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 four weeks, this chronological crash course will examine how humankind has striven for, grappled with, and dreamed about immortality in different eras throughout history.
Is immortality real? Depends on your definition of real. Eternal life isn’t into proof. It’s unverifiable. Intangible. In the hiddenness, as they say. That isn’t deterring anyone. The majority of Americans (between 74% and 81.1%, depending on the survey) believe in life after death.
One subsection of the unbelieving minority also believes in the possibility of everlasting life, albeit in a different, fleshly guise: they are hot for physical immortality. Those feverishly pursuing technological attempts to never die—the transhumanist billionaires and radical Plastic Omega life-extensionists, the cyborgian robot-cultists and extropian illusion-peddlers—are convinced that scientific breakthroughs will soon end aging and render us capable of living forever. Will we evolve into immortal data-people? Or is the singularitarians’ desire for Human Version 2.0 simply another way to assuage our innate fear of finality?
Whatever the narrative, stories about immortality are always attempts to manage death, to make sense of its loamy unknowability, to dispel uncertainty. Freedom means we can align ourselves with whatever mythology resonates, from pearly gates to nanobot foglets to nothing at all. Either way, immortality isn’t something we can fully resolve. It can’t be known; only believed in.
Thinking about immortality is akin to reading the verses of Li Shang-yin (713-812 CE), the T’ang dynasty’s most diaphanous poet. He cannot be grasped. But he can be felt. Consider these couplets from “The Wall of Emerald.”
The stars which sank to the bottom of the sea show up at the window:
The rain has passed where the River rises, far off you sit watching.
If the pearl of dawn should shine and never leave its place,
All life long we shall gaze in the crystal dish.
Or the conclusion to “Peonies.”
I who was given in a dream the brush of many colors
Wish to write on petals a message to the clouds of morning.
“Poetry presents the thing in order to convey the feeling,” wrote Wei T’ai in the eleventh century CE. “It should be precise about the thing and reticent about the feeling.” Shang-yin was an adept at conveying the feeling. What he was getting at, notes sinologist A. C. Graham, may have been rationally intelligible to his contemporaries, “but now survives only in its hallucinatory qualities.”
Just as contemplating eternity causes a kind of dizziness, his verses spin us into centerlessness. “What remains is a kind of presence,” explains Eliot Weinberger. “Like most great poetry, Li Shang-yin’s is always on the verge of being understood and is never quite understood.” To encounter his poems is “to succumb to a world where explanation is not provided,” adds Chloe Garcia Roberts, translator of his excellently-titled Escalating Derangements of My Contemporaries (forthcoming from New Directions). “What is important in Li Shang-yin’s poetry is not the actual but the perceived. Any attempt on the part of the reader to impose exterior logic on this glimpsed interiority will yield no clarity.”
The same can be said of immortality—a theme which (unsurprisingly) turns up in Shang-yin’s esoteric poems. He wrote about the refining of elixirs, about the transporting effect of consuming potions of eternal life, about escaping to pure spheres and immortal islands. He was as preoccupied with immortality as anyone in the T’ang era—one of the more outlandish epochs in the history of the pursuit of never-ending life.
At that time (from 618 CE to 907 CE), the idea of conquering death was an all-consuming obsession for the nobility. Five T’ang emperors are thought to have perished as a direct result of consuming Taoist potions intended to make them live forever. Emperor Xianzong popped alchemical concoctions that made him increasingly paranoid and demented. Finally, he became so intolerable that the palace eunuchs assassinated him. Xianzong’s successor, Emperor Muzong, executed the mountebanks who’d formulated the poisonous preparations by forcing them to take their own mercury and cinnabar-based medications. But then Muzong himself became an elixir convert, repeating the same mistake. His tenure lasted four short, pain-filled years. Sixteen years later, horror upon horror’s head, Emperor Wuzong, too, started popping longevity pills, becoming severely manic and “very irritable, losing all normal self-control in joy or anger.” Then he died. (That’s only part of the reason Shang-yin’s Escalating Derangements of My Contemporaries is such a wondrous title.)
They weren’t the only Chinese emperors to die trying to live forever. In 365 CE, the twenty-five-year old Emperor Ai of Jin overdosed on immortality drugs. Another early physical immortalist was Qin Shi Huang who, in the third century BCE, became the first emperor of unified China. His poison of choice was a mixture of powdered jade and rare-earth elements.
Chinese aristocrats looking for physiological-immortality potions could find them readily. By the second century BCE, attests a contemporaneous report collected in Joseph Needham’s magisterial Science and Civilisation in China, “there were thousands of magician-technicians in the regions of Yen and Chhi who glared around and slapped their thighs, swearing that they were the real experts in the arts of achieving the life of the holy immortals.”
These bug-eyed thigh-slappers were known as fangshi—chemical intuitives, recipe gentlemen, masters of methods. Sometimes they died imbibing their own mineral whimsicalities, but usually they lived cushy lives sponsored by wealthy, easily blandished patricians. It wasn’t hard to find buyers for something like “the subtle potion of the Flying Springs that brings one to the land of deathlessness, where the feathered ones are.”
The fangshi were canny salesmen. Beyond fluffing high-ranking officials’ already inflated self-esteem, they also hinted at side effects such as prolonged stamina and increased sexual prowess. Their drugs could make you live—and love—longer. Like all psychotropics, these chemical preparations bestowed an initial sense of euphoric disorientation. This transient inebriation foreshadowed a breakthrough to true immortality, the pushers explained, enticing their marks further. The more they paid, the sicker they became. Overdoses were portrayed as premonitions of eternity, temporary deaths reframed as portals into everlasting life.
Pharmaceutical tomes insisted that preparations be taken slowly, over time, unless one wanted to attain the unseen world immediately. “If you should desire to ascend to the heavens with all speed, the elixir is to be swallowed in a single dose; you will fall prostrate and die immediately. But if you wish to prolong your stay among men, you are to consume it little by little, and when at last it has all been taken, you will then find yourself an immortal.”
Given the pain of prolonged mercury consumption, though, it was preferable to die fast. One official who fell ill after taking mercury described the pain as being akin to having a red-hot iron rod piercing him from head to toe. He felt flames billowing out of every orifice and joint. He vomited blood for ten years. He woke from sweat-drenched fevers with mercury pooled in his mattress. Cinnabar addicts ended up with ulcerous lesions all over their chests. They’d begin as wounds the size of rice grains, then gradually swell. The users’ necks would expand until the chin and the chest appeared continuous. After every bath, cinnabar dust would seep out of the sores and collect visibly at the bottom of the washbasin.
Not everyone was suckered by these immortality blends. As one dissenter put it: “There is no such thing as the Tao of the immortals, ’tis but a fable of those who like to talk about weird things.”
Adam Leith Gollner’s The Book of Immortality: The Science, Belief, and Magic Behind Living Forever (Scribner) is out now.