December 18, 2008
My friend is getting his head frozen.
Not in the way that it goes cold when you bite in to an ice cream, but cryogenically, like Walt Disney’s.
He wears a metal bracelet that tells medics what to do when he (temporarily) drops off the mortal coil. Phone this number in the States for further instructions, and most importantly, “do not embalm, no autopsy”.
In perhaps a hundred, or a thousand years time, technology will have developed so much that his head can be “reawakened”, and all the knowledge, memory and passion that he feels now will have been salvaged, rather than have been left to rot in a box or burnt to ash.
As a follower of science he believes that there is no soul that departs the body, but that the brain is a complex computer that can be rebooted.
My friend appears to gain comfort in seeing death as something which should not be accepted, and that technology has answers, if not to his prayers, his deeply held convictions.
On his deathbed he won’t just be looking back on his life, but contemplating his future. It’s like a Christian gaining solace from the after-life, except without the family and friends to greet you on the other side.
It’s mind-numbing stuff, and keeps his friends endlessly entertained. His story has even inspired a play, which should be premiered next year. His quest for immortality is working.
It’s easy to be flippant about this, because it sounds crazy, but I respect his sincerity. We all have to face the moment of goodbye, and it’s a dreadful prospect. This idea that young people have that “when I’m eighty, I’ll be glad to die” is nonsense. Nobody likes to give up everything they know and love.
Unfortunately for my friend, all this may be in vain. Even if technology advances to make it possible, the trust fund only covers the storage cost. Someone else in the future will have to pay to defrost his brain and bring him back to life.
And one thing that puzzles me: why would anyone want to?
I was thinking this when reading the biography of James Boswell. He was a friend to some of the greatest figures of the 18thcentury: Hume, Adam, Rosseau, Garrick, Johnson and Goldsmith. Not only was he a man of wit and charm, he was loved by his friends and inspired passion among the ladies.
As a young man he had decided that he was of “singular merit” and would surely prove himself to be a man of genius. In his later life, he considered himself a dissolute failure. He had failed as a London barrister, and despite having struggled over years to write his great biography, the Life of Johnson, he was lampooned in the press as a buffoon and lackey.
During his final illness he was oblivious to its seriousness, and still had ambitions to prove his worth. He died unaware that his books and journals would establish him as one of the greatest literary figures of all time, outshining many of his revered friends.
Surely, if we could, we should bring Boswell back to life, so he could receive his much sought after plaudits? And wouldn’t it be fine if he could share his charm and anecdotes with his new friends?
I don’t think so. I’m sure Boswell can rest easy without the praise, and we can do better than resurrect him as a dinner party oddity. And we know from his journals that it would be unspeakably cruel.
Boswell was obsessed with death, and constantly struggled with the “black dog” of depression that blighted so much of his life. His fear of mortality saw him interviewing condemned men, desperately trying to understand how they dealt with the prospect of public execution.
He sat by the deathbed of renowned atheist David Hume observing him face oblivion with equanimity. And he tortured Dr Johnson by interrogating him on the subject, making him confront the prospect of “losing everything he knows”.
But he held on to a faith in God and the Christian afterlife, where he would be at one with his beautiful wife Margaret and daughter Veronica. Why disturb his peace to bring him back to this lonely, alien world, where his black dog will be ten times fiercer?
And how would we cope with the anti-climax of a man who could never match the character sketched out on the page?
If we would have doubts about bringing back the great James Boswell, then my friend’s prospects are decidedly bleak.
Whether the parable of Lazarus can come true or not, the safest course is to focus on the life in front of you, and make the most of the time you’ve been allotted. As I think Braveheart said, in one of his profound moments, “every man will die, but not every man will truly live.”
But then, how do you know if you are truly alive? Are you doing what you were put on this earth to do? Or are we all destined, like Boswell, to end up disillusioned and regretful?
This is a depressing thought – a black dog is creeping up on me (or at least, a black and white spaniel, R.I.P. Balach). What is the purpose of my life? In 32 years my three score and ten is up, and all the dreams of youth may have dribbled away in a puddle of mediocrity.
Instead of being the next Corbusier, I’m another architect dealing with the soul-destroying bureaucracy of building control, covering every corner of my arse for fear of litigation, and chasing builders to get their fingers out.
Then there are the constant queries and demands from clients sent by e-mail. Even in the process of wading through them, you are demoralised further by being told you need your penis extended (how did they find out?).
Is it any wonder architects are unhappy?
Fortunately, I never wanted to be the next Corbusier, so I don’t have that sense of disappointment. I wanted to capture animals like Roger Hunt in the Willard Price Animal Adventure books, and bring them back to Calderpark Zoo.
I lost this ambition when I noticed that the polar bears weren’t swaying from foot to foot to entertain us: they were depressed.
Standing on a slab of concrete in the pissing rain in Uddingston does that to you.
When you’re trapped in the wrong environment life gets you down. You know that there’s something better out there for you, it’s just that you’re caged by your salary and tethered to your mortgage. Instead you just pad from foot to foot, project to project, year after year.
But this is too dark. You can’t cast a shadow without the sun, and the job of being an architect has many bright spots, when the creative juices get going, and the pleasure of making something gets hold.
And anyway, there’s more to life than work. Being at one with the great outdoors of the west coast of Scotland can shake off any stupor and raise the consciousness.
On a kayak trip last week, my brother and I followed two otters along the coast for a mile, while terns, herons, gannets and curlews skirted the boats. A low mist lifted to reveal the Cuillins in their full glory. Truly life-affirming.
And when multi-badge holder Lara had a mishap with her “She-Wee”, and filled up her dry-suit, life could not have been better.
In retribution for our laughter, Lara decided we should be tested. This involved capsizing and trying to get back in the boat. I learnt two valuable lessons. That I can’t breathe underwater, and that a saline solution will flush an amazing amount of stuff out your nose.
But the biggest test was on the way back, when the wind picked up and waves were breaking over the front of the boats. This is when nature can become a death-affirming experience, and you realise how small and insignificant you are in the face of the powers that govern our universe.
Boswell discovered this for himself during his tour of the Hebrides with Dr Johnson in 1773, when their boat heading for the Small Isles was almost lost in a storm.
Boswell prayed to God during his near-death experience – and his prayer was answered. He never had the career that he felt his talent merited, but he lived life to the full, through its many highs and desperate lows.
Maybe the lesson from Boswell is that you shouldn’t judge yourself too harshly. You can try to join the dots in life, hoping it will reveal a bigger picture in our journey towards the graveyard, but it may in the end all be random patterns.
Perhaps if I had children my perspective would change. Someone mentioned to me, they don’t inscribe “excellent at working drawings” or “good administrator” on your gravestone, but things like “loving son”, “beloved father” or even “great uncle”. This is worth remembering.
But while I’m still sprachling about, trying to find my way, my brain-friend is becalmed in his life-laboratory. His biggest concern is the bracelet’s 1970’s porn-star style, and can he discard it if he tattoos the information on to a prominent part of his body instead? But then, what happens if the cryogenic centre change their phone number?
But in the main he is content with the process - I think he may even be looking forward to his icebox, just so he can see if it works or not.
He’s asked that I don’t reveal his name on the blog, but I can tell you that he is a Highlander. Which left me with another profound thought inspired by a movie.
Christopher Lambert’s Highlander was one of the immortals – cursed with everlasting life, having to watch his wife age and die as he retained his youthful good looks. The only way he could be killed was by decapitation. For my Highlander, decapitation will, he thinks, give him the chance to live forever.
You couldn’t make it up.