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Mortalism: Readings on the Meaning of Life
Synopses & Reviews
The inevitability and finality of death have prompted some of the worlds most poignant and memorable literature, from the Epic of Gilgamesh of ancient Babylon to the works of contemporary poets and novelists. The conviction that death means everlasting extinction, with no possibility of an afterlife, is described by Peter Heinegg as "mortalism." In this unique anthology he has collected more than fifty selections of poetry and prose that reflect this view.
Contrary to what one might expect, mortalism does not invariably lead to pessimism, despair, or the sense that life is absurd. Although such sentiments are found in some of the quoted passages, many others give one the opposite impression: since life is brief and terribly finite, it should be treasured and celebrated for all its pleasures and rich experiences. Also noteworthy is the fact that the mortalist point of view is not necessarily confined to unbelievers. Heinegg presents quotations from Job, Ecclesiastes, the Venerable Bede, Blaise Pascal, and Søren Kierkegaard, as well as from such unbelievers as Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Sigmund Freud.
Heinegg calls mortalism the great open secret of our culture—open because the arguments in its favor are clear, powerful, and perfectly accessible, and a secret because acknowledging it has been seen either as impious or as simply too depressing to discuss. In perusing this intriguing volume the reader will find that mortalism was the viewpoint shared by many of the most profound and creative minds in history.
Book News Annotation:
Collecting 53 pieces of prose and poetry, from the portions of the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Old Testament to writings by Margaret Atwood and James Fenton, Heinegg (English and comparative literature, Union College) attempts to show how philosophers, poets, novelists, and others have grappled with the idea of mortalism, defined as "the belief that the soul dies with the body," as well as its multifarious implications. Other authors represented include Homer, Plato, Seneca, Hadrian, David Hume, Edward Gibbon, Goethe, Heinrich Heine, Gustave Flaubert, Leo Tolstoy, Emily Dickinson, Thomas Hardy, Sigmund Freud, and Virginia Woolf. The exclusion of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, two of the most prominent modern writers to engage with the idea, is somewhat surprising. Annotation (c)2003 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
The conviction that death means everlasting extinction, with no possibility of an afterlife, is described by Heinegg as "mortalism." In this unique anthology, he has collected more than 50 selections of poetry and prose that reflect this view.
About the Author
Peter Heinegg is professor of English and Comparative Literature at Union College in Schenectady, NY, and the translator of more than forty books.
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