Adam Leith Gollner’s Top Ten Artistic Epiphanies about Immortality

The author of The Book of Immortality: The Science, Belief, and Magic Behind Living Forever, shares his favourite attempts at describing intimations of eternal life.

Adam Leith Gollner has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Guardian, The...

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||Jorge Luis Borges
||Allen Ginsberg

What I love most about these is the impossibility of the task: to convey in words an ineffable, mystical experience of immortality.

1. Sappho, “Although They Are”
Greece’s greatest lyric poet didn’t leave us much, only fragments of fragments (including poem #58, whose wreckage was recently discovered as part of the papyrus packing wrapping up an Egyptian mummy). This four liner shows how right she was.

Although they are 
only breath, words 
which I command 
are immortal

2. R.M. Bucke, from Cosmic Consciousness
R.M. Bucke was a 19th century Canadian psychiatrist who befriended Walt Whitman and had mystical seizures which he wrote about in analytic prose. In The Varieties of Religious Experience, William James quoted extensively from Bucke’s “highly interesting volume,” Cosmic Consciousness, which describes a “sense of immortality, a consciousness of eternal life.”

“All at once, without warning of any kind, I found myself wrapped in a flame-colored cloud. For an instant I thought of fire, an immense conflagration somewhere close by in that great city; the next, I knew that the fire was within myself. Directly afterward there came upon me a sense of exultation, of immense joyousness accompanied or immediately followed by an intellectual illumination impossible to describe. Among other things, I did not merely come to believe, but I saw that the universe is not composed of dead matter, but is, on the contrary, a living Presence; I became conscious in myself of eternal life. It was not a conviction that I would have eternal life, but a consciousness that I possessed eternal life then; I saw that all men are immortal; that the cosmic order is such that without any peradventure all things work together for the good of each and all; that the foundation principle of the world, of all the worlds, is what we call love, and that the happiness of each and all is in the long run absolutely certain. The vision lasted a few seconds and was gone; but the memory of it and the sense of the reality of what it taught has remained during the quarter of a century which has since elapsed.”

3. Jorge Luis Borges, in The History of Eternity
William James once declared immortality to be, in his estimation, a minor problem. He was joking, of course, as Borges reminds us in his essay entitled “Immortality.” Borges often wrote—in stories, poems, and articles—about immortality and the limits of understanding. Here’s his attempt at conveying a moment where he seemed to fully grasp the meaning of the word eternity.

“I took in the night, in perfect, serene respite from thought. The vision before me, not at all complex to begin with, seemed further simplified by my fatigue. Its very ordinariness made it unreal. It was a street of one-story houses, and through its first meaning was poverty, its second was certainly bliss. It was the poorest and most beautiful thing. The houses faced away from the street; a fig tree merged into shadow over the blunted streetcorner, and the narrow portals—higher than the extending lines of the walls—seemed wrought of the same infinite substance as the night… Perhaps a bird was singing and I felt for it a small, bird-sized fondness; but there was probably no other sound in the dizzying silence except for the equally timeless noise of crickets. The glib thought I am in the year eighteen hundred and something ceased to be a few approximate words and deepened into reality. I felt as the dead feel, I felt myself to be an abstract observer of the world: an indefinite fear imbued with knowledge that is the greatest clarity of metaphysics. No, I did not believe I had made my way upstream on the presumptive waters of Time. Rather, I suspected myself to be in possession of the reticent or absent meaning of the inconceivable word eternity… Let there remain, then, the glimpse of an idea in an emotional anecdote, and, in the acknowledged irresolution of this page, the true moment of ecstasy and the possible intimation of eternity which that night did not hoard from me.”

4. Herman Melville, in Moby Dick
This excerpt is one of my favorite pieces of writing. I love that the experience of seeing steam rise from head, like the vapor from a whale’s spout, happens to him “while composing a little treatise on Eternity.” The whale, eternity, him, words, irradiated vapor: everything merges, as if Heaven itself had put its seal upon his thoughts.

“I am convinced that from the heads of all ponderous profound beings, such as Plato, Pyrrho, the Devil, Jupiter, Dante, and so on, there always goes up a certain semi-visible steam, while in the act of thinking deep thoughts. While composing a little treatise on Eternity, I had the curiosity to place a mirror before me; and ere long saw reflected there, a curious involved worming and undulation in the atmosphere over my head. The invariable moisture of my hair, while plunged in deep thought, after six cups of hot tea in my thin shingled attic, of an August noon; this seems an additional argument for the above supposition. And how nobly it raises our conceit of the mighty, misty monster, to behold him solemnly sailing through a calm tropical sea; his vast, mild head overhung by a canopy of vapor, engendered by his incommunicable contemplations, and that vapor—as you will sometimes see it—glorified by a rainbow, as if Heaven itself had put its seal upon his thoughts. For, d’ye see, rainbows do not visit the clear air; they only irradiate vapor. And so, through all the thick mists of the dim doubts in my mind, divine intuitions now and then shoot, enkindling my fog with a heavenly ray. And for this I thank God; for all have doubts; many deny; but doubts or denials, few along with them, have intuitions.”

5. Emily Dickinson, in “Because I Could Not Stop For Death”
Dickinson wrote often about death and immortality, about how we cannot know what lies beyond the grave (see “This Life is Not Conclusion”). The Book of Immortality quotes her wondrous line: “The only secret people keep is immortality.” If anyone got close to that secret, it’s Dickinson, as this poem suggests:

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.

We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labour, and my leisure too,
For his civility.

We passed the school where children played,
Their lessons scarcely done;
We passed the fields of gazing grain,
We passed the setting sun.

We paused before a house that seemed
A swelling of the ground;
The roof was scarcely visible,
The cornice but a mound.

Since then ‘tis centuries; but each
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses’ heads
Were toward eternity.

6. Allen Ginsberg, in The Paris Review’ Art of Poetry no. 8
Allen Ginsberg and his beatific visions.

“There I was in my bed in Harlem … jacking off. With my pants open, lying around on a bed by the windowsill, looking out into the cornices of Harlem and the sky above. And I had just come. And had perhaps hardly even wiped the come off my thighs, my trousers or whatever it was… And just after I came, on this occasion, with a Blake book on my lap—I wasn’t even reading, my eye was idling over the page of The Sunflower, and it suddenly appeared—the poem I’d read a lot of times before, overfamiliar to the point where it didn’t make any particular meaning except some sweet thing about flowers—and suddenly I realized that the poem was talking about me. “Ah, Sun-flower! weary of time, / Who countest the steps of the Sun; / Seeking after that sweet golden clime / Where the traveller’s journey is done.” Now, I began understanding it, the poem while looking at it, and suddenly, simultaneously with understanding it, heard a very deep earth graven voice in the room… And my eye on the page, simultaneously the auditory hallucination, or whatever terminology used here, the apparitional voice, in the room, woke in me a further, deeper understanding of the poem, because the voice was so completely tender and beautifully … ancient. Like the voice of the Ancient of Days. But the peculiar quality of the voice was something unforgettable because it was like God had a human voice, with all the infinite tenderness and anciency and mortal gravity of a living Creator speaking to his son… Looking out at the window, through the window at the sky, suddenly it seemed that I saw into the depths of the universe, by looking simply into the ancient sky. The sky suddenly seemed very ancient. And this was the very ancient place that he was talking about, the sweet golden clime, I suddenly realized that this existence was it! And that I was born in order to experience up to this very moment that I was having this experience, to realize what this was all about—in other words that this was the moment that I was born for… There was a couple of girls living next door and I crawled out on the fire escape and tapped on their window and said, “I’ve seen God!” and they banged the window shut.”

7. Jose Saramago, in Death With Interruptions
One of Jose Saramago’s final novels, Death With Interruptions, examines what might happen if people just stopped dying in one country. It turns out that death has gone on strike, but then she decides to start taking lives again, with a twist: she sends out a violet letter one week before the victims threads are to be snipped. Unrest ensues. One day, one of the violet letters comes back “return to sender.” No matter how she tries to deliver it, through whatever interstellar channels of delivery she usually employs, the letter keeps ending up back on her desk. So she decides to deliver it in person. To a cellist. Whom she falls in love with. “Talking to you is like finding oneself in a labyrinth with no doors,” the cellist tells her. “Now that’s an excellent definition of life,” responds death. Here’s one of death’s letters:

“Dear sir, she wrote, I am not Death, but death, Death is something of which you could never even conceive, and please note, mister grammarian, that I did not conclude that phrase with a preposition, you human beings only know the small everyday death that is me, the death which, even in the very worst disasters, is incapable of preventing life from continuing, one day you will find out about Death with a capital D, and at that moment, in the unlikely event that she gives you time to do so, you will understand the real difference between the relative and the absolute, between full and empty, between still alive and no longer alive, and when I say real difference, I am referring to something that mere words will never be able to express, relative, absolute, full, empty, still alive and no longer alive, because, sir, in case you don’t know it, words move, they change from one day to the next, they are as unstable as shadows, are themselves shadows, which both are and have ceased to be, soap bubbles, shells in which one can barely hear a whisper, mere tree stumps…”

8. William Wordsworth, in “Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”
Wordsworth considered birth a forgetting. Our soul forgets that it came trailing clouds of glory from some immortal palace. As we grow older, we start losing this connection, although it can be rekindled through visionary imagination. In Wordsworth’s view, “our destiny, our being’s heart and home, / Is with infinitude, and only there.” As the literary critic Harold Bloom notes, “The Ode is about separateness and consequent mortality, and about the imaginative power that can bridge that separateness and so intimate immortality.”

Those shadowy recollections,
Which, be they what they may,
Are yet the fountain-light of all our day,
Are yet a master-light of all our seeing;
Uphold us—cherish—and have power to make
Our noisy years seem moments in the being
Of the eternal Silence: truths that wake,
To perish never;
Which neither listlessness, nor mad endeavour,
Nor man nor boy,
Nor all that is at enmity with joy,
Can utterly abolish or destroy!
Hence, in a season of calm weather
Though inland far we be,
Our souls have sight of that immortal sea
Which brought us hither;
Can in a moment travel thither—
And see the children sport upon the shore,
And hear the mighty waters rolling evermore.

9. Richard Jefferies, in The Story of my Heart
The Story of My Heart is Richard Jefferies’ spiritual autobiography from 1883. It describes a variety of epiphanies about immortality: being entranced by faint blue pebbles on a beach, dipping his fingers into a brook, sitting on a hillside tumulus: each time, he sinks into an eternal moment of timelessness. “There are infinities to be known, but they are hidden by a leaf.”

“There was a grass-grown tumulus on the hills to which of old I used to walk, sit down at the foot of one of them, and think. Some warrior had been interred there in ante-historic times. The sun of the summer morning shone on the dome of the sward, and the air came softly up from the wheat below, the tips of the grasses swayed as it passed, sighing faintly, it ceased, and the bees hummed to the thyme and heathbells. I became absorbed in the glory of the day, the sunshine, the sweet air, and the yellowing corn turning from its sappy green to summer’s noon of gold, the lark’s song like a waterfall in the sky. I felt at that moment that I was like the spirit of the man whose body was interred in the tumulus; I could understand and feel his existence the same as my own. He was as real to me two thousand years after internment as those I’d seen in the body… Listening to the sighing of the grass I felt immortality as I felt the beauty of the summer morning, and I thought beyond immortality, of other conditions, more beautiful than existence, higher than immortality. I’m fully aware that there’s no knowing, in the sense of written reasons, whether the soul lives on or not. I don’t hope or fear… It is eternity now. I am in the midst of it. It is about me in the sunshine; I am in it, as the butterfly floats in the light-laden air. Nothing has to come; it is now. Now is eternity; now is the immortal life. Here this moment, by this tumulus, on earth, now; I exist in it.”

10. Ingmar Bergman’s Smiles of A Summer Night
Perhaps the greatest, most tender evocation of the life force ever in the history of cinema.

Bergman on “Smiles of a Summer Night”


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