[FOUNTAIN]Two writers saw longevity’s perils

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[FOUNTAIN]Two writers saw longevity’s perils

“Gulliver’s Travels,” by the 18th-century British writer Jonathan Swift, is by no means a fairy tale. It is a critical piece of writing, filled with intense and gloomy sarcasm. The first two parts, “A Voyage to Lilliput” and “A Voyage to Brobdingnag,” criticize the politics of England at the time, and the European view of the world.
By the third part, the author is directing his cynicism toward the human desire to live forever. Among the kingdom of Luggnagg are people called the Struldbrugs, immortals born with “a red circular spot in the forehead, directly over the left eyebrow.” Gulliver, the narrator, praises them as men of everlasting, accumulated wisdom, expected to rule the kingdom.
But the reality differed. The Struldbrugs became senile; their health declined and never improved. Upon reaching 80, they were considered legally dead and had to forfeit their wealth. The immortals came to envy those who could die.
With the recent successes of Dr. Hwang Woo-suk’s research team, which appear to represent a breakthrough in the search for cures for serious diseases, the skepticism toward notions of immortality once evinced by writers like Jonathan Swift seems to have vanished. But the question remains whether a long, healthy life means everything.
The movie “Bicentennial Man,” released in 1999, also addresses the question. Based on a story of the same title by the science fiction great Issac Asimov, the film deals with the “life” of a robot named Andrew, who, through an error in production, develops his own personality. As the decades pass, technological advances enable him to look like a human being, and he falls in love with his original owner’s granddaughter. When controversy arises over the love between a machine and human being, he forfeits the immortal life of a robot. The scene in which the old robot lies down and meets his death next to his human lover is especially impressive.
It is hard to predict what will happen once the gates to longevity are opened. Nightmares once only foreseen in fiction could arise. Dr. Hwang’s research is an occasion to look back on the possibilities raised by two great authors.


by Ahn Sung-kyoo

The writer is a deputy political news editor at the JoongAng Ilbo.
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