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What is Immortality and How Can I get Some?

Updated on July 11, 2011

"The living know that they will die; and the dead  know nothing at all, for they have no reward and their memory is forgotten." Ecclesiastes 9:5. There you have it. There is no life after death. The Bible says so.

When I read this statement, I agree. I believe that, too. I don't believe it because it is written in the Bible. I believe it because I have independently arrived at the same conclusion. And when I read it, I think: the person who wrote that and I have a lot in common. Wouldn't it be nice if we could have met?

But you know what? We have met. We have met right there on that page. A person who lived and died thousands of years ago and I met, because the words of that person were preserved long enough for me to get to read them. Now, there's immortality for you!

Ecclesiastes 9:5

כִּי הַחַיִּים יוֹדְעִים, שֶׁיָּמֻתוּ; וְהַמֵּתִים אֵינָם יוֹדְעִים מְאוּמָה, וְאֵין-עוֹד לָהֶם שָׂכָר--כִּי נִשְׁכַּח, זִכְרָם.

For the living know that they will die; and the dead know nothing, for they have no reward and their memory is forgotten.

Who are You?

What we mean by immortality depends to a certain extent on what we mean by "us". Who are we? Are we our bodies, our brains, our minds or our souls? It makes a difference which part of yourself you identify with the most. Are we our words? Can a text represent us to future generations? For that matter, can it represent us to people whom we see face to face? Or people we speak to on the phone? People we know only online?

Is there a real world, and is it separate from the virtual one? Can we continue to live online long after we have died?

I've had the jarring experience of being told that someone enjoyed talking with me on the phone, because he liked the sound of my voice. He would call, and we would talk at great length on a great many topics, but he never remembered anything I had said from one call to the next. I asked him, if he wasn't paying attention to what I had to say, why did he keep calling? "Because I like the sound of your voice."

Can people be so distracted by the physical details of the bodies we inhabit that they miss the content of our minds? Can the sound of a voice or the touch of a hand or the shape of a brow or the scent of our breath mean more than who we are inside?

When we love another person, which part do we love? Is it their body or their mind? Can you love one person's mind in another person's body? If you had to preserve only one, which would you choose?

Life After Death: Who is Julia?

Who is Julia? is a not so memorable TV movie from 1986 based on the novel by Barbara S. Harris. I don't necessarily recommend it for its artfulness or its subtlety, but it dealt with this issue head on, in a way that most current day mind/body discussions don't.

I'm just going to copy part of the plot summary here from, eliminating a couple of adverbs and adjectives as I go: " A beautiful and wealthy woman is hit by a truck and nearly killed. At the same time, a very plain looking lower middle class woman faints and suffers brain death. The beautiful woman's brain is fine, so doctors transplant her brain into plain Jane. Problems ensue when plain Jane's husband continues to believe she is still his wife."

The husband who believed he was married to the body and not the mind was striking in his pathos. Despite the fact that this is hardly great literature, I never forgot the movie, even though I saw it only once, because I think it touches on a really important point, and many, many relationships are based on this kind of misunderstanding.

Well, okay, I don't mean that brain transplants happen every day. What I mean is: people mistake our bodies for ourselves. Not just husbands. Friends and family members -- mothers, daughters, sons -- often think they know someone, when all they know is the outermost shell.

Cyrano de Bergerac Image Credit: Wikipedia
Cyrano de Bergerac Image Credit: Wikipedia

Cyrano de Bergerac and Immortality

For the flip side of this dilemma, consider Cyrano de Bergerac, a French drama by Edmond Rostand. In this play, a woman falls in love with the words of one man spoken to her by another. Roxane is captivated by the eloquence of Cyrano, but only when his words are attributed to a better looking man.

Did you know that there really was a Cyrano de Bergerac? He was a French duelist and playwright, the author of many works, but today we remember him for the character with the big nose who appeared in the play by Rostand. The Wikipedia assures us that while the real Cyrano de Bergerac did indeed have a big nose, it was not nearly as big as Rostand made it out to be in his play!

Did Rostand immortalize Cyrano de Bergerac? Or was it the other way around? Do we remember Rostand thanks to Cyrano? Whose words were placed in whose mouth? Did Cyrano speak to Roxane through Christian? Or did Rostand speak to us disguised as Cyrano?

Does it matter who the author is or whose name appears under the title? Do we care more about the signature at the end of the love letter or the person who composed it? That is the question.

English language version from 1950

Immortality: Are we our words?

Men lie. Women, too. Chimpanzees are notorious liars. So if we are not our bodies, and we are not simply our brains, could it be that who we really are is somehow present in our words? If so, it isn't really what we say that contains the essence of our character. It is how we say it, and what we choose not to say. And, of course, there's also what we do. What we say in the context of what we do, and what we do in the context of what we say, is who we are!

Statue of Cyrano de Bergerac

Image Credit: Wikipedia
Image Credit: Wikipedia

The Immortal Word

I recently got into a really big discussion with some other linguists on Funknet. Many of them maintained that language is a series of connections in the brain, and that when the brains that contain the language are gone, the language dies, too, never to be resurrected. To these linguists, language spreads and is reborn every time it is copied from one brain to another, but in the absence of living brains, language cannot be stored or held in abeyance or kept or preserved.

I brought up the question of Hebrew. The Hebrew language was revived after dying out. There were no native speakers, and only written texts which were learned by rote kept the record of how the language was spoken. Some of the linguists told me I was mistaken, and that some people kept writing and speaking in Hebrew all the way through the middle ages. Others told me, okay, so it was revived from a written text, but that's like "tracing over a palimpsest" and surely it's not the same language. The "real" language was made of flesh and housed in the brains of its speakers until they died.

I disagree. Language is not made of flesh and blood. Neither are we. There's more to every person than the body he inhabits. And while a text is not our soul, you can read the soul of the writer in the spaces between the lines. We know them by what they say, and even more by what  they think goes without saying.

Immortality: Making Copies

I do think that making copies is the key to immortality. I just don't think it matters what the medium of storage happens to be. We makes copies of ourselves, albeit imperfect copies, when we have children. Then we try to transmit our language and our culture and our ideas to those children, and this transmission is also imperfect. But that's why we have books. Books preserve knowledge longer than mere word of mouth. And books in turn have to be copied over and over again or they are lost forever. The reason we have the Bible is because of the many scribes who generation after generation copied the same text over, letter by letter, word by word, whether they understood it or not.

The Bible is a best seller even today. That's a major achievement for any book. It does not matter that most of the people who buy a bible do not even bother to read it, or that those who do read it ignore what it actually says. The reason I was able to have a meeting of the minds with the author of Ecclesiastes 9:5 and to agree with what he had to say about the dead, is thanks to the millions of people who may disagree with that verse, but who made it possible for me to have access to those words.

The words of the Bible, and of any other ancient text, come down to us in an unbroken line of imperfect copies. Sure, a few scribal errors are introduced here and there in the process. But the work as a whole speaks for itself, and when we read it, we are getting a message from people who died long, long ago. Their brains have been consumed by worms and have turned to dust. But the words they left us can still be read today. That is immortality!

(c) 2010 Aya Katz


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    • profile image


      5 years ago

      Hehehe Ca me rappelle cet esdiope de Star Trek (Voyager) ou un des personnages (Tom Parris) recree dans le holodeck (espace virtuel en trois dimensions) une salle de cinema des annees cinquante pour voir un film (donc deux dimensions) a voir avec des lunettes speciales parce que a voir en trois dimensions ( La chose des marais si je me rappelle bien ).Sa copine (B elana) avait trouve ca un peu pas coherent.Mais il y avait plein de popcorn, et puis bon, le cinema, comme rendez-vous amoureux, hein Ca se pose la.

    • ReuVera profile image


      8 years ago from USA

      I have to add (to specify) how the journalist found out that the famous writer was copying old works (the journalist tells this story to a beginner writer). The journalist recognized one poem, or rather one phrase from a poem by a famous Russian poet Sergei Esenin- "And the trees, like riders, have gathered in our garden", that he remembered from his family legacy. It prompted him to question the famous writer who then confessed to him WHY he was doing it. The journalist kept this secret and even wanted another writer to continue this path after the old writer died. The journalist himself could not take over, because he had his certain established style and nobody would accept his being reborn into a writer.

      Good luck with your Russian! One suggestion- don't bother reading the beginning, it is pretty confusing. Start reading from where they talk about Brokt (the old writer who died)

    • Aya Katz profile imageAUTHOR

      Aya Katz 

      8 years ago from The Ozarks

      Thanks, Vera, for the link and the concise synopsis. I will take a look at the story in Russian, although I doubt that I will be able to read it through. (I took some Russian in college -- ages ago.)

    • ReuVera profile image


      8 years ago from USA

      Aya, surprisingly, I found this story easily (I remembered one phrase out of it and actually, it was the title). The only problem is that I cannot find any English translation. The story is not exactly how I remembered it and it is not short, but not long either. However, it will take me for ever if I try to translate it properly. In short paraphrase, it takes place in 40th century. A well known journalist approaches a beginning writer and tells him a story about a famous writer of their time who just died and the planet was mourning the loss of his talent. Only the journalist knew that that writer was publishing under his name the forgotten masterpieces. Now the journalist wants the beginning writer to take over and continue doing the same so that the lost masterpieces will find their way to people.

      The author's name and the story's title in English is:

      George Shach. "And the trees, as the riders"

      This is the story in Russian:

    • Aya Katz profile imageAUTHOR

      Aya Katz 

      8 years ago from The Ozarks

      ReuVera, thanks. I look forward to learning more about that Russian short story.

      I agree with what you said: "Immortality is not to preserve our name, but rather our legacy." It's not about getting credit. It's about preserving the contribution that we have to make, so that others can use it.

    • ReuVera profile image


      8 years ago from USA

      Aya, yes, I saw the movie and though I didn't remember its name, I still remember an impression I got from it.

      I will try to search for the Russian story and if I find it, I'll let you know. It was a short story in some old literature monthly almanac.

      Just wanted to add some thing. The immortality is not to preserve our name, but rather our legacy. We have several ways in our family that are "grandma used to do it like this" (for instance, cold remedy I wrote about) and nobody knows if it was my grandma, or my grandma's grandma.

    • Aya Katz profile imageAUTHOR

      Aya Katz 

      8 years ago from The Ozarks

      ReuVera, thanks for your comment. You saw Who is Julia? That's great that you remember it, too. It's not the sort of movie that will get critical acclaim, but it really does leave a strong impression. In some ways, it's much deeper than many an "artistic" movie.

      Do you remember the title or author of that Russian story? It sounds like something I might like to read.

    • ReuVera profile image


      8 years ago from USA

      It was a very interesting read, thank you. I remember the movie you've mentioned and for some reason most of all I remember an episode when a plain Jane's body (with a brain of a beautiful wealthy woman) driven by physical (body's) memories went to visit her (Jane's) husband. Then the woman understood that body (flesh) memories are just worth of a moment. Her home was where she was with her brain (inner values). It is really a simple movie, but surprisingly with a deep impact.

      Also, I've read a short story in Russian (long ago and I can't remember even where) which basically talked about immortality of literature masterpieces. It was taking place in very (very) remote future. An average man suspected that a very famous writer plagiarized a piece of work of a poet who lived centuries and centuries ago. When a man met with a writer and questioned him about it, the writer confessed that all his works are actually works of ancient poets and writers who were forgotten and nobody would even consider reading them. But people will read a popular famous writer (him). So, this way the writer was reviving old works for new generations. The value is not in the names of the authors, but in essence of their masterpieces.

    • Aya Katz profile imageAUTHOR

      Aya Katz 

      8 years ago from The Ozarks

      Amanda, thanks. I believe that people who don't write or paint or sculpt or compose music or engage in any sort of artistic endeavor can find immortality of a sort, too. So long as there are people who remember us after we have gone, then some part of us is preserved. Sometimes a person lives on in the stories that are handed down from generation to generation in his own family or in his local community. There are people who live on in the patterns of a quilt and the story that goes with it, and some become the protagonists in oral tradition. They may never have written anything themselves, but they might be "the face that launched a thousand ships" in their small circle of friends.

    • Aya Katz profile imageAUTHOR

      Aya Katz 

      8 years ago from The Ozarks

      Paraglider, thank you! I'm rather pleased with it, myself. It's true that we can't get to know someone well from a single conversation, and we need to read the entire body of an author's works, before we form a judgment, since writers can be complex and offer many faces. Sometimes we are blinded by the brilliance of a single work, but disappointed by the majority. Wordsworth, for me, was such a disappointment. The Lucy poems are so bright and say nothing more than needs to be said. But the majority of his works are nothing like that.

    • Amanda Severn profile image

      Amanda Severn 

      8 years ago from UK

      I really enjoyed this Aya. Food for thought indeed. Who will remember us when we are gone? Maybe those who think and write can pass their ideas down the generations via dusty volumes stored in libraries. Maybe those who create will be remembered for their art, their sculpture, their architecture, their inventions. Those that wage war or make peace become legend in other ways. As for the rest, the vast throng of humanity, we are destined to become dust.

    • Paraglider profile image

      Dave McClure 

      8 years ago from Kyle, Scotland

      Aya - one of your best, I think. I think it's important to index a whole body of work because most of us are pretty complex and any one article, poem or essay will only reflect one side of us. That's why something like the Oxford Book of English Poetry gives a great introduction to the poetry but not to the poets. For that, you need to read their complete works (or as much as you have time for).

    • Aya Katz profile imageAUTHOR

      Aya Katz 

      8 years ago from The Ozarks

      Nicomp, thanks!

    • nicomp profile image

      nicomp really 

      8 years ago from Ohio, USA

      Fascinating. Thanks for a great read.

    • Aya Katz profile imageAUTHOR

      Aya Katz 

      8 years ago from The Ozarks

      WingedCentaur, thanks for your comment. I missed that episode of ST Voyager, but in general, when someone is transported from one place to another using the transporter system, one copy of the person is created while another is destroyed. It's like dying and being reborn all at once.

      As for bigamists, or polygamists in general, I think the natural motivation is obvious: to make more copies of oneself. Women are the bottleneck of production, so the more wives a man has, the more copies are made. On the other hand, when a woman takes many husbands, the number of copies produced by the participants is reduced.

      I have another hub that touches on this issue:

    • wingedcentaur profile image

      William Thomas 

      8 years ago from That Great Primordial Smash UP of This and That Which Gave Rise To All Beings and All Things!

      Good Day Aya Katz

      Well done! I voted this up for useful. You're a clever thinker and a good writer. I like the way you handled the question of immortality, briefly surveying a few different notions.

      I agree with your analysis. I was particularly struck by: "Can you love one person's mind in another person's body?"

      I do think this is partially a function of certain variations of male infidelity, when a man cheats on his wife or girlfriend (again, certain variations). We believe in immortality in both positive and negative terms, to my way of thinking.

      Take the man who engages in bigamy, for example. Why does he do this? He can't seem to decide on the woman who is "Mrs Right."

      I don't know if you've ever watched Star Trek Voyager. But there was one episode where Captain Janeway's science officer, Tuvak, and the ship's cook, Neelix had a transporter accident. They fused into a single, new being -- Teelix or was it Nuvak?

      The point is that, you could say that as a new being was created, two others were destroyed.... and all that goes with that....

      Now, this is the effect that the male bigamist is trying to bring about in an unconcious psychological way. One woman may be for him "sweet." Another woman may be "sexy." One woman may be "brilliant" and "highly accomplished." Each of these women have characteristics he admires.

      What he is trying to do is create the "perfect" woman. If he could put these women in a machine and recreate the effect that produced Teelix (or was it Nuvak?), he would indeed do so.

      Blah, blah, blah, yada, yada, yada...

      Anyway, another excellent hub. I enjoyed reading it very much. Making many, many copies is the only way to ensure the preservation of wisdom.

      Take care.

    • Aya Katz profile imageAUTHOR

      Aya Katz 

      8 years ago from The Ozarks

      Dan, thanks for cutting right to the heart of the matter. It is very hard to write on any subject and not end up mentioning chimpanzees. But then everything is interconnected, so it all ends up making some sort of sense in the end!

    • Daniel Carter profile image

      Daniel Carter 

      8 years ago from Western US

      "Chimpanzees are notorious liars." That line cracked me up. Ah, the life of living with an adolescent chimp named Bow. (Not that BOW is such a liar, but that you know the cunning of chimps in general!)

      I love this hub, and I love your insights. Very well thought out and written. Kudos to you!

    • Aya Katz profile imageAUTHOR

      Aya Katz 

      8 years ago from The Ozarks

      Thanks, Tatjana-Mihaela! I think authorship was always trickier than the average reader was led to believe. Nobody is sure who Shakespeare really was, and in a sense, it doesn't matter. What matters is that whoever he was, we have his words.

    • Tatjana-Mihaela profile image


      8 years ago from Zadar, CROATIA

      Enjoyed this article very much.

      Thanks to meditations, I learned to perceive this world as energy (not all the time) what can make life much easier to live and change.

      BTW, today "authorship" is very tricky way to determine what somebody did in his life - I know so many people in so many occupations who sign as "authors" of something they never done - ghost authors performed the job for them. Was it like that before? Whose words we really read? Is this important or only message we get is important?

      Thank you very much.

      P.S. Chimpanzees lie? Wow.

    • Aya Katz profile imageAUTHOR

      Aya Katz 

      8 years ago from The Ozarks

      Deborah Demander, thanks for your comment and for sharing your thoughts. I wholeheartedly agree that we are not our bodies. I'm not really satisfied by the explanation that our spirit is energy, though, because that's not so different from saying that our spirit is made of matter. (Matter and energy are interchangeable, after all.) My take on this issue is less materialistic, and hence more abstract. Our spirits are just an information structure. It can be replicated, but it's really hard to do. And in the meanwhile, the best way to get to understand another is to see the correlation between what he says and what he does. The best way to get to know people who have died, is to read the record that they have left behind. No, they are not that record, but you can reconstruct their souls from the clues they left us. I do feel that I know a lot of long-departed people intimately, even though all I have to go on is their writings.

    • Deborah Demander profile image

      Deborah Demander 

      8 years ago from First Wyoming, then THE WORLD

      This is a very well written and thought provoking hub. I have often thought about these things. My conclusion is that we are not our bodies. We are spiritual beings, currently on an earthly mission, stuck in bags of flesh which will eventually rot away. I believe the spirit remains, whether it is within the written word, or the works left behind, that contain the essence of who we are, or as spirit, energy in the universe. I don't know. But we will all find out.


    • Aya Katz profile imageAUTHOR

      Aya Katz 

      8 years ago from The Ozarks

      Ecoggins, thanks for your thoughtful comment. Of course, this is not all the Bible, OT and NT, has to say on the subject. But this was the part I wanted to focus on here. Not every part of scripture is written by the same person, and different writers represent different points of view. Also, I'm not so much interested in entering into the theology of any particular faith as in seeing the overall picture of how words matter and can be preserved without comprehension, so that one generation can read the word directly as written thousands of years ago, without the mediation of the opinions of intermediate generations.

      My focus is on the fact that there is more to us and the word than what is physical and meets the eye, without resorting to any supernatural explanations.

    • ecoggins profile image


      8 years ago from Corona, California

      I can see that this is a well-thought out and presented essay on one sense of immortality. And...through your argument I can see and acknowledge your idea about how present meets past by the preservation of written artifacts. But, if death is so natural and final, then why do we crave immortality? I mean: why should we care if our words carry on to other generations? Is Ecclesiates 9:5 all the preacher had to say about life, death, and immortality? How about the rest of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures; what does the rest of the Bible have to say on the subject? I follow your argument about how words can reach and tough future generations which is a right and important reminder, but is it all there is on the subject life, death, and immortality?


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