The Paradox of the Immortal Life Alex Nemec
The idea of immortality, and the Lord the God, the Eternal One, in many different shapes and forms, accompanied humanity ever since the first sparks of cultures – immortal ancient gods, powerful immortal heroes, Elysium and Tartarus, Valhalla and Helheim (or in general, many different conceptions of heaven and hell in the afterlife), even reincarnation. And how lovely of an idea can immortality be! The ideal, perfect life (somehow) promised to us, with all of our loved ones, forever and ever in never-ending happiness. This is why when, with the development of natural sciences, many of those ideas started to lose their credibility, and people lost stable ground in their beliefs under their feet, a few brave souls decided to stand up against this process, quickly grab onto the cord of immortality and Eternal Father, and not let it slip away, into nothingness.
But is it really worth saving? Is immortality really that great? Shall we really just simply discard temporality? Is it really true that it is such a cruel and awful thought to have in mind that it makes men run away from it, all the way to the other extreme of never-ending immortality? And on whose authority do writers such as Jean Paul so confidently make their claims concerning the ‘Paradise of Immorality’ or the promised loving hand of God; or the absolute, necessary goodness of this idea? To answer these questions shall be my burden today – but surely you, dear reader, will agree with me that the scope of these problems is way beyond the limits of just one single intellect. So let me call upon my dear friend, the great satirist, and the subject of the muse Mirth - Ernst August Friedrich Klingemann and his Nightwatches of Bonaventura (1804). With his help, I might just be able to show how Jean Paul does not give what is due to the naturalistic account of reality without God in the First Flower Piece (Flower, Fruit, and Thorn Pieces; or the Wedded Life, Death, and Marriage of Firmian Stanislaus Siebenkaes, Parish Advocate in the Burgh of Kuhschnappel, 1897), and in regards to the question of immortality in The Campaner Thal (1864), show, not only why Klingemann claims that we are not deserving of immortality, but how, even if we were, the concept itself is unnecessary and even harmful to the reality of our temporary lives.
The irony of Dead Christ
Let us begin by diving straight into Jean Paul’s First Flower Piece – The Dead Christ Proclaims That There is No God. In this work, we get a purposefully explicit and terrifying image of the godless, natural universe, without spirit, without soul, just pure destruction and annihilation of the forces of nature, clamping down on us in our final days. Our informant in this image is none other than the dead Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who proclaims to the terrified souls that there is no God, there is no great father; and all of them, he himself included, are orphans. The goal of this piece is reportedly to
“[…] fain awaken, with this piece of fiction, some alarm in the hearts of certain masters and teachers” who “[...] discuss God's existence as cold-bloodedly and chill-heartedly as though it were a question of the existence of the kraken or the unicorn” (“The Dead Christ”, pp. 260-261).
How ironic is this image coming from the one asking for consideration! The goddess Momus herself would be proud of such a piece! The naturalistic account here is completely overexaggerated; although being factually right on the main points of powers of nature, it maintains a very shortsighted view. The absolute annihilation of the whole known universe by its own power in a few billion years – yes that is very much a right observation; however, that is not what makes the image powerful and terrifying. What does the job, are the dead souls, waking up in an orphaned universe at the verge of destruction; learning about being abandoned, and ultimately disappearing into nothing after hearing the words of the dead Christ. But let us not forget, this is supposed to be an image of a natural scientist, of a person who denies the existence of God and the life after death. In the world of naturalists, there would be no dead orphaned souls rising, no dead Christ talking, probably not even any living form to observe such a spectacular event. There would be nothing! The annihilation can occur all the same, but without a soul to observe it, it loses its effect – it simply becomes an indifferent act of nature. Jean Paul is worried about our future, about the future of the world of natural scientists and atheists; whereas they do not even look at that future as a threat (or at all), while they know they will not be here to live it; they are alive here and now, and that is what really matters! This being said, I consider the matter at hand to be dealt with, and therefore I find it appropriate for us to move to the next section.
Oh, Jean Paul, how bold of an idea, perhaps even the boldest one of them all, did you decide to present; that of human immortality, reportedly promised to us by the God himself. And for all its boldness, what a lovely, beautiful image does it paint: endless life, endless happiness under the loving sight of God; his presence miraculously healing all the ills and sufferings brought from our time on Earth; no pains, no evils; our passed loved ones waiting for us at the gates of this paradise, and greeting us with tears of happiness in their eyes. “Oh, what wretched, evil soul would dare to oppose the belief, even if blind, in such a gift of an idea, of the life afterlife, of Our Loving Father himself”, the Defender of Immortality asks; “and rather accept the harsh reality of the natural universe, of the cold, soulless temporality, ending in total annihilation with no escape”. For surely, only evil itself, or the most wretched of souls would willingly turn around at the gates of the afterlife, and plunge itself into unnecessary suffering, away from the sight of the Lord; away from hope.
The comedy of life
But what is that in the distance? It is the great satirist, the godchild of the Devil himself; Ernst Klingemann (1804) comes onto the stage, and laughs into the face of God, of immortality, of human life, and sends them underground. The sounder of the Last Judgment, he saw all your flaws, all your shallowness, emptiness, and nothingness; laying right under your nose.
And the Great Satirist says: “Oh, how can I describe how before me on the stage the people ran into one another and in confusion and fear prayed and cursed and moaned and howled; and how the disguise fell from the countenance of every mask on this great ball, collapsed by the trumpet’s summons; and how people discovered kings in beggars’ clothes and the reverse, weaklings in knights’ armor, and so almost always contrast between dress and man” (“The Nightwatches”, pp. 42-43).
Oh, you naive beings, how can you think of immortality, of eternal right to happiness, you who at the sound of a trumpet are ready to shove away your masks and reveal nothing underneath! You who call “Thou canst not have made me only to suffer” (“The Kampaner Thal”, p.61); and do not realize that you are calling out to ‘nothing’. Citizens of the madhouse, this is simply a comedy and you are all actors in it! And once you read out your role, and the curtain falls, your character exits, and no one applauds – simply because nobody is watching (for reference, the death of Ophelia, “The 4 Nightwatches”, p. 108). And after this play ends, thankfully no other commences; “Praise God there is a death, and afterward no eternity!” (“The Nightwatches”, p. 107).
What is presented above, is the huge disparity between the two authors, Jean Paul and Klingenmann. Their texts and ideas are in essence simply incompatible: they are polar opposites - where Paul sees tragedy, Klingenmann sees comedy; where the former sees meaning, the latter sees absurdity and nothingness. This of course poses a question: ‘Which one of them is right?’ As is usual with two extremes of a concept, the ‘truth’ is likely somewhere in between, however, as I state in my thesis, I choose to side with Klingemann – I simply believe that he is much closer to the ‘truth’ than Paul (although I have my reservations towards him too). And now is time for me to show why that is.
What the concept of immortality and after-life does to life
In Jean Paul, we are presented with the idea, that a man who does not believe in immortality ‘throws an immeasurable gravestone, which no time can lift on a blooming grand world’; destines his world to total annihilation; denies himself to be healed by the loving hand of God; simply, makes a good-fornothing decision that brings nothing good with itself. I disagree! First of all, if a man truly believes in immortality, in this glorious all-good concept, what good does it do for him to live his ‘first life’, about which we read in Jean Paul? I say that if a man who truly believes in immortality and after-life with all his heart exists in our world, he is either a fool or a coward! - For nothing here can be possibly greater and better than what awaits him there. Second of all, not only is it logically unsound for this ‘first life’ to exist in the first place; since if God wanted us by his side in his eternal paradise, he would have simply spawned us there (unless it is a test, but no such idea was mentioned by Paul); but it also detracts from the only life we know for sure that we have! Simply by the virtue of believing in the concept, what seriousness and excitement stays in this life? You have nothing to fear, for nothing you do matters in the long run; you have nothing to accomplish, for you have unlimited time to do everything; you have nothing to be excited about, for everything will be happening for eternity. And look! Our dear Jean Paul is proving this himself – in his dialogue with Wilhelmi, Wilhelmi proposes:
“But may not our beautiful spiritual powers have been given to us for the enjoyment and preservation of the present life?
And Jean Paul answers:
For its preservation? Then an angel has been locked in the body to be a mute servant and firelighter, butler, cook, and porter of the stomach?”(“The Kampaner Thal”, p. 56)
“For enjoyment you said also. That means we received the palate and appetite of a god, with the food for an animal” (“The Kampaner Thal”, p. 56).
I have only one more thing to say to you dear Jean (and by extension, possibly to you too dear reader!): If you are willing to lose everything here, for something which is only possible by the inability to disprove it (the same way as it cannot be proven), you, my friend, might be betting your life on a blind horse!
The immortal life
Let us now imagine a scenario, where Jean Paul is right, and we indeed, after our short goodnight sleep of death awake, and realize that we are immortal. Now we arrive at our first problem – since what happens in the immortal life is unknowable, we cannot rule out the possibility of it being endless suffering – the idea which is perhaps most skillfully executed in William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and his contemplation on To be or not to be (for reference – Act Three, Scene 1, Lines 56-90). And it is not as if the idea of this is foreign to believers of the Eternal One either! But let us put this technicality aside, and say that Jean Paul is exactly right, and we arrive at the promised world of our Father, where our soul can finally fully thrive, without pains, without ills; simply a blessed happiness. We know for sure that Paul believes, that even in that world we will have a physical body, while in his argument with Karlson, Karlson says: “But, to all these worlds, as upon our own, you will be refused admittance if you arrive without a body. By what miracle will you obtain one?” (“The Kampaner Thal”, p. 51); and Paul, rather than objecting to the idea, gives an answer: “By a repeated one, For by a miracle we have our present body” (“The Kampaner Thal”, p. 51). How Jean Paul plans to deal with the limitations of the physical body in the ‘second life’ which worry him so much in our first one remains a mystery, but let us put that aside too and move on. Okay so this time, everything goes perfectly as planned, and none of the above mentioned problems are problems in the said second world. We reunite with our loved ones we lost, our souls blessed by happiness, for we are finally home, in the loving presence of God. So, what now? What are we to do with this gift of eternal life? We feast; we drink; we love; we sing; 6 for hundred years our souls are living in a state of constant ecstasy. Second century passes, and the beautiful mountains with their snowy star-tops which we can see whenever we look to the east start to appear somehow normal; losing their magic day by day. Five centuries pass, and you just reunited with your fifth love of your life now; but somehow the magic of love is completely gone, as if it was drained away by an endless abyss. Five thousand years pass, and you quite literally tried every food in the universe; you tasted every flavor, you took a sip of every cup of every liquid; you no longer know what to eat and drink so you renounce the activity entirely – as there is not the possibility to starve or die by dehydration. Five hundred thousand years pass – you learned everything there is to learn (ignoring the physical limitation of a brain to store information endlessly), there is nothing in the existence that you did not see or touch; life lost its meaning thousands of years ago, you basically forgot how temporality feels; you wish to meet and embrace the total annihilation that you renounced in the first seventy years of life, but there is nothing you can do; you are immortal, stuck in eternity; and the thing about eternity is that it never ends…
What Jean Paul failed to account for, is the reality of the fact of what immortality means – literally an inability to die. Ever. He did not realize that by renouncing and denouncing the total final annihilation as he did in “The Dead Christ” with his inaccurate, overexaggerated criticism, he embraced something far worse; he embraced a literal prison of life, from which there is no escape. Moreover, we can see that even if we ignore the major flaws in his argumentation, and give him the possibility to have his way, the idea itself simply is inherently incoherent; and the way, he presents it to us, just does way more harm than good; while in the long run, it simply does no good at all. At best it harms our actual life, at worst it creates a living nightmare, much worse than any annihilation. As for Ernst Klingenmann, for all his Nihilistic thinking, he ends up being the actual “good guy” from this duo – even though his work contains harsh criticism of society, and meaning of human life itself, it also provides positive elements with it – for example the fact that we all just wear masks and when removed, there is nothing left; at the same time tells us that there is nothing set ‘in nature’ about us, therefore we can choose the mask we like. And as for immortality, “Praise God there is a death, and afterward no eternity!” (“The Nightwatches”, p. 107).
Paul, J., P., R. (1864). The Carpaner and other wrtitings. Boston: Ticknor and Fields.
Paul, J., P., R. (1897). Flower, Fruit, and Thorn Pieces; or the Wedded Life, Death, and Marriage of Firmian Stanislaus Siebenkaes, Parish Advocate in the Burgh of Kuhschnappel. London, George Bell and sons. (pp. 259-265).
Klingemann, E. A. F. (1804). The Nightwatches of Bonaventura. University of Chicago Press.