- Life without End: A Thought Experiment in Literature from Swift to Houellebecq by Karl S. Guthke
Much of recent literary criticism is concerned with ideological systems: capitalism, imperialism, institutional racism, the Anthropocene. In these schemes the work of criticism is to establish the relation between the example and the system, to show that the novel reflects and reifies bourgeois nationalism, or anticipates anthropogenic climate change, or dissolves the fantasies that structure various modes of oppression. Karl Guthke’s Life without End is a different sort of criticism, concerning itself first and foremost with a particular plot: the human achievement of eternal life.
There are no chapters here structured around readings of a single novel or author. Guthke’s text instead proliferates examples from hundreds of years of literary history. The second chapter alone, encompassing over two-thirds of the book, includes readings of eighteen different texts that imagine immortal life, including authors such as J. M. Barrie, Adolfo Bioy Cesares, Arthur C. Clarke, Simone de Beauvoir, Martin Amis, and Iris Barry. The examples themselves are wonderful, many of the texts are obscure, and Guthke’s work is designed to excavate the intellectual contributions of literary texts rather than vivisect them with the scalpels of theory or bury them with historical context.
Even a work boiling over with immortals needs a premise for exclusion. For the most part, Life without End does not address science fiction and fantasy. Guthke is not against modern science fiction as such, only against the majority of science fiction, the interests of which are in hundreds or thousands of years of history, and which involve other worlds rather than focusing on the problems of life without end in this world. Additionally, these writers “tend to give preference to technical problems or scientific perspectives, to social utopias or dystopias rather than to those ‘ethical implications’ that would, with luck, throw more light on aspects of the condition humaine that would not fade as quickly or as easily as any technological state of the art, or consumer expectations for that matter” (21). In some ways, it’s an odd division. Technical problems and political structures are rife with ethical implications, and access to technology might be a way of the addressing one of Guthke’s primary concerns: the demarcation between who is considered human and nonhuman in the first place. At the very least, that so many of us are obsessed with our technology—however ephemeral the object—sheds light on something deeply and weirdly human.
Immortality in this world is important in its contrast to Christian conceptions of an eternal soul. For Guthke, the story is one of secularization, especially to the extent that the Christian tradition sees something heretical or presumptuous in the search for eternal life in this world. It is for this reason that Guthke describes texts by the Shelleys, Bulwer-Lytton, and Maturin as “merely a prelude, since they do not envision life [End Page 642] without end in purely secular terms” (107). Elixirs of eternal life appear as the soul disappears and Christianity’s consolation of resurrection becomes more and more untenable. Guthke also suggests that these narratives offer a separate critique of Christianity: immortal life, in its tedium, suggests nothing appealing about a heavenly afterlife, either for the one or the many.
The aggregate is of increasing interest to literary scholars, especially those with a bent toward materialisms new and old. Each human organ and bodily function, in turn, is revealed to be part an assemblage with nonhuman agents, rather than part of a contained whole. Scaling up from bodies, materialist studies turn to depictions of crowds, populations, and massified life—both to reject Malthusian theories of population and as a palliative to studies that see, in literature, only narratives of bourgeois individuals. The vantage of immortality offers a new take both on materialism and the aggregate. The immortal, blessed or cursed to life forever, witnesses the death of millions, the decay of whole civilizations, and the rotting and...