When I was a kid, I spent my summers living with my father in Montana. Often, his two brothers would come down and see us, their families in tow, and at some point we would all go out to dinner. When the check came, my dad and his brothers would fight over it, sometimes with quite a bit of fervor. Each of them was dying to pay it. I didn’t understand their behavior and I still don’t. When I offer to get the check and someone else wants it, I just say, “Ok, go for it."
According to Alan Harrington’s tome The Immortalist, published in 1969, my dad and his brothers were responding to a deep urge to placate an imagined entity called the computer of excellence which tabulates all the good things a person has done in their life in order to determine whether that person should gain immortality. People fight over the check because by doing so they showcase their value to theorized gods who watch our every move.
To be clear, Harrington didn’t really believe in these watchful overlords. But he believed that man had on some subconscious level, come to act as if he believed in them. This was, Harrington argued, because we humans have been driven insane by the knowledge that we have temporary and doomed existences*. To circumvent this grim truth we have created a series of lies for ourselves, lies that promise immortality. Many of the lies, as defined by Harrington, are familiar ones: religions promising eternal life, or spiritual philosophies arguing we can achieve oneness with the universe or reincarnation. But other lies are more ambigous, not so much concrete concepts but nagging suspicions, subconscious beliefs that if we behave a certain way or make our presence obvious to the world, then we will somehow outlast our physical forms.
* Harrington posited that humans are the only animal that realizes it will eventually and surely die.
It sounds crazy and indeed when I recently perused The Immortalist I found myself wondering whether the book was some kind of big joke. But if The Immortalist is crazy, it’s like the proverbial fox. Much of its argumentation is meaty and profound, and much of the oddball behavior Harrington attributes to man’s fear of death is behavior I have engaged in. On top of that, Harrington’s writing is just a joy to read; it crackles off the page, paragraph piling atop paragraph with a beautiful, growing dynamism. Consider this passage:
…all this too amounts to one more attempt to hide from the end—by substituting Dionysian togetherness for romance, and a bombardment of the senses, lightworks of the soul, a sort of electronic Buddhism in place of sequential perception. The use of kinetic environment as an art form removes death, creating the illusion of an Eternal Now—an illusion in that it seems to guarantee eternal youth, which, of course, is what this generation is really after.What’s he describing? A disco.
Alan Harrington is not an author familiar to many. He was born in around 1918 (the exact date is seemingly unavailable on the web), attended Harvard College and served in the Air Force during WWII. He worked as a journalist but much of his writing career was spent writing novels, most of which were favorably reviewed and then sank from sight. He died of leukemia in 1997. During his life he was friends with Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Tomothy Learly. That probably tells you more about him than anything else.
I’ve never read any of Harrington’s other books but I’d be hard pressed to believe he did not consider The Immortalist his magnum opus. It simply reads like the condensed version of a lifetime of thoughts; it screams of a man mixing his passion and intellect into a vat and releasing the resulting sticky mess out on the world.
At its core, The Immortalist is a call to action. Harrington argues that the evolved man has recognized his greatest enemy is death and that he should declare war upon it. (Keep in mind this was written more than 40 years ago.) Towards the end of the book Harrington even surveys the state of anti-death science, then largely consisting of cryonics. But the first two-thirds of the book are the most interesting, with Harrington analyzing the primary subconscious urge which shapes man’s behavior in almost all situations. This urge is man’s desire to live forever and Harrington sees its stamp everywhere. For example, consider the race riots of the late 60s. Most cultural critics would argue these acts of violence were driven by the rage of the oppressed. But Harrington goes deeper, claiming a need for rebirth is what fundamentally drove the rioters. He states, “But behind the proud and gleeful of the rioters, the raging countenances, the expression of abandon, greed and hatred, contempt and derisive laughter, can be detected the faces of people desperate to be reborn.” Only a few pages later he argues that the “propulsion towards rebirth may be mankind’s strongest motivating force.”
It seems a bit tough to swallow, doesn’t it, the notion that beyond our obvious motivations lies a whispering voice, prodding us to seek immortality? But as Harrington makes his case the argument assembles a certain kind of logic. In later sections of the book he argues that by seeking attention through acts of wartime heroism, we seek to bring our names to lips of Gods, and to their scrolls listing those deserving of the gift of eternity. This is why an anonymous death is such a thing to be feared. Harrington contemplates thusly:
Closer to our inward and often unknowing faith is the abhorrence of being buried in an unmarked grave---the disaster of ending in Potter’s Field. Also of anonymous or unattended death: leaving corpses unclaimed after battle. “Pledged to recover the bodies of comrades who died in bitter fighting… two battalions of United States marines pushed forward slowly today against the stubborn North Vietnamese resistance,” Tom Buckley of the New York Times reported on July 4, 1967, from Conthien, South Vietnam. “’We don’t leave of people,’” said First Lieut. Jerry Howell of Alameda, Calif. ‘I’m sure they’d do the same for us.’ “And we’ve all heard many similar stories---soldiers risking death to recover bodies. And yet it makes no sense---why risk the living for the dead? Unless there is a hidden motivation we don’t fully appreciate.
We can certainly look to the notion of celebrity to see further evidence. Many people seem overwhelmed by the need to be known and have their exploits known by others. (I was certainly guilty of this when younger and have far from washed this yearning from my mind.) It’s hard to think of a logical reason for this need. Celebrity is usually fleeting and far more people waste their lives seeking it than ever achieve it. But the gamble is worth it, Harrington argues, if the real goal is immortality.
The drive to be noticed explains one other strange aspect of human behavior: doing horrible things to be famous.
In 365 B.C. Herostratus burned down the temple of Artemis in Ephesus in order to make his name immortal. Recently an accused mass murderer in Arizona explained why he had gunned down a roomful of women. “I wanted to get known.”It is along these lines that The Immortalist makes its case that man has been driven mad by his fear of death. But the book’s vision is ultimately optimistic, even utopian. Harrington argues that by recognizing our primal need to live forever, we can understand and change our neurotic behavior and put our energy into the scientific quest for immortality.
What to make of all this? The Immortalist is an eloquently argued book and pleasure to read, but is it an “important” book? I have to confess, I was entirely unaware of the tome until I discovered it largely by accident in my mom’s bookshelf during a visit. (She was an acquaintance of Harrington’s third wife) It would easy to presume that the book is one of many great works that simply faded with time.
But that’s not quite right. There is a very contemporary movement known as transhumanism, and in that world, The Immortalist is a key text. Jason Silva, a friend of transhumanism and self-described “techno optimist” (and host of the TV Show Brain Games), frequently quotes from Harrington’s work. A commenter on the transhumanism friendly Spirit Science web site describes The Immortalist as a “staple of transhumanist philosophy!” The book, now out of print but in demand, can fetch several hundred dollars for a paperback version. In a certain corners of the internet, Harrington is a household name.
(Check out this blog post for a look at some of the various covers different printings of the book used.)
So the book may be important, but is it correct? Is it convincing in its thesis? Well, sort of. I think Harrington is onto something in his allegation that much of man’s behavior is motivated by strange urges for which he has limited understanding. (This notion was, of course, originally popularized by a fellow named Freud.) And I can even conceive that these urges are tied into a fear of death. But I find myself still skeptical that the totality of odd human behavior is driven primarily by this secret urge. And I’m not really convinced that the level of the mind and its various subconscious elements is where the answers lie. As a fan of neuroscience, I suspect we need to dig deeper, towards an understanding of the makeup and materials of our brain structures to really get a sense of what drives us as humans. Psychology, in my view, is series of metaphors attempting to simplify and explain the complex workings of the biology of our brain.
I also have a hard time relating to Harrington’s anxiety about death. I freely concede that, were I to be diagnosed with a terminal illness today, I would certainly be distraught. Like everyone I have some fear of death. But I don’t think we should revel in that fear. Harrington, on the other hand, argues that a person adopting the immortalist philosophy needs to use the fear of death to drive efforts to defeat it. It doesn't sound like a happy existence. Me, I try to be more of a “don’t worry, be happy” kind of guy.
Nonetheless, during the month I was writing this, a friend of mine did pass away at a relatively young age (coincidentally, of the same disease that felled Harrington: leukemia.) And as I contemplated the injustice of his death and lives of his wife and family being tossed asunder, I found myself sharing Harrington’s rage at our great enemy and appreciating his drive to find a cure. I saw the wisdom and even humanity in the book’s seemingly arrogant opening sentence, that “Death is an imposition on the human race, and no longer acceptable.”
Wil Forbis is the pen named shared by such noted authors as James Ellroy, Katie Roiphe, and Jim Thompson. E-mail him, I mean, them, at firstname.lastname@example.org
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