Wednesday, June 28, 2006

James Joyce and the Horrible Absurdity of Eternity

Cay of Galileo's Dream left a quote in the comments section of my last post of what has to be the best expressive writing on the horrible absurdity of eternity that I have ever read. I decided to re-post it here.

The quote that Cay was gracious enough to provide is from James Joyce, a rather poetic Irish writer from the early 20th century.

Cay is in normal text and the James Joyce quote is in italics:

Sorry for the long post, but James Joyce's description of eternity is enough for me, even if it meant an eternity of "heaven" or whatever fantasy existence one longed for. I'd rather die for good than "live on" for eternity:

"For ever! For all eternity! Not for a year or for an age but for ever. Try to imagine the awful meaning of this. You have often seen the sand on the seashore. How fine are its tiny grains! And how many of those tiny little grains go to make up the small handful which a child grasps in its play. Now imagine a mountain of that sand, a million miles high, reaching from the earth to the farthest heavens, and a million miles broad, extending to remotest space, and a million miles in thickness; and imagine such an enormous mass of countless particles of sand multiplied as often as there are leaves in the forest, drops of water in the mighty ocean, feathers on birds, scales on fish, hairs on animals, atoms in the vast expanse of the air: and imagine that at the end of every million years a little bird came to that mountain and carried away in its beak a tiny grain of that sand. How many millions upon millions of centuries would pass before that bird had carried away even a square foot of that mountain, how many eons upon eons of ages before it had carried away all? Yet at the end of that immense stretch of time not even one instant of eternity could be said to have ended. At the end of all those billions and trillions of years eternity would have scarcely begun. And if that mountain rose again after it had been all carried away, and if the bird came again and carried it all away again grain by grain, and if it so rose and sank as many times as there are stars in the sky, atoms in the air, drops of water in the sea, leaves on the trees, feathers upon birds, scales upon fish, hairs upon animals, at the end of all those innumerable risings and sinkings of that immeasurably vast mountain not one single instant of eternity could be said to have ended; even then, at the end of such a period, after that eon of time the mere thought of which makes our very brain reel dizzily, eternity would scarcely have begun."

Excellent. I have written about the eternity problem on this blog before, but James Joyce captures the gravity of the eternity problem much better than I do. A finite, single life is infinitely more valuable than an infinite existence could ever be worth.

And Cay gets the Eternity Quote of the Year Award!


olly said...

absolutely right, and I love that quote. My basic problem is this (as I'm sure you've discussed). What would keep me from being bored after a few thousand years? The standard Christian answer is "you'd be basking in Christ's glory" blah blah or whatever, to which I say, Ok, so i'll be a zombie then... a happy zombie but a zombie nonetheless.

Right, sounds like fun.

Sorry, I value my free will to much, and the idea of living forever just bores the shit out of me.


Aaron Kinney said...

Being in eternal bliss for eternity in heaven would be the equivalent of not having a free will. How can you be genuinely in bliss when you are literally forced into it? It is a clockwork orange type problem.

And even the tastiest dish loses its flavor when its all you ever eat.

BlackSun said...

Damn, great quote!! I think if we did some math, though, we might show that Joyce might be describing more time than the age of the universe. But I guess even that's not eternity.

Of course, I started to check out that "Everything Forever" site. That's even more mind boggling.

Aaron Kinney said...

Oh yeah! The Everything Forever site is absolutely fabulous. Its a total paradigm shift to take seemingly simple concepts like order and disorder, and then explain that disorder is a myth using child-like diagrams and simple pictures and patterns.

The Everything Forever site is truly a mindfuck (in a good way)!

olly said...

Just checked out the site, and WOW! Thanks for the recommendation, both of you!


Aaron Kinney said...

Oh you mean

Oh yea, that site is real gold. Ive been promoting it to everyone I know for like a year now.

There is no disorder. There is only sequential and grouping order ;)

breakerslion said...

Truth is finite. Bullshit is infinite. Joyce is better at explaining it than I am, but I am a devotee of Cicero.

"If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter."

The human brain is incapable of comprehending disorder. This is not the same thing as that which is propounded by EverythingForever.

Order is a subset of chaos. Without order, there would only be disorder, which is a predictable system in its own right, and therefore not chaos.

Richard said...

Thank you Cay and James Joyce. I will link this blog to mine.

For me, real hell would be consciousness forever.

Tanooki Joe said...

I've come to put it this way: "It's not that I want to live forever, I just don't want to die so soon."

If, like me, you agree with Arthur Schopenhauer that the universe is fundementally a place of strife, struggle, and suffering, then to be forever conscious would be a true hell. Schopenhauer argued that we spend our lives moving from the pursuit of one desire to the next, and it is the frustration of desire that leads to suffering; but if we empty ourselves of desire, we are stricken with a unique form of suffering: boredom. If one were to live forever, there would come a time when there would be nothing more to learn, nothing more to do, nothing more to strive for; and one would spend an eternity of boredom. Sounds like hell to me.

Mark said...

Would anyone have a problem with living 1,000 years on earth? How about 100,000 years? At what point would boredom set in?

Mark said...

"If one were to live forever, there would come a time when there would be nothing more to learn, nothing more to do, nothing more to strive for; and one would spend an eternity of boredom. Sounds like hell to me."

Point taken, but how long would it take to get bored?

Mark Plus said...

Children complain about feeling "bored." Does that mean they've lived long enough and should prepare to die?

Stefanie said...

Actually...I have just read this book...and James Joyce is describing Hell =[

Heathcliff said...

This quotation is taken out of context. It comes from a preacher describing the length of time one will spend in Hell. The speech causes Joyce's character to experience a (temporary) resurgence of religious feeling.

Anonymous said...

To describe eternity in terms of time is probably incorrect. Locked into our world of space and time, we find it very difficult to imagine life proceeding on any other terms. Time is time and eternity is eternity. We experience something of the same difficulty in dealing with the mathematical concept of infinity. Many people imagine infinity to be a very large number, but it is not. The difference is that if you subtract 1 from a very large number, you have one less, but if you subtract 1 from infinity you still have infinity. The really important thing to notice is that Time stands in the same relation to Eternity, in one sense, as a large number does to infinity. There is one sense in which infinity includes a very large number, yet it is quite fundamentally different and independent of it. And by analogy, Eternity includes Time and yet is fundamentally something other. The reduction of Time until it gets smaller and smaller is still not Eternity. Nor do we reach Eternity by an extension of Time to great length. There is no direct pathway between Time and Eternity. They are different categories of experience.