June 2006

The Nation Reviewed

Memento mori

By Simon Leys
Memento mori

Do you grieve at the thought that your life must come to an end? The alternative could be worse – Swift showed it convincingly in Gulliver’s Travels. Arriving in Luggnagg, Gulliver heard of the existence of “Immortals” among the local population. From time to time a child is born with a large round mark on his forehead, a sure sign that he is a “Struldbrugg”: he will never die. This phenomenon is not hereditary; it is purely accidental – and extremely rare. Gulliver is transported with wonderment: so, there are some humans that are spared the anguish normally attached to our condition. These Struldbruggs must be able to store a prodigious wealth of moral and material resources through the ages – a treasure of knowledge, experience and wisdom!

In the face of Gulliver’s enthusiasm, his hosts can scarcely hide their smiles. Though the Struldbruggs are indeed immortal, they do age: after a few centuries they have lost their teeth, their hair, their memory; they can barely move; they are deaf and blind; they are hideously shrunken with age (the appearance of women is especially ghastly). The natural transformation of language deprives them of all means of communication with the new generations; they become strangers in their own society; burdened with all the miseries of old age, they survive endlessly in a state of desolate stupor. The progress of medicine provides us today with good illustrations of Swift’s vision.

Recently, browsing again through Albert Speer’s Spandau Diaries, I came across an intriguing passage. In the seventeenth year of his imprisonment, Speer noted: “Today I read in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons a sentence that strangely paraphrases my recent bout of calculations [to fight his crushing boredom, Speer devised elaborate mathematical variations on the remaining time of his sentence]: ‘In prison, time is said to flow even more quickly than in Russia.’ How time must have slowed down in Russia these days!” Perchance, I had just been re-reading Fathers and Sons, and the passage in question actually says the exact opposite. Turgenev describes a middle-aged man who was abandoned by his mistress; broken-hearted, he returned to Russia, where “he no longer expected anything much of himself or of others, and he undertook nothing new”; he aged in loneliness, boredom and bitterness. “Ten years passed in this way – drab, fruitless years, but they sped by terribly quickly. Nowhere does time fly as it does in Russia; in prison, they say, it flies even faster.” Turgenev states clearly that, in the emptiness of the days, time passes at lightning speed. For Speer, however, who was still young and possessed of a fierce vitality, the enforced inaction of prison life was a torture; instinctively he misread Turgenev’s statement as an ironic way of saying: time passes slowly in Russia, nearly as slowly as it does in jail.

Alexis Carrel, in his classic L’homme, cet inconnu (Man the Unknown), analysed the difference between chronological time (the solar time measured by chronometers and calendars), which is immutable and exterior to man, and interior time, which differs with each individual, and within every individual from one age to the other. For instance, in early childhood a year is of seemingly endless duration, for it overflows with physiological events (growth) and psychological events (the uninterrupted absorption of new information and impressions). As one grows older these stimulations become fewer – Evelyn Waugh, lamenting the increasing difficulty of inventing new plots for novels, noted, “Nothing that happens to one after the age of 40 makes any impression” – and it results in an acceleration of time, which rushes through this yawning emptiness.

At the age of 79, Tolstoy observed in his diary that only children and old people live the true life, as the former are not yet subject to the illusion of time and the latter are finally freeing themselves from it. Indeed, at the end of our lives we are like the window-cleaner who falls from the hundredth floor of a skyscraper: the speed of his fall accelerates wildly; yet, until he hits the pavement, he remains suspended in a timeless void.

We never cease to be astonished at the passing of time: “Look at him! Only yesterday, it seems, he was still a tiny kid, and now he is bald, with a big moustache; a married man and a father!” This shows clearly that time is not our natural element: would a fish ever be surprised by the wetness of water? For our true motherland is eternity; we are the mere passing guests of time. Nevertheless, it is within the bonds of time that man builds the cathedral of Chartres, paints the Sistine Chapel and plays the seven-string zither – which inspired William Blake’s luminous intuition: “Eternity is in love with the productions of time.”

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