Ending up in a kind of soundlessly spinning ethereal void as we all mustby Roger Ebert
The day will come when the words of Shakespeare are no longer known. The day will come, perhaps sooner, when all the words on the internet, in every language, have disappeared. These very words, and all the words we have read and written, will no longer exist. Oh, for a long time they may be on a hard drive somewhere, one able to store the entirety of the web. But not forever. Not even close. A word not read is like the proverbial tree falling in the forest. The word existed, the tree fell, but without witness, what does it mean?
These thoughts were inspired, oddly enough, by an advice column by Cary Tennis on Salon.com. He is asked a question, and answers it. I suspect the question was asked by Tennis of himself, in a spell of existential funk. His question comes down to: "Will anybody ever read what we write here, after today? I am sure our writing will persist in the World Wide Web, but will anybody ever read it again?
So it goes. Our uncertainty and doubt extend to the infinite sky and throughout time, shrouding perfection, blurring truth, undermining what feeble faith we can muster, reminding us that we are both divine and mortal, that we live both inside time and outside time, that we are creatures of many worlds, and that we will always wonder, and always try to cheat death, and always listen for the echoes of our words in every strange town, on every strange mountain, in every strange dream that comes to us in the night.
This is not really about the destiny of our words on the internet. It is about the dilemma of being alive and able to think and being aware of our own mortality. Of dying in a world without end. It would be no special tragedy if the contents of the internet were lost. Far, far more words than that have been lost: Virtually every word spoken by Man. A very few have been preserved, mostly in writing, now in other forms, but eventually they will be lost, too. It will be as if no one had ever spoken, and every human life had been forgotten.
I accept that. I don't expect, desire or deserve immortality for my own words. People will have their own words to produce and be forgotten. If there could be one book to represent Man in all his frailty, tragedy, comedy, humor, dreams, disappointments, and poetic yearnings, I do not know of a better one than the collected works of Shakespeare. It is a miracle that they were preserved at all, collected from prompt scripts, actors' memories and imperfect quartos, some years after his death. Shakespeare never saw a book of his collected works, nor can we guess if he desired one. His words will also all spin into the void.
So why then did he write? Why am I writing? Why do you write? Why are you reading? Why do we read Shakespeare? Not for a moment would I compare us to him; it simply occurs to me that we are all in the same boat.
"A person has to participate," Studs Terkel liked to say. That's how I feel. Meditating on futility--that's no way to live. One of the most useful pieces of advice ever given me, at a time when I despaired, was: Act as if. Act as if you make a difference. If infinity is too big for you, live in the day. Shakespeare as usual expressed this better than anyone else, and it took him six words: To be, or not to be. That wasn't simply an expression of the Existentialist choice between choosing to live or die. It was the choice to act, or not to act. To participate.
"Martin Luther said if he knew the world ended tomorrow, he would plant a tree," Werner Herzog told me. "I would start a film." What would I do? Plan to review it, and ask my editor to save some space in the paper. If you admire Herzog, you might want to pre-order your tickets. In the cartoons, there are always those wild-eyed guys with a placard saying, The End is Now. We are saved by a loophole: It is never Now yet.