Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Immortality and love

Immortality is a problem right from its definition. Does it include beings that can be killed, but that won't die of natural causes? Are only impervious, eternal beings like the Greek gods "immortal"?

I'm going to use the broader definition here, because it includes vampires, Highlander-style beings, and my own creations, the saints. I touched on some of these issues during the A to Z Challenge, in I: Immortals, and now I'm at the part of Disciple where I'm thinking about it again.

Relationships and love being a central part of the human experience, the implications of outliving all your loved ones are vast. The scars left by losing them can be significant. Since mere mortals lose loved ones, too, it's reasonable to extrapolate that pain to multiple tragedies and over centuries. The image of a chilly, withdrawn immortal saddled with sad memories of lost lovers comes easily -- and it makes for perfectly good stories. Such a character can inspire the reader's sympathy and a desire to see them healed by new love. Or, they can make good villains with valid motivations.

Withdrawal is one reaction. Downplaying the loss is another. I know I've had to do this with the various cats I've loved and buried over the years. It's sad, but they lived good lives and in a few months I'll meet another cat and bring it home. No need to get too bent out of shape about it.

Is that a good way to handle human relationships, though?

I've been questioning, in specific, the ability to fall in love after centuries of love-and-death cycles. The chemistry may still be there, physically, but what role will experience play? Would an immortal be able to throw themselves into that giddy falling-in-love feeling, or would it be tempered by knowing what comes next? "Next" being 30-50 years down the road...

The answer is, of course, "that depends on the immortal's personality." But I can't help thinking that some of that "pet" attitude will creep in. After one has fallen in love, lived together for 30 years, and then buried one's lover a few times, you know for an absolute fact that there are more fish in the sea. You know what you're willing to put up with and what you aren't. Would you do less compromising? Invest less?

Do relationships become more "disposable"? Is it simpler to just ride the chemical high of infatuation and walk away when the shine wears off? The Greek gods seemed to follow that school of thought. Or maybe a "friends with benefits" arrangement makes sense.

It does challenge one's ideas about the function of love, sex, and long-term relationships.

Have you seen the cover for Disciple, Part I? Did you enter in the giveaway for an advance copy of the ebook? Contest ends Friday!


Ellis Bergstresser said...

I pondered this in the beginning of my novel, where the main character is functionally immortal. For him, it was lonely and isolating, and it was one of several reasons for him to recede from human relationships. In large part because my perception of immortality is that it would be god-awful. I think that when I see news stories about 108-year-olds. Even that would seem lonely to me.

The challenge then became creating for him a relationship character that would be sufficiently interesting in a way that he would want to bridge that habit of isolation with her. It couldn't just be that she was pretty, or charming, because over a century, there are going to be lots of pretty, charming, available women for him to boink.

It is interesting to think about what immortality would really mean. Like a lot of powers people might wish for (my kids often tell me they hope we live forever), it can have a very dark side.

L. Blankenship said...

But one thing I often notice, in interviews with 108-year-olds, is how cheerful they are. It's because depression kills, I suspect. :)

Being a quiet, withdrawn person, it seems natural to me for an immortal to withdraw. But how would an innately cheerful person go about being immortal?

See also: Myers-Briggs personality types, etc.

Ellis Bergstresser said...

Probably interviews with 108-year-old grumps don't make good TV. ;-)

I sort of imagine the gregarious immortal wandering from one bar or party to the next, having the easy, fun, surface-level interactions. Sleeping with whoever strikes their fancy, eating whatever they want (because, in my mind they are immortally high-metabolisimed, too, naturally, how sad would it be to be immortal without cake).

It's starting to sound like the life of a perpetual college student. "Hi! I'm the dorm hall monitor, just here on the 1,000-year plan!"

In my own non-immortal life, it feels like I imprinted on the culture that existed at a certain moment in time - specifically, the 90s - as my moment. My parents are of a distinctly earlier era. And kids today? Sheesh! That stuff they call music! And their clothes!

Obviously cultural change happens now at a pace that far outstrips change in the past (as in Disciple, where there is no indication that a 300-year-old Saint would have to figure out how to set up a Facebook profile). But would a gregarious immortal that partied with Benjamin Franklin (who, seriously, got it on, party-wise) ever really feel at home with Katy Perry and Jersey Shore?

L. Blankenship said...

I've definitely wondered about culture shock for 300-year-old vampires. But then again, those that couldn't adapt would probably be weeded out at some point. Killed by ambitious youngsters who know how to use current technology.

I'd like to think that Ben Franklin could roll with Facebook and such, but who knows? Would he feel comfortable with Katy Perry? I guess it depends on how different you think she is from the gregarious young ladies he knew in 1776. I don't think human nature's changed, just how it's expressed.

Liz said...

But it's not like they got into a time machine and had the culture shock of everything being so different. Think about the changes that we've taken in stride over our lifetimes. Immortals would have to learn to adapt.

It would probably be hard, but if it didn't drive them crazy, then they would have learned to live with it (oops, that was kind of a pun, wasn't it?).

Michael Offutt, Tebow Cult Initiate said...

I think I could definitely handle a longer lifespan than the one I have. Sure I would see loved ones die off. But I feel like eighty years doesn't seem like enough time to be able to do all the things that I want to do.

Anonymous said...

108 year olds are probably happy because they know they could die any day. And some of them probably believe in an afterlife, so they're looking forward to seeing loved ones again.

Personally, I don't think immortality would mean anything if you couldn't have someone immortal to share it with. As long as they're sane.

(Liked your "pet mentality" idea, btw. It makes a lot of sense.)

Elizabeth Twist said...

Wow. This is an amazing conversation.

The pet analogy is wonderful. I've said goodbye to my fair share of pets. I love the ones I've got now just as much as I've loved any of them, but there is something worrisome about knowing I'll probably have to watch them die. It's an anticipatory sadness. I'm not the type to refuse to have any more pets, but there is a little bit of pain that enters into the decision to adopt one again.

There's also the question of the variable hotness of people as you age. I no longer find youth all that sexually attractive, personally. Young people are gangly and awkward and unpolished. If you're 300 years old, are you really going to pick some twenty-five year old to be your cuddle bunny?

L. Blankenship said...

@amykeely: I would chalk some of that up to 108-year-olds having "let go" of the things we're told to prioritize (materialism, prestige, sex, etc.) and just living life as it comes. Maybe that's real maturity. Religion may well be involved -- both Christianity and Buddhism encourage people to let go of worldly cares.

Do immortals achieve a zen-like inner peace? Interesting thought...

L. Blankenship said...

@Elizabeth: I have never in my life understood why a 300-year-old vampire would find a teenager sexy. Maybe for the same reasons kittens are always adorable? So innocent and energetic...

Interesting image, though: an eternally 20-year-old guy who prefers the company of polished, accomplished 40-year-old women. Now there's a daydream! :D

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