Life without End

Life without End

A Thought Experiment in Literature from Swift to Houellebecq

Karl S. Guthke


Camden House



A groundbreaking study examining major literary treatments of the idea of earthly immortality, throwing into relief fascinating instances of human self-awareness over the past three hundred years.

The idea of earthly immortality has a tradition in literature dating to the Gilgamesh epic. But what would it mean to attain such immortality? Answers are suggested in novels and plays that explore the theme using varieties of Borges's "rational imagination," often in connection with projections of biology or cybernetics. In this groundbreaking study, Karl S. Guthke examines key works in this vein, throwing into relief fascinating instances of human self-awareness across the last three hundred years. Authors discussed in detail include J. M. Barrie, Calvino, Shaw, Adolfo Bioy Casares, Swift, Aldous Huxley, Walter Besant, Arthur C. Clarke, Wilde, Borges, William Godwin, P. B. and Mary Shelley, Capek, Machado de Assis, Simone de Beauvoir, Martin Amis, Dino Buzzati, Houellebecq, Iris Barry, Saramago, Rushdie, Gabi Gleichmann, and Pascal Mercier.
Guthke finds that the fictional triumph over death is only rarely viewed positively, and mostly as a "curse" - for a variety of reasons. Almost always, however, literary experiments with immortality suggest an alternative: the chance to take our limited lifetime into our own hands, shaping it meaningfully and thereby experiencing "a new way of being in the world" (Mercier). The fictional immortals reject this challenge, thus depriving themselves of what makes humans human and life worth living. And what that might be is also at least hinted at in the works Guthke analyzes. As a result, an aspect of cultural history comes into view that is revealing and stimulating at a time that is, as Der Spiegel put it in 2014, "obsessed by the invention of immortality."

Karl S. Guthke is the Kuno Francke Professor of Germanic Art and Culture, Emeritus, of Harvard University.


222 pages
9x6 in
Hardback, 9781571139740, October 2017
eBook, 9781787441033, October 2017
Camden House
BIC DSB, 1D, 2AB, 3J
BISAC LIT000000, LIT004020
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Related Titles

Table of Contents

Immortality in Science and Literature: Dreams and Nightmares
Literary Thought Experiments: Life Everlasting, from Blessing to Curse
Blessings of Mortality: Limited Time, Limitless Possibilities?
Index of Names


Guthke . . . paints a vast, impressionistic panorama of all sorts of literary conceptions of eternal life. . . . Everybody knows of Swift's Gulliver's Travels or has at least heard of Calvino, Borges, Beauvoir, and Rushdie, but far fewer are familiar with writers such as Michel Houellebecq (French), Martin Amis (Welsh), Gabi Gleichmann (Swedish), and Pascal Mercier (pseudonym for Peter Bieri, Swiss). Accordingly, many exciting discoveries await a sophisticated audience. . . . Recommended. CHOICE

Praise for the German edition:
A book that, proceeding comparativistically in concise and close readings of relevant texts, provides proof that literature-[here] represented by important works-is not a self-referential game of signifiers, but instead consists of aesthetic structures that treat the question of how one should live. Out of the process of putting fleshly immortality to the test through counterfactual fictional thought experiments arises in the end, so says Guthke, a "Praise of Transience." -Till Kinzel, Archive for the Study of Modern Languages and Literatures

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