The problem with immortality, as Jorge Luis Borges saw it, is that you wind up with too much time on your hands. The Argentine short-story writer explored this notion in “The Immortal,” one of his ficciones, published in 1947. The protagonist of this story-within-a-story is a Roman tribune named Marcus Flaminius Rufus, who set off with his soldiers from Egypt in search of the City of Immortals and “the secret river that purifies men of death.” After much travail, including desert storms, desertions and mutinies, Rufus alone reached his destination. He found himself among a stunted race of naked cave dwellers outside the city, mute and utterly indifferent, either to him or to one another. Ravaged by thirst, he drank from an impure stream, clogged with sand and rubble. The City of Immortals gleamed before him on the other side, high on a stone plateau.
Only with the greatest difficulty did Rufus find his way inside through a series of maze-like underground chambers. The city, now abandoned, was vast and labyrinthine, seemingly of great antiquity. He was struck by a strong sense of oppressiveness and horror, of “complex irrationality.” Like the underground chambers he had navigated to gain entry to the city, there were corridors that led nowhere, as well as impossibly high windows, gigantic doors opening into tiny rooms and upside-down staircases. Rufus told himself, The gods that built this place were mad. As it turned out, the city had been built not by gods but by the stunted race of men who now lived in the caves beyond it. They had been the original inhabitants of the city before tearing it down and replacing it with this jumble, which they then abandoned altogether. They were the immortals, now utterly indifferent to everything in life. Rufus, having drunk from the polluted stream outside the city, had become immortal as well and eventually understood for himself why they behaved as they did.
For the immortals, the promise of everlasting life had devolved into an unending life sentence. The epigram for Borges’ story was taken from Francis Bacon’s Essays:
Solomon saith: There is no new thing upon the earth. So that as Plato had an imagination, that all knowledge as but remembrance; so Solomon giveth his sentence, that all novelty is but oblivion.
To those who inhabit a world without end, there is a terrible sameness to every circumstance. You are forever captive to everything that has happened before, which is everything that can happen and will happen again. Over an infinitely long span of time, Rufus lamented, all things happen to all men, and a single immortal man is all men. “As reward for his past and future virtues,” he observed, “every man merited every kindness – yet also every betrayal, as reward for his past and future iniquities.”
Since there is nothing that is not counterbalanced by something else, the immortals eventually determined that there must be a river somewhere whose waters bestowed mortality on those who had been deprived of it. And so they dispersed over the face of the earth to find it, seeking the solace of death as they had once pursued the promise of everlasting life. Death, they now realized, “makes men precious and pathetic; their ghostliness is touching; any act they perform may be their last; there is no face that is not on the verge of blurring and fading away like the faces in a dream. Everything in the world of mortals has the value of the irrecoverable and contingent.” If there was any value in living forever, it was to make them appreciate the essential difference between immortality, which is unending time, and eternity, which is really no time at all.