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 two weeks, this chronological crash course will examine how humankind has striven for, grappled with, and dreamed about immortality in different eras throughout history.
In the late 1700s, a Scottish quack named James Graham, Servant of the Lord O.W.L. (Oh, Wonderful Love), became the talk of London for claiming anyone could live to 150 simply by making regular visits to his private clinic, the Temple of Health. Graham encouraged valetudinarians to rub themselves with his patented ethereal balsam. He also advocated earth baths, in which naked patients climbed into holes in the ground and were covered neck deep in mud. He spoke of the salutary effects of thoroughly washing one’s genitals in cold water or, even better, in ice-cold champagne. His most in-demand device, however, was the celestial bed, a massive stallion-hair-filled mattress supported by forty glass pillars that administered mild shocks of electrical current. Graham’s clients hoped the effects of “holding venereal congress” in the bed would cure barrenness—or at the very least help them live longer, if not forever.
Graham was only forty-nine years old when he died in 1794—a pivotal, auspicious year in the history of immortality. It was the same year that Blake engraved his Songs of Innocence and Experience with lines about being a happy fly whether he lives or dies, about immortal eyes in forests of night, about “that sweet golden clime / where the traveler’s journey is done.” What Graham sought in the physical, Blake found in the mystical. His visions showed him “what eternally exists, really and unchangeably,” that “which liveth for ever.”
1794 also marked the publication of Thomas Taylor’s translation of Plotinus’s On the Descent of the Soul, a third-century CE exposition on the eternal nature of the human soul. It opens with the following line: “Often when by an intellectual energy I am roused from body, and converted to myself, and being separated from externals, retire into the depth of my essence, I then perceive an admirable beauty, and am then vehemently confident that I am of a more excellent condition than that of a life merely animal and terrene.” The soulful Neoplatonic philosophies rediscovered by Taylor deeply influenced Blake’s conviction that “nothing ever dies,” notes Kathleen Raine in her magisterial study Blake and Tradition.
1794 also happened to mark the publication of Coleridge’s sonnet “To William Godwin, Author of Political Justice.” That year, still a student at Cambridge, Coleridge started making plans to create a commune in the Pennsylvania wilderness called Pantisocracy. The concept was indebted to Godwin’s utopian writings—hence the panegyric to the greatest immortalist of that epoch.
Godwin was married to Mary Wollstonecraft (their daughter was Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein and The Mortal Immortal). While Godwin also wrote novels, including St. Leon—about a nobleman who drinks an elixir of eternal life and becomes an immortal—he was best known as a utilitarian political philosopher. He discoursed on perfectibility, the Enlightenment notion that progress will lead to a time when people will never be sick again, when there’ll be no more poverty or war, when we’ll have found a way to make everybody never die.
Countless intellectuals of the time argued that humankind’s history consists of irreversible betterment. “The ultimate development of the ideal man is logically certain,” wrote Herbert Spencer. “Always towards perfection is the mighty movement.” The end point of evolution would be the advent of perfected humans—read immortals—in a perfect world. “The duration of the interval between the birth of man and his decay will have itself no assignable limit,” wrote the Marquis de Condorcet (in 1794, it so happens). Godwin felt that knowledge would one day allow us to indefinitely defer aging by maintaining the human body in a state of perpetual youth and vigor. “In a word,” he spelled it out, “why may not man one day be immortal?”
The question was variously received as “curious and somewhat embarrassing,” an “absurd and irrational assertion,” “a nonsense concept,” “foolish,” “an excessive and eccentric utopian ideal,” and “mere speculation that does not warrant a rational response”—as vol. 33 of the History of European Ideas chronicles. Godwin’s ardent enthusiasm regarding perfectibility betrayed him into “extraordinary and chimerical positions,” decreed the Analytical Review. Still, their editors granted, “we may be disposed to smile at their singularity and extravagance.”
In his famous An Essay on the Principle of Population, Thomas Malthus dismissed Godwin’s speculations on immortality as “the grossest and most childish absurdities.” He nevertheless felt it necessary to engage with them. “Many I doubt not, will think that attempting gravely to controvert so absurd a paradox as the immortality of man on earth, or indeed even the perfectibility of man and society, is a waste of time and words, and that such unfounded conjectures are best answered by neglect. I profess, however, to be of a different opinion. When paradoxes of this kind are advanced by ingenious and able men, neglect has no tendency to convince them of their mistakes.”
Godwin removed the line about living forever from subsequent editions of his book—although he still believed earthy immortality was possible. Other acolytes weren’t so sure. Early in their lives, both Coleridge and Wordsworth proudly identified themselves as Godwinians. They later renounced the affiliation, acknowledging that they had “lost their way in Utopia,” as Hazlitt had it. Wordworth lamented his “proud and most presumptuous confidence in the transcendent wisdom of the age and its discernment.”
It was a fascinating moment. With secularism and atheism on the rise, romantic poets became spiritualists. “The poets claimed for art the place in culture traditionally held by religion and philosophy, the place that the Enlightenment had claimed for science,” explained Richard Rorty. To Harold Bloom, these poets fulfill a basic need: “They perform for us the work of the ideal metaphysician.”
Percy Shelley, Godwin’s son-in-law, actively sought what Bloom called “the secret spring of things.” Shelley himself wrote of how “it is only out of laziness or cowardice that we take the objective world to be the real one.” He also acknowledged that trying to become fluent in a language that can’t be spoken may bring us to a place “dark from excessive bright.”
Keats got there, briefly, as the final lines in “Ode On A Grecian Urn”—perhaps the finest poem on immortality ever written—suggest:
‘Beauty is truth, Truth Beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.
To discuss that which can’t be discussed, Keats told of the “sensual ear” picking up unheard melodies, of seeing with awaken’d eyes, of sight in blindness. Fusing senses, Coleridge invoked a kind of aural-vision, a composite seeing-hearing, a light made of sound, a soundlike power within light. To versify his own half-seen intimations of a something beyond mutability, Wordsworth used what he termed an “obscure sense of possible sublimity.”
We come from infinitude, wrote Wordsworth, and there we end up: “Our destiny, our being’s heart and home, / Is with infinitude, and only there.” His “Ode on the Intimations of Immortality” calls birth a “forgetting.” Our soul forgets that it entered this world trailing clouds of glory from some immortal place. We can rekindle this connection through art: “Though inland far we be, / Our Souls have sight of that immortal sea / Which brought us hither / Can in a moment travel thither.”
Coleridge’s couplets repeatedly attempted to convey descriptions of the unseen world. The eternal speaks, Coleridge avowed, whether we can hear it or not, whether droplets of incommunicability melt enough to trickle into our imaginations, or whether locked up in frozen muteness. To allude to the metaphysical, to speak of the secret ministry of frost, Coleridge used symbols. In his definition, a true symbol is characterized “above all by the translucence of the eternal through and in the temporal. It always partakes of the reality which it renders intelligible; and while it enunciates the whole, abides itself as a living part in that unity of which it is the representative.” Symbols transport us beyond the expressible, he felt, launching us past the limitations of language into inexplicable territory. Coleridge characterized his attempts to describe the unseen world as his “abstruser musings.”
Byron mocked Coleridge for these efforts: “Explaining metaphysics to the nation—I wish he would explain his Explanation.” He also described Wordsworth’s “Excursion” as a “system to perplex the sages.” Still, on some level Byron could empathize. “To be a mortal and seek the things beyond mortality,” he sighed, is to be “convulsed.” And he certainly knew how that felt. As Shelley declared of Don Juan, “every word of it is pregnant with immortality.”
The romantic poets all had what Shelley described as faithless faith. As Bloom puts it in The Visionary Company, “Byron rejected no belief, and accepted none.” That didn’t stop him from trying to wrench something out of death that might confirm, or shake, or make a faith. In the end, though, all Byron found was the same mystery his contemporaries found. Whether in 1794 or 2013, we’re still bound by uncertainty. “Here we are,” wrote Byron, “and there we go—but where?”
Adam Leith Gollner’s The Book of Immortality: The Science, Belief, and Magic Behind Living Forever (Scribner) is out now.