Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Forever Just Isn’t What It Used to Be



I was perusing the news this morning and came across this article on NPR:

‘Wikipedia Archiving Voices So You’ll Always Know How Celebs Sound,’ followed by: ‘Ten-second audio snippets of famous people’s voices will be preserved on Wikipedia forever.’

Yes it is amazing what new technology enables people to do these days.  But what catches my attention here is the use of the word ‘forever’.  The promise is held out that, even after ‘we’ lose these ‘famous people’ we will still have access to what their voices sounded like, stored in an archive of 10 second ‘snippets’, with access apparently guaranteed ‘forever’.

Forever, as it is currently used, is a rather elastic concept.  I most often hear it used in times of bereavement and grief: ‘I’ll remember her forever’ or ‘He left us a legacy that will endure forever.’  I’ve looked at ‘Legacy Pages’ provided by funeral homes which give the impression that your tribute will be there forever.  Somehow, somewhere in the far recesses of our soul, there resides a gnawing angst that, when all is said and done, and we are no longer around to draw attention to ourselves, we might be forgotten.  This is a legitimate concern.

Most of the world’s people have passed from memory.  They lived, just as we live today.  They had their friendships, their accomplishments, their heartaches, their tragedies, just as we do now.  They died, and if they were fortunate, there was a circle of people who felt grief at having been bereaved.  And time went on.  And one by one, every single person who knew him or her themselves died.  And soon there was nobody left who knew or even cared that such a person had ever existed.  Of all the billions of people who have lived and died, only a tiny handful have survived as a name to us today.  Even fewer have left a record of what they look like, or what their lives were actually like.


Nobody wants to be forgotten.  And we humans have devised some ingenious ways to make sure something of us will call someone’s attention to us long after we are gone.  The Lascaux cave paintings are an early example of such a record.  The early rulers in Egypt and the later Mesopotamian emperors went to stupendous lengths to ensure an appreciation of their glory and power.   

Abu Simbel

Rulers of all kinds in all ages fall for this sort of pathetic hubris, attempting to secure a kind of immortality by reminding subsequent generations that they were a somebody, really.  Academics attempt similar feats through manic publishing, hoping that their name on the spine of a book on a dark shelf on the seventh floor of the stacks in some research library will secure them a seat in the pantheon of science or history or literary gods and goddesses.  And then there are cemeteries, where the not-so-lofty, or their relatives, seek somehow to preserve their memory.  This is usually accomplished nowadays just as it has been for as far back as our cultural memory stretches, with a stone inscribed with an inscription, often with just the bare facts that so-and-so existed:  born January 21, 1939, died February 4, 2014.  With more resources, one can opt for a more elaborate sculpture – a favorite memorial strategy of well-to-do Victorians in both the UK and here.   


Or one might have an elaborate scene carved in the stone, like the one of a recently deceased deer hunter who had his portrait carved in the stone, replete with hunting fatigues, along with a hunting scene focused on the buck of his dreams.  Evidently, his tombstone did what it was supposed to do, and I’m remembering it here for you (though I can’t remember his name…).  However, though this is a tried and seemingly true method of remembering someone, this inscribing them onto a stone that’s placed on their grave, stone doesn’t last forever.  It doesn’t even last a long time.  I visited many cemeteries in New England from the 17th and 18th centuries where the stones that remain are so weathered that it is impossible to make out the names they once carried.  Row upon row of people just like us have passed into oblivion, no longer remembered.  And even those stones that can be read have no one left who cares about the person it represents.  They are lost to us.

View of my favorite cemetery, in Ipswich, MA

This brings me back to Wikipedia.  It is certainly interesting that an audio archive has been established to store recordings of our celebrities’ voices.  But it is grandiose, at the very least, to claim that ‘we’ will be able to have the voices of these ‘celebs’ forever.  Maybe a long time.  But for us these days, a long time isn’t very long.  I remember when floppy discs were the reality.  And I dutifully put all of my records on floppy discs thinking that I was preserving that information for posterity.  Well, posterity turned out to be about ten years long, and now I couldn’t read a floppy disk even if I could find them because computer systems have evolved in such a way as to make them utterly obsolete.  Dare I say that all of the computerized, online systems that we take for granted today (which have themselves been around for less than 10 or 15 years!) will not be here 10 or 15 years from now, much less forever.

So there’s a big problem here.  We want our lives to mean something.  We want to have made a difference.  We want to be remembered.  But we are ephemeral, and our contexts as constant as a barrier sea island.  Immortality is reduced to a photograph, maybe a biography that will sit unread on a shelf in ten years, a work of art, a name inscribed in stone, a ten-second snippet of someone’s voice.  The current situation is temporary.  Tomorrow our places will be taken by others who don’t have a clue that there was someone sitting here, standing there, living here before them.  Speaking as a historian, it’s all very discouraging.  Looking back, almost everything is gone, lost, irretrievably.  And the further back we go, the less there is to work with.

When I became Orthodox, I found startling the chant repeated at the end of Orthodox funerals.  The Deacon says: In a blessed falling asleep, grant, O Lord, eternal rest unto Thy departed servant (Name) and make his/her memory to be eternal!
Then the choir sings: Memory eternal! Memory eternal! Memory eternal!


I want to be remembered.  But if this world, as it is, is all there is, then I will join everyone in passing from memory.  That is why there is a deep resonance with this profound truth offered by the Orthodox at the time of bereavement, that God will hold us in his memory.  And unlike stone or books or buildings or youtube videos or Wikipedia audio files, God is from everlasting to everlasting.  Memory eternal – the best explanation I’ve found comes from Don Sheehan’s essay, ‘Dostoevsky and Memory Eternal: An Eastern Orthodox Approach to The Brothers Karamazov’:
We can best approach the meaning of this song through the connection between the Orthodox funeral services and the crucifixion of Christ.  Fr. Pavel Florensky… articulated the connection by first asking, “What did the wise thief ask for on the cross?”  and then answering by quoting from St. Luke’s Gospel: “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom” (Luke 23:42).  Florensky then continues: And in answer, in satisfaction of his wish, his wish to be remembered, the Lord witnesses: “Truly I say to you, today shall you be with me in Paradise.”  In other words, “to be remembered” by the Lord is the same thing as “to be in Paradise.”  “To be in Paradise” is to be in eternal memory and, consequently, to have eternal existence and therefore an eternal memory of God.  Without remembrance of God we die, but our remembrance of God is possible only through God’s remembrance of us.
So it turns out that we are looking for remembrance in all the wrong places.  Celebrity stars in the sidewalk, massive memorials on the mall, enormous warships, faces on Mt. Rushmore, Warhol’s fifteen minutes of fame: all are destined to become no more than Shelley’s words:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: "Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
`My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

 None of what I’ve been saying is new.  But it does require a rethink of current operating procedure.  To think that an invisible God’s memory is the one thing most worth investing in seems a huge leap.  Until one compares it with what passes for sufficient today.