In the 1982 film Blade Runner, a group of synthetic humans called replicants abandon their various posts off world and make an illegal return to Earth. Their motives become clear in a pivotal scene in which their leader, Roy Batty, meets Eldon Tyrell, the designer who created them. Batty tells Eldon, “I want more life, Father.”
Replicants are designed to live for only four years and Batty’s time is running out. And his life has been far too short for him to experience everything he knows that life can offer.
While most of us have far longer lives, we share that same tragic limitation.
Most films that tackle the topic of immortality teach us that eternal life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Highlander (1986), for example, depicts the profound loneliness the immortal Conor McLeod feels as he watches everyone he loves slowly grow old and die. In The Fountain (2006), Tom Creo’s obsessive desire to cure his wife’s brain tumour rather than spend her last moments with her shows how a man’s failure to embrace the inevitability of death prevents him from truly living. In the 2004 retelling of the Iliad, Troy, Achilles tells Briseis, “The gods envy us because we’re mortal, because any moment might be our last. Everything is more beautiful because we’re doomed … We will never be here again.”
The truth, however, is that our limited lives give us only a cruel taste of what might be possible if we had unlimited time. None of us are safe from the supposedly most important drawback of immortality—the loneliness and heartbreak of surviving while our loved-ones die—even though we don’t live forever.
The laws of physics—especially entropy and the linear nature of time—will always limit our experiences, whether we live a hundred years or a billion. Even if you lived forever, you could still only watch The Sixth Sense or Fight Club for the first time once. Barring memory loss, the narrative twists only shock you the first time they are revealed. Immortality does not mean endless repetition. You will never be here again—because you yourself, the place where you are and the experiences you have are constantly changing, through the mere passing of time. Experience is inherently limited because I am always trapped in my own mind and body. I cannot experience what anyone else does. Even if we lived for all eternity, then, we could never experience everything life has to offer.
But through art we can get a bit closer.
I will never know what it is like to grow up in California, but I can read a memoir and get a glimpse of how it might have been—in fact, I can read many different memoirs and get a variety of glimpses. I can’t know what it was like to watch the construction of the pyramids, but archaeological documentaries can give me a window into that world. And then there are worlds that have never existed and will never exist and which I could never have conjured up myself, worlds that only artists can create: Westeros and Middle Earth, Krypton and Asgard, the years 2049 and 10,191. Artists have given me the experience of inhabiting an endless stream of other minds and other lives that I could never have conceived of myself, but which have inspired and enriched me in immeasurable ways. Through reading, I can embark on time travel and space travel. Through fiction, I can see miles and millennia beyond my individual perspective every single day, without leaving my sofa. With the help of art, I would never run out of places to go, emotions to feel and ideas to engage with, even if I spent an eternity trying.
Art can’t give us immortality, but it can give us something better. It can give us what Roy Batty longed for: more life. That is why we must fight all restrictions on artistic expression. Whether motivated by ideology, politics or personal taste, art censorship is breathtakingly foolish—the censor is like a replicant who has travelled back to Earth to ask his creator for less time, rather than more. The censor’s short-sighted parochialism robs us of the only sort of infinity we have any chance of grasping. It can lead to heartache and loneliness because—without the compassion that art can engender—we risk isolating ourselves, failing to connect our experiences with those of other people in the wider world. Art allows us to transcend ourselves because it permits us to describe and communicate the sensation of the numinous. To forbid art is to cheapen every precious, fleeting moment we have because that would hamper our ability to express our feelings about those moments, to connect with others through our words and to learn just how unique each moment truly is.
We are already so fundamentally, inescapably constricted as to the possible worlds, lives and perspectives we can experience. Why limit ourselves further? Instead, we should strive to see, hear, read and create ever more perspectives, ideas and vicarious experiences that can enrich, inspire and enlighten us. We should call for art that is unsettling, so we can learn from the discomfort that it makes us feel; art that is raucous and uncouth, so we can expand our tastes; art that is mysterious and inscrutable so we can test our capacity for understanding; art that is ugly and offensive so we can reflect on the human condition and strive to improve it. We should harness all the creativity we can to help us suck every bit of experience out of our tragically finite lives. It will be our loss if we don’t because infinity is out there for the taking right here, right now. And we will never be right here, right now again.