Tom Doig

Hysterical Necrophobia!

("Hysterical Necrophobia!" originally appeared in The Death Book: How do we die? published by Vignette Press_

In 1513, so the legend goes, the Portuguese explorer Juan Ponce de Leon was in Puerto Rico. The locals fed him a line about a magical Fountain of Youth which would enable him to live forever and, more importantly, cure his sexual impotence. The ageing-yet-hopeful Ponce de Leon set off to the north-west, and although he never found the Fountain, he did “discover”Florida. These days, of course,Floridais the retirement capital of theUSA. Millions of tourists and retirees visit the town ofSt Augustineevery year to drink its magic spring water, which apparently tastes a bit sulphury. You can’t blame those ageing-yet-hopeful old-timers – after all, who doesn’t want to stay young, forever?

You might laugh at older generations for carrying on in such an undignified fashion, but your time will come. Chances are that you’ll behave in exactly the same way when your cherished, shiny bits start to fade and sag – unless, of course, a miracle cure really does exist. There are a growing number of scientists who believe that eternal life is only a couple of decades away. These ageing-yet-hopeful researchers call themselves “extreme life extension advocates”, and they are pinning their hopes on scientific advances that will help them rage against the dying of the light – forever. According to molecular research scientist Robert Freitas, “if you are physically old and don’t want to be, then for you oldness and aging are a disease and you deserve to be cured” (Wired, 2002). Michael Riskin, Vice President of extreme life extension foundation Alcor, gives this (facetious) reason for people wanting to live forever: “they’re extreme narcissists, and believe the universe has no meaning unless they’re experiencing it”. Extreme narcissism – sounds like a hot new adventure sport. Or a new type of facial rejuvenation cream …

Ray Kurzweil, inventor and co-author of Fantastic Voyage: Live Long Enough to Live Forever (2002), takes 250 vitamin pills a day. He’s attempting to slow down his body’s ageing processes by a decade or so – long enough for cellular tissue-engineering and cell-regrowing techniques to come to fruition. After that, Kurzweil plans to wait patiently for the invention and commercial availability of medical nanobots, which will apparently be able to “slip into our bloodstreams to fix DNA errors, fight pathogens and expand intelligence” (Leslie Walker, Washington Post). By this time, Kurzweil will have become some kind of deathless superbeing, who may or may not be able to walk through walls. Meanwhile, plasma physicist Gregory Benford’s version of Ponce de Leon’s Fountain is a deep-freeze unit: cryonics. Benford claims that “cryonicists aren’t crazy, they’re just really great, sexy optimists”. They have even coined an insult for people willing to be defeated by the ageing process: “deathists”. These sexy optimists think we should cling to life like grim death – presumably to make the most out of it. Wake me up when the nanobots arrive, Ray! We can go abseiling with Walt Disney! Extend my penis – I mean, life-expectancy!

As absurd as all of this (hopefully) sounds, these rich white male scientists’ views are only the most extreme manifestation of a more ubiquitous First-World narcissism. If you Google eternal youth, the number one-ranked website is a “mind, body and facial rejuvenation centre” in England, specialising in Thermage, Smart Lipo, Botox, Sculptra, “and much more”. Their slogan: Holding Back the Years. And even if you’re too proud / poor to consider having plastic surgery (yet), I’m sure you use moisturiser all the time. We all do! And if a few pesky grey hairs start coming through – go on, dye them away! Because, as everyone who pays attention to advertising knows, younger-looking skin and hair makes you feel younger on the inside. And if you can fool everyone else, it can’t be that hard to fool yourself. The Grim Reaper arrives at your retirement village – but he passes you by, because your skin looks so SMOOTH!

If your skin looks smooth and your hair looks colourful, people will want to have sex with you – which is what Ponce de Leon wanted all along. Even way back in the 1500s, the quest for eternal youth was directly connected to a desire for unflagging sexual potency. That ever-gushing fountain is about as phallic as symbols, uh, come. And although Ponce de Leon’s magical elixir has not been found, we are all still searching for it – on the internet, and in our pants. The amount of money spent on recreational drugs that combat erectile dysfunction in middle-aged men is staggering, especially when compared to other areas of health spending. Our inboxes are constantly being rammed by offers of cheap black-market ViAGra and CiaLiS. At the same time, we are surrounded by media images of young, beautiful, sexually desirable people. Representations of cartoonishly fertile, big-boobed, well-hung sexbots going at it in all kinds of fantasy environments saturate our awareness. These images act as magical talismans, warding off the bogeymen of decay and decrepitude. (They also sell anti-ageing products.) The millions of airbrushed fuck-pics clogging the internet are a bizarre manifestation of humanity’s life-force; they also arguably represent the symbolic antithesis of death. You might think that birth is the opposite of death – but it’s not. The actual act of childbirth is painful, bloody, awe-inspiring, and life-threatening. At the moment of birth, both mother and child are incredibly vulnerable, both close to death. At the same time, sexuality has become thoroughly detached from these terrifying existential consequences. In the past 50 years, there has been a huge expansion of non-procreative sexual practices. Contraception, fellatio, cunnilingus, homosexuality, the prevalence of porn and sex toys – these things have all transformed sex into a recreational, at times extreme, sport. Like sport, sex is seen as another way of keeping young. Just wait for the affordable virtual reality sex-suit revolution! Second Life, eat your … uh, heart out!

One way to interpret our culture’s obsession with youth and sex is as a wholesale denial of the ageing process. To let wrinkles or grey hairs take up residence on your body is an admission that you are no longer prime fucking material, and are starting to approach death. So, we obsessively eradicate these outward signs of decay. Who wants to grow old? Not Kylie Minogue; not David Hasselhoff. They’ll be sex symbols in their 80s! Because no matter how gracefully you might do it, ageing is still throwing in the towel. And who wants to die? Losers, Emos, crazy people. Deathists. While suicide is seen as unforgivably selfish, spending untold sums of money on yourself to preserve the appearance of youthful vigour, then burdening the public health system to stretch out every last second of your 80s – no, make it 800s! – that’s sexy, and optimistic.

As a culture, we seem to have come to the unspoken conclusion that dying is ultimately avoidable­with the right beauty products, the right lifestyle, the right nanobots, the right foreign policy. This fixation on the possibility of immortality leads directly to an absurd, and much more dangerous, desire for invulnerability. Western culture has developed a pathological case of Hysterical Necrophobia: an irrational fear of death. (Actually, Thanatophobia – the fear of confronting one’s own death – is more accurate, but Necrophobia sounds scarier.) If death by “natural causes” should be defeated, why not every single other form of death too? After all, each and every one of us will die in some unique, unpredictable way. All of them are preventable, therefore unjustifiable. A botched Botox operation; a freak gasoline-fight accident; a plague of ageing in a retirement home. Traffic accidents, freak storms, malfunctioning consumer products – did I mention cancer? – they should all be vanquished. That’s why we pay our taxes! In this context, the USA’s specious “war on terror” seems like a symbolic attempt to eradicate the threat of sudden, random death from the (first) world. Never again will a plane be hijacked! Big fucking deal. The world is not better, or safer.It makes about as much sense as a “war on climate change”, where we drop recycled cluster-bombs on the hole in the ozone layer. Meanwhile, eleven million children die every year from diseases much more preventable and cheaper to cure than old age – diseases like diarrhoea. In fact, for the price of a jar of Oil of Ulay ….

Martin Heidegger, a (dead) German philosopher, locked himself away in a shack in the Black Forest for six years, and emerged with a 600-page book called Being and Time. Heidegger proves it: your end is certain; its timing is unknowable; this oblivion is yours, and yours alone. He believed that our primary mission as humans is to come to terms with that fact, so we don’t act inauthentically and fuck up the world in the process. Reading Being and Time is a masochistic task, which won’t necessarily turn you into a courageously anxious being-towards-death with an authentic understanding of your ownmost, non-relational demise. Luckily, there’s a great one-line executive summary of Heidegger in one of Bob Dylan’s songs. It goes: “he not busy being born is busy dying.” And although it has become something of a platitude, it’s worth taking some time to ponder it. It’s also worth considering the sagacious words of MissAlabama 1994, competing in the Miss America competition:

“I would not live forever, because we should not live forever, because if we were supposed to live forever, then we would live forever, but we cannot live forever, which is why I would not live forever.”

Alas, Miss Alabamadidn’t win. (Perhaps she’d sniffed a bit too much nail polish remover backstage.) But Miss Alabamais an inspiration to us all: a sign that the pursuit of beauty doesn’t have to lead to the secret, toxic, quest for eternal youth. Come on baby, don’t fear the Reaper! Because the alternative, Hysterical Necrophobia, it’s not pretty … We must cheat death. We must banish death – we must seek death out and destroy him! Death, you evil bogeyman, you disease – you terrorist! You don’t scare me, Cancer Man – I’ll give up smoking! Up yours, Suicide Bomber Man, I’ll blow you up first – you and all your children! Get fucked, Climate Change Man – I’ll recycle you into a million pieces! Drought Man – if only you were actually a man … it’s a nightmare. The world is a terrifying place, full of shadowy, evil men. But if we can manage to outwit them all, we might just be able to live … forever.