Sunday, August 10, 2014

Précis # 2 – Immortality

Is immortality really the ultimate conquest in life? Perhaps. But then what exactly is immortality? Common understanding would have us believe immortality is the physical existence or being of a person throughout the limitless abyss of time. However, William S. Burroughs asserts merely existing is not enough to be considered immortal; evolution, transformation, and advancement are required as well. To achieve this, Burroughs writes in Immortality that space exploration is an example of advancement and that the human subconscious state can be utilized to inspire creative, revolutionary ideas.
In the words of Burroughs, “space exploration is the only goal worth striving for. Over the hills and far away.” Space exploration can fundamentally be viewed as a way to discover what’s beyond human capability and human reach. Even though space is the ultimate frontier, there are many other smaller frontiers to surpass in the effort of achieving immortality. In terms of human kind as a whole, immortality is only achievable if we continue to advance in our social institutions and schools of thought. These societal changes and transformations throughout history can trace human society’s attempts at achieving immortality, peaking with the advent of space exploration as the highest form of immortality. We rely on the unknown—the undiscovered—for our essence of immortality.
In addition to his example of space exploration, Burroughs also explains how the act of dreaming can serve as a channel of creativity and innovation. In Immortality, he states “the function of dreams is to train the being for future conditions… Deprived of this vital link with our future in space, with no reason for living, we die.” Dreaming is a means to prepare for space travel, just as dreaming can be a means to imagine transformative institutions and inventions for human advancement. Immortality thrives off of the radical, innovative ideas that are more likely to come in the relaxed state of mind that is the human subconscious. Equipped with the ingenuity dreams offer us, there are fewer limitations in imagining a kind of futuristic society where space travel is possible and more potential for advancement.

William Burroughs asserts that true immortality actually requires an ever-evolving future, as opposed to merely existing within the confines of one’s body. For example, space exploration in Immortality is a symbol of future innovation, whereas Mr. Hart symbolizes the brutal, perpetual stagnation that would occur if humans were to attempt immortality in the physical sense. Stagnation is the constant state of existence at one point in time and place, which in effect, becomes so meaningless it actually acts just as immediate death. Fortunately for human kind, there will always be more to discover, more to advance, and more to explore in the world. If this potential for exploration were to fade from existence and if the last reaches of the universe were discovered, then society would fail to be immortal.


Aaron Baum said...

Can immortality ever really be achieved, though, even for humankind as a whole? At some point, the human race must die out, either figuratively or literally. Eventually, we will have been "human" or "homo sapien" for so long that our mere existence as that species becomes mundane. We must change. In the future, won't we necessarily become so different than our own human self that we are no longer human, and we are something completely different? At that point, we "die" and a new life is reborn. Or, the mere existence in our biological bodies as "human" or "homo sapien" will become so regular that we, in effect, die.
In short, we either live so long that we change enough so that it no longer counts as immortality because we are a whole other being, or we live so long and don't change enough, thus producing an immediate death.

Dale Carrico said...

Definitely I agree that the key rhetorical gesture of Burroughs' "Immortality" is a redefinition of the term. Against a conventional (and infantile, in Burroughs' view) fantasy that immortality would be an endless prolongation of the status quo -- a person living on forever as their present self or possibly as some "best version" of themselves as their present self conceives such things -- Burroughs' proposes instead an immortality refigured as "prolonged future," an embrace of contingency, change, experimentation, openness. So Burroughs confronts an immortality as living death with an immortality as life lived. The psychological insight in this refiguration is the exposure of fearfulness and hostility at the core of conventional daydreams of immortality. I think your precis captures the key elements of this argument quite well. I would add only that the piece extraordinarily goes on from there to insist that life against death on these terms also helps us understand the way some people find their way in life to the death-dealing exploitation and greed that invigorates injustice.

Dale Carrico said...

To Aaron I would recommend care about taking immortality too literally as a therapeutic outcome -- but I agree about the relevance of human beings changing essentially over time. What did Wilde say -- all we can say of human nature is that it changes? In Burroughs' piece he reminds us that individual lives attest to changes so radical that a lived life might be construed as the death and birth and life of many lives.

Allyn Benintendi said...

Dale, I really appreciated when you said that "Borroughs confronts an immortality as living death with an immortality as life lived." It makes me explore more the substance and experience of immortality rather than the means of achievement. Also, Shayda, your comment about 'ever-evolving future' and symbolism was very insightful! Both have definitely changed my perspective on this piece. Aaron, I am hesitant with your comment because your questions pose inherent dilemmas- at what point does time end? Or at what point within time does humanity end? The frequency of being human doesn't necessarily strike me in itself as a terms of ending. But, it still was definitely thought provoking and interesting to consider!

Theodore Han said...

The most difficult part for me when reading Immortality was distinguishing satire from honest thoughts. Some parts of the text are so absurd that it's obviously a joke. Burroughs makes it clear that the physical manifestation of immortality is a farce.

However, what's unclear is what constitutes as true immortality. He explicitly states "Immortality is prolonged future," but leaves it up to the audience to decipher the meaning behind the phrase.

I decided to read up on Burrough's biography since I couldn't make sense of where he was coming from. I learned that his works strongly reflect his own life, both in content and in structure. He's well-known for using the "cut-up" technique in his writings where he cuts up texts and forms a new text with them - a perfect summation of his own life. Burroughs was a man detached from what most people would consider normal society. His father was wealthy so he was allowed to do as he pleased, which amounted to a lot of drugs, traveling the world, spending time in prison and writing. I have a hard time believing that Burrough's idea of immortality lies in the advancement of human civilization. I think Burroughs wasn't too fond of the world, which is why he became so fixated on death and the supernatural.

You wrote "space exploration can fundamentally be viewed as a way to discover what’s beyond human capability and human reach" and I wholly agree with that assessment. But the unknown lies in a completely different plane of being for Burroughs, a notion also supported by dreams.

Prior to his segment on dreams, Burroughs spends a lot of time talking about the development of babies. He follows this up by saying that dreams are a preparation stage for what is to come. Does that mean that once we stop dreaming - death - is the final stage?

Shayda Azamian said...

In response to your comment, Dale, I would agree that Burroughs's interpretation of death in the beginning leads into ideas of death-dealing and greed that people are faced with towards the end of their lives. Ultimately, I interpret Burroughs's argument regarding death-dealing as counter-productive towards the effort of becoming immortal--that the motivation to become immortal and spite death is itself a step back from achieving immortality.

In response to Theodore's comment, I think it's very interesting that you connected his life to this piece! I can definitely understand his focus on death/immortality from your background description. In regard to what you mentioned about dreaming, I would say the the loss of dreaming is death in the figurative sense since, according to Burroughs, dreams are an essential outlet of innovation and creativity.

Erick Berrios said...

I really liked how in your conclusion you connected immortality to exploration. Most would not think of discovery as immortality as it literally does not extend the life of an individual. But as a species all discoveries lead to advancements in the human race. And as a species we all benefit from the knowledge of those before us.