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In search of immortality: William Blake's monotype of Isaac Newton as divine geometer (c.1804-5)

What do human beings long for when, like most of us in the First World, we no longer have to worry about daily self-preservation? The answer, if our technology and media are any indication, is that we long for recognition. To be known, talked about, remembered—this is the ego's basic demand, and like the demand for material plenty, it is now within reach of exponentially more people than ever before. Fame, like the franchise, has been gradually extended until it is now practically universal: no longer the preserve of statesmen and poets, nor even of movie stars and athletes, it is now within reach of the exceedingly average personalities who feature in the tabloids and on reality television. And even those forms of recognition may now seem too exclusive. What are Facebook and Twitter, after all, but technologies for the democratisation of recognition—ways for every single person to document and demand attention for their lives?

In making the transition from an age of scarcity to an age of glut, the nature of fame itself undergoes a change. One sign of the difference is that it would be hard to find a poet, in the 21st century, who openly claims to write for glory, fame, or immortality. Yet the idea that great poetry was the surest way to achieve fame and outwit death has been very long-lived. It can be traced from Horace, who predicted that "the greater part of me will escape death", to Shakespeare, who boasted, "Not marble nor the gilded monuments/Of princes shall outlive this powerful rhyme", to as recent a poet as Philip Larkin, who described himself as driven by "arrogant eternity".

As H.J. Jackson points out in Those Who Write for Immortality, her provocative new study of "Romantic Reputations and the Dream of Lasting Fame", literary fame has traditionally been taken to involve something more intimate than the public glory of kings and conquerors. People might talk about Alexander the Great or Julius Caesar until the end of time, but it was their deeds, not their souls or selves, that posterity would know about. Poetic fame was something different, more bound up with personal acquaintance: as Jackson writes, "great deeds, no matter how meritorious, can never be experienced at first hand again, but thoughts can." This is the eerie intimacy of Walt Whitman's invitation in "Leaves of Grass": "Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,/Missing me one place search another,/I stop somewhere waiting for you." In reading a poem, we resurrect its author; it is the closest we can come to an actual seance with the dead.

Why has this dream of immortality vanished from contemporary literature? One reason, surely, is that in the 20th century human beings faced a distinctively new uncertainty about the very existence of posterity. For a writer to achieve immortal fame, there must be an immortal readership; the human race must be envisioned as existing forever, or at least as close to forever as our imagination can reach. In the atomic age, and its successor, the age of ecological despair, this premise can no longer be taken for granted. If the human race itself is mortal, if indeed it seems to be on the verge of committing suicide by folly or violence, then it makes no sense to look to posterity for a reward. The inner life, like the outer, becomes more hectic as its time-frame becomes more compressed; recognition must be achieved now or never.

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Shalom Freedman
April 19th, 2015
2:04 AM
As usual from Adam Kirsch a most informative and enjoyable piece of work. Perhaps he is right in concluding that 'pleasure of the reader' ( In its broadest sense) provides the ultimate verdict as to the recognition and remembrance of the poet. But he is also right to raise the question of 'who' will ultimately remember. If humanity disappears or mutates into some other kind of being, will the poetry of humanity matter to anyone? It seems to me that beyond Poetry and in terms of everything we are and do the question of Remembrance and Living On is a religious question. It is not ultimately the Mind of Man which can confer 'immortality' but rather the Mind beyond all Minds, God.

February 26th, 2015
5:02 PM
"One sign of the difference is that it would be hard to find a poet, in the 21st century". The sentence should end right there, where I've placed the period. As for the pseudo-poets of our age, they are simply a little more modest than Horace or Shakespeare (as well they should be). Theirs is a carper diem world that consists of seeking the approval of their fellow "poets", as well as grant and prize committees. ""The historical record suggests, rather, that there are many ways of earning fame, and that while a minimum standard of literary competence can be taken for granted, not all famous writers owe their fame to outstanding literary merit alone (I would argue that none of them does)." I would like to see Jackson's "argument" as it relates to Keats. Such a fatuous undertaking would offer more than a few laughs.

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