the “vahana” of Vishnu, returning with a vase of Amrita, a nectar thought to bestow immortality. A drawing by an unknown artist, ca. 1825.

  • Some writers—the white male ones, mostly—expect to attain immortality through their work. Others simply write about eternal life.
  • And others still must wait for the afterlife for their work to get the attention it deserves. Walter Benjamin, for instance, was “all but forgotten in the years leading up to his death … his name had been kept alive by a small number of friends and colleagues, the kind of trickle of a readership that hardly suggested he would one day be counted among the most significant and far-ranging critics, essayists, and thinkers of the past 100 years.”
  • But the ebb and flow of critical reputation is almost a given these days, when we’re always developing provocative new rubrics with which to classify our writers. E.g.: “As novelists spend much of their day watching the grass grow, it is only logical that they can be defined according to their landscaping technique. Thus Donald Antrim is a push-mower novelist, while Rachel Kushner is a ride-mower novelist.”
  • There were not always “teenagers.” A new documentary examines the peculiar history of the concept, which was “the result and invention of adolescent girls … There is a kind of sexist quality to it as well, a crucifixion of the young female figure.”
  • As Ukraine becomes the nexus of geopolitics, pickup artists worry about the implications for getting laid. Would EU membership make Ukrainian women more independent, and thus more difficult to seduce? “Kiev’s pussy paradise potential has been permanently damaged … It’s very sad.”

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The Immortality Chronicles, Part 7

September 30, 2013 | by

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What have we not done to live forever? Adam Leith Gollner’s research into the endless ways we’ve tried to avoid the unavoidable is out now as The Book of Immortality: The Science, Belief, and Magic Behind Living Forever. Over the past seven weeks, this chronological crash course has examined the ways humankind has striven for, grappled with, and dreamed about immortality in different eras throughout history. This is the final installment.

You have to get old. Don’t cry, don’t clasp your hands in prayer, don’t rebel; you have to get old. Repeat the words to yourself, not as a howl of despair but as the boarding call to a necessary departure. —Colette, Les Vrilles de la Vigne

In 1927, before Charles Lindbergh set off across the Atlantic Ocean, newspapers described the flight as a guaranteed “rendez-vous with death.” While the Spirit of St. Louis hummed toward France, human-formed phantoms and vapor-like spirits materialized before Lindbergh’s eyes. These “inhabitants of a universe closed to mortal men” spoke to him, reassuring him and helping him find his way. This inner experience, he wrote, seemed to penetrate beyond the finite. It was an epiphany that guided the rest of his life.

After his pioneering flight, he received millions of letters, thousands of poems, countless gleaming accolades. Whole cities attended parades in his honor. Wing-walking skywriters spelled HAIL LINDY high in the air. Former secretary of state and later U.S. Supreme Court chief justice Charles Evans Hughes gave a speech in New York heralding “science victorious.”

In the euphoria’s wake, having managed one impossibility, Lindbergh wondered if he mightn’t help solve another. Working alongside Nobel Prize–winning cell biologist Alexis Carrel (who claimed, erroneously, that cells divide endlessly and are therefore naturally immortal), Lindbergh came to question whether death is “an inevitable portion of life’s cycle,” musing that perhaps scientific methods could hasten the arrival of bodily immortality.

Lindbergh had been raised to believe that “the key to all mystery is science.” The idea that science will allow men to become gods was instilled in him by his grandfather, a well-known surgical dentist. For postflight Lindbergh, solving the basic mystery of death seemed only as challenging as flying across the sea. It just meant doing what people said couldn’t be done. Yet as he aged, and as his experiments didn’t yield the hoped-for results, he began questioning his desire for immortality. He became an environmentalist, spending time in the wilderness and observing cycles of life and death in nature. Read More »

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The Immortality Chronicles, Part 6

September 23, 2013 | by

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What have we not done to live forever? Adam Leith Gollner’s research into the endless ways we’ve tried to avoid the unavoidable is out now as The Book of Immortality: The Science, Belief, and Magic Behind Living Forever. Over the past six weeks, this chronological crash course has examined the ways humankind has striven for, grappled with, and dreamed about immortality in different eras throughout history. This week explores the nineteenth century. The final installment will run next Monday.

The only secret people keep
Is Immortality.

—Emily Dickinson, poem number 1748

Last week, Google launched Calico, a new company dedicated to fighting “aging and associated diseases.” The idea of aging as a curable disease (rather than a fact of life) can be traced back to the work of Charles Édouard Brown-Séquard (1817–94), the first medical scientist to make the idea of comprehending—if not controlling—aging a respectable aim.

Not much remembered today, Brown-Séquard was the chair of physiology at the Collége de France, one of the most prestigious appointments in nineteenth-century medicine. He is still known for successfully describing Brown-Séquard syndrome, a paralysis caused by severed spinal cords. His late-period research, however, occupies one of the more bizarre footnotes in medical history: toward the end of a distinguished career, he stunned the scientific community by announcing that he’d found a glandular elixir of eternal youth.

His speech on June 1, 1889, at the assembly of Paris’s Société de Biologie, is widely considered to mark the commencement of gerontology. (Gerontology, from geron, meaning “old man” in Greek, is the systematic study of aging.) Most members of the society were in their seventies, as was the swarthy, six-foot-four, bushy-bearded gentleman onstage. In unscheduled introductory remarks, Brown-Séquard confessed that his natural vigor had declined considerably over the last decade.

At that time, many scientists felt that old age was not a natural phenomenon, so a murmur of commiseration rippled through the room. Those graying authorities knew full well what it meant to grow elderly and infirm, nodding as Brown-Séquard lamented his own chronic pain—the lassitude, the insomnia, and, most delicate of all, the decline of his manliness. He had a pretty young wife, he was rich, successful, accomplished—et quand même. Read More »

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The Immortality Chronicles, Part 4

September 9, 2013 | by

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What have we not done to live forever? Adam Leith Gollner’s research into the endless ways we’ve tried to avoid the unavoidable is out now as The Book of Immortality: The Science, Belief, and Magic Behind Living Forever. Every Monday for the next three weeks, this chronological crash course will examine how humankind has striven for, grappled with, and dreamed about immortality in different eras throughout history.

During the Middle Ages, every alchemist worth his saltpeter tried to find the philosopher’s stone, the water stone of the wise, the miraculous stone that is no stone. It was the means to transmute base metals into gold and—more importantly—concoct elixirs of immortality.

The word is Arabic in origin: al-kimia, al-khymia, or al-kīmyā. It’s how chemistry begins. Science as we now conceive it did not exist in the medieval period. (The word scientist only became commonplace in the nineteenth century, after Cambridge University historian William Whewell coined the term in 1833.) Instead, there was natural magic and philosophy—and alchemy, the experimental attempt to combine different elements and uncover the factual mysteries of nature. Read More »

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