The highest form of vanity is love of fame.

—George Santayana

This sentence, taken by itself, is somewhat ambiguous. By “highest,” Santayana means most exalted; and by “love of fame,” he is mainly thinking of posthumous fame. The rest of the passage makes this clear:

It is a passion easy to deride but hard to understand, and in men who live at all by imagination almost impossible to eradicate. The good opinion of posterity can have no possible effect on our fortunes, and the practical value which reputation may temporarily have is quite absent in posthumous fame. The direct object of this passion—that a name should survive in men’s mouths to which no adequate idea of its original can be attached—seems a thin and fantastic satisfaction, especially when we consider how little we should probably sympathise with the creatures that are to remember us.

The wish to achieve “immortality”—not literal deathlessness, but the enduring survival of one’s name and works—is one of the oldest and most grandiose human urges. We see it from Homer to Ovid to Shakespeare, in the statues of Egypt and the symphonies of Vienna. And yet, is this passion rational?

The fear of death is universal and powerful; it has dreamed up afterlifes and constructed monumental tombs. But the notion that one’s book will be read in 1,000 years is of very little consolation. Whether you are in heaven, hell, or have disappeared completely, being worshipped by posterity will not do you any good. This seems doubly true when you consider, as Santayana reminds us, that your future audience will likely have the most inaccurate and incomplete idea of who you were.

Yet I admit that the possibility—exceedingly remote, to say the least—that my writings will survive, that my name will be known by perfect strangers hundreds of years from now, that something I created will endure and become part of our heritage—this fills me with fascinated delight. And to write something so powerful that I could confidently believe in its longevity strikes me as the highest goal to which a writer can aspire.

All this sounds exceedingly quaint, even contemptible, nowadays. John McPhee, in his book on writing, shudders at the thought of “writing for the ages.” And, indeed, self-consciously writing for future generations may be a very poor compositional strategy.

Nevertheless, I think that there is a core of sense in this apparently senseless urge for immortality. The true test of any work is survival. Case after case has shown that something intensely popular in its day can quickly fade, and even become unreadable by the next generation. And, conversely, something ignored in its generation may go on to become immensely successful.

Arnold Toynbee is one such example of an intellectual who was universally respected in his lifetime, and who was confidently predicted to pass the test of time, but who is nowadays unrespected in academic circles and little read elsewhere. Born just six years earlier, Franz Kafka was almost entirely obscure during his lifetime, but subsequently went on to become one of the most influential writers of his century. Examples can be multiplied indefinitely.

Survival is the ultimate test of a piece of art because it demonstrates that its worth does not rest merely on good fortune or passing fashion. For there is a great deal of luck involved in achieving fame; and fame, once achieved, may be due to the most superficial trendiness. Provincial political considerations, a striking but facile newness, the whims of popular taste—all of these contribute to hoist some works to public knowledge, and to pass others by in silence.

Great works transcend these transitory factors of fame. They do so by touching on some enduring aspect of human experience—and giving this aspect a wholly original portrayal and interpretation. Nobody had ever so deeply considered the problems of human knowledge before Plato, and nobody’s investigations have proven so memorably unique. Nobody before Shakespeare had given such a convincing representation of the ebb and flow of human passions and the inner dialectic of thought.

Thus to strive for “immortal fame,” while irrational in itself, is rational insofar as achieving immortal fame is the test of the greatest art: art that adds to our heritage, expands our faculties, and captures some basic aspect of the human condition.

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