Literature is one of the arts that stands as a beautiful witness to these disturbing questions, and shows us that throughout history – man has always tried to conquer death and find a way to stay forever young. Not much has changed since the first recorded writing of this kind (circa 2100 BC) – The Epic of Gilgamesh. We have prepared a list of five of the most engaging books treating this topic, from different periods in history.
The Epic of Gilgamesh, (read online), circa 2100 BC
The main character of this epic is an actual historical person, a king named Gilgamesh who ruled a Sumerian city-state called Uruk. The epic is extremely interesting, and it is considered to be the earliest work of literature that has survived to the present day. So, who was Gilgamesh according to the epic and why is he important? He was known as a harsh ruler and a powerful wise man who built a great city, and enjoyed the awe of his people. According to the epic, he was two-thirds god and one-third man. After conflicts with the gods and the death of one of his dearest friends, he starts questioning his own existence and tries to find out if there is a way to stay forever young and immortal. After getting a negative response from Utnapishtim (who is an equivalent of the biblical Noah, who survived a great flood in this mythical story), Gilgamesh is devastated. Utnapishtim’s wife then reveals a secret about a magical plant that gives you a chance to live forever. Gilgamesh finds it, but then a snake steals it away. He returns to his city defeated, but with a new realization: you don’t need to live forever, you just need to live your life the best way you can and try to create something that will outlive you. Looking at the amazing walls and temples he created in building his city, Gilgamesh found peace. Utnapishtim’s words are wise:
Gilgamesh, where are you hurrying to? You will never find that life for which you are looking. When the gods created man they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping. As for you, Gilgamesh, fill your belly with good things; day and night, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice. Let your clothes be fresh, bathe yourself in water, cherish the little child that holds your hand, and make your wife happy in your embrace; for this too is the lot of man.
It turns out that the two-thirds of Gilgamesh that was a god could not prevail against the one-third that was mortal. The fact that we will be gone one day shouldn’t prevent us from enjoying the time we have been given.
The Iliad (read online), by Homer, around the 8th century BC
While The Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest known writing in history, The Iliad is the oldest known written work of Western civilization. The ancient Greeks had an established system of moral and ethical values. Their teachings held that death wasn’t something to be feared, because it was an extension of life. In the end, the afterlife offered a consolation. In The Iliad, there is a famous struggle in which Achilles must choose between a short life which comes with glory, or a long life that will enable him to live in peace and grow old:
Mother tells me,
the immortal goddess Thetis with her glistening feet,
that two fates bear me on to the day of death.
If I hold out here and I lay siege to Troy,
my journey home is gone, but my glory never dies.
If I voyage back to the fatherland I love,
my pride, my glory dies. . . .
As we know, he decided to go back to the battle. Immortality here has a wider meaning: it doesn’t mean physically living forever, but it means living eternally in a broader sense, in history and myth. You live as long as you are remembered. So, Achilles doesn’t have a fear of death, per se, but he has a fear of dissapearing and being forgotten, becoming just another human being lost in the footnotes of history. He didn’t defeat death, but he did manage to trick it a bit, don’t you think?
The Picture of Dorian Gray (read online), by Oscar Wilde, 1890
This novel, written by Oscar Wilde, was censored at the time, without Wilde even knowing, because of certain parts that could be considered controversial and indecent. The novel focuses on three characters: Basil Hallward, an inspiring artist; Dorian Gray, the main character – a young man of great beauty – and Lord Henry Wotton, a hedonist and the character who pulls Dorian into the worlds of pleasure and sin. After Basil painted Dorian’s portrait, there was a brief discussion about the beauty of it. With a devilish push from Lord Henry, Dorian realizes that he will get old one day and will die shamefully, like any weak old man. He starts despising the portrait because, unlike him – it will stay forever young, untouched by the destructive force of time. Lord Henry’s influence on Dorian gets stronger and increasingly harmful, and with his stories about insane celebrations of life and excess, Dorian starts wishing he could stay forever young. He makes a wish and pledges his soul, so that the portrait will suffer and lose its beauty, while he will forever enjoy his youth. This moment is completely Faust-like, and it doesn’t require a lot of thinking to figure out that Lord Henry takes the role of the Devil here. Without any further spoilers, read the novel and see what happens. Take Lord Henry’s words of wisdom, but use them with caution:
Live! Live the wonderful life that is in you! Let nothing be lost upon you. Be always searching for new sensations. Be afraid of nothing.
Waves (read online), by Virginia Woolf, 1931
This novel treats an interesting, modern concept. It comes to us from the 20th century, which was a century of great experimentation in literature, especially in the fields of topics, style and narration techniques. Woolf uses the technique of inner monologue and deals with six characters in Waves. All of these characters (Bernard, Neville, Louis, Jinny, Susan and Rhoda) take up the role of the narrator over the course of the story. The novel depicts the real and common struggles of human beings, from their childhood to their old age. There are several turning points in the story, which makes the characters stop and think about their lives and how soon will they die. They struggle with the absurdity of this idea, which implicitly draws the attention of the reader to one specific question: what comes after death, and how is it possible that human existence is so fragile and transitory? The novel explores various personal and intimate reconsiderations of each character, and a heavy question will bother every single one of them: have I done enough, and is this what life is? Paradoxically, in the case of one character, weakness and excessive dissatisfaction – combined with fear of death – will result in suicide. Woolf suffered from depression and showed signs of bipolar dissorder, but at moments in this story she shows her personal will to survive and live, despite everything. A great novel, definitely worth your time, sends us a great message, through the voice of one of the characters:
I will achieve in my life – Heaven grant that it be not long – some gigantic amalgamation between the two discrepancies so hideously apparent to me. Out of my suffering I will do it. I will knock. I will enter.
Having the strength to conquer our fears about dying, disciplining our thoughts, making something out of our lives and learning from pain – isn’t that like wounding death itself, since it cannot be defeated?
All Men Are Mortal (purchase on Amazon), by Simon de Beauvoir, 1946
In this novel, Simon de Beauvoir elevates the tragic in human life to another level, by making you ask yourself: Do you really want to live forever?
The main character of the story is a person named Raymond Fosca, who was cursed with immortality. That’s right – cursed! He was born in 1279 in Italy and destined to live forever. He gets terribly bored and lives through the world’s miseries, over and over again, all to the point where it stops making any sense. Then he meets Regina, a self-obssesed actress, who gets unusually interested in his personality. Regina makes him feel alive again and so Fosca shares his story, as their relationship starts to get intimate. The love story, combined with historical and fictional elements, really holds the reader’s attention. The story gives us a powerful message about what’s really important: making the best of the time we have, living in the moment and organizing ourselves so we can have some sort of structure in life. Setting goals in order to give more meaning to our days:
Insects were scurrying about in the shade cast by the grass, and the lawn was a huge monotonous forest of thousands of little green blades, all equal, all alike, hiding the world from each other. Anguished, she thought, “I don’t want to be just another blade of grass.”
The age we live in is really specific. It feels like some allmighty hand pushed the fast forward button, since time flies so fast. Today’s youth have a certain live fast and die young motto, accompanied with you only live once, which can be self-destructive. Fear of death occurs pretty early in one’s life today. The only way to overcome this is to focus on the present, work hard, and do what makes you happy.
This book list is not an exhaustive one. There are plenty of books that deal with this problem, in more or less creative ways. Grab a book, and change your perspective!