The search of meaning of extreme longevity.
The most primal fear in the world is the fear of death: we are wired for self-preservation. Yet living forever, as many writers have pointed out throughout history, would be much worse— in the words of Christopher Hitchens, the notion of the afterlife (a spiritual form of immortality) would be “a verdict for which there is no appeal.” Going as far back as ancient Greece, philosophers also recognized that the fixation with death was misplaced as it can detract from fully living life: In the 6th century BC, Theognis of Megara wrote: “foolish men who lament the dead and not the flower of youth as it wilts.” But fear of death and immortality aside, as life happens while we make other plans (like trying to stay alive) sometimes some people get other kind of surprises from life, such as living longer than everyone else around them.
I thought about this today as we received news that the oldest person in the world, Sister André (born Lucile Randon in 1904) died this past Tuesday in France at 118. She was only a few years short of the world record held by another French woman, Jeanne Calment, who died at 122. Calment became famous in the 1980s when it turned out that she was the only living person still around who had met Van Gogh (he would come to her uncle’s fabric shop in Arles where she worked at as a teenager, and she remembered him as an “ugly and disagreeable” alcoholic).
Calment’s exceptional case, which has recently been put into question by some researchers who hypothesized that her daughter Yvonne had at some point assumed her mother’s identity when she passed away in the 1930s, nonetheless helped foreground the fascinating phenomenon of supercentenarians — people who live past 110 and whose numbers are growing. Only in the last 20 years the number of centenarians in the world has quadrupled (more than half a million, currently), and out of that number one in 1000 is a supercentenarian— which means that there currently are around 500 supercentenarians in the world.
For a number of years I was obsessed with this subject and kept track in particular of those individuals who were born in the 19th century and were still alive in the 21st. To my surprise one day in 2014 I realized that one of the two last living persons in the world born in the 19th century lived 25 minutes away from me in Brooklyn: Susannah Mushatt Jones, 115 years old at the time.
Jones was born in 1899 in Alabama, the daughter of sharecroppers. She graduated from High School in Alabama and in 1923 arrived in New York, at the beginning of the Harlem Renaissance. She had a marriage that only lasted 4 years (they had no children), and after her husband left her she dedicated herself to childcare. She retired in 1965.
I contacted her grandniece, Lois Judge, who allowed me to visit and interview her to give her a tribute as part of a group exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. She lived in the Vandalia Senior Center in East New York, Brooklyn. Jones was blind, was hard of hearing, and used a wheelchair; otherwise she was alert and had no underlying medical conditions. She did not ever smoke or consume alcohol and ate eggs and bacon every morning (and reportedly her cholesterol was OK); she particularly liked spearmint gum.
Shortly after my interview with her and the Brooklyn museum exhibition— where we exhibited objects from the museum’s collection from the year of her birth, 1899— she officially became the oldest person in the world on June 15, 2015. She died on May 12, 2016:, less than two months shy of her 117th birthday.
Every now and then I ask myself why I am so interested in individuals who are the last living link to a particular kind of history. I have often gravitated toward the last speakers of languages (Marie Smith Jones, the last speaker of Eyak in Anchorage and Cristina Calderón, the last speaker of Yaghan in Tierra del Fuego) and religions (The last Shaker community in Sabbathday Lake, Maine), and many more. But of all of them, one particularly comes to mind.
In 2012, during the planning of an exhibition at the Palacio de Bellas Artes in Mexico City which is considered Mexico’s preeminent cultural center, I interviewed its longest-serving employee, 99 year-old Rafael Galicia Valencia. He was the only person still living who was employed there when Bellas Artes opened to the public in 1934 — a big event in the cultural history of Mexico. He was hired as electrician in 1932 and had witnessed Diego Rivera paint the famous mural “Man at the Crossroads”, the very once planned for the Rockefeller Center, later censored, destroyed and reconstructed in Bellas Artes. Mr. Galicia recalled in the interview that Diego and his assistants would work late into the night and he would turn off the lights for them as they would leave singing “ The Internationale.” Mr. Galicia passed away a few weeks after our interview.
The image of Mr. Galicia turning off the lights of Bellas Artes as Diego was leaving for the night was very moving to me for some reason. The reason might be that history often feels intangible, and more remote and abstract as events recede in time. It feels destined to dissolve into fantasy and myth, and the living human connection to it, as much as we might romanticize or idealize it, provides it a degree of veracity that can’t be easily replaced. This is why it is so crucial for Holocaust museums to feature survivors in its programs, and ensure there is a way for their voices to remain as vivid as possible even after they are gone, be it through recordings, interactive evideos or even holographic imagery. It is the question that lies at the core of much art making that seeks to document historic, political or cultural events: how to produce works that are not merely intellectual reflection but embodied experience; not just data but human connection.
There is, no doubt, a morbid fascination with extreme longevity —which is sensationalized and monetized in a myriad of ways under the guise of selling authenticity- when in fact just because one lived one era it does not make one an authority on it, or even an able communicator of that past. I confess of often falling prey of the fascination of those historical links. But the point is that these voices are temporary and the last remnants of a set of perspectives that must be heard and understood, for therein lies their value.
On another note, my interest in these voices is not so much in gaining unique insight on that past, but on wanting to know (and the ultimate impossibility of knowing) the peculiar experience that each one of these individuals is living. These individuals do not choose their fate—i.e. living longer than anyone else in their generation and being placed as the spokespeople of an entire era. They are generally regular people who have been placed, due to the serendipity of fate, in absolutely exceptional circumstances that they would have never imagined.
I invite you to do a thought experiment. Imagine that you will happen to be the first person to live to be 300 years old and will survive everyone around you. You will be the only person left in the world who can describe to people six generations from now what the year 2023 looked like. What will you tell them? How will you deal with the fact that you are now the sole representative of the present world, and that you need to describe it to others who never lived it? What would you like others to know about that world of yours that no one alive experienced before it is your turn to take off and turn out the lights?
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