Deep Dive into Chouyaku Hyakunin Isshu: Uta Koi – Episode 5

What happens after we die? Do we just rot away into the darkness? Or are we reborn, thrust back into the cruel world? Or do ascend to highest planes of pleasure? Komachi deals with these questions when she realizes the frailty of her old age.  But these questions become meaningless if we have immortality.

As a race, human beings have been obsessed with the idea. The first recorded epic from the Sumerian age, Gilgamesh, had the eponymous hero setting out to become an immortal. Alchemists toiled hard in their basement laboratories to forge the philosopher’s stone. Spaniards dived into the thickets of Florida to find the fountain of youth. Current fiction trends have vampires flaunt their everlasting looks.

But for us mere mortals, with much more modest hopes, is there any way we can lie in the evergreen fields of timelessness? For us the answer lies in more rudimentary forms of immortality: fame and legacy.  While the body disappears into the aether, remnants of our lives continue to live on into eternity.

Legacies can be roughly grouped into two categories, the material and immaterial. Material legacies are physical objects that are usually manifestations of certain qualities we had as a person. Say an individual was particularly munificent; a material legacy he can possibly leave behind is a charity or fund. The simplest form of this sort of legacy is having a child, an extension of being a parent.

Immaterial legacies are again extensions of a certain qualities but are not localized to a specific object in the physical world. The most common case to consider would be heroism. These legacies are tethered to certain events or chain of events that propagate the characteristic.

Both instances are positive but if spun negatively are described as infamy or villainy. For all intents and purposes of this discourse, they both serve the same purpose of being conduits to immortality outside of the human body.

For Komachi, her anagnorisis occurs when she realizes that her physical carapace does not bind her own existence. She continues to live on as long as her poems escape the lips of people for generations onward. Her spirit can live vicariously through her work.

But this brings up an important fact: our legacies are tied to the impermanence of whatever they are bounded to. For a material legacy, it can only exist as long as the object exists. A work of art will only carry your name until it is destroyed or lost. While certain matter can outlast our bodies, their time within the context of time and space is minute. Hardly infinite and hardly immortal.

Most immaterial legacies are kept afloat by memory. As long as one person remembers, then that person lives on. But still we see that length of an immaterial legacy is the function of something material and finite, the human mind. While we can buoy the probability of its survival by tying it to news, books, or art, we return to the problems presented by the material.

A fundamental problem occurs: there seems to be no way to truly defy death. But a comforting thought does exist. Komachi’s words are still being heard twelve hundred years later by at least one writer, and in my book, that’s as good as forever.

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