Jeff Bezos’s bid to fight aging through the new company Altos Labs has started off yet another round of discussion about wealthy tech guys dreaming of cheating death. But they’re not the only ones with that dream. As Chinese literature scholar Fontaine Lien writes, immortality is a theme of stories across many cultures. She looks specifically at the different views on the subject found in European Gothic stories and fantastical Chinese literature from the Six Dynasties period (220-589 CE).
The early nineteenth century English and French Gothic and “Gothic-adjacent” literature that Lien looks at follows a Christian tradition of viewing earthly immortality with suspicion. In these stories, people may seek eternal life using elixirs, or by striking a bargain with the devil. The outcome is inevitably not what they hoped for. In fact, physical immortality often stands in stark contrast to spiritual immortality after death.
In Mary Shelley’s “The Mortal Immortal,” for example, the character Winzy drinks an elixir of immortality and is initially thrilled with the result. But, after three centuries of life, he comes to wish that he could die, to “set at liberty the life imprisoned within, and so cruelly prevented from soaring from this dim earth to a sphere more congenial to its immortal essence.”
In the Gothic stories, those who gain immortality may also receive special powers. Yet they typically become melancholy and cut off from humankind. Following the tradition of the Wandering Jew, cursed to walk the earth forever, they end up frustrated and bored.
In contrast to Christianity, Lien writes, Taoism allows for many different views of life and death, including some that see earthly immortality as a worthy goal and something that humans naturally strive for. Many Chinese stories, books, and movies feature xian, figures who, in Taoist texts, possess spiritual qualities that allow for the transcendence of mortality.
In the Six Dynasties zhiguai literature—“records of the strange”—that Lien examines, immortality is a common theme. Some characters become xian through years of meditation, with magical elixirs, or by going into the mountains and finding a xian to teach them. In many stories, a disciple proves unworthy, and his teacher sends him away or punishes him.
In these stories, xian often have magical powers such as walking through walls or standing in light without casting a shadow. Unlike the Gothic European literature, these stories don’t present immortality as an essentially lonely state. While they generally portray transcendence as requiring the abandonment of worldly ties, xian aren’t necessarily recluses. They are often playful and friendly, and many take on multiple disciples or visit with mortals.
While the Gothic stories tend to reinforce the view that mortality is a morally desirable part of life, and that earthly life is only meaningful if it has an end, the tales suggest that transcendence of mortality is a morally appropriate goal—though one only available to those who renounce worldly things. Jeff Bezos, take note.