loss and grief

To go from Ray Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines to the Dark Mountain Manifesto is to take a 180° turn — a turn downward. If Kurzweil reached up towards the stars, the authors of the Manifesto tell us to walk down that dark mountain to re-enter the world of “nature” which we had thought to have conquered, to have risen above, to have mastered, to have become capable of disregarding. “We believe it is time to look down.” But what might it mean to “look down”?

In my class we try to get at that question by reading Helen McDonald’s magnificent book H Is For Hawk. Because, partly intentionally and partly unintentionally, this is the story of how a woman looked down into the world that we call “nature” — and became a hawk. 

For years I’d scoffed at [T. H.] White’s notion of hawk-training as a rite of passage. Overblown, I’d thought. Loopy. Because it wasn’t like that. I knew it wasn’t. I’d flown scores of hawks, and every step of their training was familiar to me. But while the steps were familiar, the person taking them was not. I was in ruins. Some deep part of me was trying to rebuild itself, and its model was right there on my fist. The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life. I was turning into a hawk. 

The really fascinating thing here is that the same thing prompts McDonald’s immersion in the training of her goshawk Mabel as prompts Ray Kurzweil’s frantic experiments with life extension and ultimately immortality: the loss of a father. It is the death of Ray Kurzweil’s father that he continually grieves, it is the hope of somehow being reunited with his father which drives much of his work. And so too, in a strange inverted sort of correspondence, Helen McDonald deals with the death of her beloved father by turning to the world of nature. To learn to think as a hawk thinks or, rather, and more to the point, to not think as a hawk doesn’t think. (“Goshawks are nervous because they live life ten times faster than we do, and they react to stimuli literally without thinking.”) 

Perhaps the ocsillations I have been describing between a quest for an enchanted world and the acceptance of a disenchanted one are motivated by the same fundamental experience: Death, and grief.


Here’s a brief summary by Charles Taylor of a contrast that’s vital to his thinking: porous vs. buffered selves. The porous self is open to a wide range of forces, from the divine to the demonic; the buffered self is protected from those forces, understands them as definitively outside of it. The attraction of the porous self is that it offers a rich, multidimensional cosmos that’s full of life and saturated in meaning; but that cosmos also feels dangerous. One’s very being can become a site of contestation among powerful animate forces. The buffered self provides bulwarks against all that: it denies the existence of those forces or demotes them to delusions that can be eradicated through therapy or medication. But the world of the buffered self can feel lonely, empty, flat. “Is that all there is?” 

The positive valence of porosity is fullness; its negative valence is terror.

The positive valence of bufferdness is protection; its negative valence is emptiness.

Taylor’s thesis is that over the past five hundred years Western culture has moved from a general condition of porosity to a general condition of bufferedness. That claim can be, and has been, contested: see this post on my old Text Patterns blog for an example. But I think he’s probably basically right. Taylor doesn’t see this movement occurring in a straight line; he discerns again and again dillusionment with the disenchanted world of the Modern Modern Order generating alternatives, from nature-worship to spiritualism; but he does see a general trend towards accepting a disenchanted world. 

Even if that’s true, I am interested in the ways that individuals and cultures oscillate between the porous and the buffered condition. As terror grows, we seek protection; but as emptiness grows, we seek fullness. And I am, further, interested in the ways that people seek an escape from this oscillation, some structure of experience that claims to provide fullness without terror, protection without emptiness. That’s why, having in the past taught a course called The History of Disenchantment, I’m now teaching one called Beyond Disenchantment.

The story I’ve just sketched out is, I believe, proper context in which to read, as we just have, Ray Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines. The one thing needful for the person encountering Kurzweil’s book is to realize that, for all his technological talk, it’s not a narrative that arises from the “technological core” of society but rather from the “mythical core” — indeed, it is itself a myth, the myth by which Kurzweil himself hopes to live. Kurzweil’s myth promises the security, stability, safety of a self that’s uploaded to the cloud and multiply backed up, and the fullness that comes from the ability always to fulfill not only our sexual desires but our spiritual ones, located in the God module. No terror, no emptiness — so says the myth. 

If you grasp this, you will understand why Meghan O’Gieblyn responded to the book the way she did:

I first read Kurzweil’s 1999 book, The Age of Spiritual Machines, in 2006, a few years after I dropped out of Bible school and stopped believing in God. […]

At Bible school, I had studied a branch of dispensational theology that divided all of history into successive stages by which God revealed his truth: the Dispensation of Innocence, the Dispensation of Conscience, the Dispensation of Government … We were told we were living in the Dispensation of Grace, the penultimate era, which precedes that glorious culmination, the Millennial Kingdom, when the clouds part and Christ returns and life is altered beyond comprehension. But I no longer believed in this future. More than the death of God, I was mourning the dissolution of this teleological narrative, which envisioned all of history as an arc bending assuredly toward a moment of final redemption. It was a loss that had fractured even my subjective experience of time. My hours had become non-hours. Days seemed to unravel and circle back on themselves. […]

It’s difficult to account for the totemic power I ascribed to the book. Its cover was made from some kind of metallic material that shimmered with unexpected colors when it caught the light. I carried it with me everywhere, tucked in the recesses of my backpack, though I was paranoid about being seen with it in public. It seemed to me a work of alchemy or a secret gospel. It’s strange, in retrospect, that I was not more skeptical of these promises. I’d grown up in the kind of millenarian sect of Christianity where pastors were always throwing out new dates for the Rapture. But Kurzweil’s prophecies seemed different because they were bolstered by science. 

O’Gieblyn was “not more skeptical” of Kurzweil’s promises because they provided a mythological framework to replace the mythological framework that she had recently lost.

At the time, I would have insisted that my rituals of self-abuse — drinking, pills, the impulse to put my body in danger in ways I now know were deliberate — were merely efforts to escape; that I was contending, however clumsily, with the overwhelming despair at the absence of God. But at least one piece of that despair came from the knowledge that my body was no longer a sacred vessel; that it was not a temple of the holy spirit, formed in the image of God and intended to carry me into eternity; that my body was matter, and any harm I did to it was only aiding the unstoppable process of entropy for which it was destined. To confront this reality after believing otherwise is to experience perhaps the deepest sense of loss we are capable of as humans.

And “what makes the transhumanist movement so seductive,” especially to someone who has undergone that profound loss, “is that it promises to restore, through science, the transcendent hopes that science itself obliterated.” It is a myth against myth. When Kurzweil tells you that nanobots — he loves to talk about the infinite powers of nanobots — will do nondestructive scans of your brain and upload your identity to the cloud forever, such utterances are functionally identical to “Angels and ministers of grace defend us!” And about as empirically justified.

So now on to a myth that is essentially the opposite of Kurzweil’s: The Dark Mountain Manifesto.