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...