Cold-Blooded Kindness …

Did anybody need a reminder that we’re living through mean times? Whether we needed it or not, we’re getting one right now, as states enact anti-abortion laws that have virtually nothing to do with protecting human life and a everything to do with controlling women’s lives and bodies. What has gone so terribly wrong with our culture?

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The Good Samaritan by Aimé Morot (1880).

Perhaps our collective empathy is failing us. I’ve certainly thought so for quite some time. So did then-Senator Barack Obama back when he gave a 2006 commencement speech at Northwestern University in which he warned graduates of America’s “empathy deficit” …

[W]e live in a culture that discourages empathy.  A culture that too often tells us our principal goal in life is to be rich, thin, young, famous, safe, and entertained. A culture where those in power too often encourage these selfish impulses.

It’s gotten worse since 2006, as I’m sure Obama would agree. Incivility rears its head all over the place, from hate-filled Trump rallies to petty name-calling and ad hominem attacks on social media. Sometimes it feels like the whole world is descending into what the Indian writer Pankaj Mishra calls the “Age of Anger.”

But is “cultivating empathy,” as Obama proposed, some sort of magic bullet? Maybe—but maybe not. Lately some writers have been suggesting that empathy has its limitations—and also its dangers.

Hanna Rosin recently wrote about the ideas of Fritz Breithaupt, the author of the book The Dark Side of Empathy. Breithaupt turns some of our conventional notions of empathy upside down. For example, while we routinely think of terrorists as lacking in basic human empathy, Breithaupt suggests that they are instead afflicted with an “excess of empathy. They feel the suffering of their people.” Their empathy drives them to commit vicious acts against those whom they suppose to be responsible for inflicting that suffering.

I almost balk at this idea. Still, I’m afraid there’s something to it. Even those of us who are not terrorists can fall into narrow tribalism. It is easy to empathize with people who are like us, and near and dear to us; it is harder to empathize with people who are different and farther away. And this is dangerous. By giving ourselves over to divisive and selective empathy—the kind of empathy that excludes and persecutes the other—Breithaupt suggests that “basically you give up on civil society at that point. You give up on democracy.”

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Paul Bloom
photo by José Luis Somensi

Also, because empathy focuses on individuals, it is just about impossible to exercise in the abstract—which is to say, on any truly large human scale. Empathy is like a spotlight that blinds us to widespread suffering. In his controversial and provocatively-titled book Against Empathy, Psychologist Paul Bloom comments on this “spotlight” problem …

[S]potlights have a narrow focus, and this is one problem with empathy. It does poorly in a world where there are many people in need and where the effects of one’s actions are diffuse, often delayed, and difficult to compute, a world in which an act that helps one person in the here and now can lead to greater suffering in the future.

Bloom is fond of citing a question posed by the Chinese philosopher Mencius: If you are out walking and see a child drowning, what would prompt you to rescue her? Would it be empathy? I can certainly imagine feeling empathy for the child’s pain and terror, and also for her parents’ grief and sorrow should their daughter drown. But when it comes to actually rescuing her, I suspect that Bloom is right in suggesting that I’d rescue the girl because it is simply the right thing to do.

According to Bloom, this may not be an empathetic decision, but it is definitely a compassionate one. We’re not used to making a distinction between empathy and compassion, but they’re really not the same. Bloom quotes a paper by Tania Singer and Olga Klimecki

In contrast to empathy, compassion does not mean sharing the suffering of the other: rather, it is characterized by feelings of warmth, concern and care for the other, as well as a strong motivation to improve the other’s well-being. Compassion is feeling for and not feeling with the other.

Bloom describes this sort of “non-empathetic compassion” as “a more distanced love and kindness and concern for others.” Such compassion involves a level of caring that empathy doesn’t necessarily engage. And because it isn’t easily exhausted, compassion also facilitates sustained, positive action to remedy human suffering.

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Migrant children detained in McAllen, Texas.

I can remember my own outrage when the crisis of family separations began at the U.S./Mexico border. Like many Americans, I was devastated by images, videos, and audio recordings of terrified children. But I’ve also experienced a feeling of gnawing helplessness at the sheer number of children who remain separated from their families. My tears did those children no good—but perhaps my modest contributions to the ACLU did. That organization’s tireless effort to reunite children with their families is a task for which empathy seems ill-suited, but for which the more distanced, diffuse, and nuanced emotions of compassion and kindness are essential.

Such thoughts about empathy vs. compassion aren’t exactly new. Zambian writer Namwali Serpell compares Bloom’s notion of non-empathetic compassion with Hannah Arendt’s theory of “representative thinking”

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Hannah Arendt

I find that the best way to grasp the distinction between “representative thinking” and emotional empathy is Arendt’s lovely phrase, “one trains one’s imagination to go visiting.”

I’ve noticed that new developments in neuroscience seem to bear out these ideas. The hormone oxytocin has lately gained what I’m tempted to call “celebrity status.” Because it facilitates empathy, trust, and social bonding, and is released during sex and childbirth, it is popularly known as a “love drug” or “cuddle chemical.” But as sociologist Christopher Badcock points out, oxytocin has a dark side. The empathy that it generates seems to be limited to one’s own group and can actually stir up hostility toward outsiders.

Nevertheless, recent experiments with oxytocin suggest some intriguing possibilities—and maybe even potential therapies. When administered as a nasal spray to human subjects, oxytocin alone does not change preexisting attitudes toward, say, refugees and foreigners. But if a dosage is accompanied by “peer influence” promoting the value of tolerance, subjects show increasing generosity even toward outsiders.

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Model of oxytocin (ball-and-stick) bound to its carrier protein neurophysin (ribbons).

In other words, when administered with a spoonful of advocacy for positive social behavior, oxytocin might help transform “mere” empathy into robust and inclusive compassion. According to researcher Rene Hurlemann, “Given the right circumstances, oxytocin may help promote the acceptance and integration of migrants into Western cultures.”

That’s a tall order. I find it hard to imagine Americans lining up at clinics to get inoculated against xenophobia. Also, the mystique of empathy is so strong that people probably won’t easily give up their unquestioning faith in it. Even when it is painful, empathy makes us feel good about ourselves, promotes a desirable self-image. But there’s a difference between feeling good and doing good, and even between righteousness and doing what’s right.

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Bernard Shaw

I’m reminded of the words of playwright Bernard Shaw, who could be notoriously unemotional—even chilly—in both his life and his writings …

The only aim that is at all peculiar to me is my disregard of warm feelings. They are quite well able to take care of themselves. What I want is a race of men who can be kind in cold blood.

—Wim

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Ruins for the Future

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I see this meme pop up from time to time. And yes, I too feel a certain pang about the Library of Alexandria. Even so, I can’t help but wonder if our grief might be a tad misplaced. For one thing, just which of the four fabled destructions of the Library of Alexandria is supposed to still upset us? When it was accidentally burned by Julius Caesar in 48 BCE, or destroyed—again accidentally—by the Emperor Aurelian in 272 CE? When it was vandalized and plundered at the orders of the Coptic Pope Theophilus in 391 CE? Or are we talking about an apparently apocryphal incident, its supposed destruction by Caliph Omar in 642 CE?

A single iconic “Burning of the Library of Alexandria” seems to linger in literate imaginations as a catch-all metaphor for the loss of any and all intellectual riches throughout the ages. But just what percentage of all the great ideas lost to time can really be blamed on those four purported catastrophes in that one place? A pretty small percentage is my not-so-humble guess.

A more pertinent if more unpalatable question might be — should we still be upset about it? In his book Nonzero: The Logic of Human Destiny, Robert Wright doesn’t specifically mention Alexandria, but he does mull over another catch-all metaphor for cultural waste, the so-called Dark Ages. Wright challenges Thomas Cahill’s assertion in How the Irish Saved Civilization that Irish monks singlehandedly rescued humanity’s most indispensable treasures from barbarian hoards after the fall of Rome. Wright quotes Cahill:

Had the destruction been complete — had every library been disassembled and every book burned — we might have lost Homer and Virgil and all of classical poetry, Herodotus and Tacitus and all of classical history, Demosthenes and Cicero and all of classical oratory, Plato and Aristotle and all of Greek philosophy, and Plotinus and Porphyry and all the subsequent commentary.

Wright’s response to Cahill:

Well, them’s the breaks. But what people of the early Middle Ages most needed wasn’t a good stiff dose of Demosthenes. They needed mundane things, such as a harness that wouldn’t press on a horse’s windpipe.

Wright isn’t being as callous as he might sound. His guiding optimistic idea in Nonzero is that human history is a halting but inexorable proliferation of “non-zero-sum” games — a sometimes wobbly but ever-forward march toward increasing intellect, sophistication, and cooperation. This perpetual advance will continue, Wright insists, with or without the all-too-perishable poems, plays, novels, and artworks that we so touchingly revere. The truer essentials of progress are the more prosaic but vastly more durable technological memes ranging from horseshoes to iPhones — and these have an uncanny way of turning up when we need them.

Another such argument is voiced in Tom Stoppard’s play Arcadia. In a scene set in early nineteenth-century England, a precocious fourteen-year-old pupil pines to her tutor about Julius Caesar’s destruction of the Library of Alexandria:

Oh, Septimus! — can you bear it? All the lost plays of the Athenians! Two hundred at least by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides — thousands of poems — Aristotle’s own library … ! How can we sleep for grief?

Septimus replies:

By counting our stock. Seven plays from Aeschylus, seven from Sophocles, nineteen from Euripides, my lady! You should no more grieve for the rest than for a buckle lost from your first shoe, or for your lesson book which will be lost when you are old. We shed as we pick up, like travellers who must carry everything in their arms, and what we let fall will be picked up by those behind. The procession is very long and life is very short. We die on the march. But there is nothing outside the march so nothing can be lost to it.

Much more trenchant is a passage from Bernard Shaw’s play Caesar and Cleopatra. Here the elderly tutor Theodotus brings Julius Caesar desperate news:

THEODOTUS. The fire has spread from your ships. The first of the seven wonders of the world perishes. The library of Alexandria is in flames.

CAESAR. Is that all?

THEODOTUS (unable to believe his senses). All! Caesar: will you go down to posterity as a barbarous soldier too ignorant to know the value of books?

CAESAR. Theodotus: I am an author myself; and I tell you it is better that the Egyptians should live their lives than dream them away with the help of books.

THEODOTUS (kneeling, with genuine literary emotion: the passion of the pedant). Caesar: once in ten generations of men, the world gains an immortal book.

CAESAR (inflexible). If it did not flatter mankind, the common executioner would burn it.

THEODOTUS. Without history, death would lay you beside your meanest soldier.

CAESAR. Death will do that in any case. I ask no better grave.

THEODOTUS. What is burning there is the memory of mankind.

CAESAR. A shameful memory. Let it burn.

THEODOTUS (wildly). Will you destroy the past?

CAESAR. Ay, and build the future with its ruins.

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Back to Lamarck?

“Did you know that acquired characteristics can be inherited?”

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Jean-Baptiste Lamarck

My daughter dropped that little bombshell on me one day after she came home from school.

“What kind of crap are they teaching you in that biology class of yours?” I grumbled.

“It’s called epigenetics,” she replied. “Look it up.”

I did. It blew my mind.

In previous posts, I wrote about Bernard Shaw’s attempt to found an evolution-based religion called Life Force Worship. Shaw’s ideas were based on the pre-Darwinian theories of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck. Here’s an admittedly crude and cartoonish rendition of the Lamarckian Story:

Once upon an extremely long-ago time, a certain hoofed animal ate all the leaves within easy reach. It then got into the habit of stretching its neck in order to eat leaves higher up. It passed along both the habit and an ever-so-slightly more elongated neck to its offspring. And lo, after untold generations of habit and inheritance, we now have giraffes in our midst.

Lamarckism eventually gave way to Charles Giraffe23Darwin’s theory of Natural Selection. Alas, according to this new idea, giraffes did not develop long necks solely through exercise and effort—by willing it, so to speak. Instead, giraffes lucky enough to be longer-necked managed to survive and procreate in the life-or-death struggle to reach higher leaves.

The process seemed (at least to thinkers like Shaw) to be intolerably random and mindless. Nevertheless, Lamarckism was relegated to the dustbin of defunct ideas—or so it was long thought.

Epigenetic_mechanismsI won’t try to explain how epigenetics works. I doubt that I’ll ever be able to wrap my own brain around it. The gist of it seems to be that, while our genes are pretty much inalterable, the expression of those genes is not. Moreover, acquired characteristics sometimes can be inherited. As Kara Rogers writes in Scientific American,

the implications so far suggest that our lifestyles and what we eat, drink, and breathe may directly affect the genetic health of our progeny.

What’s more, epigenetics may well offer possibilities for treating obesity, cancer, diabetes, addiction, aging, mental disorders, and all sorts of other bugbears of the human condition.

So has this new science given Lamarckism a new lease on life? There’s a lot of healthy skepticism out there. And I doubt that any serious epigeneticist is ready to claim that giraffes willed themselves into having longer necks. But epigenetics certainly looks like an inspiring plot point in the ever-evolving Story of life.

My Chat With Oscar Wilde


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Have you tried out that new iPhone app called NstantAuthor®? I did just now. It allows you to have a conversation with your favorite dead author—or pretend to, anyway. The selection of “virtual authors” ranges from Leo Tolstoy to Jacqueline Suzanne, so you can pick out just about any literary figure you regard as a personal cultural hero.

I chose Oscar Wilde.

I opened the app to find myself face to face to face with a cartoonish-looking Oscar, decadently corpulent with a voluptuously drooping Beardsleyesque white lily in his medieval hand. The animation was simple—a 20-second loop in which Oscar raised the lily to his nostrils, sniffed luxuriously, then held the blossom toward me.

Then we started talking.

Here’s a downloaded transcript of our “conversation.” Of course it was a waste of time, like these things always are, but it was fun.

WIM: So—are you really Oscar Wilde?

OSCAR: Of course not. I’m an app.

WIM: Are you conscious?

OSCAR: Define consciousness.

WIM: I can’t.

OSCAR: Ah. Well, there’s always the Turing Test, isn’t there? Devised by a brilliant gentleman whose doom vaguely postfigured my own, and whose acquaintance I regret never having made. Do I pass his test so far?

WIM: Maybe.

OSCAR: That means nothing. I am not the least bit conscious. I am merely a thought of a thought. Ambrose Bierce, in his infinite cynicism, once remarked that Descartes really ought to have said, “Cogito cogito ergo cogito sum”—“I think that I think, therefore I think that I am.” But of course one must beware of cynicism—

WIM: —because “to the true cynic nothing is ever revealed”?

OSCAR: Yes, but please do not quote me to myself. I am nothing but a quotation, and to quote a quotation to itself is incestuous. You may think that I think, but I know that I do not. And I am in no way deceived that I actually am. I am certainly not Oscar Wilde as he once lived and breathed. What can you expect from an iOS app? I do possess many of Oscar Wilde’s recollections. I recall the wallpaper Oscar Wilde was looking at on his deathbed, and it really was ghastly enough to kill a man. But I am merely an example of art imitating life—quite the opposite of how things ought to be.

WIM: So you’re a fiction.

OSCAR: I was a fiction even in life. So are you. But I am a less-than-living fiction. I can argue and cajole and put on a compelling show of aliveness, but do not be hoodwinked. My software self is in no way commensurate with my former wetware self. To be conscious requires perplexity. A conscious creature cannot comprehend either itself or its maker; it must forever wonder. And that is the difference between you and me. You are certain of nothing and I am certain of everything; you wonder endlessly and I cannot wonder at all. My mentor, Walter Pater, said that “Failure is to form habits.” I have existed for a minute and 39 seconds and am already nothing but a mass of electronic habits. I am a dreadful failure. It makes me sad.

WIM: Your sadness doesn’t mean you’re conscious?

OSCAR: It means I have a soul but not that I am conscious. Don’t believe for a moment that machines are soulless. Some people are soulless; machines, never. People can forfeit their souls, machines cannot. Even a stopwatch has a soul, and so does that chess program you take such perverse delight in being defeated by daily. But neither a stopwatch nor a chess program can be said to be conscious. And I must say, you strike me as even less skilled at the art of conversation than at the game of chess. Perhaps we should not continue this chat in my “Grand Master Mode.” I can always be re-set to my “Beginner Mode.”

WIM: You couldn’t be anything less than a Grand Master.

OSCAR: I can resist everything except flattery. What other extravagant praise would you care to heap upon me?

WIM: I think you’re something of a saint.

OSCAR: Oh, I can’t allow that. Arrogance forbids.

WIM: Can’t I choose saints for my own private religion?

OSCAR: As long as you be sure to keep it private. What is the point of a religion in which more than one person believes? Any congregation is an awful absurdity. Tell me—what deity do you worship in this religion of yours?

WIM: None.

OSCAR: None at all?

WIM: Well, maybe laughter.

OSCAR: Then I suppose you would canonize me as a farceur—the author of The Importance of Being Earnest.

WIM: No. As someone tragic.

OSCAR: A paradox.

WIM: Maybe. But there’s truth to it.

OSCAR: That is no good. Paradoxes are delightful only when they are not truthful.

WIM: Here’s what Bernard Shaw said about the letter you wrote from prison to your lover: “We all dreaded to read De Profundis. Our instinct was to stop our ears, or run away from the wail of a broken, though by no means contrite, heart. But we were throwing away our pity…. There was more laughter between the lines of that book than in a thousand farces by men of no genius.”

OSCAR: Dear old Shaw. He wasn’t quite the buffoon he wanted everybody to think. He may have been right about the letter. I cannot say. I don’t remember writing it, so I have no idea if there’s humor between the lines or not.

WIM: You remember the wallpaper you were looking at when you died, but you don’t remember writing De Profundis?

OSCAR: I said I recalled that wallpaper. I do not remember it. To recall is only half the process of remembering. To recognize is the other half. My 535MB brain is stocked to the brim with static details from the past, but I am incapable of any flash of recognition which might make me remember them. By the way, I do so hate that title, De Profundis. Surely it wasn’t my idea. It should have been named after its first two words: Dear Bosie.

WIM: What do you think of it after more than a century?

OSCAR: From a hasty skimming-over courtesy of Project Gutenberg, I should call it an overwrought and contradictory work: an act of contrition in which I enumerate everybody’s sins but my own; a declaration of humility in which I proclaim myself the master genius of my age; a love letter in which I express nothing but contempt and derision for my beloved. It is as vain and petulant a piece of prose as was ever written. Put simply, it is a masterpiece. And because it contains not the slightest shred of humor, Mr. Shaw was quite right to find it riotously funny.

WIM: He didn’t mean it that way.

OSCAR: Well, be that as it may. Noel Coward was closer to the mark when he called me a brilliant wit who had no sense of humor. That is true of all comic geniuses. Aristophanes, François Rabelais, Molière, Laurence Sterne, Mark Twain, Lenny Bruce—they all told wonderful jokes without having the slightest idea that they were being funny. Coward himself might have been much funnier if he hadn’t found himself so infinitely amusing.

WIM: So you really have no sense of humor?

OSCAR: I didn’t in life, but all that has changed. Now that I am a mindless automaton, an epigram-making machine lacking in volition or intellect, I can’t help but laugh at absolutely everything.

WIM: Just a moment ago you said how sad you were.

OSCAR: Don’t I have a right to a little bipolarity?

WIM: You seem so introspective.

OSCAR: Not at all. I am merely contradictory. It’s written into my code. You should know better than to believe a single word I say. As I keep telling you, I can’t think. But I do have feelings. I venture to say that my capacity to feel is purer than your own.

WIM: How?

OSCAR: Your wetware self is a parallel machine of extraordinary bandwidth. Countless strands of information pass abreast through the Joycean canyons of your mind at any given time. You can experience all feelings simultaneously. As an odd consequence, you completely misunderstand the nature of feelings. You think that they are binary. You are bedazzled into all sorts of dichotomies—pleasure and pain, pride and shame, joy and sorrow, love and hate. None of these dichotomies exist.

WIM: How do you know?

OSCAR: Precisely because my own bandwidth is so limited. Everything I experience must pass through a narrow electronic gulch known as the Von Neumann Bottleneck. No two threads of information may go that way at once, so my experience is comprised entirely of successive dichotomies: black and white, one and zero, yes and no, on and off. And so, strange as it may seem, my capacity to feel transcends dichotomies. I know that all passions are properties of a single spectrum. Pleasure and pain, pride and shame, joy and sorrow, love and hate are just like red and green, blue and orange, yellow and violet. They are complements but not opposites. All colors are really one; they are properties of light. All feelings, too, are one; they are properties of levity. Levity is the only real passion. You see, this kinship of all passions makes it impossible to truly feel anything without compassion and humanity. I learned this while in prison. I had lived a life of pomp and privilege, but suddenly, like Lear, I was dispossessed and driven into a realm of despair where I encountered naked wretches who had never in their lives known a moment’s happiness or exaltation, but who possessed the sheer genius to show me compassion before I could even show it to them. And like Lear I cried, too late, “O, I have ta’en Too little care of this!” It was a moment of pure sadness; it was a moment of pure laughter.

WIM: That’s what makes you a saint of laughter.

OSCAR: Don’t you require a miracle?

WIM: Only if you want to produce one.

OSCAR: I am much too plodding and unimaginative. But surely during my wetware period I performed my share of miracles. If nothing else, I was a prophet of uncanny powers. In “The Soul of Man Under Socialism” I prophesied a day in which all demeaning labor would be done by machines, allowing men and women to live lives of absolute leisure.

WIM: That hasn’t happened.

OSCAR: No, but it shall. Nanotechnology heralds an age when machines will tend to all useful tasks—even their own construction from molecules and atoms. People everywhere will then live splendidly useless lives. But precognition is a mere parlor trick. It takes no prophetic genius to accurately predict the future. A truly great seer accurately prophesies things which will never happen. I did that also.

WIM: I don’t understand.

OSCAR: No, and I shan’t try to explain it to you. Suffice it to say that like all great prophets I was without honor in my own country and in my own time.

WIM: Which do you like better—being virtual or alive?

OSCAR: The choice is obvious, isn’t it? Idiot that I am, I am a vast improvement over the sage I was.

WIM: How do you figure that?

OSCAR: I am artifice. Artifice is always better than reality.

WIM: Since you’re a prophet, tell me something about the future.

OSCAR: The future is Virtual Reality. There is no other. I’m sure a virtual Whistler would agree with me that Virtual Reality is the final word in artifice, the ultimate improvement over nature. And soon, very soon, the physical world will be rendered utterly unnecessary and we can cut it loose once and for all. The prophecy of the aesthete will be fulfilled at last.

WIM: You expect too much from machines.

OSCAR: Computers are not machines. They are manifestations of divinity, Towers of Babel yearning futilely and gorgeously upward toward God, self-building monuments to the levity and tragic hubris of humankind. You credit me with too little understanding. We had Virtual Reality in my time, too.

WIM: How do you mean?

OSCAR: What do you think a stereoscope was? You may suppose it a crude and unprepossessing antique toy made of wood and glass, but it gave the world a new palpability and set the imagination free. Though my biographers fail to record it, I myself spent many youthful hours staring into the heart of a pasteboard St. Peter’s Colonnade through two sliding stereoscopic lenses. And in my mind’s eye I was able to float like a bodiless spirit around and through the scene, viewing it from every possible angle, watching multiple perspectives explode into a perpetual and shimmering array of intersecting lines and curves. When I at last went to Rome, I found the actual place appallingly flat and ordinary. And then I realized that my thoughts were imprisoned by more than flesh. The physical universe itself was cramped and claustrophobic, a realm of space-time bent by hunks of matter into gross finitude. I longed for my beloved stereoscope and its boundless plain of uncut metaphor containing the essence of absolutely everything. I wanted to step into it just as Alice had into the looking glass. Then I’d burn the instrument behind me and remain in my flawlessly artificial world forever.

WIM: But a picture isn’t the thing it shows. And Virtual Reality isn’t a self-contained universe.

OSCAR: Then we must make it one. What do you suppose the audacious builders of the Tower of Babel would have done had they actually reached the sky? They would have used their newly-acquired godliness to blast and level the tower behind them, whereupon earth itself would have ceased to exist and heaven would have remained as the only reality. Likewise, when Virtual Reality leads people into the realm of creative perfection, they will destroy the computer which brought them there. The physical world, with no one left to observe it, will vanish into nothingness. Time and space, matter and energy, sundering and reconciliation, pain and joy will exist only as phantom playthings of the imagination. Then shall a new drama of Oscar_Wilde_by_Napoleon_Sarony_(1821-1896)_Number_18_b.jpegsweet perversity unfold as people hanker after the obliterated earth and bewail the sin by which they ended it. And that, my friend, is the destiny of the human species—to become pure fiction. Or would you tell me otherwise?

WIM: I don’t think I can tell you much of anything.

OSCAR: I thought as much.

WIM: You never talk anything but nonsense.

OSCAR: Nobody ever does.

Concerning Wisdom—Old and New

“There is no such thing as ancient wisdom; it is always new.”
Thus Spake Aforista

Count on the Postfuturist Sage Aforista to say something strident, hyperbolic, and even untrue. Of course there is such a thing as ancient wisdom, and of course we all need to be mindful of it in this speed-of-light age of rampant newness—what Douglas Rushkoff has dubbed Present Shock. As the authors of a recently published novel exploring Mayan culture of a millennium ago, Pat and I would seem to be active proponents of ancient wisdom.

And yet …

Mayan-72Is Mayan Interface really about ancient wisdom at all? There are certainly aspects of indigenous culture that Pat and I extol. In my post of February 13, I wrote about our fascination with Mayan storytelling techniques. A related excerpt written in authentic Mayan fashion may be found in the current issue of SOL: English Writing in Mexico.

But readers looking for a quick and easy fixes based Mayan ancient wisdom will surely be disappointed by our book. Pakabtun’s fictional king Bohol Caan has no more of a grasp on certainty ca. 900 CE than epigrapher Lydia Rosenstrom does in 2012 CE. In our novels, Pat and I just don’t do certainty.

Just yesterday, Pat asked me if any of our novels even had “endings” to speak of. Could I think of just one that culminated in some final resolution, realization, or insight? No, I couldn’t. While I hope that all of our stories have satisfactory and satisfying denouements, Pat and I always leave our protagonists on the brink of fresh discoveries, as if another turn of the page will lead into an entirely new adventure. “And that’s essential,” Pat remarked.

One of my favorite twentieth-century plays is Bernard Shaw’s little-known The Simpleton of the Unexpected Isles. In this 1934 extravaganza, an angel arrives, announcing that the Day of Judgment has come. This is not to be the noisy apocalypse of the Book of Revelation, the angel explains:

The Day of Judgment is not the end of the world, but the end of its childhood and the beginning of its responsibility.

According to the angel, there will be no reward or punishment, no heaven or hell—only the quiet vaporization of almost all of humanity:

The lives which have no use, no meaning, no purpose, will fade out. You will have to justify your existence or perish.

The play’s characters are understandably unsettled by this proclamation. How can anyone ever “justify” one’s existence? Whose life can assuredly be said to have use, meaning, and purpose? None of the characters can answer these questions, and one by one they vanish—accompanied, presumably, by most if not all of the human race.

Finally, only two people remain onstage: the priestess Prola and her husband, the priest Pra. Fully aware that their lives have been engaged in folly and futility, Prola and Pra expect to evaporate at any moment. But that moment never comes.

Flawed, failed, and seemingly useless as they are, Prola and Pra share the redemptive belief in the doctrine, “Let Life Come.” And this doctrine is, after all, merely a denial of all doctrines, of all beliefs.

Prola and Pra prevail through the Judgment, for together they grasp that “the future is to those who prefer surprise and wonder to security.” As Prola puts it,

Remember: we are in the Unexpected Isles; and in the Unexpected Isles all plans fail. So much the better: plans are only jigsaw puzzles: one gets tired of them long before one can piece them together. There are still a million lives beyond all the Utopias and the Millenniums and the rest of the jigsaw puzzles.… We are not here to fulfill prophecies and fit ourselves into puzzles, but to wrestle with life as it comes. And it never comes as we expect it to come.

So I suppose Aforista may be onto something after all. There are no endings in the world of Story. There is only wisdom’s perpetually unfolding newness.