“A man longs to be immortal, and one day the camera will show us a mouth contorted into a pathetic grimace – the only thing we remember about him, the only thing which remain as a parabola of his entire life. He will enter a kind of immortality which we may call ridiculous. Tycho Brahe was a great astronomer but all we remember about him today is that in the course of a festive dinner at the emperor’s court he was ashamed to go to the lavatory, so his bladder burst and he departed among the ridiculous immortals as a martyr to shame and urine.”
Milan Kundera, Immortality
Empedocles was a strange and eccentric fellow. When trying to prove his immortality and his ascension to godliness to his students, he jumped into a volcano. With obvious consequences. One of his sandals was spotted, forever more apart from its twin. If you happen upon the lost sandal of Empedocles, do hand it in to the nearest lost and found. I’m sure he’d be grateful.
In Immortality, Kundera discusses the various types of immortality that humans can and do aspire to. The commonplace that most of us will achieve; remembered by family and friends, until they go and then become a footnote on the records at the HMRC unto the end of all time, or in seven years – whichever comes first.
Some aspire and achieve great immortality; remembered and celebrated by people who never knew them, but know their works. Some, like poor Brahe, received a measure of ridiculous immortality. Instead of being seen as an amazing scientist and observer; he is oft remembered for his exploding bladder.
Much like Empedocles, there have been many days I wished to jump into a volcano. Not for immortality, but for a bit of peace and quiet from the students; obviously not from my wife who is perfect in every way cough. I shall do it sandal-less and with great pleasure and an almighty cheer. I hate marking.
Remembrance fits together with immortality; for what else do you do but remember the immortal. We are all remembered daily; the nice woman who held the door open for you; that annoying boy racer who drove right in front of you making you slam your breaks on. We are all immortal on a minute level. The combined effect becoming a remembrance of you; the person.
When someone dies we’re keen to forgive their transgressions. That boy racer, I’m sure he’s a good son to someone. Some people achieve infamous immortality; we don’t forgive their trespasses but instead, try to learn from them.
Now there’s a peculiar kind of selfie. It’s one of my grandmother and her three brothers, who escaped from the Nazis in occupied Denmark, just before they were due to be rounded up and sent to the concentration camps. She and her three brothers made it across the Øresund strait, a ~20 mile stretch of deep water between Denmark and Sweden, in the small and rickety boat above. German U-Boats dwelt beneath the surface. The photograph and the piece of the oar are kept in Denmark, in the Freedom Museum in Copenhagen. The man holding the oar is my great-uncle; who lived into belligerent old age, well into his 90s.
She never really spoke of what happened and we didn’t push her. A clue might have been given when I was around 7 years old. On a trip to Tivoli Gardens; we stopped at a rifle shooting game. Me, being a boy and clearly made of soldier like material; attempted to shoot the targets. My grandmother became agitated with me; grabbing the rifle from my hands, she showed me how to hold and shoot a rifle. Seven bulls’ eyes later, she gave me back the gun. Quite possibly the toughest grandma in the world. I didn’t mess.
I’m grateful to live in a country where I don’t have to escape death, by running away into the night. My great-uncle, who I am named after (the very good looking man in the glasses), died at the end of the War. He was walking in the victory parade in Copenhagen and was shot by a German sympathiser.
“With failing eyes K, could still see the two of them, cheek leaning against cheek, immediately before his face, watching the final act. Like a dog!’ he said: it was if he meant the shame of it to outlive him”
Kafka, The Trial
In a school I worked in, we held a Remembrance service every November. One of the music teachers was particularly gifted and played the Last Post on a horn from outside the assembly. It still sends shivers down my spine now.
We remember the dead, or try to, for as long as we can hold onto them. Sometimes we leave messages, post-it notes to remind ourselves. When I was 14 I visited Yad Vashem in Israel. About halfway round the galleries, I burst into tears. I was utterly buried in the horror and the hate. Picture after picture, it was unbearable.
There are no words to describe the horrors of War, for the people whoever they are or were, beyond two: Never again.