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The final destiny of the gods

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Thoth.jpg
My favorite story from Jorge Luis Borges' collection, The Maker (1960), is "Ragnarök."  In it, Borges describes a dream he had, in which he is at the College of Philosophy and Letters with other scholars.  Their discourse is interrupted by the sudden appearance of ancient gods (Thoth, Janus, etc.), who emerge from the Underworld and storm the dais. 

At first, people applaud and weep.  But then, one of the gods emits an animal scream of triumph, and "[f]rom that point on, things changed."

It all began with the suspicion (perhaps exaggerated) that the gods were unable to talk.  Centuries of a feral life of flight had atrophied that part of them that was human; the moon of Islam and the cross of Rome had been implacable with these fugitives.  Beetling brows, yellowed teeth, the sparse beard of a mulatto or a Chinaman, and beastlike dewlaps were testaments to the degeneration of the Olympian line.  The clothes they wore were not those of a decorous and honest poverty, but rather of the criminal luxury of the Underworld's gambling dens and houses of ill repute.  A carnation bled from a buttonhole; under a tight suitcoat one could discern the outline of a knife.
Feeling that the gods are "aged predators," "playing their last trump," the scholars draw their revolvers and "exultantly" kill the gods.

The story dramatizes the modern human fear of interaction with an other that cannot communicate on human terms (e.g., gods who have degenerated to animals).  At first, the return of the gods is an event of transcendent wonder; but if the gods cannot "talk," the elating feeling of "we are not alone" is transformed into the terrifying feeling of "we are with a threat."  Humans will no longer submit to the domination of animals. 

(In the Judeo-Christian tradition, of course, humans are made in the image of God.  Perhaps the most overlooked innovation of Judeo-Christianity is not monotheism, but the elimination of animal forms from the holy.  As for communication, if the Judeo-Christian God is not currently talking, it's because He chooses not to - or we choose not to listen.)

I noticed a similar kind of privileging of human communication in Kenya.  Before I lived in Kenya, I did not believe that animals had consciousness equivalent with human consciousness.  But even a short time passed in the relatively distant proximity of wild animals in Kenya convinced me (intuitively, not scientifically) that I'd been wrong.  Animals seem to me to have consciousness, but they lack a ready means of communication with humans.

That humans tend to equate consciousness with the ability to communicate on human terms is a terrible error.  It causes us not merely to fail to dwell in ignorance when we could learn from animals, but also to prefer human needs to those of animals because animals cannot persuade us that their needs deserve equal or greater weight.  The consequence - whether from destruction of animal habitats for human development, or from harvesting animals for human consumption - is the steady elimination of animals from the planet.

Borges begins "Ragnarök" with a citation to Coleridge:  "The images in dreams . . . figure forth the impression that our intellect would call causes; we do not feel horror because we are haunted by a sphinx, we dream a sphinx in order to explain the horror we feel."  Borges doesn't elucidate what his dream explains for him, but for me, "Ragnarök," explains the horror of humanity's profoundly disfigured relations with animals: not merely the defamation and violence against these "others" incapable of speaking, but the exultant joy in destroying them.

If we mourn ourselves as a godless and abandoned species, this is why. 

(Image of the god Thoth from BBC)

Sex and the single girl's world view

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My belief is that the world is fundamentally indifferent to any individual's presence.  Our course in life is mapped, not by design or fate, but by a combination of individual resource and luck.  As individuals, we should care if we're enjoying ourselves (indeed, I believe that joyfulness is an aspect of moral responsibility), but the world itself is as indifferent to our pleasures as it is to our sorrows.

Not everyone shares my perspective.  If you were to have asked me why -- what accounts for differences in world view -- I would've guessed that a combination of experience and temperament accounted for the variance.  Reading Ian McEwan's The Child in Time, I discovered a new explanation: world views correspond to our styles of lovemaking.

The Child in Time includes a sex scene between Stephen, the protagonist, and his wife, Julie, during which Stephen wonders:

how anything so good and simple could be permitted, how they were allowed to get away with it . . . . [M]atter itself had dreamed this up for its own pleasure and perpetuity, and this was exactly what you were meant to do, it wanted you to like it. . . . Surely the, he thought . . . surely at heart the place is benevolent, it likes us, it wants us to like it, it likes itself.

(p. 68.)  The passage brought an abrupt halt to my reading, as I mused that I'd never found sex to be "good and simple," nor did the pleasure of an orgasm suggest (to me) the fundamental benevolence of the world.  On the contrary, the humiliating complexity, searing ecstasy and basic irrationality of sex has always implied a world that, if not indifferent, was sardonic.  (My own preference for indifference over sardonicism relates to the my temperament: I'm not a pessimist.) 

I nonetheless appreciate McEwan's insight.  I recognize intuitively the correctness of his observation: what we like to do in bed, how society responds to those preferences, and how we deal with the societal response, colors our world view.  Unlike Stephen, I myself have never experienced the word "home" repeating itself in my mind during intercourse.  The sex Stephen and Julie share derives its joys from the habitual: "the known dip and curve [leading to] a deep, familiar place."  (p. 68.)  The societal approprobation that accompanies such a domestic delight in sex no doubt supports a benevolent world view.

That our behavior in our most primal moments should correpond to the fundaments of our world view is logical, but not necessary.  In fact, the correspondence might -- at the opposite extreme -- be viewed as silly.  Why should a personal fetish, for example, complicate one's understanding of something universal, like matter (to use McEwan's formulation)?  The fact that it so clearly does, however, is yet another instance of the world's indifference to what we think.

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This page is an archive of recent entries in the The inessentialness of humanity category.

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