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The Hard Stuff

Lacking the controversy of Borat and the hype of Casino Royale (hype which we have enthusiastically been a part of here at The Speculist), the new Will Ferrell / Emma Thompson film Stranger than Fiction has not received an awful lot of attention. And that’s too bad. Stranger than Fiction entertains an idea that we have largely scorned here at The Speculist: a proposition often cited by opponents to life-extension research. In fact, it’s an idea that has been endorsed by no less than Leon Kass himself.

Simply put, the idea is this – the eventuality of death gives life meaning and beauty that it would not otherwise have. In a paradoxical way, death is what makes life meaningful. So it would be a great loss, Kass and others have argued, to delay death in any substantial way. To do so is to cheapen life, and it’s just not worth it.

Up to now, you could count me among the supremely unconvinced. But this movie – that’s right, a Will Ferrell movie – has given me cause to rethink this significant philosophical question and I find that, upon reflection, my views on the subject have changed. Somewhat.

[Spoilers follow, but I won’t give away the end.]

As many of you know from seeing the trailer, Stranger than Fiction tells the story of a man (Will Ferrell) who wakes up one morning to find that his life is being narrated by someone “with a better vocabulary.” Via a mechanism never explained, he is living his life in parallel to the writing of a novel about a character who is…him. For example, while brushing his teeth, he hears the author (Emma Thompson) explaining in great detail how and why he brushes his teeth the way he does.

The whole situation is a bit of an annoyance until the moment when the narrator, indulging in some foreshadowing enabled by the third-person omniscient POV, let's it slip that our hero is going to die. In fact, the event that will lead to his death has already occurred, although he has no way of knowing how this seemingly innocuous moment is going to prove fatal. Needless to say, the whole life-plus-voiceover situation now takes on an air of urgency that previously it lacked. Ferrell needs to find out who this woman is and get her to stop dictating his life.

He elicits the help of a literary theorist (Dustin Hoffman) and eventually the author is identified. But there’s a hitch. The literature professor reads the novel in manuscript form (the ending exists only as a sketched outline) and declares it a literary masterpiece. It all comes down to the ending. The book must end as the author originally intended or a masterpiece is lost.

But surely, in the scheme of things, a man’s life is worth more than a literary masterpiece? The glib and easy answer is yes. The film’s answer is, well, maybe. But then again, maybe not. A literary masterpiece is worth quite a bit, after all. And even if we do decide that the man’s life is worth more, we ought not to pretend that nothing has been lost in the transaction.

I won’t tell you how this issue is resolved, but I will tell you that I was impressed by how seriously these issues were addressed. The Will Ferrell character chooses to tow the Leon Kass line – he decides that the novel’s ending will add meaning to his life that it lacked before. In so deciding, he displays a courage and a stoicism – and most importantly, a desire that his life be worth something – that is both compelling and deeply moving.

It's better to die, he reasons, and have his life count for something than go on living and have it mean nothing. (One of the interesting paradoxes of the film is that, by the time he reaches this conclusion, his life is significantly more meaningful than it was – at least to him.) That line of reasoning is the essence of the literary / aesthetic argument against life extension as summarized above.

Along similar lines, in describing the merits of actual (as distinct from virtual) parenting a while back, Stephen made the following observation:

A virtual kid would definitely be less trouble. But the trouble is indispensable to the experience. There are definitely times I'd like to pause the four-child reality at my house and leave town for a week. But I can't. And the fact that I can't directly effects the commitment I have to my children and, ultimately, the love I have for them. Where your treasure is – your efforts, your commitment, your time, and your money – there will your heart be also.

Whether we're talking about our jobs or our relationships or our lives in their totality, commitments that can't simply be turned off and situations where there really is risk involved, where something truly is at stake, are bound to be more meaningful and more real to us than experiences lacking those qualities. So I guess I'm with the buzzkills on that point – life extension may very well take some of the immediacy and poignancy out of human life. And, yes, we really will have lost something there.

I just can't make the same leap the buzzkills do. Let's look at another example of the same kind of thing. When air travel substantially replaced rail travel (at least in this country) and ocean liners, travel became less romantic and glamorous. We really did lose something, there, too. Of course, what we gained in the transaction made it a good deal, and I certainly wouldn't make the boneheaded argument that air travel should be eliminated to bring the glamour and romance back.

Or let's put it another way. If we can all agree that an average lifespan of 70 years possesses a poignancy and urgency that a 500-year lifespan might not, shouldn't we also agree that an average lifespan of 30 years would be even more beautiful and meaningful? Isn't it time we started rolling back the clock on sanitation, nutrition, medicine, and public safety so that people can lead more beautiful / meaningful lives?

No. I didn't think so.

Finding the meaning in much longer lives or in relationships with nonhuman intelligences will pose tremendous challenges. How can a life be meaningful if it lacks the inevitability of death -- or at least what we would think of as the inevitability of death? How can a relationship be meaningful if it comes with a Pause button? Won't life be too frivolous and easy? Can life really amount to anything with all the hard stuff taken out?

There are no easy answers to such questions. But it's safe to say that people faced with such choices will still take their lives very seriously, and will find that there's plenty of hard stuff yet to go around. After all, we still consider our lives difficult and challenging, even though our hunter-gatherer ancestors might think we live in some kind of paradise. So on the question of meaning, there's good news. Our ancestors of a couple centuries ago who had those poignant and urgent 30-year lifespans also struggled with figuring out the meaning of life. As do we. As will our offspring.

But the nice part is, they’ll get more time to work on it.


SPOILERS. Ultimately, Harold Crick made the choice to die and that's the rub. The movie unfolds Harold Crick on two levels...in the novel and then in "real life."

The Harold Crick of the novel lives his life on autopilot and dies in an act of serendipity. Armed with foreknowledge, the Harold Crick of real life, having been told by Dustin Hoffman's character that death is inevitable, decides to sacrifice his life now for an ideal and to save a child.

Part of the reason Harold Crick decides to die is because he ASSUMES the inevitability of death and would rather die now for an idea rather than later for nothing. The option of living forever never enters the equation.

The foreknowledge and the underlying assumption changes the very nature of the choice. Does death really add meaning to life in of itself? Or are our lives defined by how we face death and the things we're willing to lay down our lives for?

Immortality is no more an option for us than it was for Harold Crick. Life extension may get us to indefinitely long lifespans, but not eternal ones.


I didn't take it as a given that Crick new he was saving the boy's life, or that the kid's life would even have been in danger were the story not written that way. If he did what he did to save the boy, then obviously that's a noble and good thing. Most of us would like to think we'd do the same thing under the circumstances. But if he did it as presented -- to preserve the integrity of the story -- it's a very different thing. I can't say that I would do the same, but I admired Crick for making that choice.

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