Friday, 30 December 2016

The Impossibility of Life in the Minds of the Dead


Contemplate the photograph. It's Audrey Hepburn posing for the press early in her career. It's not a very good photograph and no-one at the time expected it to survive beyond the immediate present, but it has survived. A few years ago the internet discovered it - the people discovered it - and now it is one of the classic images of Audrey Hepburn. The lighting is terrible and the pose is curious, but Audrey Hepburn is magnetic; the photograph is silly, slightly sexy. It endures while so much has passed from memory. There are far better photographs of Audrey Hepburn, but they lurks in the dead memory of books, where they will remain until there is a shift in public taste, or perhaps forever.

Ostensibly this blog is about photography, although in practice I find it hard to stay focused on one thing and there is only so much to say about photography. The equipment doesn't move me any more; it's the art I care about, specifically the topic that drives all art. The desire to live beyond death. The human animal is unusual in that it is conscious of its unavoidable date with the inevitable. Death is like the end of summer. It may be many months away, but it is inevitable and there is no escape. Stronger, braver, smarter, richer men than I, entire societies have failed to find a cure. Nothing I have experienced convinces me otherwise; quantum entanglement, cryogenics, vitamin pills, shared consciousness, pathetic.

The inescapable laws of thermodynamics destroy our bodies, and even if we no longer needed bodies the same laws would destroy our minds, or transform us into a new form, which is also a form of death. I take cold comfort in the notion that consciousness itself is an illusion. That we are not really conscious at all; that we do not have souls. We are just animals with a sophisticated brain that can store information, match patterns, and process audio-visual-sensory information in real time. Our consciousness is a byproduct of this. If we ascend to heaven when we die, what happens to people who have Parkinson's disease, or Alzheimer's? Do they spend the rest of eternity as mentally empty vegetables? The idea that heaven rewinds our mental clock back to our teenage years is absurd, and if our souls are separate from our minds, which of those two things is the real us? Both of them, or neither? Theology does not convince me. It's arbitrary nonsense.

Death holds two horrors. There is the cessation of consciousness for all eternity. An eternity of endless blackness and the knowledge that this is all there will ever be. It is difficult to visualise nothingness, but not impossible. We are going away and never coming back, and in the fullness of time the universe itself will collapse, and not a single thing will remain. The same will happen to our worst enemies, our greatest friends, our children.

The second horror is the idea that we will be forgotten, and that our works will be forgotten. This is the curse of everyone in the long term. In the shorter term, we know our parents; we are aware that we had grandparents; but until relatively recently, at least in the West, our great-grandparents were just words on a tombstone. Photography and the extended lifespan that comes with modern living have expanded our generational horizons, but there is still a generational cut-off point. The vast, vast majority of British people cannot name their great-great-grandparents; they are shadows, and if their great-great-grandchildren do not remember them, who will?

No-one, is the answer. Within a few generations we are forgotten. The few names that live after death survive as twisted approximations of the past. This is a theme I have elaborated upon before. It is one of the fundamental themes of all art. On an idealistic level art is an attempt to communicate ideas and emotions, and if that means creating new media, or using existing media in novel ways, why not? On a practical level art is also a means of self-aggrandisement, and self-enrichment, and furthermore it is a viable way of avoiding having to drive a bus for a living. It is an excuse to do cool things with computers. The wealthy mega-artists of today probably do not care about their legacy, although "the impossibility of death in the mind of someone living" was one of Damien Hirst's early themes. The ubiquity of artists in the media has given them a form of short-term immortality.

But the people decide which things live and which things die. The establishment occasionally tries to push a thing; tries to make that thing immortal. Novels become set texts in university degrees, the works of certain photographers are cited in textbooks, artists are given government-funded institutes with which to promote their work, but fashions change, and both high and low art is subject to the whims of fashion. Even high art, once thought of as immortal, is just a series of fads. The cathedrals of the past become theme parks and then ruins. Their stone is used to line pavements, which are built over with motorways.

During the twentieth century entire art forms fell out of fashion, poetry and painting most notably. Once upon a time schoolchildren were taught to idolise Tennyson and his works, but now the formerly high art form of poetry is dead. An entire art form. People still write poems, but it no longer establishes reputations. There are no poetic giants today. Poetry from the past is hard to take seriously; modern poetry has been obliterated by pop music. Schoolchildren were also taught to idolise painters and their works, but although paintings are now highly-prised as safe investments, painting itself is too limited to be thought of as high art any more. Painters are no longer major figures as they were perhaps as recently as fifty years ago. As for music, when children of the future listen to classical music of our time they will listen to Philip Glass, and John Williams' Star Wars soundtrack, make of what what you will.

Poetry, painting, and music still exist; but they no longer have a hold on the public, and in any case their hold was artificially bolstered by an establishment that insisted on forcing the public to respect high art even though most people were bored silly. From cradle to grave children of the past were told that they should respect the words of Tennyson, and that if they did not, they were idiots. Now the public must find its own way, and it has. It has found another way.

During the latter half of the twentieth century it was fashionable to treat popular art with the deference that had been shown to high art, and so for many years there was in this field a correct way of thinking, just as there had been with high art. The Beatles, as mentioned elsewhere on this blog, were the beneficiaries of this new orthodoxy, and then victims of a counter-orthodoxy in the punk years, and then beneficiaries again in the 1990s, and beyond fashions there are great sweeping paradigm shifts. The swift rise of hip-hop horrified the once-dominant white anglo orthodoxy; it brought home the fact that none of us have a monopoly on legitimacy, and that for other people our lives and tastes are alien and inconsequential.

An enormous amount of popular art has sunk beneath the waves, never to return, but some of it bobs to the surface again. Some of it continues to intrigue the people; on a fundamental level popular art was created specially for them. In the long term the people have power, because the people are always there. The state establishment requires energy to function, but energy always runs out. The people remain, albeit that individual people do not.

Are we dead already? We are the animate corpses of our childhood selves, ghosts driven by inertia. As Epicurus pointed out a long time ago we have already been dead. For several billion years we were dead, until we came into being; we will be dead again. The problem is causality. The flow of time is not symmetrical. Our consciousness gradually grew from noting until we were self-aware. The same is not true at the other end of our lives.

Every so often the internet ponders the problem of teleportation. When Captain Kirk steps onto the transporter pad his body is analysed and destroyed by the teleporter's scanners; it is then recreated at the destination, but the recreation is not really Captain Kirk, it is instead a perfect duplicate with fake memories. The original Kirk knows he is going to die when the teleporter activates. The new Kirk is presumably thrilled to have the gift of life. Before he arrived he did not exist. It is surprising that instead of dropping to his knees at the realisation he has been brought into existence, the new Kirk instead carries on with his mission. Star Trek is a good example of popular art that died and was reborn, that died again and was reborn, and may periodically die and be reborn until we are sick of it. The original film series came to a dismal end in the early 2000s, but it has been successfully revived, and there is even a plan to expand the format into an episodic television show. It remains to be seen how well the Star Trek concept will translate to television; will it work?

We view the past as a set of blocks. Homogeneous blocks of centuries and millennia in which nothing changed, during which people lived unchanging lives. The late nineteenth and twentieth centuries still have a personality, but in time they will become part of a larger block. Everyone who lived in those blocks had to deal with the reality of death. Nobody escaped. Trillions of years of nothingness await us, and even on a more human timescale we cannot guarantee that our distress flares will be seen from afar. Even if they attract attention the rescuers still have their own problems, because they are doomed too. No-one will rescue them. Another year begins.