In my last post, I discussed Paul Waldman’s desire to live forever by drinking the blood of his grandchildren (and yours). Blood lust aside, I’d like to argue that immortality is overrated; and to help make that argument, I’d like to talk about zombies.
Writing at Aeon, David Andrew Stoler (“What makes zombies so scary?”) gets it: it is not, writes Stoler, “a zombie’s relentless compulsion to eat you alive that puts it in the bogeyman hall of fame.” Rather, “Zombies belong to the realm of horror stories that reappear over and over throughout history – from ancient Mesopotamia to modern-day sci-fi – because they raise a more terrifying fear than merely that of a gory death: the threat of eternal life.”
Yes, immortality is terrifying; so terrifying, in fact, that there’s a word for it—“apeirophobia”. Blaise Pascal was expressing apeirophobia when he wrote that “The eternal silence of these infinite spaces terrifies me.” Stoler elaborates on the phenomenon:
Apeirophobia – the fear of the infinite or eternal – might seem ridiculous at first. After all, from antiquity onwards, human societies are rife with tales of people searching for eternal life. These stories, however, always contain an undercurrent of the terror that immortality could hold. The dead that Ishtar, the Babylonian goddess of fertility, threatened to release from the underworld were hungry not for brains, but just for a good meal: the menace was that they would compete with the living, not eat them. The great beyond was not, it seems, a place for destination dining; far from the ending of awareness, death meant a meagre and unhappy eternal existence – like a long haul flight on Spirit Airlines.
The Greeks, too, knew that forever was a mighty long time. For them, eternal life was an opportunity for Olympic-level sadism. Sisyphus, Tantalus, the poor Danaids – who only wanted to not marry their cousins, for the gods’ sakes – Greek punishment was meant to torture not simply with pain and hunger and relentless chores but specifically with their endless repetition. It’s just a grander version of our own quotidian nightmare: you can deal with commuting to work, or grading papers, or making your kids’ lunch today, and probably tomorrow, but forever?
Paul Waldman might think we’d all just keep switching careers and taking a century off every now and then to reinvent ourselves, but Stoler, who knows zombies, knows better:
Zombies embody this horror perfectly. The creepiest thing about them is that they are, essentially, us: all zombies lived their lives – woke up each morning, had coffee, worked at petty beefs with their spouses like loose teeth, held their children’s hands on the way to school – before whatever it was that overcame them. And, just as with anyone in Dante’s Inferno, the state that they’re in is a state that will last not just until the end of time, but beyond. A zombie trapped in a well will remain there forever, getting hungrier and hungrier as the millennia pass. That is infinity.
Paul Waldman’s sanguine (and sanguinary) vision of the future pales, as it were, in comparison to what Stoler calls “the torture of the apeirophobe: unbearable time, day in, day out, spinning into a future the length of which we cannot even conceive. In an interview, Richard Dawkins said it as clearly as can be: ‘our brains aren’t built to cope with [the eternal]’. The mere thought of it leads to an existential despair that one can trace through Dante and Kafka to its even more frightening modern incarnations.”
Stoler is not unaware that the obverse of immortality is no picnic, either:
The other option, of course, is death – not exactly a popular outing on people’s bucket lists. To die, or to live forever: this paradox is the true vision of soul-crushing terror. To be apeirophobic is to always be staving off that debilitating dread. The night, as with so many fears, is the worst. Peeling away the blue sky reveals, once again, the Universe’s unfathomable hugeness, and presents us with the pressing compulsion to think about it. It’s devastating.
And while Paul Waldman ends his speculative essay on a cheery note of infinite novelty and endless possibilities, Stoler concludes that, in a world without death, Zombies ‘R’ Us:
What could be scarier than to live forever in a Universe that will end in a billion-year-long dissolution into nothingness? I can’t imagine. Zombies, everywhere, raise this spectre, over and over. Their insatiable hunger, their endless searching, even their constant decay – a parallel of our ageing selves – beckons to the world that eternally awaits, holding up a mirror at which we cannot help but flinch and say: ‘There but for the grace of a non-existent god go we.’
All in all, I’m opting, when the time comes, not for immortality but for a good long dirt nap: I think by then I’ll have earned it.