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Myths and Mortality

Why do we have to die? It's a question that human beings have been asking for thousands of years. Often the answer has been that life on earth is a preparation for another life in another place: heaven or the underworld. But sometimes people have wondered about living for ever on the earth itself. What would it be like? The two most famous answers are both frightening ones. First, there was a Greek legend about a woman called the Sibyl who was told by the gods that she could have any gift she asked for. She asked for for eternal life, but she made a mistake: she forgot to ask for eternal youth as well. So she got older and older, but never got nearer death. This was a horrible fate. In the end, she was asking the gods to take their gift away and make her mortal again. In the nineteenth century, the Anglo-Irish writer Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) updated the myth of the Sibyl. In his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, he wrote about a rich and good-looking young man, Dorian Gray, who has his portrait painted by a very good artist. When he looks at the painting, it is a perfect likeness. He is saddened by the thought that, unlike him, it will never lose its youth and good looks. In a moment of impulse, he wishes for the reverse: "If it were only the other way! If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old!" Although he doesn't know it at first, his impulsive wish comes true in the moment he makes it: his painting will grow old, while he himself stays young. The rest of the book looks at the consequences of this for Dorian's life and character. Unlike the Sibyl, he has both immortality and eternal youth. He doesn't get sick or grow wrinkled. He doesn't lose his hair or his teeth. He has exactly what he wants: youth and good looks for ever. But is this a good thing? No. Readers will discover that the new myth created by Wilde is like the old myth created by the Greeks. If you wish to live for ever, it's not good when your wish is granted. Like the Sibyl, Dorian Gray would have rejected immortality if he could have seen the consequences of his wish. But he couldn't, because he couldn't see into the future. Nor could Wilde himself. He was at the height of his fame and popular success in 1890, when The Picture of Dorian Gray, was first published in a literary magazine. Ten years later, he was dead and disgraced, forced to leave England after the scandal that ended his career. He was buried in the cemetery of * in Paris and his grave is still visited by his admirers. Another famous grave in the cemetery is that of Jim Morrison, the lead singer of the American rock band The Doors. Like Dorian Gray, Morrison was rich, good-looking and successful. In a kind of way, he achieved eternal youth too. He died when he was still young, so that is the way he will always be remembered. Perhaps, like many other rich and successful musicians, that is what he wanted. Maybe he had discovered, like Dorian Gray, that too much success and pleasure can rob life of flavour and meaning. Growing old is not just natural but valuable, because we learn more and understand the meaning of life better. Unless we die young, old age comes to us all. If we look at Dorian Gray and the myth of the Sibyl, we can see that we should welcome what happens naturally.