Jeff Bezos’ attempt to fight aging through new company Altos Labs has sparked a new round of talk about wealthy techs dreaming of cheating death. But they are not the only ones with this dream. As Chinese literature scholar Fontaine Lien writes, immortality is a theme of stories in many cultures. She specifically examines the different views on the subject found in European Gothic histories and Chinese fantasy literature of the Six Dynasties period (220-589 CE).
The English and French Gothic literature of the early 19th century and the “adjacent Gothic” literature that Lien examines follows a Christian tradition that views earthly immortality with suspicion. In these stories, people may seek eternal life by using elixirs or making a deal with the devil. The result is not necessarily what they hoped for. In fact, physical immortality often contrasts sharply with spiritual immortality after death.
In Mary Shelley’s “The Mortal Immortal”, for example, the character Winzy drinks an elixir of immortality and is initially delighted with the result. But, after three centuries of life, he comes to wish he could die, to “set free the life imprisoned within, and so cruelly prevented from rising from this dark earth into a sphere more in keeping with its immortal essence. “.
In Gothic stories, those who gain immortality may also receive special powers. Yet they generally become melancholic and cut off from humanity. Following the tradition of the wandering Jew, cursed to walk the earth forever, they end up frustrated and bored.
Unlike Christianity, Lien writes, Taoism allows for many different views of life and death, including some that view earthly immortality as a worthy goal and something humans naturally seek. Many Chinese stories, books and films present xianfigures who, in Taoist texts, possess spiritual qualities allowing the transcendence of mortality.
To the Six Dynasties zhiguai In the literature – “the archives of the strange” – that Lien examines, immortality is a common theme. Some characters become xian through years of meditation, with magic elixirs, or by going to the mountains and finding a xian to teach them. In many stories, a disciple proves himself unworthy and his master dismisses or punishes him.
In these stories, xian often have magical powers such as walking through walls or standing in the light without casting a shadow. Unlike European Gothic literature, these stories do not present immortality as an essentially solitary state. While they generally portray transcendence as requiring the letting go of worldly ties, xian are not necessarily recluses. They are often cheerful and friendly, and many take on multiple disciples or visit mortals.
While the gothic stories tend to reinforce the idea that mortality is a morally desirable part of life and that life on earth has no meaning unless it has an end, the tales suggest that the transcendence of mortality is a morally appropriate goal – though only one attainable to those who renounce the things of the world. Jeff Bezos, take note.
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By: Fontaine Lien
Philology of the Pacific Coast, Vol. 53, No. 1, Pacific Coast Philology (2018), pp. 68-91
Penn State University Press on behalf of the Pacific Ancient and Modern Language Association (PAMLA)