Sunday, June 03, 2007

Last of the Time Lords

I've been watching the new Doctor Who series on the BBC for about six months now -- ever since it quite randomly came on the television after some other show I'd been watching with a few British friends. I was assured that I would "love it" -- and love it I have, as I've been following it a bit obsessively ever since.

For those who don't know the show, a BBC website can provide some background if you're interested. All you really need to know is that the series revolves around a character called, simply, the Doctor. He is the last of a race known as the Time Lords, and the series follows his adventures traveling through space-time in the TARDIS (which if memory serves stands for Time And Relative Dimension In Space), which is a space-timeship disguised as a police call box. He has various companions over the years, including a young girl named Rose in the first two seasons of the most recent series, and a young doctor named Martha in the most recent season. The show has enjoyed a pretty much unparalleled longevity, thanks to the fact that the Doctor's race, the Time Lords, don't die -- they just change form. Same doctor, different face. Thus, the slightly nerdy looking yet oddly compelling David Tennant now plays the doctor, where formerly Christopher Eccleston played our space-time traveling hero.

In the most recent episode, called "The Family of Blood", the Doctor is given a chance to become human -- in fact, he must become human to hide from alien creatures looking to hunt him down in order to absorb his immortality. He is given the chance to have, for a brief period of time, the one thing he can never have -- a life in which he can truly take part, a life in which he is a part of the chronological procession of time rather than an outsider who can zap in and out of it at any given time. Because he is the last of his kind, and because no other race shared their peculiar affinity for time travel, and more importantly, the safe-guarding of time -- he finds himself utterly alone.

Over at In the Middle a week or so ago, we were having a discussion about immortality -- trying to answer or at least begin to answer the question Eileen Joy phrased thusly: "if you could live forever, would you want to? Would you still be human?"

I felt resistant to the question at the time -- too many episodes of Highlander, too much reading of the Lord of the Rings -- I'm still not entirely sure what it was, but there was something about the question that meant, for me at least, that the answer would probably be no -- but I couldn't quite put my finger on what it was at the time.

It doesn't do justice to the conversation there to add an episode of Doctor Who to it. Perhaps, like so many other literary (or televisionary?) answers to this question, it doesn't really "count" if you will -- it's only humans, thinking about what would be wrong with the thing they want most (immortality) if it were, in fact, within their grasp -- a way of comforting ourselves in the face of the one thing in life that is certain. But if you look here, and go to about 8:10, you'll see, in classic Doctor Who style, the answer that springs to mind for me. The line:

In the end, you just get tired. Tired of the struggle. Tired of losing everyone that matters to you. Tired of watching everything turn to dust. If you live long enough, Lazarus, the only certainty left is that you'll end up alone.
Maybe we're just hardwired genetically to reject our mortality, to strive to live beyond it no matter the cost -- but there's another side to that struggle that seems to recognize that, were it different, we would -- whether in one thousand years or one billion -- get tired.

In a way, it's similar to The Wanderer. The part I'm thinking of is near the end -- it's the ubi sunt passage that we so often return to as a lament over the transience of earthly things:
Se þonne þisne wealsteal wise geþohte
ond þis deorce lif deope geondþenceð,
frod in ferðe, feor oft gemon
wælsleahta worn, ond þas word acwið:
Hwær cwom mearg? Hwær cwom mago? Hwær cwom maþþumgyfa?
Hwær cwom symbla gesetu? Hwær sindon seledreamas?
Eala beorht bune! Eala byrnwiga!
Eala þeodnes þrym! Hu seo þrag gewat,
genap under nihthelm, swa heo no wære.

When a wise man beholds these walls,
and contemplates deeply the darkness of life,
he grows wise in spirit. He will often bear in mind,
many of death’s slaughters, and will speak these words:
Where is the horse? Where the warrior? Where the lord?
Where are the banquet-seats? Where are hall’s joys?
Alas for the bright cup! Alas for the warrior!
Alas for the glory of the people! How distant is that time,
vanished under night’s shade, as if it never were!

(Thank you to Labyrinth Library for the OE text. The translation is my own.)

Of course, one could always read this as related to the idea that if humans were immortal, then there would be no reason for such lament -- there would be happiness. But I suppose a part of me -- the pessimistic part of me, to be certain, but a part of me none the less -- thinks that mere immortality wouldn't be enough to light up the "darkness of life." I guess there could be no guarantee that I wouldn't lose something -- or someone -- that I loved. Rilke, in his Ninth Duino Elegy, says something to this effect speaking of objects:
"And these things, whose lives are lived in leaving -- they understand when you praise them. Perishing, they turn to us, the most perishable, for help. They want us to change them completely, in our invisible hearts, oh -- forever! -- into us! Whoever we may finally be."
Of course, Rilke imagines for himself a kind of dynamic between humanity and objects that focuses on what humans can do for "things" -- but I think there's a way to save Rilke from his human-centered vision.

I think there's space in Rilke's poem for a kind of respect that his language elides. In a sense, by respecting what they are (whether human or not, "sentient" or not) and not merely their use to humans -- there's a chance to save ourselves. Again, what I'm going for here is slightly more nuanced than I know how to put into words just yet. It has to do with boundaries, with respect, with limitations. I has to do with knowing when our desires would take too much from things and beings around us -- and with knowing when we must, in fact, allow our own ending to be altered in order to avoid damage to the world and universe in which we live.

In short -- nothing comes without a price (not in a moralistic way, just in a logical way -- energy can't be created or destroyed. Only the form changes, and that form, when it changes, must have been something else before...), and immortality seems like it would draw too much on an already overdrawn environment. Perhaps one day there would be a chance for altering our own ability to live on without the loss and damage that immortality might cause. But until those contingencies are fully mapped out, I think I'm with the Doctor. The "things" (people, animals, plants, worlds) we'd leave behind in our own attempts to be mortal seem too valuable -- and I don't know that I would ever want to be one of those left, asking where it all has gone.

Edit, Monday afternoon -- funny how I managed to leave the "im" off of "immortal" in that last paragraph. I wonder what it might mean to leave things behind in an attempt to "be mortal" rather than an attempt to "be immortal". Typos, while annoying, can also be thought provoking on occasion...


J J Cohen said...

Nice post.

As a kid I was addicted to the old Dr Who series, with Tom Baker. No doubt they warped my mind in ways that my current scholarship shows symptoms of.

The immortality question is just was impossible for me, and I think you're right in linking it to the transitoriness that make us human: if we could exist forever, then it is no longer an "us" that is timeless -- since timeboundedness is the condition of our being, not an inconvenient fact we learn once we've started to be.

meli said...

I think the clue's in Genesis. Without the apple we wouldn't have a story.

Oh. And Doctor Who rocks.

Dr. Virago said...

What a thoughtful post, MK. When I first read Eileen's question, I was thinking something along these lines (though I didn't comment), but instead of a Dr. Who/OE pairing, I thought of the X-Files and Chaucer. In the X-Files, somewhere in one of its later seasons, in a "monster of the week" episode, Mulder and Scully meet a man who keeps taking pictures of people right before they die. Turns out that he's immortal -- or rather, more accurately, he *can't* die but *wants* to -- because he didn't look death in the face at the moment when he was originally supposed to die. The nurse in the war hospital (it was WWI) who turned his face away thought she was doing him a favor, but as he tells Scully, he's completely alone now -- the whole world as he knew it is gone, and all he wants to do is follow them.

And *that* reminded me of the old man in the Pardoner's Tale, who pounds on the gates of mother earth to let him in, and can direct the three rioters to death but can't seem to find it himself. That moment *always* creeps me out.

As JJC comments here, our mortality is part of our humanity. If we were immortal, we'd be something else. It's perhaps why so much literature addresses death, mortality, and the what-if of immortality. It's not just that literature comforts us, but since we're the only creatures who create literature and art, and the only creature really fully aware of our mortality, it stands to reason that that literature deals so much with mortality. Literature itself is a kind of ars moriendi.

MKH said...

JJC> Amazing how Dr Who grabs the imagination, isn't it. I wish I'd found it as a kid -- then again, perhaps my mind was warped enough without it...

since timeboundedness is the condition of our being, not an inconvenient fact we learn once we've started to be. This is precisely what I was going for, and beautifully worded. We can't *be* immortal and simultaneously be human -- because being human means being bound by and to chronological time. To be free of that bind might be extraordinary -- but I don't think it could never be human (or at least, not as we understand it).

Meli> Indeed -- the "Fall from Grace" as a fall into time, into mortality -- into being human. Reminds me of a conversation I once had during a religion class in high school (ah, the glory of catholic schooling) -- if Heaven's where you finally know everything, for all time, and want for nothing -- it'd be so boring.

Come to think of it, there seems to have been a reason my religion teachers and I didn't always get on...

Dr. V> Literature itself is a kind of ars moriendi. That is beautiful -- and I think you're quite right. To borrow a psychoanalytic term, it's a working-through of loss -- the loss we can't avoid.

I remember that episode of the X-Files -- it's so creepy. And when he explained it, didn't he say something about how he was trying to capture Death's attention, trying to see what he didn't that first time?

It does parallel really well with the Pardoner. I've always been quite creeped out by the old man who cannot die (though he rots away, apparently -- which is ironic since the X-Files episode is called Tithonus)... I've never understood what he meant by not being able to find someone who would exchange youth for age. I think that's part of what's so bizarre about it -- he's clearly punished by this immortality, but why? Why that punishment, and why is the exchange of youth for age the exchange required for redemption? Is it just the sort of "impossible task" that always seems set? Or is it more?

Do you have any theories?

Wonderful comments...

Eileen Joy said...

MKH--your post here and the comments that follow [especially Dr. V's] are wonderfully rich, indeed. There *is* a kind of awkwardness, isn't there [?], in trying to wrestle with why we think our human-ness is inextricably linked to our mortality. In order to say that, we have to [kind of] recognize that we might be clinging to some kind of scientifically pre-lapsarian [and even physiologically] conservatively reactionary stance, while at the same time, we really cannot imagine "ourselves" apart from the structure of a world that necessitates, as MKH writes,

"knowing when our desires would take too much from things and beings around us -- and . . . knowing when we must, in fact, allow our own ending to be altered in order to avoid damage to the world and universe in which we live."

Beautifully put, btw. As to the idea that living forever might mean that we would have to lose too much [too many persons, for example, whom we love], I would argue that it is precisely in the loss [and I think this is partly MKH's point] of what/who we have held closest to ourselves that we truly understand our place in this world--as those persons who "hold" others, in our hands, our minds, etc. If we can really understand this, how our lives are intended, or let's say, *tend toward" the site[s] within which we can "hold open" and "hold" [without constraining, without harming, without *holding back*] others, we might call that an intellectual progress of sorts.

But here's the hitch, "holding," even when it is "holding open," also means touching/caressing [without touching/caressing, but still . . . .], such that, when the object of love passes away/dies, we are bereft. The old man in "The Pardoner's Tale" may want to die because he wants to follow those who he loves to the other place, so-called, or because he is, simply, tired and worn out from being alive for so long and having made too many "joinings" that had to "die" without him. But I also suspect that's not quite it. The Pardoner is trying to scare his audience with a too-obvious so-called "moral" point: you're not human unless you die, and soon. Might we not also be on our "guard" against this overly-Christianized terror tale? But how?

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