Todd May

[Philosopher]

“In the seminar on death that I taught, there were moments where we were talking about death, and the class would just go quiet, because it was clear it was there in front of us… There wasn’t really anything to say at that moment, because each of us just had to look.”
People Who Live Forever:
Indiana Jones’ Father
The Narrator in Borges’ The Immortals
No One

Todd May is the Class of 1941 Memorial Professor at Clemson University—a very fancy title for a very non-fancy guy. He is bald, plays basketball, has a wife and two kids, and kind of looks like Michel Foucault (which is weird, because Todd has written a book about him). He’s written nine other books, too—including a volume about poststructuralist anarchism and another about friendship under neoliberalism—but with Todd, talking about his resume somehow feels beside the point.

The first time I met Todd was at Nội Bài Airport in Hanoi. I was living there, and Todd had decided to fly over for a visit. My best friend Dan (one of Todd’s students) had put us in touch, and we spent a couple of days riding around on motorbikes and talking about whatever came to mind.

Looking back, I’m amazed at how patient Todd was. He treated me like an equal, never pulling rank or bringing the philosophical hammer down, and at some point it became clear how little stock he put in his own credentials. We became friends—just two curious people trying to figure out what was going on in this life.

Todd’s books read the way he talks—simply and clearly, without pretense. The first one I read—Our Practices, Our Selves: Or, What It Means to be Human—is maybe the humblest treatment of a big existential question that I’ve ever seen from a professional philosopher. It’s just so obvious: Todd doesn’t write to look cool or show you how much he knows. He writes because he’s been thinking about some interesting things, and he wants to share them with you, and maybe you can relate.

Todd’s book about death (the subject of this interview) feels the same way. He’s taken on biggest and scariest topic there is, but you wouldn’t know it from his tone. There’s a lightness, a sense that whatever we learn by thinking honestly and clearly about dying, it’ll somehow be OK. After all, here we are, talking together.

This interview took place over Skype. I was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Todd was in the rec room of his house in Clemson. The room reminded me of my friends’ basements growing up—there were wood-paneled walls, gym equipment strewn about, and a general sense that the rules didn’t quite apply.

—Matt Bieber

I: INDIANA JONES HAD NO GOOD OPTIONS

THE BELIEVER: I finished the book this morning. About halfway through, I began thinking about Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade. Have you seen it?

TODD MAY: I don’t know if I’ve seen The Last Crusade. I’ve seen several of them.

BLVR: It’s the one where they’re going after the Holy Grail, and it’s a race between Indy and the Nazis.

TM: Yes, I have seen that movie.

BLVR: OK. So, at the very end, they find the Holy Grail, but the Nazis shoot Indy’s dad—Sean Connery—and he’s dying. Indy saves his dad by giving him a sip of water from the Holy Grail (which, as we know, provides everlasting life). Indy then takes a sip himself—for some reason, he doesn’t offer any to his two friends—and then they vanquish the Nazis and ride off into the sunset.

Now, the movie makes all this out to be great, but I remember watching it and feeling really unsettled. True, Indy has saved his dad’s life, but he’s also consigned his dad to living forever. Everyone else around them is going to die at some point, but the two of them will live on in perpetuity.

My sense is that you might actually think Indy made the wrong call—that he did his dad a disservice by giving him everlasting life. Let’s start there.

TM: I think it’s actually more complicated than that. Indy can let his dad die, and that was probably a really bad time for him to die. Or he could extend his life indefinitely, which in the end probably wouldn’t be such a good thing either. So, the paradox I really wanted to press in the book is that neither of these options—dying or being immortal—is a good option.

BLVR: But you ultimately do settle on the side of death, no? You compare death to “a disease whose cure, if it existed, would be worse than the disease itself.” You also write that the things that make our lives distinctive and meaningfully human would fade or would have to be “reconfigured” if we were immortal. In other words, you’re ultimately glad that we have to die, even if you don’t actually look forward to your own death.

TM: Right. I think that’s fair enough. We have to add to that the idea that…well, that life is short, and if death were to be a good thing, it would be a better thing much further down the road than it is for human lives now. All of this, by the way, raises some interesting questions, which I tried to deal with a little bit in the book, in terms of whether I’m the only one who would be immortal or whether everyone would be immortal.

I did an interview with a filmmaker yesterday, and we were talking about this. And he said that he would like to be immortal but would like to be the only one. He said that way, he could see life changing around him enough so that he might not get bored.

BLVR: Someone said something similar to me the other day. And my first thought was, I can’t imagine anything lonelier than knowing that everyone around me will die one day. In fact, the first thing I imagined was jealousy—jealousy of the solidarity and bonds that arise among people who have to live in the face of death, knowing that I’d be on the outside of that.

TM: That’s a very powerful thing you said, and I don’t think I’d thought of that until you just said this now. But I think that’s right—it’s a powerful bond that keeps us together.

There are certain things we can be that are meaningful to us, and other things that we cannot be. If we’re immortal but no one around us is, the same question arises—whether one is simply doing the same thing that one does, just with other people. It becomes like telling a story. You know how you tell a story, and it seems like an interesting story the first bunch of people you tell it to. But at some point in telling that story, if you’ve told it twenty or thirty times, it feels a little… you feel disconnected from the story. I would think that that would happen as well.

II: THE LA GUARDIA STORY

BLVR: Let’s talk about some of the specific things that you think would change under conditions of immortality. Maybe we could start with the La Guardia story. A couple of years ago, you’re on a plane into New York, and you and your fellow passengers think you’re going to hit the Empire State Building because your pilot has to adopt an evasive maneuver to avoid another plane.

You wrote that this moment put you in touch with an appreciation of your own mortality. You said, “If I were immortal, I would neither have had a chance to reflect on my life nor known what it meant to have lived this particular life.” Why can’t immortal beings reflect meaningfully on the lives they’ve lived?

TM: It seems to me that if we are thinking of reflecting meaningfully, in terms of coming to an understanding of where one has been and why one has traveled the path that one has traveled, surely an immortal being can do that. But part of the motivation for reflecting on this for us as mortal creatures is that we only have a certain amount of time and we want to make the most that we can of that time. So, our reflection becomes orienting for our lives in a way it would never be for an immortal being. If you’re immortal you can always reorient your life, because there’s always time for that.

What gets lost is not the ability simply to think of one’s life path. All you need for that, I suppose, is memory and language. But thinking about one’s path, thinking about the trajectory one has taken, in light of the fact that that trajectory is a limited one and therefore it matters what that trajectory has looked like and what it’s going to look like…

BLVR: But even here in this life, which we know at best is going to be 70, 80, 100 years long, people reflect on their own lives with very different degrees of urgency or seriousness. And I’m wondering whether that might not be true or extendable out into immortality as well, or at least into the very distant future.

We’re also homing in on something that you worry a lot about, which is boredom. There are people in this life who get bored before they die. And there are others who go on brimming with life until the very end.

Might the same not be true under conditions of immortality? That some people would tire of things relatively quickly, and other people would have enough vitality or curiosity or inventiveness in them that they would continue engaging with the world and reflecting about the choices they’d made for a long, long time?

TM: Let me take both ends of this. One is the lack of reflection among people who are mortal, and then the question of the vitality of people who might be immortal. Because I think the answers are distinct. On the one side, there are many reasons for mortals not to reflect on their lives and their deaths. One is because it’s frightening to think about. The fact that one’s going to die is unnerving. There are other reasons as well, and I don’t want to say that everybody who doesn’t think about death is avoiding it, but I think that’s an important one.

That, of course, will have no correlation with a person who is immortal. There would be no questions one has to avoid thinking about, because one has neither the urgency on the one hand, nor the fear on the other.

Now, for immortal beings, it’s surely the case that some people will be able to remain vital longer than others. My claim about immortality—and this is the one that I get the most disagreement about, because it’s a matter of competing intuitions that can never be tested—but my intuition is to say that people who think you can sustain that eternally don’t have an accurate grasp of how long that is. And that’s why I’m trying to say, “Look, imagine doing this stuff for a thousand years, or imagine doing it for ten thousand years.”

I don’t know if I used this image in the book, but there’s an image from I think ancient Chinese philosophy that tries to get you to understand how long immortality is. It says, imagine you have a beach with grains of sand—let’s imagine the size of the Sahara—and imagine a bird comes and takes one of the grains of sand and flies off. Ten thousand years later, that bird comes back and takes another grain of sand and flies off—and this happens every ten thousand years. Now, by the time the bird emptied the beach, emptied the entire Sahara, not a millisecond of eternity will have gone by. In other words, you have to realize that immortality lasts a really long time.

BLVR: Which is why you suggest that eventually, we’ll get tired of meeting new people. The earth is a limited place, and ultimately we’ll have seen everything, done everything, tried everything.

That all sounds true to me. But the thing that all of that seems to leave aside is our capacity to invent, to create. Might that be the escape hatch? Or is creativity a finite resource?

TM: I don’t want to say that the creativity would give out—I can’t imagine what argument I would bring forward for that. But I think that there’s something on the individual level that’s a limitation, and I think we see it. We see it in our mortal lives, which is that people get raised in certain ways, they become oriented in certain ways, they take on certain life projects, and they change and grow in the course of those life projects. But as things arise in the next generation, or in two generations, the parents and the grandparents feel a bit alienated from it. It feels as though it doesn’t connect as tightly with their lives as the kinds of things that they were brought up with.

Now, I suspect that if, as immortals, we were anything like we are as human beings, the same thing would happen with creativity. We could keep creating, but at some point a world would emerge that’s very distant from the one in which we took our projects up, and it would be hard to feel as passionately engaged with that world.

Now, one might argue that if we were immortal, we wouldn’t have that initial orientation. We might develop differently. And here, I think I want to say two things. One is that that different development itself runs the threat of making life shapeless, in the way that I talked about in the book. But the other thing is to say, if you start imagining us as fundamentally different from who we are, then the question is, are we really talking about us anymore, or are we talking about creatures that share certain things with us but aren’t really us in the most significant ways?

BLVR: Let’s get into some of those specific changes that you think might take place under conditions of immortality. Could true love exist among immortals?

You seem to doubt it—you say that relationships would probably be “shallower.” And my intuition is to say that the intensity that brings lovers together, the passion and the urgency, has something to do with knowing we’re going to die, and that that sort of fervor might not be necessary under conditions of immortality. Is that where you’re going?

TM: Yeah. And I think we can broaden it outside of death here as well, which is that part of loving is the urgency of recognizing that the person that you’re with may not always be there. It may go back to what you were saying earlier, that there’s a solidarity about death that perhaps we share—and share intimately—with someone we love.

If you’re immortal, you can imagine being sad or grieving if a lover leaves you. But if everyone were immortal, then that leaving isn’t necessarily forever. There’s always a chance that you get them back somewhere down the road—you know, in 5, 10, 20,000 years. So I think that the urgency of the moment gets sapped. One of the things that’s crucial to me about love is that it has to be in the moment. Love is not a promissory note. And once you remove some of that urgency, you diminish love.

BLVR: You could potentially recover your love as an immortal, but you could also suffer at the hands of unrequited love for much, much longer. Imagine that you’re with someone and they leave you for your best friend. That’d be a tough reality to face for eternity.

I don’t know if that’s an argument for love exactly, but it does seem to be some sort of argument for the intensity of what we might feel in love relationships—even as immortals.

TM: I’m not sure that that would happen, but mostly because I’m not sure that it happens for most of us now. I mean, a lover leaves us and, sooner or later, most of us recover and go on. So, I don’t think we would project grief that far into the future.

As I talk about these things, one thing that I’m doing is trying to say, imagine ourselves on the basis of the kinds of beings we are now. If the change to immortality would fundamentally change these aspects of us, then of course all bets are off, including whether we can call ourselves the kinds of creatures we are now.

III: IS DEATH A SOLUBLE PROBLEM? AND DO WE REALLY WANT TO SOLVE IT?

BLVR: In my mind, one of the features that makes us who we are is our ethical impulse, our desire to know out how to live well. You say that under conditions of immortality, “Even justice would be imperiled.  The needs of others would not urge themselves on us in the same way, since their existence would not be threatened by our neglect.”

Obviously it’s true that if we can’t die, we needn’t worry about preventing other people's deaths. But surely people could still suffer, and I’m wondering whether you think that under conditions of immortality, we would be any less concerned by that.

TM: If I remember Borges’ story The Immortal correctly, there is a point where one of the immortals falls into a ravine or something like that and is left there—

BLVR: For decades.

TM: Yeah, for decades. And they said, “Look, we’ll get him, but surely there’s no rush.”

I’m of two minds about that moment. On the one hand, it seems callous in a way that I don’t think one’s immortality would necessarily bequeath. Because if you see somebody suffering, that’s surely going to be reason to stop, to do something to intervene.

BLVR: Yup.

TM: On the other hand, I could imagine they’re thinking this: Well, we’ll get him out of the ravine, but it’s just going to bring him back into this shapeless life that he’s in now. So, the difference between the suffering in the ravine and the shapelessness of our lives is not so great as to foster an urgency. And I don’t know what I think about that.

In the story, all of the monuments among which the immortals lived were left to erode, because they just didn’t have the meaning that they once had and the immortals said they could always rebuild them back at any time. So, I suspect that was the kind of thought that Borges had in mind when they left the person in the ravine.

BLVR: Are you familiar with Ray Kurzweil, the futurist?

TM: No, I’m not.

BLVR: He’s an inventor, an author, and maybe most famously, a futurist. He’s made lots of predictions over the last couple of decades about the pace of technological acceleration. One of his books is called The Singularity is Near, and I want to read you an extended quote from his website about the book:

“In The Singularity Is Near, [Kurzweil] examines the next step in this inexorable evolutionary process: the union of human and machine, in which the knowledge and skills embedded in our brains will be combined with the vastly greater capacity, speed, and knowledge-sharing ability of our own creations.

“That merging is the essence of the Singularity, an era in which our intelligence will become increasingly nonbiological and trillions of times more powerful than it is today—the dawning of a new civilization that will enable us to transcend our biological limitations and amplify our creativity. In this new world, there will be no clear distinction between human and machine, real reality and virtual reality. We will be able to assume different bodies and take on a range of personae at will. In practical terms, human aging and illness will be reversed; pollution will be stopped; world hunger and poverty will be solved. Nanotechnology will make it possible to create virtually any physical product using inexpensive information processes and will ultimately turn even death into a soluble problem.”

Regardless of whether Kurzweil’s right about the specifics, it does certainly seem that human beings are more fully integrating with technology with every passing year.

Imagine that he's right about death becoming a soluble problem. Then imagine that you were offered the choice to adopt or integrate with a technology that would permit you to live forever. Would you do it?

You’ve written, “The fact that we die is the most important fact about us.” If that’s right, then I suppose that being offered this choice immediately changes something about what it is to be a human being.

TM: Let me go wide of your specific question very briefly and then swing back to the question itself.

BLVR: Sure.

TM: I want to doubt the premises of the argument he’s making.

BLVR: OK.

TM: Not that there’s an increasing acceleration of interaction between humans and technology; I think he’s right about that. But what he neglects are the difficulties on the horizon that we’re going to be facing—climate change, in particular. The kinds of environmental changes and limitations that we are facing place increasing pressure upon us in a way that isn’t going to, I think, lead to the kind of more utopian future that some of these futurists predict.

That said, if I were faced with the choice of immortality, it’s unclear what I would do, because to go back to the premise of my book, it’s not just that immortality is bad, but dying is bad as well. Now, if someone said to me, “Well, look, you’ve got a couple of hundred years or immortality,” my intuition would be to say, “I’ll go for the couple hundred more years.” Right?

BLVR: OK.

TM: But if it’s, “You’ve got your standard 84 or 85, or immortality…” Now, I’m 56, so I’m looking at less than thirty on that standard. At that point, immortality becomes a little bit more tempting. But if I’m right about the dilemma, it’s not just that immortality is bad; it’s that both immortality and death are bad—or at least a death in anything like the human scope of years.

BLVR: Let’s talk about dealing with death. You write, “We know in some sense that we’re going to die. We know that our death will be the end of us, and that death is not an accomplishment or a goal, that it is once inevitable and uncertain, and yet we scurry about under this knowledge as though it had nothing to do with us.”

It’s pretty clear that you think that some sort of confrontation or reconciliation with the reality of death is a good thing, and an important thing, for human beings. I’m wondering what you think that confrontation should actually look like, or whether you think it should look like any particular thing.

TM: I suspect that it has to be, in important ways, individualized, that what will be common to these experiences is the thought—not simply as a cognition but as something that rattles your being—that “I’m going to die.” And I think that can happen for different people in different ways, but it seems to me that that’s a thought that has to take hold of you, in one way or another, in order to confront death. And when it does, then one’s right there. In the seminar on death that I taught, there were moments where we were talking about death, and the class would just go quiet, because it was clear it was there in front of us—each of us individually was right there. But there wasn’t really anything to say at that moment, because each of us just had to look.

I would never teach the course again. I was very fortunate to have a great group of students. It’s hands-down the best course I’ll ever teach. But one of two things would happen: either I would get students who weren’t as good and it would just be a disappointment, or I would get students that were as good, and I’m just not sure I want to go through that again.

BLVR: You mentioned staying up nights and thinking about it more than you wanted to…

TM: Yeah.

IV: DEATH THREATENS THE VERY MEANINGFULNESS IT DELIVERS

BLVR: You write about the paradox that “On the one hand it is death that lends our lives urgency and beauty. On the other hand, death threatens the very meaningfulness it delivers.” And here, you’re tapping into a widespread intuition—that the fact of our impermanence somehow threatens the seriousness or the meaningfulness of what takes place during our lives.

I certainly have felt this way. But as a logical matter, it doesn’t make any sense to me why that would be the case—why anything would be less meaningful simply because it doesn’t endure forever. Same with beauty—why would something be less beautiful simply because it wasn’t permanent? It existed for a while, it was meaningful for a while, it was beautiful for a while. Why is it so hard for us to get our heads around that idea?

TM: Well, that’s a great question, and I don’t know if I’ve got an answer to it.

BLVR: Are we just swamped by fear? I mean, is that what is really going on? Not that we actually think that what happened in our lives is less meaningful—just that we’re overwhelmed by fear and that’s how we translate it to ourselves?

TM: That could be. It could be. It could also be that things feel meaningless to us not because the alternative to their ending is their going on forever, but because the alternative is their going on a little bit more. You know what I mean? But then, we come back to the same question—why should it go on a little bit more?

My mentor once told me a story about a plant that is in the garden of some of his relatives in Singapore. The plant blooms for an hour every, I don’t know, four or five years, and it’s a beautiful bloom. And he describes what happens when people gather around the plant. They know when it’s going to happen; I guess it’s kind of like clockwork. And he says they all come and they have cameras, and it’s so urgent for them to capture this thing. And he said that it’s as though they don’t see it, because they’re so busy capturing it, instead of just sitting there and allowing this thing to happen.

BLVR: Right.

TM: But I suspect that that idea of the momentary beauty somehow just isn’t enough and perhaps is connected to that fear that you talked about. There is that sense that for it to be more meaningful, it has to last at least a little longer.

BLVR: Toward the end of the book, you ask, “How do we live from within the perspective of a fragile life?” And you refuse to take the easy way out, which I think in some ways you ascribe to the philosopher Bernard Williams. He wants to say that while it won’t happen to most people, it could be that there’s a perfect moment to die, when all of your passionate engagement with the world has dried up, but before the really horrible stuff about dying begins.

And you point out that it almost never cashes out that way, because our commitments and our projects and our engagements don’t just all stop at once. They overlap and they continue, and so forth.

You also talk about the possibility of “living in the present.” And you say, “The problem with living in the present is that this is to act as though there really is no future.  It is not to treat death as though it is uncertain, but instead as though it is certain: it will come tomorrow.”

TM: One of the things that makes the uncertainty of death so difficult for us is that we could be involved in a project and then, suddenly, it’s cut off. And it’s cut off in the midst of our involvement, so that we don’t have a chance to see it through, to accomplish what we might accomplish. So in the face of death, people might be tempted to turn away from their engagement in these projects. That’s why I say, “But that’s just acting like it’s going to happen and you don’t know it’s going to happen.”

So, the balancing act—it’s difficult to achieve, and in my more lucid moments, I’d admit that I’m not very good at achieving it—is to be able to be in those projects, to project into the uncertain future on the one hand, but not to miss the moments that are there, the living, on the other. So that you are living in the fullness of the moment and projecting at the same time. You’re involved in things that may not reap their particular fruits until sometime in the future, but nevertheless, on the way to that future, you are inhabiting the moments that are there for you as fully as you can. And I think what that does is recognize the uncertainty and fragility of the future, but not close it off, as though we were certain about when death would come. So, to live in the moment and in the future at the same time would seem to me to be the trick.

BLVR: I wonder if the hardest thing about that is knowing when to shift back and forth between those two perspectives and when to try to stay in one deliberately.

Now, we might imagine that that as long as you do a little of each, you’re fine. But it could be that right now, you’re just not constituted to live particularly well, and that it will take some work for you to become the type of person who can attend to the present and the future in the ways that are best for you. And cultivating that practice, that expertise, strikes me as an incredibly hard thing to do, maybe the very work of living.

TM: The ability to do that, I suppose, would be what wisdom consisted in.

BLVR: You hear folks say things like, ‘On your deathbed, you won’t wish you’d spent more time in the office,’ and you take up that sentiment in the final chapter and elaborate on it nicely. You write, “Recognizing the fact of one’s death helps one sift through projects in order to separate out those that contribute in some way to making us who we want to be.” A kind of death filter.

TM: And that, I think, is something that people experience themselves. When I was 17, I was operated on—I had a herniated disc—and the guy in the bed across from me was an older man. And at one point, we noticed that he had numbers tattooed on his forearm. He’d been in Auschwitz. He described his relation to life, and he said, “Look, each day—it’s amazing, because I wasn’t supposed to be here. Every day was a day I wasn’t slotted to see.” And what gave him that attitude was the imminence of his own death. It acted like a filter, to use your word, which I think is a good one. It acted like a filter in a very urgent way for him. And I think this is what you’re talking about.

Matt Bieber’s other interviews and essays can be found at The Wheat and Chaff.

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