This blog will be eleven years old soon. As I have continued my time out from online communication I have seriously considered abandoning it but have decided to continue. Not to belabor the point, I have decided it is enough to have a few readers—and not enough, merely, but fortunate for a man at my time of life. So, I’ll go on. This reflection began last December as what I originally conceived as the second of a series of Advent pieces. But things intervened, and since we are now approaching Lent, I am thinking through these paragraphs anew as an anticipation of Ash Wednesday, though my present mind is filled with memories as well.
It is an overcast Sunday afternoon in early December. I am perhaps fourteen. As I sit in in a choir rehearsal that is my first serious experience of Handel’s Messiah at First Baptist Church in my hometown, a lone, lovely tenor voice cries out “Comfort Ye My People.” I have written about this more than once before, how the beauty of that singing so imprinted those words in my memory that I cannot recall them without Handel’s music. But this year I recall them as the opening words of Isaiah 40 and as the initial text in the Advent II lectionary that opens a figure to be given provisional completion in the first Chapter of the Gospel of Mark:
A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of the Lord strides over the hills dressed like a wild man to proclaim the timelessness of God and the ultimate victory of righteousness in history. These things I leave aside as Socrates did at the conclusion of the Apology, for at the moment I am thinking of the many times in my life when voices have seemed to cry out of the wilderness. The great open of nature is not without the ability to speak; and even if that speech is but the echo of my own voice or of the multitudinous voices of culture, I continue to find meaning in it and to resist attempts to reduce it to neurons or algorithms as a species of futurism most popularly represented by the books of Yuval Noah Harari attempts to do.
It seems to me that such echoes are not chimeras. Here’s another memory from around 1958. I am sitting on the stage floor with a few other choristers at the Dallas State Fair Music Hall listening to the renowned Greek Bass, Nicola Zacaria, rehearse, almost a religious experience. As that great black sound filled the hall I seemed to be at the center of an almost cosmic reverberance. The Music Hall is no acoustical marvel—it seats upwards of 3500. But empty that afternoon it seemed almost to be a great viol and the voice reverberating the speech of near divinity. My feelings and whatever algorithms may have been involved in producing them were responsible for only part of it. Other humans were involved as well, a Steinway, the hall with its reverberant space and its many surfaces, mostly not visible as the rehearsal space was lit by a couple of work lights and the rest was dark.
On a Sunday afternoon some years before I had traveled back to college in Dallas from Abilene reading King Lear, the coming week’s assignment in my Shakespeare class. It was a gray December day—West Texas, as usual, surrounding me on the train, flashing by my coach’s dirty windows with its hardscrabble images of scrub oak, yucca, sawgrass and mesquite. It was raining. As I followed the old, mad king and the Duke of Gloucester into the storm ridden heath the voices of Shakespeare’s characters began to surround me as well, and I was in that place where Edgar prevents his father’s suicide. Of my thousand thousand direct experiences of what we call art for want of a better holistic term, this one has always intrigued me most since it was compounded of a complex local habitation having many names, to paraphrase another of Shakespeare’s characters.
A magnitude of algorithms must indeed have been involved in my experience of culture that Sunday afternoon, but to claim that the experience was reducible to those algorithms entails at least two larger claims that I think are false. The first is that our complex holistic experiences of the world are illusory, and the second is that materiality itself is illusory. Neither claim is new, but the first mistakes the abstract for the essential, as I think Plato did. And though the second claim figures in the histories of Neoplatonism and Buddhism, it has a pretty poor record among the followers of Mary Baker Eddy. The fact that the world appears in different guises as we move from one scale of observation to another offers no means to discriminate between the relative realities of our various mediated perceptions. If one is illusory then perhaps all are illusory and we are enclosed in a prison of subjectivity—this isn’t a new idea either.
But I am inclined to think that all are real. Even out and out hallucinations carry casts of reality, as do fictions; though the last thing I want to do is to debunk real science, especially since research into the ramifications of the various genetic codes we are beginning to understand does perhaps have the potential to help us overcome famine (at least on the supply side) and is already finding new treatments that help with the management of various cancers and other auto-immune diseases. Still, to extrapolate the entire history of humanity and an entire cosmology from a trendy area of applied science seems unscientific to me, even if I put aside my Christian humanism for a bit as I think about it. And we can’t just bracket the physicality of our experiences. In the recent surgeries I have undergone it was important for me to be able to tell my surgeons when and where I experienced pain. Relieving my pain required the surgeons’ knowledge of my body’s mechanisms for producing pain, but my holistic experiences signified; and I’m very glad that my surgeons did not treat them as illusions produced by my mortal sense.
Of course we are only beginning to understand pain; and our technologies, sophisticated as they are becoming, do not yet enable us to relieve all forms and experiences of suffering. But I am unable to imagine any scenario for the continuation of pain research that does not involve some component of self-reporting. Moreover, when a physician asks me about pain she’s not asking me to get in touch with my feelings: she wants to know where and how much it hurts. And the need for that knowledge calls up the entire materiality of my body. Pace Isaiah, I think we humans are more like dirt than like grass. Genesis tells us the first human was fashioned out of dirt, as the liturgy of Ash Wednesday reminds us. Dirt is a mystery, like pain, like bodies. We can neither create nor replicate topsoil, as Wendell Berry has taught me. And at the other end of the spectrum even Harari admits that though we can now create artificial intelligences that perform some kinds of data processing projects better than humans can, we cannot give them consciousness.
Harari seems ambivalent about his projections. In a handful of paragraphs sprinkled throughout his books he seems to regard them as dystopian, but the weight of his text has the character of gee-whiz popular science. One of his curious predictions is that this current century will produce humans who have been rendered amortal by postmodern medicine. Such folk could die accidentally: they could be run over by trucks, for instance. But they will be immune to death by disease and ageing. If parts of their bodies fail, these can be replicated prosthetically or by stem cell technology. Any emotional problems they might encounter as a consequence of extreme longevity can be solved by drug therapies.
I agree with Harari that some humans may desire amortality but can’t imagine wanting it myself—even if the possibility were something more than than the plaything of a greedy, super-rich few, as Dara Horn has pointed out in a recent New York Times SundayReview essay. I’ve never tried to flesh out my thinking about this before, taking something like Wallace Stevens’ “Death is the mother of beauty” as a sufficient ground. I still love “Sunday Morning,” but I am as vaguely unsatisfied with its affirmations now as its protagonist is with conventional claims to transcendence. I will think about this as I think about returning to dust again this year, returning to the inert substratum of manifest life, as I will one day. The Lord’s question to Ezekiel,”Can these bones live,” and the prophet’s answer, “Lord, you alone know,” taken together might evoke something more than a world that is constantly coming to be out of that which is not, the one unimaginable without the other. We may, as Stevens puts it, “live in an old chaos of the sun, / Or old dependency of day and night” but I am attracted to the idea that we may live in an another kind of interim, which however we image it, as a handbreadth (Psalm 39) or a journey (Odysseys’ return) or a waiting (Julian of Norwich), or some other—in its very temporariness (or temporality) asks of us and of the life and time containing us, that we not forget the mortal in our desire for being lest we embrace an ideology of being that undermines being itself.
Moreover, “Can these bones live” may be a crucial question for us in the twenty-first century as well as for me as my time grows shorter, a question we might well ask ourselves as we contemplate the continued ruin of the planet by extractive technology. I’m tninking in a way I don’t entirely understand that the idea of amortality may be one possible terminus of extractive thinking and thus an embrace of nothingness as the human goal of postmodernity. The abandonment of mortality by a heroic few seems of a piece with the abandonment of the poor by the rich, the powerless by the powerful, the unlovely by the lovely.