Richard Smith: Perhaps I could live forever

Richard SmithI’m sitting in first class on the train to Edinburgh with two glasses of red wine inside me when I look across the water to Lindisfarne and suddenly think “Perhaps I could live forever.” This was a revelation because until now I’ve been unequivocal that immortality would be unbearable.

It must have been partly the wine, but more it was remembering when I walked the St Cuthbert’s Way with my brother and ended in Lindisfarne. At night I looked from my bedroom window and saw lights flickering on the other Farne Islands. I’m clear that I want to go back, but I’m 60: I may never go back. But I’d like to go back more than once. Would I really tire of Lindisfarne if I returned every five years for the rest of time?

My flirtation with immortality has also been brought on by the books I’m reading. Every morning I read for an hour, sometimes longer. I read a novel, currently The Magic Mountain, a book of non-fiction, currently Neal Ferguson’s The Ascent of Money, and a poetry book, currently Ted Hughes’s versions of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I’m reading The Magic Mountain for the second time, and I can imagine reading it every 10 years forever. Indeed, I’d like to. Just as important, however, are all the other books that I want to reread and the books I have already added to my “to read” list.

The main argument against immortality is that you would eventually be so bored that you would long to die. You would come to the end of everything. The case against immortality is made powerfully in the opera The Makropulos Case, where Elina Makropulos, who is 342 years old but has the body and mind of a 42 year old, longs for death and refuses a second dose of the elixir that has given her immortality. Even this mild dose of immortality—what’s 342 years compared 100 000—has been too much.

But would I ever get to the end of books—or music, which is almost as important to me? People are writing good books far faster than I’m able to read them. Surely I would never grow bored of books—or music? Not only would I want to read new books, I’d also want to reread the ever increasing number of books I had already read. “One learns nothing from reading only from rereading,” an Oxbridge don once said.

I might grow tired of Lindisfarne, but would I grow tired of even our small islands?  I love to walk, and I have probably walked less than 1% of all the footpaths in Britain. As I travel from London to Edinburgh I always look for the few places where I have crossed the line on foot. I’ve never walked through most of the countryside I see from the train, but most of it looks inviting. I’d love to explore it, and doesn’t it offer infinite variation?

My musings are, of course, predicated on the idea that I would not age anymore. I’m not interested to spend even a few years demented, deaf, blind, immobile, and Parkinsonian, the only kind of “immortality” that medicine has to offer at the moment.

I’m unsure as well about relationships. One of the ways that I’ve always dismissed immortality and made the case for death has been to say: “Imagine being editor of the BMJ for another 5000 years.” Thirteen years was enough for me and probably more than enough for BMJ readers. Similarly my wife has done heroically to stick me for nearly 40 years. She might manage another 20, but to ask for more than that would be inhuman.

So, as we reach the other side of Berwick on Tweed, I’m thinking that I might give a version of immortality—one based on books, music, and walking, largely alone—a go, when my brother rings me. I tell him about my dalliance with immortality. “But that’s nonsense,” he says. If you live forever you’ll have read every book, been everywhere, done everything. It’s a simple matter of maths. You’ll be bored witless.”

But is he right? I detect a paradox here. If people are writing good books faster than I can read them, how can I run out of books to read? This is a version of Xeno’s paradox, whereby an arrow fired at St Sebastian has to go half the distance, then half the remaining distance, ad infinitum, so proving, says Tom Stoppard, that St Sebastian died of fright. Infinity and zero are tricky things for us humans to grasp.

The debate over immortality continues during my visit to Edinburgh. A group of us, including my brother, do a session on “Death as a friend” as part of the Festival of Spirituality, and as we sit in a circle my brother says “The elixir of immortality is there in the middle of the circle. Who wants a swig?” Everybody declines apart from one woman, who says she “loves life.” Many others object that they too love life but not an infinite amount of it.

We are repeating a debate that has proceeded for millennia—not that immortality has ever seriously been on offer. Lisl Marburg Goodman, a psychoanalyst, discussed the issue with some 700 creative people, both artists and scientists, and summarises her findings in her book Death and the Creative Life. Her theory is that people fear not death but the incomplete life. She urges us to think not of birthdays but of death days, to make more precious our time that remains, and to live a life of “enlightened preparatory grief.”

“Death,” she writes, “is the very core of life. It is not only inevitable, not just a consequence of organic processes or the running down of the organic machinery, but an absolute necessity for life. Life is a course and its flow, its one directional pulling force, is death.”

She is not an enthusiast for immortality and quotes approvingly Lucretius, who wrote “Why, like a well filled guest, not leave the feast of life?” But some of the creative people she interviewed didn’t agree. Howard Gruber, the psychologist, challenged the assumption that mental potentials are finite and must eventually be exhausted.  For him an individual is an open system that can regenerate itself indefinitely. Ira Bernstein, the physicist, and Karl Pribram, psychologist, psychiatrist, and physiologist, agreed.

Most philosophers and writers are not fans of immortality, but Goethe is one who probably was—and Goodman explores his views. He had a death phobia, and when his wife of three decades was dying he was unable to go into her room. After she died her body was removed immediately, and Goethe did not go to her funeral.

For Goethe his mission was endless, and so he “deserved” immortality, although he didn’t believe in the Christian notion of heaven. “I would not know,” he wrote, “what to do with eternal blessedness, if it didn’t offer new problems and challenges to conquer. But we only have to look at the planets and the sun, to be reminded that there will be enough ‘nuts to crack.’” His way to immortality was to pursue the impossible, even if it meant a pact with the devil, the theme of Faust.

On my train journey home now, coming close to Doncaster, my brief intoxication with the thought of immortality is over. I don’t want a pact for the devil, and I don’t want a wifeless immortality reading books and tramping through ever more obscure parts of Britain. Instead I’ll fix on my death day—11 March 2032—and continue to love life until then.

Richard Smith was the editor of the BMJ until 2004 and is director of the United Health Group’s chronic disease initiative.