Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s well known poem on the theme portrays Tithonus as having asked the gods for immortality himself, and as pleading with Eos to take it back, allowing him to rejoin the brotherhood of “happy men who have the power to die” – the ultimate example of “be careful what you wish for.”
In our day, the ability to medically sustain life past a person’s ability to participate in or enjoy it, as well as the heartbreaking ravages of Alzheimer’s disease, echo the myth with chilling resonance. Like Tithonus, our yearnings for immortality have inspired us, with considerable success, to devise means to extend our lives. The unnamed poet who first created the Tithonus story would have been considered to have reached a ripe old age if he had managed to pull fifty years out of nature’s capricious hands. Modern medicine suggests that my grandchildren may consider themselves cheated if they don’t make it to a hundred. The flip side of the modern coin is of course no more attractive than it was for Tithonus. The thought of a slow, humiliating death drawn out over years of diminished capacity and awareness is not an attractive prospect - no doubt contributing to the success of the hang gliding and sky diving industries. Given a choice, most of us would rather die on our feet.
The difference between us and Tithonus is that the gods didn’t do this to us - we did.
The myth invokes the god’s customary dirty trick: there’s no going back to the drawing board, no opportunity to correct for oversights at the planning stage. This myth, as do they all, reflects life’s dirty trick – one year, a hundred or a thousand, sooner or later we’re outa here and there’s no correcting it, not then, not now not ever. We can try to bargain with the gods, but they hold the
upper hand –and once the gods have spoken, that’s it. Eos couldn’t make a follow up phone call to Jove and expect to find Tithonus’ eternal youth coupon in the next day’s Fed Ex from the Capitoline Hill.
She couldn’t - but we can.
We do it all the time. We can’t fix the big picture, but in the meantime we’re very good at picking off the little ones. We learn from our mistakes. The most valuable word in the human vocabulary is “oops!”.
The entire history of mankind’s attempts to defy our mortality by “fixing” things, not to mention the process by which this planet and everything on it, living or otherwise, has come into being is a result of our access to a resource beyond the god’s capacities: trial and error. Divine entities, by virtue of being abstract and “complete”, are stuck with what they’ve got. We’re not. We’ll crack
this Alzheimer’s thing – people are working on it right now, a lot of people, smart people, with money and resources behind them. The first one to crack it will make a fortune, and you know how that motivates humans. And while we’re at it, we’ll find ways of having supple joints and health in general last as long as we do. It’s what we do. We’re good at it. It may take a while, but we’ve got all the time in the world. We just got here. The fact that survival without health annoys us puts a target on its chest that the human race has never missed.
We’re still stuck with the big picture – mortal is mortal – and with the little picture - “Sure they’ll fix it someday, but what about me ?”  – as well as with several intermediate pictures – medical advances are expensive and are never available to everybody, for instance. But that’s the game we’re in - this life thing we’re so fond of. It’s a moving target, on ongoing process, trial and error.
In the contemporary version, Tithonus goes on Medicare, gets put on a macro-biotic diet, is assigned a personal trainer and goes to the top of the list for trials of the next big breakthrough in brain cell rejuvenation medication. Talk about availability for long-term study. Eos will get rich just renting him out - as long as she remembered to get those power of attorney forms signed while he still had his marbles. Hopefully, she learned from her first mistake. There may be hope, even for the gods.
None of it will change the game. The more we fix, the more we know what we can’t fix. When the time comes, we’ll still have to show our pair of twos against the house’s royal flush. The trick, as ever, will be to keep our dignity and our sense of humor when they take away our few last remaining chips and throw us out in the street.
This example is particularly personal for the author. My
father’s older brother died of an infection from an insect bite just a few
months before the development of penicillin.