Man’s age-old belief in serial immortality

Saturday, May 26th, 2018

The Third Great Awakening dispensed with man’s age-old belief in serial immortality:

Whatever the Third Great Awakening amounts to, for better or for worse, will have to do with this unprecedented post-World War II American development: the luxury, enjoyed by so many millions of middling folk, of dwelling upon the self. At first glance, Shirley Polykoff’s slogan — “If I’ve only one life, let me live it as a blonde!” — seems like merely another example of a superficial and irritating rhetorical trope (antanaclasis) that now happens to be fashionable among advertising copywriters. But in fact the notion of “If I’ve only one life” challenges one of those assumptions of society that are so deep-rooted and ancient, they have no name — they are simply lived by. In this case: man’s age-old belief in serial immortality.

The husband and wife who sacrifice their own ambitions and their material assets in order to provide “a better future” for their children… the soldier who risks his life, or perhaps consciously sacrifices it, in battle… the man who devotes his life to some struggle for “his people” that cannot possibly be won in his lifetime… people (or most of them) who buy life insurance or leave wills… and, for that matter, most women upon becoming pregnant for the first time… are people who conceive of themselves, however unconsciously, as part of a great biological stream. Just as something of their ancestors lives on in them, so will something of them live on in their children… or in their people, their race, their community — for childless people, too, conduct their lives and try to arrange their postmortem affairs with concern for how the great stream is going to flow on. Most people, historically, have not lived their lives as if thinking, “I have only one life to live.” Instead they have lived as if they are living their ancestors’ lives and their offspring’s lives and perhaps their neighbors’ lives as well. They have seen themselves as inseparable from the great tide of chromosomes of which they are created and which they pass on. The mere fact that you were only going to be here a short time and would be dead soon enough did not give you the license to try to climb out of the stream and change the natural order of things. The Chinese, in ancestor worship, have literally worshiped the great tide itself, and not any god or gods. For anyone to renounce the notion of serial immortality, in the West or the East, has been to defy what seems like a law of Nature. Hence the wicked feeling — the excitement! — of “If I’ve only one life, let me live it as a ———!” Fill in the blank, if you dare.

And now many dare it! In Democracy in America, Tocqueville (the inevitable and ubiquitous Tocqueville) saw the American sense of equality itself as disrupting the stream, which he called “time’s pattern”: “Not only does democracy make each man forget his ancestors, it hides his descendants from him, and divides him from his contemporaries; it continually turns him back into himself, and threatens, at last, to enclose him entirely in the solitude of his own heart.” A grim prospect to the good Alexis de T. — but what did he know about… Let’s talk about Me!

Tocqueville’s idea of modern man lost “in the solitude of his own heart” has been brought forward into our time in such terminology as alienation (Marx), anomie (Durkheim), the mass man (Ortega y Gasset), and the lonely crowd (Riesman). The picture is always of a creature uprooted by industrialism, packed together in cities with people he doesn’t know, helpless against massive economic and political shifts — in short, a creature like Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times, a helpless, bewildered, and dispirited slave to the machinery. This victim of modern times has always been a most appealing figure to intellectuals, artists, and architects. The poor devil so obviously needs us to be his Engineers of the Soul, to use a term popular in the Soviet Union in the 1920s. We will pygmalionize this sad lump of clay into a homo novus, a New Man, with a new philosophy, a new aesthetics, not to mention new Bauhaus housing and furniture.

But once the dreary little bastards started getting money in the 1940s, they did an astonishing thing — they took their money and ran. They did something only aristocrats (and intellectuals and artists) were supposed to do — they discovered and started doting on Me! They’ve created the greatest age of individualism in American history! All rules are broken! The prophets are out of business! Where the Third Great Awakening will lead — who can presume to say? One only knows that the great religious waves have a momentum all their own. Neither arguments nor policies nor acts of the legislature have been any match for them in the past. And this one has the mightiest, holiest roll of all, the beat that goes… Me… Me… . Me… Me


  1. L. C. Rees says:

    An “absolute nuclear” family type offers a unique angle on our world: it leaves its unique Angles alone without the comforting constriction of all those cousins. This makes unique Angles uniquely vulnerable to the most capital-M me of these Me decades: Save the Cat. All unique Angles want to save that cat, if only to have its warm, purring, fickle company to stave off the absolute zero of absolute nuclear reactions and that chill wind blowing off the North Sea. All unique Angles want to be that cat and be saved by Dennis Quaid in a 90 degree turn from their ANF anomie. Stop Or My Mom Will Shoot offered such a unique angle to the 3 Unique Angle’s that saw it during its original theatrical run. It was an inflection point that trapped America in a United State of infinite recursion: whereas before Spock was a gateway drug to infinite diversity in infinite combinations, now he’s a prop to help Chris Tiberius Pine find himself by saving interstellar cats. The final frontier is a Groundhog Day in Iowa. With cats. The name-shub that will free unique Angles from the me of guilt over the fate of felines, that sharp 45 degree turn that will lead them toward the me-freeness that leads other cultures to view the death of cats with a healthier dose of indifference, humor, or non-judgemental menu planning, has not yet been been found. Not even tail-call recursion can save you now.

Leave a Reply