The Immortal’s Corpus

(LessWrong’s Fun Theory Sequence relates to this, but I have yet to synthesize it.)

With what we currently know about neuroscience and the nature of the brain and all that, it is very easy to reject Borges’ conclusions about the Immortal from his short story (as well as Jason Shiga’s Demons). This is because aesthetics isn’t remembered, and memory is limited, so an Immortal with a sufficiently large enough corpus of works to browse through would happily scroll through them, and when the former works have been replaced by the latter, re-experiencing the former will be just as new as experiencing the latter. You could think of this as a self-imposed Eternal Recurrence.

The hard thing to do is to come up with the actual body of works so as to provide the greatest comfort for our theoretical Immortal to scroll through the whole of Media and Discovery without ever being bored.

But there are definitely things that will eventually not be of the Immortal’s fancy. Anything, for example, that is contingent on a local perspective, is eventually going to be brushed aside by the Immortal’s gigantuous library of facts. His locality has thus expanded to the universal, and content no longer interests him that much. The Immortal also disdains amusement, because comedy is likewise contingent on not knowing the joke beforehand, and it would require boatloads of information for him to forget that the punchline of the The Hunger Artist is that his self-imposed starvation is solely due to the fact that he has nothing he likes to eat. “Art for Art’s Sake” is thus only a great motto for a transhumanistic race, of which, being no longer dependent on the aesthetics of discovering the world, can only rely on the aesthetics of the moment for its own sake.

Music is definitely the Immortal’s boon. No many how many times one listens to a song, one rarely has the musical capacity to hold every type of solo, chord, scale or combination in one’s head. But the Immortal will definitely gain the capacity to recognize what is overused and outmoded. His tastes will venture towards either the most baroque or the most outré genres. Classical, Shoegaze, Avant-Jazz, Neo-psychedelic, Post-Rock, and especially Wagner are his greatest friends. Of course we must assume that the Immortal, in his boredom, has himself in-depth knowledge of Music Theory and he himself knows how to use an instrument. Whilst, on one hand, he can appreciate the aesthetics of listening to music, he himself will also endeavor to master the aesthetics of playing for himself, for example, copy the style of Glenn Gould, or the specific type of solo played by Johnny Greenwood, and one can imagine him getting together a band of Immortals to replicate the Talking Heads Stop Making Sense concert.

Pure mathematics, and the most unsubstituitable structures of logic, will also become his friend. Let’s face the fact that the aphoristic aesthetic will die out in his mind, as most aphorists will rehash on the same types of things because they don’t have the attention span to build cohesive systems. To the Immortal the content of philosophy or the sciences is unimportant, but he cares about the aesthetic of systemic elegance. He is the opposite of Taleb’s Black Swan, because he has all the facts, and thus he will not care about the joy of chance discovery. Yet assuming that this Immortal still retains our aesthetic sensibility, and he does not become as epistemologically different as any of Lem’s outer-beings from, let’s say, discovering the secret formula for the principle of all things, then Maths and the empirical sciences will be just another kind of form for him to enjoy. He can spend several centuries re-discovering the whole of the structure from first principles. He can also master every combination of Go and Chess, perusing the brilliancies of the games over and over.

Art is just as momentary as Music, and thus the Immortal can spend his time slowly perusing every curve on one of the buildings of Antonio Gaudi, or admiring the slight fold of a McQueen dress. He can slowly browse through every frame of any sufficient well-made animation in slow detail, taking in the moment by moment shift, and then later experiencing it in full motion. He can do the same for Hollywood films, but since he has watched Sunset Boulevard so many times as to no longer care about the dialogue, he will instead watch it for the vivid Noir artistry of the shots. His best friends are the directors that endeavor to turn Cinematography into Music, such as Tarkovsky, Kubrick and Brakhage. In fact the Immortal may just splice everything he finds fanciful together into a single video that runs for days, scrolling through the entirety of cinematic history. He doesn’t have to think in terms of directors, but can arrange them according to clumps of visual ideas. The water and fire of Tarkovsky, with the water and fire of Terence Malick.

The Immortal has a new type of aesthetic to enjoy, which is the kinesthetic aesthetic of video games. He can go through all the different types of ‘sticky friction’ (to use the tim rogers term). He can get the highest scores in Canabalt and still keep going. He can play the Gears of War horde mode endlessly. To him it will be like meditation, or a kind of high level ritual. He can speed-run countless games just for the sake of it. He gains joy by tailoring his runs by the seconds. He is the ultimate 100% completionist. Later he turns to the programming languages themselves. He studies how to elegantly tailor each game to its finest form of language whilst still keeping the core elements in check.

Finally the Immortal comes to the whole of Literature. But when he reads he does not read books but he reads languages. His aim is to find the ‘Ur-Book’ of any language. Joyce, to him, is the definite author of the English language, as is Shakespeare. He will master Classical Chinese so as to read the 5 great classics, and then pursue every annotation and reference in it. He will do the same for the Tale of Genji. He will find the breaking-point Author of every language. For French it will be the entirety of the Symbolists, and maybe those like Flaubert, and perhaps even Proust. For Spanish he can scroll through every play by Lope de Vega, then go through both movements of Conceptualismo and Culturalismo, and all the intermediary works, and then head on to the Latin American Boom. In German he will take on the works of poets like Paul Celan, Goethe and Rilke. To him the words become a music of concepts, sounds, and images, and thus he shuns anything that aims at a decisive realism or verisimilitude. Pynchon is, to him, also a great writer.

How, then, can one ever say that the Immortal will become bored? As one field falls away, another will come into his mind. He will not only passively enjoy forms, but actively try to replicate them, for the replication is itself a form of re-experiencing the work. In our linear time-bound perspective, everything becomes endless music to him. Everything is tailored to his sense. Rather, it seems as though boredom is the domain of those of us who lack the capacity to view every single grain of everything with the highest aesthetics.