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Fame, Immortality, and Memory

Do you care if you’re remembered after death?

The longing for immortality courses through ancient literature like lifeblood. Mortals seek unending life, as Gilgamesh diving for the immortal flower or Thetis dipping Achilles in the River Styx; heroes strive for undying fame in deeds of great strength, wit, or piety; and gods and humans alike hold out hope of death being reversed, whether through the magical restoration of body Isis accomplished for Osiris, or through an errand to the underworld, as Demeter went to fetch Persephone, or Orpheus his Eurydice. Through every ancient deed of daring, every speech of beauty, pulses the wild hope of permanence and the inevitable ache of ending.

But, to judge from my own students’ vitals, this pulse has slackened in modern veins. This past week, we began reading Paradise Lost, the epic poem a young Milton had dreamt of leaving to a world that “would not willingly let [it] die”; and so I asked my students to write about the creation or achievement that, if it were possible, would be remembered long after their own deaths. Many of their answers would have surprised an Achaean warrior—they wanted to discover new elements, create prosthetics connected to the nervous system, write a piece of music that wouldn’t be forgotten, cure cancer, begin foundations for clean water or international adoption.

But more than all these, the ancients would by astonished by the significant minority who said, “I don’t really care if I’m remembered or not.”

Forget the ancients—I myself was surprised, and questions swirled. Was this apathy or wisdom? Can you truly love life if you do not care for its memory? In any event, my plan to evoke a sweeping illustration of the “universality” of the human longing for deathlessness was quite crushed, and I began to wonder might have formed my students’ unanticipated response. Three supposals present themselves to me.

First, I wonder whether the Incarnation has much to do with it. Certainly the ideal of the hero drastically shifted following our Lord’s first advent: within a few centuries, the heroic ideal contained a lot more of the servant-leader archetype and a lot less of the glory-seeking warrior or self-sufficient magnanimous man—a shift that can be clearly traced in literature, and that remains with us today. Could it be that the impulse for glory-seeking was also transfigured by Christianity? The Christian exhortation to “set your mind on things above, not on things of the earth” takes the wind out of the sails of ambition for earthly renown; the Christian assurance of salvation in Christ mercifully deflates the need for men to save themselves; the Christian assurance of resurrected life beyond the grave—indeed, of all earthly life as preparation for that life—removes the pressure to extend this life beyond death. And any Christians like Milton, who still yearned for a lasting name this side of death, have clearly imbibed enough paganism in their classical education to overshadow the contradictory claims of their faith.

I think my students, if pressed, would offer Christianized explanations like these for their lack of care for their mortal memory. But secondly, and subconsciously perhaps, I think their attitude also comes of living in a culture of ephemera. How many things in a student’s life are made to endure? Immaterial ideals—fads in fashion, styles of pop music, trends in interior design, crazes for Silly Bandz and Fidget Spinners—are expected, even desired, to rush through and out of our memories; and the material things made in response to these, from clothing to appliances to playthings to mechanical pencils and plastic pens, are constructed with quality so poor and lifespan so short that we feel justified in replacing them as soon as we tire of them. We fool ourselves if we think that living in a landscape of landfills will not shape our longings.

But finally, I wonder whether the yearning for immortality is indeed a deep-planted human longing, which the Incarnation ought to fulfill instead of replace, and which even a culture of ephemera cannot wholly uproot—but which has been kidnapped and pressed into the service of a lesser craving: the desire for fame. Whereas the ancients wanted to be remembered after death, fame is a desire to be remembered during one’s lifetime (or at least, for a period of it). Fame is the fate of immortality in a culture of instant gratification. Celebrities and athletes have replaced the warrior and the poet in my students’ imaginations; and while the latter sought for an undying name, the former pursue a fame like fireworks—smoke and light and then nothing, a bright brief burst that the world will willingly let die.

In his Preface to Paradise Lost, C.S. Lewis writes that some say the “gulfs between the ages” encountered when reading old books are best navigated by concentrating on “The Unchanging Human Heart”—in other words, looking for the enduring, universal emotions and choices that are in our own hearts no less than Achilles’ or Aeneas’. But while there’s a place for this approach, says Lewis, it is ultimately inadequate, for “when you have stripped off what the human heart actually was in this or that culture, you are left with a miserable abstraction totally unlike the life really lived by any human being”—and, just as I did, it naively ignores the fact that what one might consider a “universal longing” is in fact quite particular.

Rather, “Instead of stripping the knight of his armour you can try to put his armour on yourself; instead of seeing how the courtier would look without his lace, you can try to see how you would feel with his lace; that is, with his honour, his wit, his royalism,” suggests Lewis. “You must, so far as in you lies, become an Achaean chief while reading Homer, a medieval knight while reading Malory, and an eighteenth century Londoner while reading Johnson,” for “you understand . . . humanity or any other universal precisely by studying all the different things it can become,” and the goal of reading is “To enjoy our full humanity [by learning to contain] within us potentially at all times, and on occasion to actualize, all the modes of feeling and thinking through which man has passed.”

This, then, is what I want to do with my students. It’s not that I wish they would trade the futility of pop culture for the futility of ancient paganism; far from it. But if these supposals do indeed trace out some of the reasons that my students cannot sympathize with the longing for immortality, then I fear it is not chiefly nobility but apathy that motivates them. I would not wish for them the life of Gilgamesh’s desperate striving, of Achilles’ bitter resignation—but even less would I wish for them to pour out their energies chasing the mirage of ephemeral fame, only to give up at the end saying it’s the next life that matters anyway.

What I wish is that, by stepping into the armor of an Achaean warrior, my students would be disturbed by the intensity of a yearning they have not felt, and would begin to see modern apathy as the oddity. I wish that, rather than seeing the Incarnation as a justification for listlessness, they would begin to grasp its fullness as the fulfillment of ancient longing. I wish that, counting this life neither too much or too little, they would love it, living both for the sake of “the third and fourth generation” of which Scripture calls us to be mindful, and also of the weight of heavenly glory it tells us we may be working out even now.

I wish that they, and I, would long to be remembered after death—by those who follow us, perhaps; but finally by our Lord.

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