Agnostic by Lesley Hazleton

Agnostic by Lesley Hazleton

Author:Lesley Hazleton
Language: eng
Format: epub
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Published: 2016-03-02T12:22:46+00:00




Defining the meaning of life is evidently an endless challenge. There are enough such definitions to fill a whole library, if not several of them. But this one, once read, is just about impossible to forget: “The meaning of life is that it stops.”

I gave a small gasp when I first saw that sentence, as though a splash of cold water had just hit my brain. I love its sly wit: the promise of insight followed by that abruptly blunt conclusion. And it has the added advantage that it can be read several ways—as nihilistic pessimism, as mordant humor, as a sardonic take on promises of guru-like wisdom, or as a sharp dose of hard-nosed reality.

The quote is usually attributed to Kafka, though to my frustration, never with a precise citation. At one stage, I even contacted leading Kafka scholars in an effort to track it down, but they replied that so far as they knew—and they were pretty sure they knew every word he’d ever written—it wasn’t his. (I still haven’t discovered the real source, though Woody Allen might be a prime suspect.) Nonetheless, I found myself repeating both the quote and the attribution in an argument a couple of years back with an enthusiastic proponent of the end-to-aging movement. The vision of a radically enhanced lifespan appears to be especially beloved among Silicon Valley billionaires, many of whom are entranced by the potential of biotechnology. One was actually boasting at the time that he was taking 150 assorted nutritional supplements daily—an activity that itself must have consumed the better part of an hour, let alone the lining of his stomach. This did not seem to me a very good way of demonstrating that long life was worth living.

The argument was at a cocktail party, which only added to its Kafkaesque quality, since such parties are not exactly where you expect to delve into existential discussion. And the surrealism of our exchange was exacerbated by the fact that my challenger was half my age. Death was far more of an imminent reality for me than for him, yet he seemed to take my equanimity at the prospect as an admission of some kind of failure. “How can you, of all people, accept limits that don’t have to be there?” he asked. “Just think of everything you could achieve if you could double your lifespan.”

I’m not sure if I laughed or winced. Probably both. “That seems kind of greedy,” I said, only to set off an almost evangelical fervor as my new acquaintance did his best to convince me that advances in gene therapy and biomedical research could create not just an end to aging, but “an end to death.” An end to death? I pointed out that this was surely the ultimate oxymoron, but to no effect, and took refuge in my drink. What he was advocating seemed an intensely depressing idea.

“But all this is tantamount to saying that science will cure life!” I finally countered. And then: “What’s wrong with dying?”

The question startled him into silence.


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