"I would we were all of one mind, and one mind good." --Cymbeline, V.iv.209-210. An English teacher's log. Slow down: Check it once in a while.

Monday, May 29, 2006

"Embalm All the Brutes!" [3/10/87]*

Listening to National Public Radio a few weeks ago, I heard about a man in Washington State who has invented a fluid that, when injected into plants of various kinds, preserves them in their green and living beauty for up to three years. Of course it kills them in the process, but no one looking at them, we are told, can tell that they aren’t alive. Since the fluid is not in fact a universal mixture but must be adjusted to the particular chemical makeup of each species, it is difficult to market, so its inventor is marketing instead the various plants that the fluid has successfully preserved. His clientele consists of florists who see that there is profit to be made in having their stock in trade shipped from the nursery by way of the embalmer.

Noah Adams, the NPR interviewer, suggested that there was something about this process that didn’t seem right. “I’m not sure just what it is,” he said coyly, “but something about it bothers me.” With no detectable irony the inventor replied, “Most people feel that way when they hear about it, but when they actually see the plants we’ve preserved, they’re so amazed and excited that the feeling disappears.”

No doubt seeing a dead plant that looks alive is quite wonderful. But is it more wonderful than seeing a plant that is alive? Most of us have experienced the precious beauty of a perfect rose. And we’ve felt the desire for it to last longer. But would its beauty mean as much to us if we knew we were looking at the preserved corpse of a rose? Isn’t its life essential to its beauty?

Something about this embalming process bothers me too. It is like what bothers me about the voice-driven mechanical dogs, cats, and birds recently advertised in a New York City newspaper not as toys but as pets: “They respond to the sound of your voice,” runs the ad more or less, “just like real, live animals, but you’ll have no mess to clean up, no veterinary bills, and no worries about what to do with them during vacations. Just put them in a closet when you leave. They’ll be there whenever you return, ready to come or stay, purr, bark, or chirp on command.” Pets the ad calls them!

When I described these latest “advances in civilization” to my great teacher, Mary Holmes, her response was this: “The one thing I find even more distressing than the greed of our age is its love of death.” And I knew that she had named what bothers us about these inventions. In a hundred ways our age prefers the actually or artistically dead to the living. And why? Because the dead we can control. Attaching our attention to what is dead, we need not confront the mysterious temporariness of things living—their reminder to us of our own mortality.

When I considered pointing this out in chapel one day, examples began competing for attention. I remembered the shoppers’ abandonment of Clinton, New York, a small upstate village where I lived for a year. Its shops, housed in graceful 18th-century wood-frame buildings with gabled windows, were always going out of business because most people preferred to drive eight miles to the Utica shopping mall. The rotunda of the mall was decorated with—guess what?—tawdry pasteboard imitations of 18th-century gabled windows.

I thought of the highschoolized American prose version of Macbeth, which pretends to offer Shakespeare to those who can’t or won’t learn to read the original. Everything in the older play is retained in the modernization—plot, characters, the moving of Birnam Wood—everything, that is, but Shakespeare’s living poetry, which has been as resolutely murdered as ever King Duncan was.

I thought of the plan to save the Parthenon from the rapid corrosion of Athenian smog by removing it to a museum and putting an incorruptible plastic replica in its place. I thought of the computer program I am told about with which you can have a real conversation: it is called “Friends.” (Don’t you bet that someone is working right now on one to be called “Lovers”?) I thought of fast food, of indoor tanning centers, of Muzak.

All these modernisms show bad taste, of course. But they show something worse. They show that many people value artificiality above both art and life. Thinking about all this I was reminded of Mammon, whom some of you will remember from John Milton’s Paradise Lost. He is the fallen angel, now a demon, who believes he can build in Hell a magnificence to rival that of heaven. We have gems, gold, and the skill with which to do it, he argues, “and what can heav’n show more?” Or, as C.S. Lewis paraphrases it (in A Preface to Paradise Lost), “What do you mean by saying we have lost love? There is an excellent brothel round the corner.” In other words, the imitation is just as good as the real thing.

Or better. Consider A.I., artificial intelligence, so-called. Like Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein, who longed to create a man, the pursuers of artificial intelligence, the highest tech of all, also long to create a man, but a mechanical man without life, a mind without a body or a heart. In short, like Dr. Frankenstein’s creation, a monster. There is mastery for you. There is the triumph of the will to control. Only suppose the inventors could make such a consciousness out of wires and silicon chips (which I don’t for a moment believe they can). What would their moral obligations be? Should they worship it? Should they expect it to worship them? Can they be sure it would be any more obedient to them than Adam was to God? Would they be entitled to unplug it because its hardware was faulty or because it disagreed with them about something? Would it thank them for giving it a permanent but lifeless consciousness that might very well be worse than death?

These moral questions led me from considering artificiality, which is the dead in art, to something immeasurably worse—the various kinds of actual death our culture engages in. The embalming of plants is innocence itself compared to the intentional maiming and killing of animals to satisfy the lust for control that too often masquerades as scientific research. And when we look honestly at the difficult questions of abortion and euthanasia, we uncover more than a single motive. There is of course the wish to ease people’s suffering. But there is also the hunger to have control over even those events that are hidden deepest in mystery.

The most extreme example of the love of death that springs from the lust for control is that of the tyrant. The tyrant wants humanity itself to be his object. He wants it to submit to his will like a dead thing. As a result, he treats people as the plant embalmer treats living plants. You might remember the way Kurtz in Conrad’s Heart of Darkness treats the Africans, for example. He thought he wanted to better the lives of the natives. Really he wanted to be their god. Those who frustrated him in that desire he would murder.

And finally, all of us fear that the whole world might be put to death by some Russian ideologue or American technocrat or Third World terrorist proclaiming some passionate conviction or another. Such a destroyer would rather see the death of everything than be reminded by everything living that his own will is not absolute.

All these errors, both the artificial imitations and the immoral killings, spring, I believe, from one thing: our fear of death, the ultimate uncontrollable. In response to this fear we despair. We suicidally embrace death itself in order to avoid the fear of death, or we vainly seek to control death by becoming dealers of it.

But despair is only one response to this fear of death. There are two other responses available: One is patience—willingly accepting the prospect of death so that, for a time, we can enjoy life. The other is faith—recognizing that death is as much part of God’s will as life is and that therefore death must be as meaningful as life, even if it is a mystery to the living. Few of us can claim more than occasional moments of faith of this kind, the faith that Socrates and St. Francis and the Baal Shem Tov held for a lifetime, the faith that removes mountains of doubt from others who know of their saintly lives. But all of us whose faith is less than theirs must choose daily between despair and patience. We can pretend that it is possible to avoid or control death. Or we can consent to find what meaning there is in our mortal lives before death does whatever it does to us, whether end us or release us.

Thus, though eventually we must all die, we are not doomed while we live to loving death more than life. However much we must suffer their presence, we are not doomed to attaching ourselves to embalmed plants, mechanical pets, cheap replicas, and artificial intelligence, or to the tyrannies of research, repression, and terror. We have a choice. In spite of inevitable death we can surrender the pretense of control and choose to receive, share, and love the gifts of life. It is the same choice God gave to Moses and the Children of Israel: “This day I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse—therefore choose life.”

We cannot, even for the noblest of motives, both make the world over in our image and live in it. A world frozen in our idea of perfection, no less than in that of the Dr. Frankensteins and the Kurtzes, is a world made dead, or worse than dead. To live in it we would have to deaden what lives in us. But we can, as individual souls, cherish the living flowers and the mortal pets God has given us. We can celebrate the graceful buildings and the true poetry given us by inspired artists. And we can love both friends and strangers, and, if we want to enough, even enemies. For every one of them is a temporary and therefore precious bearer of the uncontrollable, mysterious, and sacred gift of life.

*[Afterword: Were I writing this chapel talk today, I would make a few additional points: I would say that one form of the love of death is making ultimate meaninglessness an idol in itself and worshipping it. I would mention the efforts to abolish altogether the distinction between human and artificial intelligence by imaging the human mind as merely a brain and the brain as merely an accidentally evolved neural network. (Look for a discussion, in a future posting, of Jeffrey Satinover’s The Quantum Brain, which seeks to offer a way out of that reductionism though maintaining that the scientists really may produce an artificial mind after all.) I would quote Dr. Paul R. McHugh’s diagnosis of Dr. Kevorkian as a madman (in a superb book called The Mind Has Mountains). I would point out the real-life parallels to Kurtz in Heart of Darkness: Hitler, Stalin, Idi Amin, Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, and others less notorious but equally vile on a smaller scale. I would emphasize how the pseudo-Islamist terrorism against which we are now engaged in battle, arising from artificial hatreds cynically cultivated in susceptible masses, is now flooding the world with the love of death. And I would offer high praise and gratitude for the courageous in arms and in speech who willingly risk death itself to fight against those whose love of death would embalm or exterminate the whole living world.]

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

A 1911 Book

I am taking time out from intense dramaturgical work on our production of Pericles, scheduled for this coming weekend, to recommend a remarkable book I have just read: Mr. Perrin and Mr. Traill, by Hugh Walpole, first published in 1911. It is set in a Gothic-feeling public (to Americans, private) school in Cornwall, England, and is unusual in being about a poisonous school environment as seen not from the viewpoint of its oppressed students but from that of its mentally immured masters. Anyone feeling stuck in a job, at a school or elsewhere, will find both insight and perhaps some consolation in the book, and not only from seeing how much worse things are at Moffat’s than at your own place of work.

Quoted from http://www.bigbillkruse.com/walpole.htm: “In a preface written in 1935 [Walpole] noted: ‘The very young novelists of 1910 all felt that they must tell the truth about life or perish in the attempt... Mr Perrin remains as one of the early realistic novels at the beginning of the realistic period from 1910 to 1930.’”

The book seems to be out of print, though two used copies are available from Amazon. If enough people start asking for it, perhaps it will be reprinted.