The Case Against Immortality (Plädoyer gegen die Unsterblichkeit)

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The unshakeable faith with which every writer assumes they will make an impact on posterity, is very touching. Their feet wade through muddy puddles, but their eyes gaze, calf-like, at the stars of a new age.

That’s how it has always been. It would never occur to a sane person to invoke their antecedents, for example after a first night which bombed. And should he do so, he would be ashamed of himself. That is how deeply the belief in progress has been hammered into every central European, but this argument doesn’t add up. We ourselves are posterity, descendents, the eighteenth generation, the next century. And what do we do? Are we Calvinists or anti-Calvinists? Are we for or against Wallenstein[1]? Are we engaged in a bitter argument about Lavater[2]‘s physiognomics?

Questions of global importance don’t get answered, they get forgotten. Great issues are not decided, they are ignored. It would be difficult for someone who rose from the dead to orientate himself in the contemporary environment. He would search in vain for the old factions, the old battle cries, the old allies. He will find some, but they will be others, he won’t understand them anymore. And we can not understand him anymore either. What do we know about his times? That which has been passed down to us. It is a serious mistake to believe that the best is preserved, or that what is important returns after centuries, reinvigorated, forever. What remains is who shouted loudest, or what is useful later, to put things right: welcome witnesses, new quotes from Frederick the Great. What remains is all mixed up: the fool of the day, a man of talent, perhaps a genius, lots of good, ordinary people. Survival is not a measure of quality.

We live in a fortunate time, we can decide what is immortal. We can control how posterity sees us; the first of the history of the years 1914–1920 have already been written. One should read these mendacious accounts, these one-sided falsifications, the whole dignified statistical and archival expertise, which will be accepted unseen and almost unquestioned in sixty years. Which researchers will have the time, opportunity and money to investigate how such official reports came to be? Anyone who has studied philology or history, knows how each author builds on the work of his predecessors, how the same lies, the same errors permeate ten books, irreplaceable, incorrigible, as basic knowledge. We slide in dignity towards posterity, so tarted up that we don’t even recognize ourselves today, and we want to call out to the bearded historian and story-teller, “No! That’s not how it was! Fraud!“ That’s difficult enough today, but we will die, and the weighty tomes will still be on the library shelf, alive!

„Future generations will remember you with a thrill…“ Give it a rest, will you? The relationship of posterity to its antecedents is generally pretty disrespectful. The man in the frock-coat may like to remember immortality at the state opening of parliament, at the dedication of memorials, or in school essays, but, on the whole, every posterity is much too busy with itself to have the slightest time or inclination to also bear the troubles of those who are in their graves. Have you ever read past editions of the Vossische Zeitung? You really should. Every age is trapped in itself. The understandable greed to make the most of this one time, the confident disdain for previous times, the complete indifference to everything in the past, don’t we do just the same? We would be wise if we did differently. Just occasionally are so worried about posterity that it’s deafening: on evenings with the classics, or at confirmations, or when new tax legislation is introduced. Then it’s, “Posterity will…“ „Posterity has…“ Posterity will blow you a raspberry!

There were certainly fifty writers who were as good as Wieland, but they have been forgotten. There have been twenty Chinese Napoleons, but we have never heard of them. Eight more Edisons, but they had no patents. What Walther von der Vogelweide[3] had, compared to others, was, above all, luck. He happened to land on top of the big waste paper basket of the past, and that‘s where he will stay for the foreseeable future.

Works live, and procreate. That French emigrants once came to Berlin is visible today on a few house nameplates, a few books, a certain ladylike grace, and the entire works of Fontane[4]. Create a work, change the world, keep your feet on the ground, and be down-to-earth, that could get you an anonymous immortality, but don’t look into the future, there’s nothing for you there, except perhaps a bit of plaster from a monument, or a doctoral dissertation. It’s all over in fifty years, a hundred at the most. Immortality? Don’t believe it, renounce it. Let the others be immortal for you. There is only one word for you, if you are wise enough to pronounce it correctly: today.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albrecht_von_Wallenstein

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Johann_Kaspar_Lavater

[3] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Walther_von_der_Vogelweide

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theodor_Fontane

Author: Kurt Tucholsky

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