The Search For Immortality In Art
"Tell that its sculptor well those passions read Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things"
And so castles made of sand slips into the sea, eventually..
There is a longstanding belief that in art lies the secret to immortality. The writer Harry Boyle said,
Long after our monuments of brick and stone, vitriol, plastic and concrete have vanished, our words, our art, our legends and our myths will remain as a legacy
Oscar Wilde said,
All art is immortal. For emotion for the sake of emotion is the aim of art, and emotion for the sake of action is the aim of life.
Anthony Burgess said,
In two thousand years all our generals and politicians may be forgotten, but Einstein and Madame Curie and Bernard Shaw and Stravinsky will keep the memory of our age alive.
But the modern world seems much more tempted to fall on the literal side of this debate than the metaphorical. That immortality has become something we can all achieve, even if fame passes us by.
And in that oeuvre, Erik Hoel had a great article that talked about the difficulty of making art once you know it's likely to last for all time. The idea has three main legs. One is that the things we create today have a great chance of enduring for a very long time. The second is that cultural context, especially in art, is fragile and easily lost. And the last is that in the modern era, which seems likely to endure, a scientific worldview which has replaced the religious as the prevailing wind.
However, as much as the thesis grabs me, the Lascaux cave analogy doesn't seem to apply in practice. There are three parts to my confusion. One, no, what we're doing will not endure for eternity. Two, that cultural contexts aren't necessarily for art to endure. And three, it might even have longevity but the avalanche of creations will overwhelm any attempt at posthumous relevance.
One, even though with the ease of digital backups and recall we could believe that what is being made today is for all eternity, the fact is that most of what we make is all too fragile. Stone tablets break, baked clay crumbles, but so do our modern methods of data collection and retention. Hard drives break, bits rot, and tapes go bad. The Long Now project has been tough to design for exactly that reason, just because creation is easy today doesn't mean retention is!
In fact there's a second issue about how several aspects of technology seem to be moving in the direction of incompatibility and deletion. Vast swathes of the internet seem to be untouched by Google these days, a conscious decision to refocus our attention on the mainstream.
Two, Artists can't care about the enduring nature of art except as a goal they'd like to have happen. They don't plan on it, nor can they. They could try to not be topical, but enduring art is rarely crafted through logic, it's built inside out.
To become truly immortal, a work of art must escape all human limits: logic and common sense will only interfere. But once these barriers are broken, it will enter the realms of childhood visions and dreams
Giorgio de Chirico
There are trivial examples of a novelist deciding to take out references to a passing cultural fad like tiktok. But they're usually small, are they also going to remove cellphones? Cars? Computers? Keyboards? Surely they will be as anachronistic to our descendants as watching Gordon Gekko on his satellite phone is to us.
In fact we see this today when reading many varieties of literary novels. A sense of not having a place, since they're somehow forced into being of a place that's purposely nondescript. Rural backgrounds because stories are easier that way. Set in the 70s since that alleviates the need to talk about cellphones, which would've deleted the drama from many a concocted dramatic situation.
Mostly, I feel that writers have been trying to short circuit the inevitable rise of technology in our day to day lives by trying to ignore it. Most science fiction tries as much as possible to be so intentionally futuristic that the anachronisms become mere details.
Three, We live in a Huxley world. Being overwhelmed with information is essentially our day to day life. This deluge isn't just for essential or cultural information but for everything! Information, even if archived and accessible though most isn't, is less an object of study than buried under the avalanche of the new.
The "Frivolous Now" being avoided is a way to not let your project be dated, but it's also a way to unmoor your creation from its foundations. It becomes an untethered balloon of lovingly imagined vague outlines.
All art is of a time and place. Trying to surgically remove aspects which might leave strange cultural odours in the distant future seems an impossibly hard task to set, and a somewhat unnecessary one. Very little of Homer's cultural milieu has survived but we enjoy the Iliad just the same.
Art is a mirror and our enjoyment says as much about ourselves as the piece itself, and this stands true of those that found its audience immediately and for centuries thereafter like Shakespeare, as for authors and artists who died penniless and unrecognised but later were recognised as geniuses, like Melville or Van Gogh or Vermeer or Schubert.
Every artist wants his work to be permanent. But what is? The Aswan Dam covered some of the greatest art in the world. Venice is sinking. Great books and pictures were lost in the Florence floods. In the meantime we still enjoy butterflies.
So what can we do? Are we all doomed to irrelevance and being postscripts in a desert with but our extremities standing? Is that the best we can hope for?
Well no, we probably have to get used to the fact that not everything the author or artist intends will translate to the audience, but if a project is multi-layered enough there will be aspects that will endure. This stands true within our lifetimes as much as beyond.
A goal that Erik posits is to find the right worldview as our framework. As our ancestors chose (or had chosen for then) religion as the grand tapestry within which to weave their genius, we have scientific imagination. This is definitely true that our culture and society have, perhaps irrevocably, moved to a scientific frame of mind. This feels less like a pendulum swing than a fundamental shift. And it suffused everything from our conversation (proof, evidence, hypotheses, data) to our very beliefs (why meditation is good for your brain, by a neuroscientist).
Much as I agree with it, I have a different take on our artistic immortality, such as it we will get. As Erik argues, what we're enthralled by in Moby Dick is the naturalistic beauty in full flush. We feel the waves and the harpoons and the swears and the triumphs and pitfalls. We are Ahab when reading at times, and viscerally feel his absolute sense of purpose.
All of which are highly human. We feel the passion of the whale as much as the whaler. The relationship between us as a society is what makes that tale of a quixotic voyage on a ship seem timeless. Timeless in a way that Melville never really got to see in his lifetime. Whether that's from a scientific frame of mind or religious, we're drawn to the tales of epic struggle as we probably always will be. Depths of emotion and tales of struggle will always be familiar whether in a village or a spaceship.
Nature is always the same, but nothing in her that appears to us, lasts. Our art must render the thrill of her permanence along with her elements, the appearance of all her changes. It must give us the taste of her eternity.
This also means that whether you write with religious undertones or scientific undertones is slightly less relevant than what you write about. Whether Moby dick was an allegory for religion with the fight of Unitarianism vs Calvinism, or whether it stood for our constant hunt for scientific truth or whether it stood for our disastrous attempts at unifying quantum gravity are all irrelevant to the beauty in the book. The distance is perhaps why it took more than half a century since publication for it to finally get its due.
The question of can we future proof our work to therefore be orthogonal to making good art, and indeed make the author create workarounds that ultimately deteriorate the quality.
For instance, a large proportion of fantasy novels are set in agrarian times. The few that try to include the modern world to stop at steampunk rifles and gunpowder and trains. Is it because that era is sufficiently in the past that we can use that yawning chasm of ignorance to fill with the author's own imagination? Or is it because it's written in the recent past, we would be enamoured by our instinctive "spot the difference" exercise which will take us further and further away from the story.
Modernity is the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent, which make up one half of art, the other being the eternal and the immutable. This transitory fugitive element, which is constantly changing, must not be despised or neglected.
Suspension of disbelief is a kind of magic. It's fragile, and can be broken easily. But beyond a point it's also an anchor, and focusing more on it will only weigh you down. And suspension of disbelief is the necessity, not the framework itself or identification of details.
Beyond that, there's the question of the burden that this immortality brings. The idea that the things I create have to endure the weight of uncounted ages in the future seems much too heavy. The lightness of forgetting is what helps us put forth things which are beautiful in its ephemerality. The idea that our creations are eternal puts pressure on them to be perfect, and that's a death knell too. As the famed philosopher Axl Rose sang, nothing lasts forever, in the cold November rain.
So when we think of Shelley's Ozymandias should we feel sadness that only the mere remnants remain, happy that anything at all survived or enthralled that such a person existed in our history? What should he have asked for?
I do not suppose I shall be remembered for anything. But I don't think about my work in those terms. It is just as vulgar to work for the sake of posterity as to work for the sake of money.
The best we can hope is that the work we create will have qualities that make it interesting for multiple audiences. And this is an emergent property rather than an in input. I can read Ender's Game with no preconceptions about its author and his beliefs, and it doesn't detract from the book. I can read C S Lewis blissfully ignorant of the Christian allegories. I can read Machiavelli and explore its power dynamics applied to today's unimaginably different world. The works that seem to stand the test of time indeed exist.
At times I feel we need to bring back the original meaning of genius, that external fleeting entity that brings forth beautiful gifts from within. The emergent outcome is not in our gift, and we can't but barely stop the most egregious aspects of our works from seeing the light of day. As for the rest, we'll have to believe that we see something true about the world.
So the best we can do is to ensure what we write, we paint, we sculpt, we code, has enough humanity in it to make up for whatever other peccadilloes it might have. That the essential human aspects outweigh the parochial. Like we forgive Asimov for mentioning newspapers on Trantor or F Scott Fitzgerald for the phrase old sport. I see this as a conversation with Erik on what constitutes immortality where its the human aspects . The future us will quickly get enough distance to enjoy the work if not the artist, and that's the true bounded immortality we should be lucky to attain!