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What If You Lived 337 Years?
General Director San Francisco Opera
In October 1993, San Francisco Opera is presenting Janacek's opera The Makropulos Case, in which the heroine is 337 years old. The opera, based upon a play by the Czech fantasist Karel Capek, raises the issue of the value of such incredible longevity.
Ever since human beings became aware of their own mortality, they have had a sense that one lifetime may not be enough in which to see and do all that they want to. The more civilization developed, the more there was to experience and learn, the more human beings were motivated to lengthen their life span.
The wish to live longer is shared by many, but that wish contains an underlying assumption that the health and energy of youth will also be extended. One is reminded of the myth of the Sibyl of Cumae, who was granted prolonged life by Apollo; but when she refused him her sexual favors, he withheld enduring youth. The result was that she lived on, growing increasingly old and feeble until she longed only for the release of death.
So we see that the wish for long life is conditional: we want not to extend our old age, but rather to recapture youth. Today, Americans spend billions of dollars a year on vitamins, cosmetics, moisturizers and plastic surgery, hoping to create a more youthful appearance. Millions of people have adopted exercise regimens or diets. all hoping to slow down the aging process. It is a pursuit that has obsessed mankind for centuries.
In the early 16th century, Juan Ponce de Leon scoured what is now Florida searching for the Fountain of Youth: In Goethe's Faust another literary work that became a famous opera, Faust sells his soul to the devil in order to regain his youth. In the early 1900s, James Hilton wrote Lost Horizon, a novel that became a popular 1937 film starring Ronald Colman and Jane Wyatt. It tells of a group of people who accidentally encounter a society high in the mountains of Tibet, where people never grow old or ill so long as they remain in the city; nonetheless, several of the visitors choose to leave. Even in James Barrie's Peter Pan, Wendy and her brothers ultimately opt to return home and grow up-which also means to grow old.
Virtually all of the world's major religions and philosophies have attempted to reconcile us with our shared fate. The human life cycle is predestined for everyone: you are born, you grow up and mature, you age, and you die. This seems to be part of the order of the world we live in, applicable not only to people but to trees, flowers and animals. There is nothing or no one living on earth that will not die. Even entire species reinforce the same pattern -- they evolve, they flourish for a period of time (however long it maybe) and ultimately become extinct.
Such an inevitable outcome may seem frustrating or unfair to us. but the important issue is what we do with the time we have been given. If properly managed, a lifetime can be filled with health, well-being, enjoyment, discovery, rewarding work, the satisfaction of achievement, intellectual enlightenment, and the spiritual strength to enjoy it all. Instead of despairing over the limitations of our lives, we should be grateful to be part of the cycle. You have been given a life span; what to do with it is up to you. The sad truth is that many of us are unable to make good use of our allotted threescore years and ten; yet we delude ourselves that, had we been given much longer lives, we would somehow make better use of the time.
The Makropulos Case examines the life of one person who has been given just such an opportunity; Elina Makropulos, alias Eugenia Montez, Elian MacGregor, Elsa Mueller, Ekaterina Myshkina and, at the time the opera is set (the 1920s), Emilia Marty. She was originally the daughter, of Hieronymus Makropulos, a Greek physician and alchemist at the Prague court of Hapsburg Emperor Rudolf II, who assigned Makropulos the task of producing a potion to extend life for 300 years. Since the emperor was unwilling to try the potion untested, the alchemist was ordered to administer it to his daughter. After she fell into a coma, the emperor became frightened and refused to take the potion, which everyone assumed was a failure. The emperor was in a rage, and Hieronymus was killed.
Elina eventually awoke, however, and went on to live for additional three centuries, during which time she made her living as an opera singer occasionally changing her name and residence. Those 300 years were long enough for this ageless femme fatale polish both her vocal and amorous skills to an unprecedented degree, and long enough for her to lose any passion for either.
As Emilia Marty learned, a life without a foreseeable end does not automatically result in happiness or enrichment. she had become an outsider, watching life's pattern in isolation and loneliness, no longer feeling part of the process. Experiencing a seemingly endless repetition of life's events -- births, deaths, wars, famines, natural disasters, love affairs -- has ultimately rendered her totally numb emotionally, lacking any joy or sense of the value of life. She had even lost track of her own children -- as Emilia puts it, "I don't know how many brats I have had." The sheer agony of seeing all of your offspring age and die would by itself be enough to destroy any zest for life. By the time her 300 years were drawing to a close, Emilia confesses, "You are all so lucky; you know you are going to die, and that creates a hunger for life which gives you excitement and makes life important for you."
The opera warns us about what can happen when one tampers with the natural progression of life. If the Makropulos formula could be discovered, we are forced to ponder the implications. The possibility of producing a new drug for the entire world's population is out of the question; and even if it could be produced in sufficient quantity, certainly it would not be given to everyone. Such a drastic increase in life expectancy would result in total destruction of the earth's already severely taxed ecosystems.
Who, then, would decide to whom it should be administered? What criteria would be applied? What hideous abuses of power take place at the hands of the person or people who would control it? Having the ultimate power over death itself could result in evil of a magnitude unimaginable even in a world that has experienced Hitler's atrocities.
What Emilia Marty eventually realizes is that she no longer wishes to continue living a life filled with problems and inevitable tragedies. She philosophically accepts the fact that only death bring her peace and release from the emptiness of her long life; that death, for someone who has led a full life, becomes an apotheosis, a climax.
The various examples, concepts and thoughts presented above relate directly to those expressed in You Can't Live Forever - You can live 10 years longer in better health by Ernest H. Rosenbaum and Jay S. Lunxenberg, MD. There is value in a limited extension of longevity; increasing our productive period by another l0 or 20 years can be meaningful, can help you accomplish your goals. But extending our lives by 50, 100 or more years would offer only diminishing returns.
A performance of The Makropulos Case can be a spiritual experience, if it helps us to understand the need to respect the order of life. My own philosophy is that it is the quality of life that is important, not the quantity. It is what you do with the time you have been given that is important. Living additional years is of no value if you are no longer capable of experiencing and enjoying all the wonders of life. Every day you wake up can be an adventure if you are alert and able to exploit its potential; additional empty days by themselves mean very little.