Sunday, 12 October 2014

If you want to stay young forever, try jumping off a roof

In her dystopian novel “The Year of the Flood”, Margaret Atwood describes a place where women periodically go to get their ageing faces and bodies rejuvenated. They go there because they are frightened by the signs of mortality that their flesh exhibits. Yet when they come out, after all those signs have been removed for the moment, they are still frightened because they are already wondering when the whole thing might be happening to them again. “The whole signs-of-mortality thing. The whole thing thing. Nobody likes it, thought Toby – being a body, a thing. Nobody wants to be limited in that way. We’d rather have wings. Even the word flesh has a mushy sound to it.”
We resent being just another thing in the world, with its implications of limitation, lack of autonomy and true agency, passivity, and ultimately destructibility. We’d rather have wings, that is, some means to escape from our basic thingness, our being shackled to the material world, in which everything is subject to change, and everything is bound to perish in the end. Of course there is also a sense in which our bodies, made out of mushy flesh, are not things, a sense in which to be a mere thing actually appears preferable to being a living body. A thing may not be alive, but that also means that it cannot die, and if your fear to die is great enough, then you may prefer not being alive at all.

But perhaps it is not so much death that we fear, but ageing, that is the loss of our youth. “I hope I die before I get old”, Roger Daltrey once sang with The Who, almost fifty years ago now, giving voice to the anti-establishment sentiments of a whole generation, but also to the fear that one day one may end up being just like them, simply by growing up. I never really noticed there was a difference between the fear of death and the fear of ageing, until I read what Atwood wrote next, following the passage quoted above: “If you really want to stay the same age you are now forever and ever, (...) try jumping off the roof: death’s a sure-fire method for stopping time.” Is this just a bad joke, or is there more to it, some keen insight into the nature of our desire to stay young forever? That desire is, after all, (by logical implication) a desire to stop time, and if you can only stop time (for yourself) by dying, then the desire to stay young forever is tantamount to a desire to die. It’s a cleverly concealed death wish.

Unless, of course, eternal youth does not rule out change, so that we could go on changing, gathering experience, co-creating ourselves and the world we live in, without having to age. I don’t think that is possible, though, because it is not only our bodies that age. It is also our minds. To not age one would have to be like Peter Pan, the boy who refused to grow up,  who every night forgets what he has experienced that day and who remains forever untouched by the events in his life, which means that he doesn’t really have a life. And that is precisely why he ultimately represents death (as well as eternal renewal, which cannot occur without death). Atwood is right: eternal youth and death are one and the same, or more precisely: the one can only be gained if you are willing to pay the price of the other.

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