“Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift. That is why it is called the present.” — Alice Morse Earle
Ever since people discovered they were mortal—and I’m guessing this was around the time they first saw someone drop dead and remain dead—they began to create various belief systems in which this demise was only temporary, that life would somehow resume in another realm. In short, they invented immortality.
The ancient Egyptians, famed for being buried with plenty of food and all their worldly possessions, believed that earthly life was but the first leg of a journey; that if one had pleased the gods thus far, one would end up in The Field of Reeds, a paradise that would mirror one’s life on earth exactly.
You have to work a little harder as a Hindu. While they believe the soul never dies, Hindus also believe the soul is reborn in another body—reincarnated—and you keep coming back until you get it right. You can be stuck in samsara, this cycle of birth and death, a long time. But eventually good karma is achieved and you are freed from your earthly body to live a life of divine bliss for all eternity with Brahman, the supreme universal spirit.
The Igbo people of Africa believe that one continues to have agency in earthly affairs after they leave this world and go to the land of bliss. There, along with their ancestors, they interact, intercede, and protect their earthly families.
Christianity promises eternal life, but whether that’s Heaven or Hell—or the waiting room of Purgatory, if one follows the Pope—depends on your behavior here. Similarly, Islam says you will be sent to Paradise (Jannah) if you followed the teachings of the Qur’an, or Hell (Jahannum) if you don’t. Immortality, in these religions, is a dicey thing.
Eternal life. That’s the promise of most religions, but there’s another kind of immortality—the kind that we seek in life. The deep hunger to make our mark on earth—an indelible permanent mark—through an achievement or achievements that will long outlive us. To be remembered, even revered, for centuries in this world after our mortal coil has turned to dust. I would argue that this is the real immortality most people seek, unable as we are to truly imagine ourselves dead. But what price do we pay for that desire?
Changing Fortunes/Shifting Sands
The writer F. Scott Fitzgerald published his first novel, This Side of Paradise, in 1920 at the tender age of 24. It was an instant smash hit. Overnight, prestigious literary mags like Scribner’s clamored for short stories from this rising star of the Jazz Age. The Saturday Evening Post, one of the most widely-read magazines in America, paid Fitzgerald handsomely—in the tens of thousands of dollars in today’s cash per story—and arranged to have first dibs on all his short fiction.
Fitzgerald then married the girl of his fictional dreams, Alabama socialite Zelda Sayre, who had put off his advances until This Side of Paradise made him “somebody.” The Fitzgeralds lived the party life, drinking and cavorting with the glitterati of the day in New York, Paris and the Riviera. In 1922, Fitzgerald published a second novel, The Beautiful and the Damned, which also enjoyed much success. The party continued, and it’s a testament to just how lavish their lifestyle was that as much money as Fitzgerald’s books and short stories generated, the couple had no trouble living beyond their means. But who worried? He was the golden boy, destined for immortality.
Then he published The Great Gatsby in 1925, and it did not do well. After six months, only 20,000 copies had sold. Fitzgerald was shattered. His next book, Tender is the Night, would take him nine years to write. It also failed to achieve success. He would never complete another book. His final work, a rough, unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon, would be completed by literary critic and writer Edmund Wilson, and published in 1941, the year after Fitzgerald’s death at age 44.
In the years between the failure of Gatsby and the heart attack that ended his brief life, Fitzgerald would increasingly sink into the alcoholism that had begun in his Princeton days. Would attempt suicide on at least one occasion. Would struggle to get his ideas for screenplays accepted by Hollywood and fail all but once (“The Three Comrades”). Would face rejection over and over from the very magazines that had once clamored for his every word. His stories grew darker, more explicit—sex and drink and suicide—as Zelda descended into madness and their marriage crumbled. In 1940, lamenting the loss of his popularity, he wrote to his editor, Max Perkins: “But to die so completely and unjustly after having given so much. Even now, there is very little published in American fiction that doesn’t slightly bare my stamp—in a small way I was an original.” The words have the ring of something he fervently hoped for rather than believed.
Too Little, Too Late
Van Gogh had none of Fitzgerald’s polish, his sophistication. None of the success or wealth Fitzgerald experienced in his youth. Van Gogh would struggle for more than a decade to find himself, although once he did, he would create on a scale that few, if any, have ever achieved. Over two-thousand works of art, including nearly 900 oil paintings. The Starry Night. Café Terrace at Night. Bedroom in Arles. Van Gogh’s Chair. The Potato Eaters. The Church at Auvers. The Wheatfield with Crows. His works are bold in color, dramatic in their brushwork. The viewer cannot look away.
And yet, it was not enough.
Vincent Van Gogh was the son of a Dutch-Reformed minister and a woman who was grieving the stillbirth of her first child, a child who died exactly one year before Van Gogh was born. A child he would be named after, Vincent Willem—an idealized perfect child his mother had invented and whom he would never feel he could live up to. At age 11, he was shipped off to boarding school. He hated it, but his repeated pleas to come home went unanswered.
His professional life began five years later when his uncle snagged a position for him with famed art dealers Goupil & Cie in the Hague. After four years training, he was sent to London, then Paris, but found the commodification of art deeply troubling. Van Gogh then took up Latin and Greek, hoping to become a clergyman, but that didn’t work out so he became a lay preacher, caring for the sick and reading the Bible to coal miners in a desolate region of Belgium. It was here that he finally decided to take up the work he had always been drawn to—painting. He stopped preaching to the miners and began making sketches of them, then paintings. He was 27. He would be dead a decade later.
Always restless, he soon left Belgium for The Hague, where he met up with his cousin by marriage, Anton Mauve, an artist who was enjoying the kind of success Van Gogh dreamed of. Mauve introduced him to painting in oil. He also fronted Van Gogh the money to set up a studio, but later cut him dead when he discovered Van Gogh was living with a prostitute.
Van Gogh would move on to Antwerp, painting the local mills and churches, the wheatfields, the orchards, the faces he found in cafes, the peasants. Of his painting The Potato Eaters, he wrote to his brother Theo: “I wanted to convey the idea that the people eating potatoes by the light of an oil lamp used the same hands with which they take food from the plate to work the land… that they have earned their food by honest means.”
He would try to sell his paintings. Without success. Theo, an art dealer, would do all he could to help. It was Theo who got The Potato Eaters into a Paris exhibit in 1885. But the world was not yet ready for Van Gogh. “Too dark,” they said. So unlike the light, bright style of the Impressionists. In Paris, he met other avant-garde painters, notably Emile Barnard and Paul Gauguin, who were also moving beyond Impressionism. But the vast city wore him out and he moved to Arles, having not sold a single painting of the hundreds he’d completed in Antwerp and Paris.
At Arles, in the famous Yellow House, both home and studio to Van Gogh, his painting continued at a fevered pitch, each work more brilliant than the last. It was here he invited Gauguin to come and live with him so they might work together and make real a dream he had long harbored—an artists’ collective. For a time, the dream seemed possible—the two men took their easels into the fields, painting companionably side by side, but then the arguments started. And grew in volatility. After a particularly heated debate over whether painting should proceed from the imagination (Gauguin) or be based in nature (Van Gogh), Gauguin packed his bags and left in December 1888. Van Gogh cut off a piece of his ear soon after and spent the next year in a mental asylum in Saint-Remy-de-Provence where he continued to paint, completing more than 150 works. He then settled in Auvers. It would be his final home.
His brother, Theo, had continued submitting Van Gogh’s paintings, most notably to the annual “Salon des Indépendants” in Paris. Ten of his works were finally accepted in March 1890. Claude Monet declared them the best in the show. Only two months before, the critic Albert Aurier had called Van Gogh “a genius”, and a society of avant-garde painters that included Toulouse-Lautrec had invited him to submit works to their annual exhibition.
His art was beginning to be appreciated. But it would come too late and be too little. Worn out from years of fevered hopes, hardscrabble living, and constant disappointment, on the morning of July 27, 1890, Van Gogh wandered out into the fields he loved to paint and committed suicide, shooting himself in the abdomen before walking back to town where he died in his bed two days later.
What We Can Never Know
Fitzgerald died believing his life had been irrelevant. His works would be forgotten. His quest for immortality a failure. And those beliefs hastened his death—there was not enough alcohol in the world to ease the pain.
Van Gogh died believing the world to be utterly indifferent to what he offered.
To be mortal though is to never know the true impact of our life. How the ripples we cast, whether ignored or heeded in their hour, stretch beyond us, touch and change other lives. How The Great Gatsby—whose initial dismal sales would eat away at its author’s confidence and happiness until it killed him—would then be rediscovered a decade later to become a huge best seller. A literary masterpiece that has sold over 25 million copies worldwide and is a staple of university literature studies around the globe. How the painter of The Starry Night, who sold but one painting in his lifetime of the hundreds he created—and so despairing, took his own life—would one day be regarded as one of the greatest painters of all time, his works hung in museums around the globe and sold at auction for prices in the tens of millions.
Embrace the Moment
Will Shakespeare likely had no notion that the plays he wrote would last 400 years and counting. Very few plays were published in his lifetime. Publication paid little, if anything, to the author, and there were no copyright laws. In fact, plays were largely felt, by those who decide what “matters”, to be entertainments for “the rabble.” Had it not been for Shakespeare’s actor friends Henry Condell and John Heminges tracking down prompt books (the manuscripts used by the actors), the best of the quartos (cheap pamphlets of plays, sometimes assembled from memory by audience members), and the author’s working drafts to produce The First Folio, many of what are now considered his greatest plays would have vanished. Shakespeare simply wrote because that’s what he loved—the theatre. It was his LIFE. And that way of living—doing what you love because you love it, wherever it goes, however it is received—is much more important than what happens after you’re gone.
When I was surveying world religions for their take on immortality, I was struck by two things: 1) Most religions seem to use the afterlife as a carrot-and-stick to get people to follow whatever rules the religion deems “appropriate behavior”; 2) Judaism and the ancient Greco/Roman world share a fuzzier notion about an afterlife, if they have/had any notions about it at all. I have no ancient Greco/Roman friends to query about this, but I did ask my Jewish friends on Facebook for their understanding of immortality as it plays out in their religion. Here are a few of their comments:
Jeffrey: Apparently, there’s no afterlife per se.
Amy: It’s vague and I think the point is that this life matters.
Lesley: In every service, we say prayers for those who have passed. So that they are always with us.
Toni: For many Jews, the emphasis is on living today, not on an afterlife.
Mimi: In all my years of Sunday school, Hebrew school, and services, I don’t remember the topic coming up!
As for the ancient Greeks, with their various gods, mythic tales, and the underworld, the fate of humans still came down to what the playwright Aeschylus has Apollo declare in Eumenides: “There is no resurrection.”
Death is it, ballgame over.
The Roman poet Horace was even more succinct. Cutting right to the point, he wrote: Carpe diem. Seize the day!