Do you have any idea who Alan Rufus was? He was also known as Alan the Red, if that helps, but it probably doesn’t. If I were the one who had to guess, I’d say he was a stand-up comedian, or a low-level gangster, or someone claiming he’d been abducted from his bed in the middle of the night and probed with metallic instruments “that definitely weren’t from this world.” Actually, Rufus was a nephew of the eleventh-century English king, William the Conqueror, and because he happened to be in the right spot when his uncle took over the throne, he acquired more than a quarter-million acres of land and a vast fortune. In fact, when his assets are converted into today’s currency, they put him at the top of the list of Britain’s wealthiest people — from any era.
In 1070, Alan Rufus became the Earl of Richmond, a title that granted him the authority to ruthlessly quell any rebellion against the king. He was a symbol of power and intimidation, and for the latter part of his life no doubt saw himself as the center of his universe. It might have been a struggle for Rufus to fathom that his name would someday become lost in history. But it has. I’d never heard of him until this morning. If you’d shown me his picture, I would have thought he was the model for the very first Jack of Clubs.
Humans have always longed for immortality, and it’s inevitable that someone in control of a sprawling empire would presume to deserve such privilege. Monuments, pyramids, granite statues, and elaborate burial sites are a few of the ways departed rulers have tried to ensure that at least the memory of their achievements would live on.
It rarely works, but there are exceptions.
Julius Caesar remains as famous now as he was two thousand years ago. Is it because of his military conquests and political accomplishments? His relationship with Cleopatra? His violent death? Or did it take a play written by William Shakespeare more than sixteen hundred years later to secure the original kaiser’s place in our collective story?
According to Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, the most philosophical of the Roman Emperors, “All is ephemeral — fame and the famous as well.” Marcus appears to have nailed it, despite the occasional Caesar, Napoleon, or Shakespeare himself.
But how much longer will even those historical giants survive? The other day I asked a group of people, all under thirty, if they knew who Bob Hope was. Bob Hope was born in 1903, and lived to be a hundred. He was a star in radio, television, movies, and theater. A major star. For more than five decades, he was one of the most well-known celebrities on the planet. After I brought up his name, someone surmised that he was a talk-show host; another person offered that he might have been a politician. Bob Hope died only nine years ago, and although his signature song was Thanks for the Memory, his is already fading. In another generation or two, he’ll have gone the way of Josephine Baker and Gentleman Jim Corbett, and millions of others consigned to oblivion. If such universal recognition so quickly abandons someone like Bob Hope, where does that leave the rest of us?
Many years ago, a friend and I visited Trinity Church in lower Manhattan. Now in its third incarnation, the church has stood at its present site since 1698. As we walked through the cemetery, we noticed that many of the headstones had been blackened by soot, or worn smooth by wind, rain, and time. With the names and dates effaced by the elements, it was impossible to know who was lying in those graves, many of them centuries old. It made me wonder about the idea that most of us — nearly all of us — live in relative obscurity and then evaporate into the past, forever.
“Do you think anyone will remember us in a hundred years?” I asked her.
“No one remembers us now,” she said.
She was exaggerating, of course, but just slightly. The truth is, we are each part of a small cluster of friends, family, and acquaintances. We may see ourselves at the center, but it’s still a tiny circle of mutual awareness. If I were to travel to Buenos Aires or Shanghai or Nairobi or Copenhagen, I could spend the rest of my life canvassing residents and never find a single person who’s ever heard of me. To them I’d be another Alan Rufus, only without the real estate holdings and the ability to make my loyal subjects shake in their medieval boots. There are now more than seven billion human beings, and in the minds of a very large percentage of them, I don’t exist, except as a nameless speck in the same cloud of strangers they are to me.
Taking the metaphor to its highest level, we on Earth are an even less visible speck in the immense cloud of matter that is the entire Universe. At some point in the distant future, our sun will expand to many times its current size, and the planet will be gone. Unless we’ve survived and moved on to a new home by then, we and everything we’ve ever created will disappear, too.
Rather than being reduced to feelings of despair, I find this prospect exhilarating. It becomes an obvious waste of time to think of myself as some sort of success or failure, because no matter the scale of my imagined victories or defeats, it will someday — and soon — be as though I was never here. I can burn a million photographs of myself onto compact discs, publish a thousand books filled with my profoundly narrow thoughts, erect self-indulgent monuments that reach to the heavens. It won’t make a difference. I will be like the grim-faced ancestors who stare back at me from old family albums. There will be no connection or context, no reason for anybody to notice or care.
Dante said this: “Worldly fame is nothing but a breath of wind, that now blows here, and now there, and changes name as it changes direction.” And that from a man who’s currently more popular than he was when he died almost seven hundred years ago. He can delay the inevitable, but Dante, too, will eventually be forgotten.
“No one remembers us now,” she said. Not exactly true, but close enough. The pressure is off. We have each other and we have today; that’s all we can be sure of. The best we can do is pay attention to people, and be at least vaguely aware that some of them are walking around in pain. Rather than pursuing positions of power and intimidation, we can be sources of strength and support. We can resist the tempting notion that we are the center of anything, and express gratitude for our little place in the cluster. And while it may not be possible to truly know another person, we can try. That attempt to understand — merely the attempt — is what I perceive as love.
We aren’t going to build an empire, but we can build each other. If enough of us do just that, the process may continue indefinitely into the future. And there’s our best chance for a taste of immortality.
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