Friday, September 12, 2014

How I Plan to Overcome Death

By Joao Cerqueira

Writing appeared four thousand years ago in Sumer, Mesopotamia, due to the need to record information relating to trade, administration and ownership of goods. Writing therefore owes its origin to economics. As such, anything from a poem exalting spiritual values to a text condemning capitalism has a remote connection to the need for keeping accounts. The romanticism of John Keats and the theories of Karl Marx owe their conveyance to future generations to an invention intended for material goods and wealth accumulation. As such, could The Merchant of Venice, unconsciously of course, be a tribute to Sumerian accountants? Perhaps not, but it’s an intriguing theory nonetheless.

However, as accounting isn’t exactly a thrilling activity, in their free time Sumerian scribes must have started to use the new invention to record other things. For example, poetry. And this marked the arrival of one of the first works of literature: The Epic of Gilgamesh - the man who sought immortality (after the death his companion Enkidu).

Gilgamesh didn’t find it, but ever since the beginning of literature men have used writing to search for it. In addition to economics, writing is also linked to mankind’s oldest desire, that of conquering death. Every writer that followed, honing their thoughts in stone, recording them on papyrus or later on paper, was trying to leave behind a part of themselves that would survive their death. The content of writing – creating characters who aspired to be immortal – was no longer the most important part; what mattered was the writing’s preservation in a secure form.

Nowadays a simple mobile phone comes equipped with many possibilities to ensure our future memory. And, for the more radical among us, you can have your body frozen, or even, if you were to find some mad scientist, have yourself cloned. The 21st century thus offers many ways to try to overcome death – although I wouldn’t advise those last two.

However, despite advances in technology, for many writing remains the safest, and cheapest, way to achieve immortality. Therefore, in a million years I will be alive, as I am sure that at at least one copy of this text will still exist, and that someone, terrestrial or extraterrestrial (personally, I would prefer it be an alien), will read it. I just can’t guarantee that in a million years plus five minutes from now, my immortality will remain.

João Cerqueira has a PhD in History of Art from the University of Oporto. He had four year research sponsorship grant awarded by the Portuguese Science and Technology Foundation (FCT), within the field of history of art. He covered the Porto 2001 European Capital of Culture for Arte Ibérica magazine. He is the author of The Tragedy of Fidel Castro.


  1. Considering that the sun will supernova and engulf the earth in flames, civilization as we know it will cease to exist. Assuming we can get off this rock and take humanity to the stars, the universe will ultimately meet its demise as well. Immortality is a myth.

  2. Immortality is misunderstood. Believing that life and things as we know them should exist forever is wishing for something that has never been true. Believing that some form of life can continue forever is a reasonable theory. The Big Bang theory of the universe suggests a beating heart that beats forever. I myself cannot conceive of the infiniteness of the universe disappearing into nothing. The reality is that no one knows but the guessing can produce some interesting thoughts. Like The Merchant of Venice as a tribute to Sumerian accountants. Or that writing is an invention intended to assist in wealth accumulation. A worthy activity for any individual.