The short film screening on the studio wall had me transfixed. It was Claude Lelouch’s ‘C’Etait un Rendezvous,’ shot from the windshield of a Ferrari being driven at absurd speed through a Paris dawn, straight through red lights, shuddering around tight turns, on the constant edge of disaster. It had me terrified and exhilarated at the same time, just as I was years ago when I still got behind the wheels of race cars.
As the movie came to a screeching halt up on Montmartre, I came back to where I was: one of those magical evenings organized here in Seattle by chef-provocateur Michael Hebb, this one at Chase Jarvis‘ headily high-tech photography studio, where forty formidably smart people had gathered around a single long table to eat, drink, and above all talk in honor of Jeff Rosenthal, organizer of the Summit Series, whose mantra is “Keep it surreal.” Not surprisingly, I was ready to talk about death; more surprisingly, or perhaps in keeping with Jeff’s mantra, so were other people.
I’ve nearly died a few times — by gunshot (Arik Sharon’s thugs in the Negev desert) and by bombardment (war), and had my Middle East journalist’s share of death threats . But the most vivid was of my own doing, when I lost control of a car on the Road America track in Wisconsin. As it rolled, I did not see my life flash before me. Instead, everything went into very slow motion, and all I could think was, “What a stupid way to die.” (The car was totaled, but a good helmet and five-point seat belt let me crawl out with just a few scratches.)
What then would be an intelligent way to die? It seemed a natural question for another of the evening’s guests, Greg Lundgren, whose art projects include a thriving business in translucent glass memorials and headstones. The effects of grappa prevent me from quoting him directly, but in effect, it was death at the moment of fullest experience. I suggested the geologist camped out a few miles from Mount St Helens waiting for it to blow in May 1980. The last contact with him was an ecstatic radio announcement that the mountain was blowing, right in front of him — a broadcast abruptly cut short. No body was ever found.
“But that’s suicide,” someone else said accusingly. I shrugged. Was it? Or was it the perfect death? “What’s wrong about dying?” I asked.
So when I finally got talking to Jeff Rosenthal, death — or the lack of it — inevitably came up. He reminded me that one of the headline speakers at his Summit Series in D.C. had been Ray Kurzweil, who seems determined to outdo Methusaleh. Jeff admires Kurzweil. I… well, see my previous post, Messiah Tech.
“If I said you could live to 140 in the same state of health you have today, wouldn’t you want to do it?” Jeff asked. He clearly expected a quick “Sure.” But I wasn’t sure.
The next day — esprit d’escalier kicking in as usual — I realized how strange the conversation was given that I’m far closer to the age when one might expect death than he. Yet my answer was now a definite “No.” Not because I don’t want life, but because I don’t want an endless one.
Like years without seasons, all perfect summer or deep winter, the constancy of endless life would weigh down on the imagination, reducing experience to oh-god-another-day-ness. The knowledge that life is finite is to me an essential part of what makes it so interesting. The vulnerability, the haphazardness, the seemingly infinite series of coincidences and chances and choices made both consciously and unconsciously — all these are part of what keeps me interested.
But if that series of coincidences, chances, choices etc were truly infinite? I think I’d despair. I’m only mortal, after all. Assure me of immortality, and I’d be ready to die on the spot.