How would we live if we lived forever?

A commentary on Simone de Beauvoir’s novel All Men are Mortal

by Toby Tremlett

“I loathe the thought of annihilating myself quite as much now as I ever did […] that unique sum of things, the experience that I lived, with all its order and all its randomness – the Opera of Peking, the arena of Huelva, the candomblé in Bahia, the dunes of El-Oued, […]  all the things I’ve talked about, others I have left unspoken – there is no place where it will all live again”- Force of Circumstance, Simone de Beauvoir  [1]

The two impossible facts of death

Death is more than the sudden end of our subjective experience. It is also the promise that all of our actions and projects will one day fade into nothing – a gradual annihilation. Every action feels absolute when we take it, yet so much less so when remembered. When put into the context of the entire future of the human race, everything we do is inconsequential, drowned out in the causal mess. We do not etch our names into the bedrock of the earth, we can only build sandcastles to be washed away in the coming tide. Action as the decisive, irrevocable, sole cause of change has never been possible.

Against the two impossible facts, that death obliterates our subjectivities and negates all of our acts, the natural reaction is to spurn death, to “loathe the thought of annihilating [ourselves]”. If offered immortality, we might be tempted to say yes. Yet Simone de Beauvoir’s novel All Men are Mortal considers this problem and suggests the opposite conclusion, that although death is terrifying, immortality is worse. 

All Men are Mortal

The novel gives us access to the interior lives of two characters: the first, Regina, is a woman who wants desperately to make an impact on the world which extends beyond her death. The second, Fosca, is an immortal man who has lived for 700 years, giving him enough time to watch all his ambition die inside of him. Regina feels keenly the two impossible facts of death, although, until hearing Fosca’s story she still believes that her actions might have an enduring impact on the world. Fosca is unique because his immortality allows him to access the proof of the second fact; he has lived to see his actions negated or else rendered pointless. 

We are first introduced to Regina, a young actor consumed by the jealousy of anyone receiving attention at her expense.These feelings stem from her fear of death; every moment that someone prefers another over her hints at her ultimate destiny- to be forgotten. She knows that no matter how hard she fights to be remembered, her fate is sealed. 

Seated amongst the trinkets that she has collected on her travels around the world, objects such as “japanese masks” that try desperately to recall distant moments and to justify her exceptionalism, Regina reflects that: “Perhaps her name would be remembered for a while. But there would be no one to remember that special taste of life on her lips, that passion that burned in her heart, the beauty of the red flames and their phantasmagorical secrets” [2]. The Japanese masks really are just trinkets. They can hint at a fact about her but they can never give the viewer access to the interiority of that fact. Regina recognises this curse of privacy in her thought that “The moon shines in the same sky, but for every heart it is unique, unshared”[3]. The only person who could ever remember these experiences is her and thus her attempts to be remembered (even by an immortal man) were never a real escape from death.

This obsession over conserving a single subjectivity was never what motivated Fosca. In fact, it was one of the first values of which he became disillusioned. Over the course of his existence he knows so many people and experiences so many things that he begins to see the finitude of experience. Though his life is infinite, he realises that experiences are not and that in reality there are “a very small number of landscapes, colours, tastes, smells, faces; [that are] always the same, vainly repeating themselves by the thousands” [4]. Only our mortal lives are short enough to experience continual novelty- eventually all will be repeated. 

The majority of the book is a first-person narrative of Fosca’s life, centred around the relationships that he has with mortals. By the end of the narrative, different strands of his experience begin to wind themselves around each other. Fosca sees the faces of the people in front of him as echoing those of others who existed hundreds of years before, victory in the french revolution blends with his own victories in 13th century battles. This is not a mere act of memory. Rather, Fosca realises that there are a limited amount of experiences in the world, and that to live forever eventually means confronting this insoluble finitude.

At the advent of science Fosca is initially excited; he thinks that through scientific exploration he can finally find something new, something that will tear him away from his enduring malaise. He soon realises that no matter how much he searches: “everything would always pass through my eyes, through my thoughts. Never would anything be other, never would I be anyone other” [5]. He comes to the realisation, as Kant did, that objects must always conform to his cognition. No object could ever shake him away from the necessarily human, and thus limited, nature of his thought. By contemplating the boredom of a life span extended towards eternity we can see that a constituent part of the precious and unique nature of our own subjectivity is its finite nature. If we lived forever, all experiences would be repeated to the point of losing their uniqueness and value.

Why then, should we act?

So Fosca’s life suggests to the reader that, unlike Regina, we should not wish for the infinite extension of our subjectivity. But we are yet to explore what it has to tell us about action. Many of our actions and strongly held values rely on consequences beyond the reach of our own experiences. This point is illustrated well by a thought experiment from Sam Scheffler [6]. He asks us to imagine that we are told that 30 days after we die (no matter when that might be), the earth will be destroyed. If you tell anyone they will not believe you, but you know it to be true. How would this knowledge change what you value in your life? If you are a scientist, a philosopher or anyone who otherwise values human knowledge and seeks to extend it, it is likely that your task would no longer seem valuable. If you value long-term political ends like universal basic income, animal rights or communism, you might cease to be engaged in the public sphere, as the biggest impact of your political activism would always have been long after your death. Suddenly, our realm of value would shrink to encompass only what we can influence today- perhaps our own happiness and that of those closest to us. This experiment succinctly shows us that many of the values we hold today rely not on the immortality of ourselves, but of humanity. 

Fosca, soon after becoming immortal, begins to tie the fate of humanity to his own in an attempt to transcend the futility of his self-interest. He spends a portion of his life trying to establish himself at the head of the Holy Roman Empire with the aim of controlling the happiness of all humanity. This endeavour fails when he realises that no matter the intention of his actions, their long-term consequences are not within his control. His attempt to strengthen the empire by encouraging Charles V to support Cortes’s dominance of South America leads to the destruction of the Incas’ way of life and great poverty in the empire. It is after relinquishing his dream of direct hierarchical control of all humanity, that he begins to turn his attention to science and the innovations that it could bring. But for the immortal Fosca, there is no motivation to advance scientific knowledge; any innovation or discovery that he makes would have been made slightly later by someone else if he hadn’t. Fosca then realises that there are no unique acts, only first ones.

But Fosca’s conclusions on the futility of action do not perfectly reflect Beauvoir’s opinion. For Beauvoir, Fosca’s mistake is in believing that his actions will lead to the realisation of his goals exactly as he intends them. This sort of thinking is always fallacious. If we accept that everyone is in some sense free to make their own choices, then it is true that “[we] never create anything for the other except points of departure” [7]. By this Beauvoir means that we can act so as to better the interests we perceive others as having, but ultimately the choice whether to be grateful and continue our projects or be frustrated and to end them is theirs. We must aim for our projects to have ends in the world, but it is a necessary part of our situation that these ends must be manipulable by others. Indeed, it can feel as if “at every moment others are stealing the whole world away from me” [8]. Yet simultaneously, without those others and their own freedoms, there would be no world to interact with. We must accept that “[our] action does not stop the instant we accomplish it. It escapes us toward the future, where it is immediately grasped again by foreign consciousnesses” [9]. This renders all action probabilistic, difficult and frustrating- but not futile. 

Some hope

The tragedy of Fosca’s immortality is disheartening even for us mortals. It is difficult, at least initially, to see any benefit that comes from the exercise of inhabiting his perspective. Beauvoir knows this well. She ends the novel with Regina’s hope completely destroyed. The scene closes with Fosca walking away and Regina beginning to scream. 

But there are benefits to embracing our mortality. The awareness that our life is finite makes our lives and the values that we hold precious. On the other side of the loathing that Beauvoir feels at the idea of her annihilation is the deeply felt significance of her experiences. “The Opera of Peking, the arena of Huelva, the candomblé in Bahia, the dunes of El-Oued” have been given importance by being seen through her eyes, by being made a part of her irreplaceable experience. If she had lived for a thousand years, those sights would have ceased to be exotic and unique. Regina’s trinkets and goals are the same. When considered from the lifespan of all humanity, any individual goals seem pointless. But without our necessarily small perspectives, what would be the value of that humanity? 

We learn from the immortality of Fosca that the desire to avoid the end of our existence should never be met. Mortality allows us to find ourselves unique and precious. We are guarded from the fact that all thoughts, all faces, all landscapes will be repeated. We are able to feel the beautiful and tragic nature of the fact that there is no place where this confluence of experiences will live again. It would be wrong to end this essay on a solution to the problem of mortality –  but perhaps it needn’t end with a scream. 

References

[1] Beauvoir, S. d. (1965). Force of circumstance. (R. Howard, Trans.) Michigan: Putnam.

[2] Beauvoir, S. d. (1946). All Men are Mortal. (E. Cameron, Trans.) Virago Modern Classics.

[3]-[5] ibid.

[6] Scheffler, S. (2013). Death and the Afterlife. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[7] Beauvoir, S. d. (2005). Pyrrhus and Cineas. (M. Timmerman, Trans.) University of Illinois Press.

[8] Beauvoir, S. d. (1948). The ethics of ambiguity. (B. Frechtman, Trans.) New York: Philosophical library.

[9] Beauvoir, S. d. (2005). Pyrrhus and Cineas. (M. Timmerman, Trans.) University of Illinois Press.

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