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What it means to be Immortal

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Last week, in the Story of Evolution and Evolution of Stories class, one of the two professors, Paul Grobstein, claimed, “he would not die”. As crazy as this statement may seem, I found myself nodding in agreement. How can you be ‘immortal’ if you die? He simply said he would fade away – physically – but he would remain in other’s memories. There would be stories about him, about what he has said, what he has taught, what he has done. Regardless of how people remember him, he will be remembered and that is immortality. What does it mean to be immortal though? This paper will explore what the implications and consequences of being immortal are through three different areas – science, literature, and culture.            


Within the realm of science, there are a wide variety of areas that specialize in various different things, such as biology, chemistry, and physics. Out of all of these, for the purpose of this paper, only chemistry will be used to illustrate the concept of immortality and the consequences of such immortality.            


In any general chemistry course – at any level, whether it’s high school, college, or higher-level chemistry – the concept of the ‘Laws of Thermodynamics’ will be brought up at some point during the course. This is almost certain because this concept is a set of laws that have been proven time and time again to be true, and they are of extreme importance when discussing energy and how it works. This set of laws has become the very base of our understanding of the universe as it is now. The laws of thermodynamics have helped scientists to discover other things, as well as further their understanding of the universe; therefore, they serve as a base for newer theories that scientists may come up with.


The first law of thermodynamics states that: “Energy can neither be created nor destroyed. It can only change forms”. This law is then stating that energy will forever exist – it is immortal. 


An example of this continuing existence of energy, we will look at a simple example. Octane (C3H8) is the major component in gasoline. This chemical compound will be burned by your car’s engine producing potential energy for the car to start to motion. This potential energy is then converted to mechanical energy, which can be seen as the pistons moving in the car engine, and heat, which will then allow the car to move[1]. Throughout this entire process, chemical energy was never created nor destroyed; it simply changed forms. This is how energy is immortal in chemistry.


But how is the fact that this chemical energy will not be destroyed important? Well, what would happen if the octane in the gasoline of your car was burned up, but instead of the energy shifting forms it simply disappeared. This would mean that there would be no energy to be transformed into potential energy, which in turn would be transformed into mechanical energy. Therefore, the car would never move. You could pour countless amounts of gasoline (containing octane) and the car would just sit still. If energy simply died off, nothing would ever work. The transformation or immortality of energy is necessary for everything to work properly.


The same thing happens in literature. Some books are carried on for centuries; people read them, talk about them, and study them. They are immortal in the sense that they are continually brought up throughout their existence. In order to illustrate the concept of immortality in terms of literature, I will use Dante Alighieri’s The Divine Comedy as an example. 


The Divine Comedy was written between 1308 and 1321. It is an epic poem written in third rhyme, which consists of three parts that are divided into ‘Inferno’ (Hell), ‘Purgatorio’ (Purgatory), and ‘Paradiso’ (Paradise). This epic poem is considered to be the “preeminent work of Italian literature, and is seen as one of the greatest works of world literature.”[2]


During Dante’s time, people took to The Divine Comedy very well. Even though Dante was exiled when he finished writing the Comedy, his brother helped him publish and distribute it. It was widely and generally liked, and other prominent writers, such as Giovanni Boccaccio, began to study Dante’s creation and gather inspiration from it.  


Even today there are many institutions that teach Dante’s Divine Comedy. Higher-level institutions, such as Bryn Mawr College[3], University of Pennsylvania[4], and Yale University[5], require a course on Dante’s Divine Comedy in order to obtain a Major in Italian studies. Other institutions, such as Dartmouth University[6], Princeton University[7], and Notre Dame University[8] have created online databases where the actual text and critics from all over the world and in different languages can be found. This is simply in the United States of America. In Italy, where the author and text are both originally from, people start reading The Divine Comedy at a very young age. They will reread it again in their version of high school, and some will continue to prepare their presentation for the “esami di maturità” on the Divine Comedy. It has also appeared in popular culture when on May 2009, the famous Italian actor, Roberto Benigni, recited the entire Canto 26 of the Inferno from memory[9]. This is not something he did once; Benigni gets up and recites different Cantos from the Divine Comedy from memory.


This book has long survived being forgotten – or death, if you will – because of its incredible complexity and influence. The language Dante used while writing this text was the Florentine dialect, which was not the most popular since many still spoke Latin. Therefore, Dante began translating other works into Italian and writing his own works in Italian. The Florentine dialect he mostly used is now the basis for the ‘standardized Italian’ that has been created recently in order to have one unified language for the country. 


Its complexity and meaning has long been studied and written about. There are countless writers and critics that have extensively studied and analyzed this text. It can be read in an allegorical, theological, political, historical, and literal, among others. In every single way of reading this text there are countless books and essays critiquing Dante’s Divine Comedy. In Bryn Mawr alone, there are approximately 236 texts that pertain to the Divine Comedy. Therefore, because Dante’s text is a foundation for the modern Italian language and it has been studied extensively without exhaust, it will remain forever remembered or immortal.


What does it mean that this particular text is immortal? If it were to ‘die’, the Italian language would have no history or background. Since the Italian language and culture is so engrained in this particular text, it would be forever altered. There would be no past; therefore, there would be no meaning in the present Italian language and culture. Also, many of the other grand texts we know, read, and study today are based off The Divine Comedy. Therefore, texts such as Boccaccio’s Decameron, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and many adaptations that have been done through the ages, would not exist today. 


Immortality can also be seen in popular culture today. Of course this includes many areas, such as music, history, politics, and more. Therefore, politics will be the central representative of immortality in today’s culture. The example that is to be discussed in this section is a very recent and controversial political event: Osama Bin Laden’s death. 


Osama Bin Laden was the leader of the Islamist group Al-Qaeda. Such group claimed responsibility for the terrorist attack performed on September 11, 2001 by crashing two commercial planes into the World Trade Center in New York City. This caused the United States government to respond by launching the War on Terror, which aims at the complete destruction of such militant groups that threaten the wellbeing of others. 


On May 2, 2011 the president of the United States, Barack Obama, stated on national television that the Al-Qaeda leader that has been running from the FBI since 2001, had been killed in Pakistan by American troops[10]. Because the Muslim tradition states that every corpse must be buried within 24-hours, the U.S. government decided to bury Osama Bin Laden in the North Arabian Sea. 


Why would the U.S. government want to bury him at sea? The answer is that they wanted to keep his followers and admirers from building shrines for the terrorist leader. Therefore, there is intent by the U.S. government to find a sense of finality with Osama Bin Laden’s death. This can be seen throughout the media and in people’s conversations.  In the New York Times, for example, the headlines say: “Osama Bin Laden is Dead”[11]. There is definitely no sense of immortality in this headline. Even the President stated: “Justice has been done”[12]. There is a sense of finality, as if the death of Osama Bin Laden means there will be no more terrorist attacks or that the militant group Al-Qaeda will cease to exist entirely. It is almost saying that their job is done because he is dead; therefore, there is nothing more to be done because he is dead


Yet, under these very drastic and extreme headlines, such as the one previously mentioned, there are other headlines that question this finality. Headlines such as: “Afghans Fear West May See Death as the End”[13] (referring to Osama Bin Laden’s death) are appearing as well. This is a contradiction to the previously mentioned headline. These headlines are questioning the finality the other headlines are placing upon the situation. 


This finality should be questioned. Will Al-Qaeda cease to exist simply because Osama Bin Laden has been killed by the American troops? The answer is no. Osama Bin Laden will forever remain an important historical and political figure in the world. He has shaped much of the controversies that have surged in American history – from the World Trade Center terrorist attack to his capture during the Obama Administration. Not only has he shaped much of the history the United States of America has gone through in the past decade, he has shaped many of the beliefs, culture, and political views of people in the middle east. He has been able to take this concept of jihad and turn it into a violent term and has done so successfully gathering many followers. The misconstrued term jihad, which simply means ‘struggle’, appears 41 times in the Koran, none of them having a violent connotation[14]. Therefore, he will go down in history and be forever remembered – regardless of good or bad – making him immortal. 


This failed attempt at making someone or the idea someone dead or nonexistent is an interesting phenomenon. Because of the contradictions between the headlines in the same newspaper on the same date, it is pretty evident that the concept of death is intangible. It cannot be fully achieved because there will always be remains of that something that is wanted to be forgotten. Osama Bin Laden’s death is no exception. His memory and his legacy will continue on in his admirers and followers. Therefore, Al-Qaeda will continue to plot terrorist attacks in the United States and abroad. They will continue to fight for the concept of jihad that Osama Bin Laden creates for them. They will continue to be pursued, at least by American troops. The situation now becomes immortal as well. 


“The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living” – Cicero[15]

This quote, I believe, embodies the concept of immortality that has been brought up in this paper. Immortality in every case that has been examined relies on the fact that there is something after it that remembers it. It might be text books or courses, it might be literary texts that are inspired off that one text, or translations, it might be a group of admirers, it might be history, it might even be a family member or a friend. As long as someone or something remembers it, it will be immortal. The consequences of being immortal, we have seen through the examples presented, can be either positive or negative. But are the consequences good or bad because of the actual it or because of those who remember it? If the consequences are due to our actions and not because of those that remember, it means there is more agency during the lifetime. If the consequences are due to the people who remember, it limits our agency because it is their impression and not the actuality that matters. 


I would like to believe that our life has agency, although these examples show that sometimes that is not what is actually matters. Sometimes it is what people remember that matters, not what actually was. Therefore, consequences of immortality are completely unpredictable. What does this mean for us? Should we care more or less about what we do with our life then? Should we try harder to control immortality’s eventual consequences?