BY MATTHEW HERBERT
In his short story “The Immortal,” Jorge Luis Borges offers one of the most arresting comments ever made on the human longing for eternal life. It’s a wish whose fulfillment would drive us mad and deplete life of meaning.
The story’s main character is a nameless Roman soldier serving under the emperor Diocletian. He has just returned to Thebes from the Egyptian Uprising in 298. Classically educated, he is an officer, second in commmand of a legion of 5,000 soldiers. Although his unit has acquitted itself well in several campaigns, the narrator has not tasted combat himself.
Aggrieved by missing the chance of proving himself in war—the peak of masculinity—the narrator sets himself an even higher quest, to find the mythical City of the Immortals. All the exotic cultures he has encountered in warfare over the years believe such a city exists, just over the horizon of what is humanly known. Our soldier sets out to find it, traversing “vagrant and terrible deserts,” getting lost “among whirlwinds of sand and the vast night.”
After bloody travails, the soldier finds the city. It is a wonder–a brilliantly lit profusion of “columns, triangular pediments and vaults, confused glories carved in granite and marble.” But, strangely, the place is empty of all life.
Free to explore the city’s vaults and staircases, “cautiously at first, with indifference as time went on, desperately toward the end,” the soldiers forms a series of disquieting conclusions about his destination:
“This palace is the work of the gods, was my first thought. I explored the uninhabited spaces, and I corrected myself: The gods that built this place have died. Then I reflected upon its peculiarites, and I told myself: The gods that built this place were mad.”
The soldier is even more right than he knows. On the wild approaches to the City he had encountered a country of troglodytes, low, barbaric men without language or culture. He assumed they were cursed occupants of a mythical landscape, men barred from heaven for their sins or ignorance.
But that’s not who the troglodytes are. Long ago, they spoke the most refined language; they built the immortal city and were its distinguished occupants. But living forever, or at least long enough to glimpse eternity, they discovered that, “over an infinitely long span of time, all things happen to all men.” Their shocking discovery? Life endlessly drawn out loses its moral aspect. Borges captures this paradox in haunting terms:
“Everything in the world of mortals has the value of the irrecoverable and the contingent. Among the Immortals, on the other hand, every act (every thought) is the echo of others that preceded it in the past, with no visible beginning, and the faithful presage of others that will repeat it in the future, ad vertiginem.”
Unlike in traditional versions of heaven, though, Borges’ immortals are free to leave, which is precisely what they do, renouncing the glories of immortality. In fact they recoil even further from glory, withdrawing to caves, divesting themselves of language and culture.
Although “The Immortal” is a work of art, not an attack on religion, Borges does draw his main argument to a rather sharp point against faith, which is this: the moral calculus by which the “traditional” religions bar and open the gates of Heaven is insanely out of proportion to eternity. We live our laughably brief lives, during which everything we do is of immense and decisive moral consequence. Our slightest mortal acts will, we believe, determine our destiny for all time. Think of Augustine worrying himself half to death over stealing pears.
Then we get to “all time,” a phrase we fail to treat with the slightest mathematical seriousness. Borges helps correct this error by pointing out that almost no one really believes in immortality when push comes to shove:
“I have noticed that in spite of religion, the conviction as to ones own immortality is extraordinarily rare. Jews, Christians and Muslims all profess belief in immortality, but the veneration paid to the first century of life is proof that they truly believe only in those first hundred years, for they destine all the rest, throughout eternity, to rewarding or punishing what one did when alive.”
This observation is true, as we say these days, on so many levels. First, the abstract. Contemplate life in the traditional Heaven. It would be an existence with absolutely no moral conseqences; our actions would have no rightness or wrongness to them. This loss of moral content would be disorienting, to say the least, since we lead lives that are entirely filled out by moral consequences. We are, so to speak, addicted to morality.
Think of it: everything you do in the here and now matters; some of it surpassingly—how you treat others (especially the vulnerable or those less lucky than you), what you do with your money, what you choose as a profession, how and whether you participate in politics, and so forth. If you’re lucky, you will die still engaged in some of those things, and with an assurance that they matter to someone who survives you. As Borges points out, they mean everything. But doesn’t this reveal the ridiculousness of the traditional formulation of Heaven? Wouldn’t such an arrangement lack all proportion? An unquantifiably small sample of our conduct will determine our metaphysical status for all eternity, an unquantifiably large span of time? It’s inconceivable. And, in fact, people do not conceive of life in those (deeply incoherent) terms.
To prove this, take a practical approach to the question. Find someone who is dying (not hard: we are all moribund) and congratulate them sincerely on their imminent passage to Heaven. And you must mean it.
Well, there seem to be ever fewer things that credit the human race with decency, but one of them is that virtually no one is obscene enough to take this exercise seriously. Our animal genes are alive to the real and permanent loss that death portends, and we experience this loss in solidarity with those who die before us. No one is actually boorish enough to tell the dying they are in for a good thing. Furthermore, it is worth bearing in mind that the sincerely religious would have to take this level of indeceny a step higher (if that is the right word) and tell the dying that what awaits them in heaven is unimaginably good, beyond our capacity to understand it or praise its author. This is a tawdry obscenity. Borges rejects it, and I reject it with him.
The Immortals flee Heaven in Borges’ story because eternity mocks their lives, it abolishes what they most treasure, the irrevocability of experience. In the Immortal City, everything repeats on a loop: “Nothing [there] can occur but once, nothing is preciously in peril of being lost.” I can think of no better phrase for what it means to be human: we face each day with things that are ultimately precious to us, in peril of being lost. The gods that would build another kind of life for us would truly be mad.