Monthly Archives: July 2012

Living On

It seems to me that the desire for fame and the corresponding resentment towards others for one’s anonymity that Eric Gans identified as “the fundamental human value” and the source of the “radical evil” motivating the mass murderers of our time must, in turn, be rooted in more originary desires. Interesting, Gans doesn’t posit an opposing form of the desire for fame—rather, he contrasts that desire with moral responsibility and human solidarity. But there is a very clear contrast with the radical evil, demonic desire for fame, and one that I think would have been foremost in the minds of practically every person up until a couple of hundred years ago at most, and that David Goldmann (the online “Spengler”) places at the center of his political analyses: the desire for the soul’s immortality. The motivation for resisting the temptation to do evil has, historically, been the fear of eternal punishment and the hope of eternal reward. The desires circulating around celebrity are a substitute for that fear and hope—the tawdriness of much celebrity and the periodic outbursts of this radical evil might suggest that this substitute is a pathological one, but I would agree with Gans that it is very difficult to tell for sure—aside from Gans’s reasoning in his “Aurora and ‘Radical Evil’” (Chronicle #428), there is no lack of atheists out there who will recount to us all the blood that has been spilled on behalf of behalf of this or that favored version of immortalization. Maybe the costs of celebrification are lower. But there have been other alternatives to the orthodox modes of immortalization in modern times: living forever in the nation one belongs to, in great works and, perhaps, most accessibly, in ones descendants—all of these modes, indeed, long co-existed with belief in eternal damnation and salvation, while being capable of existing without such belief. The first two are certainly of receding credibility, having been associated with violence (of nationalism, war, the megalomania of the tyrant), while few are capable of unambiguously benevolent great works (like curing diseases). And families are smaller, more individuals are without them, tensions between the generations make the pleasures of seeing one’s self carried on in the next generation more problematic. If immortality is a basic need for we sign users, whence can we reasonably hope to receive it?

We certainly don’t need to be nostalgic for presumably more certain guarantees of immortality: the promises of the Church and other religious authorities in this regard were clearly extravagant and, fortunately, so were the threats. People must have always noticed, regardless of whether they would discuss or reflect upon it, that no one could really know about any of these things one way or another. Furthermore, nations dissolve and leave the stage of history; family lines die out; with very few exceptions, great works change their meaning over time, as no one has any way of knowing whether he will end up a Herostratus or, say, a… well, who—would anyone like to venture to name an individual whose legacy has been received with enduring and unambiguous adoration?

All that endures is language, and whoso would seek out immortality today would best do so therein. Indeed, as Gans has argued on many occasions, the eternity of the sign is the model for all our other understandings of immortality. So why not cut right to the chase? The only guarantee of immortality is some discernable, irreversible change to the language—we need only think in terms of some minimal shift, a “style,” which one cannot help but have, and of which one can, with only a slight introduction of self-reflexivity, identify the markers. This really is a sure thing, because even if one, near the end of one’s life, were to discover that one’s style was completely derivative, even parasitic upon some precursor or mere repetition of the deadening formulas of everyday life and common sense—well, even carrying a copied style forward into new domains constitutes something new, and the latest iteration of the formulaic or commonplace communicates something extra, whether it be a charming naivete or unwitting parody. Of course we are lowering the bar here—we surrender the power to direct sinners netherward, to nominate heroes to adore and villains to abominate. But styles are subject to judgment as well, and a kind of posthumous punishment, and all the paradoxes of faith are activated here as well—it is precisely the most scrupulous, those who attend to their style, those who seek to bound up style with substance, to familiarize themselves with so as to distinguish themselves from a range of styles, who will be most tortured with the fear of the irrelevance, harmfulness, or fraudulence of their contribution to the language, while those who just absorbed some off the shelf style that “worked” for them will exhibit that style most blithely (and, who knows, maybe with greater approval). But this just means that such judgments are out of our hand, as they should be—our inability to force the issue, to ensure that our style enter the language in a particular way, or ripple out with ascertainable effects, signifies the absence of violence from this form of immortalization. At the same time, though, we could always reasonable hope that some little bit of our style, especially now that we can record and make universally available the most trivial of our experiments in style, will resonate sufficiently, even if in a mediated or marginal way, with some, a few, down the road, perhaps even so much that someone will take the time to find their way back to the “original.” And since it would be like that person is conversing with us, it is also like I or anyone else is conversing with that person right now. Perhaps that is, or can be, immortality enough.