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Mortalism: Readings on the Meaning of Life - Book Review

Updated: Feb 18, 2021

As with all reviews on this website, our goal is not to provide a complete overview of the book; rather, it is to examine how the book relates to the meaning of life.

About the Book: Mortalism: Readings on the Meaning of Life was written, edited, and in some parts translated by Peter Heinegg, a former professor of English and Comparative Literature at Union College who recently retired after 41 years. The work was first published in 2003 and is just over 200 pages in length. The book is a collection of over 50 poems, short stories, and excerpts from works revolving around mortalism. As Heinegg will state in the introduction, "The first time I typed the world 'mortalism' into my computer, the spell check flagged it in red; and, in its best idiot-savant matter, it still does." So, what is mortalism? It is the belief that the soul is mortal. When a person dies, so does the soul.

With that said, the book is a bit lite on the meaning of life stuff, with most of the works discussing and debating the meaning of death. Heinegg put together a great collection, but the majority of works could be said to have little to nothing to do with the meaning of life; that is, unless you find that the meaning of life can be found in death. So, let's look at some of the works that explicitly deal with the meaning of life. But before we do, below is the table of contents which outlines what a reader will find in this collection.

  • 1. The Epic of Gilgamnesh (ca. 2000 B.CE.)

  • 2. The Bible (Job-Ecclesiastes [dates unknown])

  • 3. Homer (eighth century B.C.E.)

  • 4. Sophocles (496?-406 B.C.E.)

  • 5. Other Greek Poets

  • 6. Plato (428-348 B.C.E.)

  • 7. Epicurus (342?-270 B.C.E.)

  • 8. Titus Lucretius Carus (96?-55 B.C.E.)

  • 9. Gaius Valerius Catullus (84-54 B.C.E.)

  • 10. Quintus Horatius Flaccus (65-8 B.C.E.)

  • 11. Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4 B.C.E.-65 C.E.)

  • 12. Publius Aelius Hadrianus (76-138 C.E.)

  • 13. Marcus Aurelius (121-180 C.E.)

  • 14. Bede the Venerable (673?-735 C.E.)

  • 15. Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592)

  • 16. Chidiock Tichbore (d. 1586)

  • 17. William Shakespeare (1564-1616)

  • 18. Blaise Pascal (1623-1662)

  • 19. David Hume (1711-1776)

  • 20. Hume and Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

  • 21. Edward Gibbon (1737-1794)

  • 22. Marquis de Sade (1740-1814)

  • 23. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832)

  • 24. Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860)

  • 25. William Cullen Bryant (1794-1878)

  • 26. Heinrich Heine (1797-1856)

  • 27. Giacomo Leopardi (1798-1837)

  • 28. Edward FitzGerald (1809-1883)

  • 29. Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855)

  • 30. Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880)

  • 31. Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910)

  • 32. Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)

  • 33. Algernon Charles Swinburne (1837-1909)

  • 34. Thomas Hardy (1840-1928)

  • 35. William James (1843-1910) and Bertrand Russell (1872-1970)

  • 36. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900)

  • 37. Sigmund Freud (1856-1939)

  • 38. George Santayana (1863-1952)

  • 39. Miguel de Unamuno (1863-1936)

  • 40. Marcel Proust (1871-1922)

  • 41. Wallace Stevens (1879-1955)

  • 42. Virginia Woolf (1882-1941)

  • 43. James Joyce (1882-1941)

  • 44. D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930)

  • 45. Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977)

  • 46. Samuel Beckett (1906-1989)

  • 47. Philip Larkin (1922-1985)

  • 48. L. E. Sissman (1928-1976)

  • 49. Richard Selzer (1938-)

  • 50. Margaret Atwood (1939-)

  • 51. James Fenton (1949-)

  • 52. Gjertrud Schnackenberg (1953-)

  • 53. Epilogue: William R. Clark (1938-)

Gilgamesh: The oldest story in the world surprising has a lot to say about life, death, and of course meaning. To for instance the following:

Gilgamesh, where are you hurrying to? You will never find that life for which you are looking. When the gods created man they allotted to him death, but life they retained in their own keeping. As for you, Gilgamesh, fill your belly with good things; day and night, night and day, dance and be merry, feast and rejoice. Let your clothes be fresh, bathe yourself in water, cherish the little child that holds your hand, and make your wife happy in your embrace; for this too is the lot of man.

One would have to wonder, in a roundabout way, is this the first written piece that attempts to answer the question that baffled humanity since the dawn of enlightenment?

Titus Lucretius Carus:

As per Heinegg:

Lucretius aims at uprooting the superstitious terrors of Hades and the world beyond death, while urging humans to concentrate on the rational purpose of life: pleasure.

Whether Lucretius achieves this or not, readers can determine for themselves. But it does follow in the path of the Epicurean philosophy.

Arthur Schopenhauer:

A German poet and hair fashionista noted the following in Parerga and Paralipomena.

What a great distance between our beginning and our end! The first lies in the madness of desire and the ecstasy of lust, the second in the destruction of all our organs and the smell of a decaying corpse. And the path between these two points, as far as health and the enjoyment of life go, runs constantly downhill: from the blissful dreaminess of childhood to the gaiety of youth to the strenuous toils of maturity, the often fragile wretchedness of old age, the torments of our last illness, and finally the agony of death. Doesn't it look quite as though existence were a mistake whose consequences had become gradually and increasingly obvious?

For every event of our life the "is" lasts only a moment, before turning into a "was."

Reflections such as these may well serve to teach us that the greatest wisdom is to enjoy the present and to make it the goal of our life, because only the present is real; everything else is simply the idle play of thoughts.

Leo Tolstoy:

If you haven't read his work A Confession, you must do so now. Although it is not presented below, there are dragons. Puppies may sooth those existential feelings until one feels warm and cozy on the inside, but for Tolstoy, only dragons which can scorch the skin right off a person will do. How any particular individual like to approach the meaning of life, I guess really depends on his or her particular tastes. Puppies or dragons, you decide. Or rather more succinctly, death by puppies or death by dragons—it doesn't really matter in the end. Read A Confession.

The truth was that life is meaningless. I seemed to have gone on living and walking, and then I came to the edge of an abyss and saw clearly that there was nothing in front of me but destruction. There was no stopping, and no going back, and no closing my eyes lest I see that nothing lay before me but the delusions of life and happiness, and real suffering and real death--complete annihilation. a total fool I stood there at the summit clearly perceiving that there was nothing in life, that there never had been and never would be.

Miguel de Unamuno:

Was a Spanish poet, philosopher, and professor. His works are the stuff of nightmares, the kind of books you want to hide from your children. Not because they are particularly gruesome or violent, but because they will induce a state of eternal existential crisis from which you can never recover. Well, at least until you die. Nonexistence is the cure. More simply put, children are too young to enjoy the bittersweet irony of being told they can do anything in life when they grow up, only to discover none of it really matters in the end.

On death Miguel writes in a Tragic Sense of Life:

...if my consciousness returns to the absolute unconsciousness from which it sprouted, and if what happens to me happens to the consciousness of all my brothers and sisters in humanity, then our elaborate human lineage is nothing but an appalling procession of phantasms who march from nothingness to nothingness, and humanitarianism is the most inhuman thing known.

Perhaps this march Unamuno speaks of is a bit like Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique - March To The Scaffold.

Other quotes from Miguel:

If we all die altogether, what is it all for? It's the "what for?" of the Sphinx; it's the "What for?" that eats into the marrow of our soul; it's the progenitor of the anguish that makes us love hope.

At bottom, I just couldn't believe in the atrocity of a Hell, of an eternity of punishment, nor did I see a truer Hell than nothingness and the prospect of it.

Other miscellaneously great quotes:

As our birth brought us the birth of all things, our death will bring us the death of all things. So it's equally foolish to weep because we won't be alive a hundred years from now as it is to weep because we weren't alive a hundred years ago... - Michel de Montaigne

The usefulness of living is not how much you stretch it out, but how you use it: some people have lived a long, but lived little; pay attention to it while you're in it. - Michel de Montaigne

When I consider the brief duration of my life, swallowed up in eternity that precedes and that follows it, the tiny space that I fill and even the space that I can see, overwhelmed in the infinite immensity of the spaces that I know not and that know nothing of me, I am terrified and astonished to see myself here rather than there; - Blaise Pascal

The eternal silence of these infinite spaces fills me with terror. - Blaise Pascal

I see nothing but infinities on all sides, which shut me in like an atom and like a shadow lasting just an instant that will not return. - Blaise Pascal

Overall, Heinegg has collected and translated a number of great pieces on mortalism. But, there could have been more direct works about the meaning of life, given the title of the book. One could perhaps reasonably argue that all the works were related to the meaning of life in some sense. Just as one could argue that any book, any movie, any activity is related or has the essence of meaning.

Because the book is more or less a collection of works, we are going to rate it a standard 5 out of 10 which is what we define as an average score. But be forewarned, it is an extremely depressing read at times, and at other times, simply a decent way to count down a few days until the end.

Overall - 5

Meaning of Life Relevance - 5

Uniqueness – 7

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