In an interview with the New York Times this morning, Joyce Carol Oates suggests that the written word provides a form of immortality, one worth making sacrifices in the moment to achieve:
People are seduced by the beauty of the close-at-hand, and they don’t have the discipline or the predilection or the talent, maybe, to say: “I’m not going to go out tonight. I’m not going to waste my time on Twitter. I’m going to have five hours and work on my novel.” If you did that every day, you’d have a novel. Many people say, “I’m going to pet my cat” or “I’m with my children.” There’s lots of reasons that people have for not doing things. Then the cats are gone, the children move away, the marriage breaks up or somebody dies, and you’re sort of there, like, “I don’t have anything.” A lot of things that had meaning are gone, and you have to start anew. But if you read Ovid’s “Metamorphoses,” Ovid writes about how, if you’re reading this, I’m immortal.
It is this sense that, by writing things down we might achieve for our memories and minds the kind of immortality offered to our bodies by our genes, that perhaps so closely ties the written word to our sense of identity.
This identity connection, then, may also be one of the things that makes us so apprehensive about machines that can write. If my meaning, my memory, is difficult to distinguish in written form than symbols inscribed by a thoughtless computer process, than how will anything of my being survive in writing?
Of course, for writing to be in any sense alive, it must have a reader. Otherwise it’s just dead marks on a page. The reader, though, has to reconstruct meaning for themselves and in a sense they always do it wrong. All meaning making is a form of translation, and while that doesn’t mean all the author’s meaning must always be completely erased (good translations exist) it also means the author’s meaning is never fully revived. Perhaps that is what Foucault meant by the “death of the author.” Ovid is wrong. The reader revives something, but Ovid stays dead.
However, there is an even more dire argument against the notion that writing might help us overcome the horrific ephemeral nature of existence and transcend time and mortality. Namely, most writing is as ephemeral as anything else. It may find a reader or two in the moment it is produced, but then it fades into obscurity and is never read again. Ovid is, in terms of written work, the WWII bomber returning to base with bullet holes showing all the places an epic poem can be shot through by time and still survive. The very, very rare author who spans millennia. Ovid had many contemporaries, some may have even been stars in their day. They are as gone now as anything else.
How long will Joyce Carol Oates last? Who knows. Possibly a very long time! But, she has already done better than the vast majority of her peers. If the internet has taught us anything, it has taught us that there are more people in the world eager to write than there are people to read all the words those eager authors would produce.
So then, let us let go of the notion that writing is immortality, and along with it our desire to have our Authorial Intent recovered in some future time. Let us not worry about AI washing away the words that would have let us live forever. They were always already scrawled on a beach at the edge of the surf. They were going to be washed away, like the rest of us. Make peace with that.
If you want to transcend the measly portion that is our little human lifespan and touch generations to come, let me suggest another approach. Plant a long lived fruit or nut tree. In the northeast US, where I am, apples and walnuts are good choices, they both will run for centuries. A hickory will be around for a very long time, if you want to be a bit less mainstream. If you are lucky enough to live where olives will grow, one of those will last millennia. You could be more immortal that Ovid with an olive, if everything breaks your way.
Pens down. Get planting.