Inspired by the latest PLUS extension in episode 10.14 of Mysterious Universe...
Watch Jon Stewart interview Nobel Peace Prize nominee Malala Yousafzai, the 16-year-old girl who was targeted for execution by the Taliban in Pakistan, and have your faith in the future of Mankind completely restored.
Because nothing scares the crap out of fear-mongerers & criminals than a child with a book on its hands. The day we devote more resources into libraries & schools than into weapons & military bases, is the day we'll finally grow out of our species' adolescence.
WARNING: NSFDE (Not Safe For Dry Eyes)
This musical genre was somewhat unknown to me though it certainly owes a lot to Sun Ra, but the originality is impressive, and it sounds at times as if they might be on the cusp of a truly new popular music. New musics have their own unique psychology, and until that is worked out and agreed upon by a batch of listeners it doesn't take off. This could take off though. They feel close to a breakthrough.
It seems that articles and posts which cross-over or blend the themes of popular motion pictures and spirituality seem to rise up out of the culture periodically. The Huffington Post’s Hollywood Probes Spirituality Without Getting Preachy(10/25/2010) and The Daily Grail’s Top Ten Afterlife Movies (10/22/2010) are examples. Not at all surprising, given that movies (or well executed television shows like Breaking Bad) and time spent contemplating our own death are probably two of the more engrossing things we engage with some degree of regularity, especially as we age.
Now there is a whole book devoted to "crossing over", both as cinematic and spiritual themes and as an inevitable reality: Death at the Movies: Hollywood’s Guide to the Hereafter.
Anything existing beyond the physical fact of death can be imagined and described only in the relative terms of human thought and language. “Afterlife” movies reveal such projections as the product of the film maker’s (and viewer’s) ideas, memories, reflections, dreams, and fantasies.
At the same time, movies depicting that curious in-between space between death and what is unknown, designated in "Death at the Movies" as "transit", have been referred to by Tibetan Buddhists for over two thousand years as the bardo, the state of the soul between death and rebirth. Movie bardos can range from sentimentally charming and delightful to chillingly frightening and grim. Good Hollywood entertainment! Enjoy them. Learn from them. Distinguish them from the real bardo. At times, they are the same.
Widely considered to be the ultimate do-it-yourself text on achieving liberation or a favorable rebirth upon one’s death, The Tibetan Book of the Dead’s teachings explore, “the whole of life and death presented together as a series of constantly transitioning realities known as bardos. The word bardo is commonly used to denote the intermediate state between death and rebirth but, in reality, bardos are occurring continuously throughout both life and death and are taken as junctures when the possibility of liberation or enlightenment is heightened.” (Sogyal Rinpoche, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying)
How the popular medium of motion pictures embody and project to the public commonly-held beliefs, convictions, hopes and fears about death, the afterlife, and what lies between is experienced in the primarily unconscious projections of those beliefs via movies in the 1930s and 40s, particularly within the genre called film blanc. Then, in a major cultural shift, it is to follow the more conscious projection of those beliefs subsequent to our culture’s broad assimilation of Buddhist Teachings in the 1960s and beyond.
That humans seem to possess an innate intuition of some experiential state beyond this life is regularly confirmed by many accounts of near-death experiences (NDEs), psychedelic explorations, and other out-of-body occurrences, not to mention meditative or contemplative paths.
That Hollywood movies have incorporated, digested and conveyed the delicate subject of our inevitable transition between this life and what lies beyond is not surprising. Knowledge of the bardo or transit world between this life and other states of being began to reach large numbers of Americans in the early 1960s with the wide interest generated by the Galaxy Book paperback publication of W.Y. Evan-Wentz’s translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead.
Of course, any number of other cultural and social factors contributed to a massive awakening in the west of a broad and serious interest in the subject of life beyond death. Primary were the consciousness, growth, and drug movements of America’s 1960s and 1970s, helped along not only by the wave of spiritual migrations from the east but by a tidal wave of mind-altering drugs.
The wholesale ingestion of a veritable smorgasbord of eastern spirituality during this period initiated large segments of western society into a broadly theoretical comprehension of new concepts dealing with death and transcendence. China’s 1950 invasion of Tibet triggered a major diaspora of that culture’s teachers and teachings into both Europe and the United States, manifesting in the founding and flowering of numerous Buddhist monasteries throughout North America by the mid 70’s.
During this same period Timothy Leary, Ralph Metzner, and Richard Alpert (Baba Ram Das), high priests of America’s psychedelic revolution, released The Psychedelic Experience, an LSD travel guide based upon the aforementioned Tibetan Book of the Dead: The After-Death Experience on the Bardo Plane, published in 1927 in an “English Rendering” by Lama Kazi Dawa-Samdup, and compiled by W.Y. Evans-Wentz, with a Psychological Commentary by C.G.Jung.
In 1974 there was E.J. Gold’s American Book of the Dead, a book published not strictly for the dead “but for all labyrinth voyagers, all those who wake up dead, deep in one kind of sleep or other.” In 1975, a new, more user-friendly translation with commentary, The Tibetan Book of the Dead: The Great Liberation Through Hearing in the Bardo, was put out by Francesca Fremantle and Chogyam Trungpa. This was followed in 2003 by the very accessible Luminous Emptiness, written and translated by Francesca Fremantle “not as a scripture to be read to the dying but as a guide for the living.”
All of these served to initiate thousands of young American seekers-after-truth into the mysteries of the transit experience. Too, related research into death and near-death experiences as contained in books such as Raymond Moody’s Life After Death, Robert Monroe’s Journeys Out of the Body, and the various works of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross created an enormous interest in both Near Death Experiences, NDE’s, and a growing exploration of what lies beyond.
As to ranking the best, or attempting a top ten selection of films conveying the spirit of transit or bardo movies, we can begin with the film blanc genre of the 1940s. In his 1978 article The Film Blanc: Suggestions for a Variety of Fantasy, 1940-45, Peter L. Valenti singled out for exposition a selection of motion pictures containing uniquely specific phenomena found in the popular genre of motion pictures designated fantasy films.
Playing off the broad popularity of the film-noir genre of the 1940s and ’50s Valenti called his selection “film blanc,” suggesting as a specific genre fantasy scenarios embodying the following characteristics: 1. a mortal’s death or lapse into dream; 2. subsequent acquaintance with a kindly representative of the world beyond, most commonly known as heaven; 3. a budding love affair; 4. ultimate transcendence of mortality to escape the spiritual world and return to the mortal world. It was suggested that these popular afterlife fantasy-dramas produced during the World-War-II years provided, consciously intended or not, comfort for those at home grieving for loved ones lost to the ravages of war.
Film blanc included such classics as Here Comes Mr. Jordan (1941), A Guy Named Joe (1943), Between Two Worlds (1944), Blithe Spirit (1945), The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945), Angel on My Shoulder (1946), A Matter of Life and Death (released in the United States as Stairway to Heaven, 1946), and America’s most beloved Christmas movie, Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), all released or in production during the war years. When the war ended the country returned to a specious normalcy and film blanc lay dormant as its audience’s mood turned to a nation’s dark underbelly and unacknowledged trauma, reflected in motion pictures by film noir, a genre that explicitly denied all possibilities of transcendence to portray a world of violence, cynicism, and death.
Valenti’s article acknowledges Siegfried Kracauer’s Theory of Film for its theoretical treatment of fantasy, noting that the American fantasy film grew in popularity during the 1930s, peaked during the early 1940s, and declined in the late 1940s. Valenti points out that different sorts of fantasy are combined with angels, pacts with devils, mysterious reincarnations, and beckoning spirits, and that during this general period American film seems to have been entranced by the idea of negotiating between heaven and earth, moving from the mortal plane to the spiritual.
In defining his selection of films, Valenti was at the very least describing a sub-genre of the American fantasy film, somewhat confined by his four characteristics and restricted time frame. He published his article just two years before the release of Resurrection (1980), a film that resuscitated the life of film blanc and reflected the spiritual/consciousness/growth/drug movements of America’s 1960s and ’70s, opening the screen to a body of film-blanc-type movies now informed by popular eastern concepts of death and what follows.
In a way, the film blanc genre had never really run its course but rather gone underground, its themes encoded into any number of popular ghost and fantasy films of the post-war period; fims such as The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Portrait of Jenny, or Heaven Only Knows.
The ironically but appropriately titled Resurrection led to any number of fascinating films constructed around the subject of death, dying and rebirth (actual or psychological), any one of which might be considered for a Ten Best “Afterlife” List (even though you could probably fill such a list with just the film blanc movies of the forties).
Without ranking, we would add to the film blanc movies mentioned above the following: Poltergeist (1982), Beetlejuice (1988), Field of Dreams (1989), Ghost (1990), Jacob’s Ladder (1990), Truly, Madly, Deeply (1991), Defending Your Life (1991), Groundhog Day (1993), Heart and Souls (1993), Interview with the Vampire (1994), Sixth Sense (1999), Purgatory (1999) and Birth (2004).
We find these films, “beyond” conveying ideas rooted in the deepest perennial wisdom of the planet’s various cultures, and “beyond” being sometimes funny, sometimes poignant and often uplifting, to be simultaneously informative, enlightening and just plain entertaining.
* * *
Lyn & Tom Davis Genelli have been writing about the cross fertilization of movies, psychology, and spirituality for 28 years. Their book, Death at the Movies: Hollywood’s Guide to the Hereafter has just been published by Quest Books.
That's what my birth certificate & the calendar say, anyway.
Do I look 40? Well, the gray hairs on my goatee are becoming more widespread, but still look a bit out of place with the remnants of the acne which appeared on my puberty, and apparently became so infatuated with my face that it decided never to leave.
Do I feel 40? That's a tricky question. Physically I'm not in the greatest of fitness, but neither are scores of men & women younger than me. That's not age, that's sedentarism.
I haven't yet suffered of a heart attack *knocks on wood* but I on the other hand already suffer from a form of arthritis called ankylosing spondylitis, so rare it's like winning the lottery but backwards, because it sucks.
How about mentally? That's a big resounding 'No.' It's probably not something to brag about, because it might just be a result of my deep immaturity --Wot, you tellin' me I can't watch Spongebob Squarepants no more? GTFO!
I remember how back in the 90's discussing the so-called Peter Pan Complex was all the rage on the radio & TV talk shows. Now perhaps it's not that interesting because EVERYBODY is suffering it. There's a reason why the biggest-grossing movies made in Hollywood are based on comics, and the video-game industry is now even bigger than Hollywood.
Mid-life crisis in the 80's was about buying a sports convertible & hair inserts. Perhaps mid-life crisis in 2013 is now resolved with a Spartan armor replica & a pair of Oculus Rift.
The thing is, it doesn't feel like I'm about to experience a mid-life crisis. Oh sure, it's inevitable to look back & make an assessment of one's accomplishments, and there's definitely a lot of things I would have liked to have achieved by now. Professionally I'm nowhere near as where I'd like to have been when I was in my early 30's. Financially… let's just change the subject.
Which brings us to the final item on the checklist: My emotional state.
If I make an honest evaluation of my general mood, I'm forced to conclude that I feel happier than how I felt 10 years ago.
Back in those days things didn't look too good for me, and for that a little anecdote is in order: Back in my mid-twenties, I had somehow managed to land a job in one of the biggest architectural firms in Mexico --maybe even the world (Srsly)-- and I felt like Leo on Titanic, the king of the world starting a promising career with the right foot. If I played my cards right, the sky was the limit!
I lasted approximately 7 months on that job.
During the whole time I felt a continuous sense of disappointment over the fact that my suggestions & ideas were not only unnoticed --they were unwelcome. "We already have 2 dreamers in this studio," they once told me, referring to the founder of the firm & his son, who would eventually take over when the time came. "Your job is to bring their dreams into fruition."
That. Pissed. Me. Off.
Furthermore, I was expected to perform the most menial of tasks with a big smile on my face, to show how grateful I was that I was given the opportunity to apply my college diploma, from one of the top schools in my country… by faxing letters & using the copy machine.
So I was eventually shown the door. It wasn't the first time, you know. Already I knew I had a problem with authority & a very strong temper which forced me not to stay quiet, when I was given an order I considered nonsensical or just plain stupid. On my first job after college I quit & walked out of a pending assignment in protest. On my second job I was fired, thus beginning a routine in which I either walked out of a job or was kicked out. A routine that still persisted after I was fired from what I considered to have been my ticket to stardom, here at the world-famous architecture firm.
My one chance in life to show what I was capable of, and I blew it. I'm sure you all can imagine what that does to your self-esteem.
Later in life I realized that depression ran deep in my family, with both my father & my oldest sister suffering from it, but back then I didn't know that. My sister offered me to take me to see a psychiatrist, who after a looong session with me prescribed some anti-depressants. But since I didn't have a medical insurance, the fact that I couldn't afford to buy the anti-depressants made me more depressed! So I decided to stop taking them (a rather lucky outcome in retrospect of what I now know of these type of medication.)
In sum, the black dog was continually biting me on the shins. I would often spend the weekends doing nothing except sleeping, for sleep was the only thing disconnecting me from my dreadful existence. I would roll on the bed & observe the gradual attenuation of light passing through my window curtains, wondering about what hour it was, thought not really caring.
As I look back, now that I'm known as the Red Pill Junkie, I feel compelled to plagiarize Morpheus & conclude I was feeling the pain from that splinter on my head which torments so many of us in the Fortean community. But the splinter wasn't driving me mad; it was driving me suicidal.
During those days a good week was one in which I would only think about doing something stupid to myself once or twice, whereas a bad day was one in which the thoughts kept buzzing around my head like blow flies --"I'm a loser" "I'm a failure" "I've wasted my life" "I let down my parents" "The world would be better off without me."
That's when, due to a chain of events I can only describe as serendipitous, I found my way to The Grail. And then for reasons I still can't explain, Greg invited me to be part of the TDG news admins --more unbelievable still is that I accepted, despite my instinctual aversion to failure.
One of the best decisions I've made.
So now that you know the story, I hope you don't deem it too melodramatic when I claim that becoming a Grailer probably saved my life. It helped me realize there was a splinter in my head and the means to extract it & toss it to the garbage can once & for all.
It saved my life because it gave it a purpose.
During the last 8 years that I've been part of this community, I've seen my circle of online comrades grow exponentially. It also opened for me opportunities I wouldn't have dreamed of 10 years ago: the chance to be a producer of content instead of a mere consumer. One of the great joys I've received lately is whenever I'm interacting on other forums & someone lets me know how much they enjoyed the column I write for Mysterious Universe; or the people who approached me last year during Paradigm Symposium and asked ME for an autograph(!). The fact that there's someone on the other side of the world who think it's worth their while to spend 10 or 15 minutes of their day, reading something I wrote is... well, beyond my writing abilities to describe.
Yes, the black dog is still there, roaming at my door step. Yes, my bank account is still laughably lean & I still need to obey nonsensical orders in order to pay the bills.
But my short tenure as the Red Pill Junkie has given me a sense of balance. A knowledge that there will always be things in our life aiming to take us down, but only if we let them. As the old Zen saying goes: Pain is inevitable, but Suffering is optional.
Meanwhile I know there's still oodles of things to explore on the web, and scores of people to discuss them with. The journey has become the destination, and for the first time in my life I can say that I'm content, but not as much as I know I'll be in the future.
So the calendar says I'm 40 years old. Meh.
What matters to me is that I'm an 8-year-old Gralien.
(Mexico city, October 4th 2013)
PS: Personal jetpacks, flying cars & cities on the Moon, all these I can very well live without. But where Science has totally failed me is this: The fact that now when I'm supposed to worry about such things, THIS is still the standard procedure for a prostate exam --Srsly XXIst century?
Where the hell is Elon Musk when you bloody need him?!!
For my latest installment at the Intrepid Blog, I pay tribute to the UFOlogical influences of my favorite music band in this --and any other-- planet: Café Tacuba.
BiG Foot VIDEO... please do not copy without prior permission. Share all you like.
The following is an excerpt from my new book, The Caretakers of the Cosmos: Living Responsibly in an Unfinished World (Floris 2013). Its central theme is that humans - we - have a unique and indispensable responsibility to existence: that of saving it from meaninglessness. In this section, through the work of the biologist Jacques Monod, the weird fiction writer H.P. Lovecraft, the existentialist Jean Paul Sartre, and the contemporary social philosopher John Gray, I look at some arguments against our having any reason to exist at all.
Give Life a Chance
According to the latest estimates, our earth formed some 4.5 billion years ago, roughly ten billion years after the Big Bang, from cosmic dust and gas left over from the sun’s formation. It is believed life appeared on earth within a billion years after our planet formed. The standard account of the ‘birth of life’ suggests that self-replicating molecules accidentally emerged from the primordial soup some 3.5 billion years ago, and through an equally accidental process, over millions of years eventually turned into myself writing these words and you reading them – with, of course, quite a few different organisms in between. As with the Big Bang, the emergence of life is another example of the ‘something from nothing for no reason’ scenario popular with many scientists today. According to the same scenario, the consciousness I am exhibiting in writing these words – humble, indeed – and which you are employing in reading them, also emerged purely through accident, as an epiphenomenon of purely physical interactions of our brains’ neurons, which are themselves the result of the purely mechanical process of evolution, the Darwinian version. (An epiphenomenon is a kind of side show to the main attraction. Steam is an epiphenomenon of boiling water; it has no existence in itself, and without the boiling water, there would be no steam. For many neuroscientists and philosophers of mind today, our consciousness is little more than a kind of steam given off by the brain.)
To dot the i’s and cross the t’s on this, let me say it in the simplest way possible. According to the most commonly accepted scientific view, no one wanted the Big Bang to happen. No one wanted the earth to form. No one wanted life to appear on the earth. And no one wanted life to evolve into us. There is no reason for any of it. It just happened.
This is a conclusion that the French Nobel Prize winning scientist Jacques Monod (1910- 1976), one of the fathers of molecular biology, put perhaps more eloquently. Monod writes that
Chance alone is at the source of every innovation, of all creation in the biosphere. Pure chance, absolutely free but blind, at the very root of the stupendous edifice of evolution: this central concept of modern biology is no longer one among other conceivable hypotheses. It is today the sole conceivable hypothesis, the only one that squares with observed and tested fact. And nothing warrants the supposition – or the hope – that on this score our position is ever likely to be revised…The universe was not pregnant with life nor the biosphere with man. Our number came up in the Monte Carlo game.
From this insight, which is radically opposed to any kind of ‘anthropic principle’, Monod developed a rather bleak picture of our position in the world. ‘Man’, he tells us, ‘at last knows he is alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe, out of which he has emerged only by chance. His destiny is nowhere spelled out, nor is his duty. The kingdom above or the darkness below; it is for him to choose’.
Although his countryman Jean Paul Sartre (1905-1980), the most well- known existentialist, had a low opinion of science – according to his lover Simone de Beauvoir, Sartre ‘flatly refused to believe in science’ and believed that ‘microbes and other animalculae invisible to the naked eye didn’t exist’ - he nevertheless agreed with Monod on at least this proposition. For Sartre, man has existence, but no essence (‘his destiny is nowhere spelled out, nor is his duty’), and is ultimately a ‘useless passion’. Like Monod, Sartre believes that we must face this grim situation stoically and make the best of it, but there is absolutely nothing we can do about it. Suffice it to say, neither Monod’s view nor Sartre’s is one that sits well with our being caretakers or repairmen of the cosmos.
Matters Dark and Meaningless
Aptly, one character who shares Monod’s gloomy vision of a chance-ridden universe and of ourselves as purposeless creatures within it, is the American horror fiction writer H. P. Lovecraft. Although Lovecraft was not a scientist (he was, though, a keen amateur astronomer) throughout his short life he professed an astringently materialist view of life and the cosmos. To a correspondent Lovecraft wrote:
I am an absolute sceptic and materialist, and regard the universe as a wholly purposeless and essentially temporary incident in the ceaseless and boundless rearrangements of electrons, atoms, and molecules which constitute the blind but regular mechanical patterns of cosmic activity. Nothing really matters, and the only thing for a person to do is to take the artificial and traditional values he finds around him and pretend they are real; in order to retain that illusion of significance in life which gives to human events their apparent motivation and semblance of interest.
Note that for Lovecraft, we maintain our ‘illusion of significance’ by maintaining values that are ‘artificial’ and which we only ‘pretend’ to be real. For anyone who embraces the belief that pure ‘chance’ is responsible for our existence – and that includes quite a few of the most prestigious minds of our time - it logically follows that ‘nothing really matters’ as our actions can have absolutely no effect, one way or the other. It is difficult to see how values like love, freedom, truth, justice, beauty and others, that we hold give meaning to life, can have emerged from an existence accounted for by the ‘blind but regular mechanical patterns’ of ‘electrons, atoms, and molecules’, a vision of things that goes back to the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers Democritus and Leucippus. In such a world, ‘values’ can have only a ‘subjective’ and consensual existence, as ‘fictions’ we agree on maintaining, as the only ‘real’ things are purely physical, and, so far as we know, beauty, love, and other values are not made of atoms or molecules. If values are real, they exist in some non-physical kind of reality, of the kind Plato had in mind when he spoke of the good, the true, and the beautiful. Although the conclusion, that the values which give life meaning are really illusions, follows from the premise that chance is responsible for life and the universe, it rarely gets mentioned by the scientists who accept that premise.
Most of Lovecraft’s weird fiction (of which I am a great fan) was published in the ‘pulp’ horror magazines of the 1920s and 30s, of which Weird Tales is the best known. But while other Weird Tales writers, like Robert E. Howard (the creator of Conan) and Clark Ashton Smith, still have readers (I myself am occasionally one of them), Lovecraft’s frankly overwritten stories acquired a serious critical cachet denied his friends and colleagues. Perhaps understandably, this critical importance was first recognized in the 1950s by the French, who a century earlier had embraced Edgar Allan Poe, a major influence on Lovecraft, when he was ignored by his fellow Americans.21 Lovecraft’s acceptance by the French, I would argue, had something to do with the bleak vision his stories portray, which is in essence the same as that of Sartre’s grim philosophy and Monod’s biological lottery. It is this atmosphere of existential dread, of some dark and terrifying knowledge breaking into our consciousness, that gives Lovecraft’s tales a flavour as unmistakable as Kafka’s, and which he shares with Sartre, whose existentialism Lovecraft would no doubt have turned his nose up at. For both the protagonists of Lovecraft’s stories and Sartre’s novels, knowledge is a trigger for a cosmic pessimism.
For Sartre this cosmic pessimism is the ‘nausea’ of his most famous work, his first novel Nausea (1938), which I first read as a teenager. The hero of this novel has come to the startling recognition that things exist. But their existence has nothing to do with him, or with the stories or ideas he tells or has about them. They exist aggressively, in their own right; the names and categories and meanings we usually use to understand them – tree, stone, cloud, star – are simply falsehoods we tell in order to keep their strangeness at bay. But now he knows, and the knowledge paralyzes him. At one point in the novel, Roquentin, the protagonist, looks at the root of a chestnut tree and is perplexed by it. ‘I no longer remembered that it was a root’ he tells us. Its existence frightens him. Like everyone else, he had taken existence for granted, and now it suddenly presses in upon him. It has lost its ‘harmless appearance as an abstract category’. It had become the very ‘paste’ of things, and he cannot get away from it. At another point in the novel he is about to open a door when he looks at the strange thing in his hand and has no idea what it is. It was the door knob. Sartre’s ‘nausea’ is not unlike states of mind associated with schizophrenia, when the connection between perception and feeling is unhinged. It is also suggestive that much of the inspiration for Nausea came from a bad mescaline trip Sartre had in 1936, in which he was attacked by devil fish and followed by an orang-utan, and in which umbrellas turned into vultures and shoes into skeletons.
The Misanthropic Cosmological Principle
Lovecraft’s protagonists are also discomfited by knowledge. But while for Sartre a root or a doorknob spells doom, Lovecraft’s dark insights are occasioned by more eccentric items. What knowledge means for Lovecraft can be best expressed by quoting the opening paragraph of his most famous story, ‘The Call of Cthulhu’, first published in Weird Tales in 1928. ‘The most merciful thing in the world’, Lovecraft writes:
…is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but one day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.
The theme linking the stories making up Lovecraft’s ‘Cthulhu Mythos’, a literary mythology that Lovecraft’s fellow Weird Tales writers contributed to and to which contemporary writers still add today, is that in dim ages past, well before man appeared, the earth was inhabited by strange, monstrous creatures, The Great Old Ones, who were expelled from it but who ‘yet live on outside ever ready to take possession of this earth again.’ The Great Old Ones are terrifying indeed. Cthulhu him – or it – self is usually described as ‘blasphemous’, ‘eldritch’ , ‘loathsome’, or another string of evocative adjectives, and is usually depicted as a kind of winged, tentacled, squid-like monstrosity of enormous size, who resides in the lost city of R’lyeh, sunken beneath the South Pacific. But while the actual beings of the Cthulhu Mythos – Yog-Sothoth , Nyarlathotep, Shub-Niggurath, ‘the black goat of a thousand young’, and the rest – are disturbing indeed, what is truly frightening about Lovecraft’s cosmos is that these entities are not, as in traditional horror tales, supernatural, but merely products, like ourselves, of the chance work of accidental evolution in a ‘wholly purposeless’ universe. In our case, the ‘boundless rearrangements of electrons, atoms, and molecules’ that constitute the ‘blind but regular mechanical patterns of cosmic activity’ gave rise to us, and our ‘artificial values’ that allow us to live give us the false idea that, all in all, the cosmos is a relatively friendly and cosy place. But there we’re wrong. The same blind forces that gave rise to us – and to Beethoven, Plato, Leonardo da Vinci, the Buddha, and Mother Theresa – also gave rise to these loathsome beings for whom we are negligible insects, when we are not mindless slaves or a tasty hors d’oeuvre. What is scary in the best of Lovecraft is this sense that we are ignorant of the truth about reality – like Sartre’s Roquentin – and if we only knew, we would be afraid.
Lovecraft called his philosophy ‘cosmicism’, by which he basically meant that if we truly grasped the size, age, and sheer strangeness of the universe – an idea of which I tried to present earlier in this chapter - we would recognize that human life can play no important part in it, and that we are only temporary residents on a planet whose previous occupants are planning to return. Possibly the earliest proponent of ‘cosmicism’, although he didn’t use the term, was H.G. Wells (1866-1946), whose novel The War of the Worlds (1898) tells us that our world was ‘being watched keenly and closely by intelligences greater than man’s’ – the Martians - ‘and yet as mortal as his own…minds that are to our minds as ours are to those of the beasts that perish, intellects vast, cool, and unsympathetic…’ When Lovecraft wrote ‘The Call of Cthulhu’, no one had yet thought of a Big Bang – the astronomer Fred Hoyle, an opponent of the idea, coined the phrase in 1949 - although Einstein’s relativity was seeping into popular consciousness and quantum theory was raising its head. One can imagine contemporary Lovecrafts having a field day with our current cosmologies. And we can say that if there is an ‘anthropic cosmological principle’ that suggests human life – or at least life like ours – is somehow necessary to the cosmos, Lovecraft’s ‘misanthropic principle’ suggests the exact opposite.
Of course not all fiction written from a ‘cosmic’ view is as dark as Lovecraft’s. His contemporary Olaf Stapledon (1886-1950), for example, took a similar theme, yet didn’t use it to scare his readers. Stapledon’s Last and First Men (1930) and Star Maker (1937) are vast, cosmic future histories, in which different races, species, planets, and galaxies, arise from and sink into the cosmic depths. But reading Stapledon produces a sense of wonder and exhilaration, not terror. To be fair to Lovecraft, in his last work he too begins to see that the awareness that it’s a big universe can lead to some insights more productive than the need to ‘flee’ into the safety of a ‘dark age’, as his story ‘The Shadow Out of Time’ (1936) makes clear. Some of his other misanthropic views also seemed to have softened with time. Sadly, by this time, Lovecraft was dying, and the insight came too late for him to make much use of it.
It’s a Tough Cosmos Out There
Mention of a ‘misanthropic cosmological principle’ leads us to an insight into Lovecraft’s character. He was by all accounts an eccentric type, and for most of his life he lived in Providence, Rhode Island, where he was born, doted on by two aunts and surrounded by the remnants of his childhood. A brief marriage and life in New York proved disastrous. The asexual Lovecraft was not cut out for married life, and the immigrant population of New York offended his prim sensibilities. Lovecraft always fantasised himself as an aristocratic English gentleman of the eighteenth century, and to share the streets and subways of Brooklyn with Jews, blacks, Italians, Spaniards, and who knows who else was an affront to him. This aristocratic self-image was associated with a sense of an intellectual, or at least a cultural and aesthetic superiority. Lovecraft loathed the modern world, and as one critic has pointed out, we can read his ghoulish stories as a full out assault on it. He knew that the values that make life meaningful for most of us were sheer illusions. He knew that our sense of being at home in the world was born of sheer ignorance. But unlike the ignorant fools who needed God or some other supernatural reality, and who believed that meaning and purpose were at work in the universe and not mere chance, he was tough enough to face this truth. He detested those fools who weren’t, and so he wrote stories of cosmic terror to scare them.
The idea that those who embrace chance as the sole force at play in existence are tough enough to do without the illusions the rest of us enjoy, is a theme that comes up again and again. Even Lovecraft himself was accused of not quite making the grade. Of one story, ‘The Whisperer in the Darkness’ (1931), his biographer, S.T. Joshi, remarks that in it, Lovecraft couldn’t ‘quite bring himself to admit that human penetration of the unknown gulfs of the cosmos is anything but an appalling aberration.’ Often those who reject meaning and purpose accuse those who look for it of wanting the world to be that way – who wouldn’t, they concede – but of not being strong (or honest, or hard, or brave, etc.) enough to face the truth. But it strikes me that the opposite can be just as true, although it rarely gets a mention: that those who embrace meaninglessness and chance want to be seen as tougher (or more intelligent, honest, brave, etc.) then those who ‘need’ meaning and purpose. Frequently the search for or expectation of meaning is seen as a weakness. Yet again, the opposite can be just as true. The embrace of meaninglessness can be an expression of a hunger for superiority, the need to feel more intelligent and strong than the rest of us fools, just as it can be seen as a form of misanthropy, of a dislike of human beings. Both motives seem to me to be at play in the work of John Gray, considered one of the most important social philosophers of our time.
Shades of Gray
As in the case of Stephen Hawking’s pronouncements on how the universe began, I find myself perplexed as to why John Gray’s philosophy has acquired the aura of importance it has, at least for some readers. Prestigious names have sung his praises. For the late novelist J. G. Ballard, Gray’s Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals (2002) was ‘the most exciting book since Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene.’ James Lovelock of Gaia fame tells us that Gray ‘forces us to face the mirror and see ourselves as we are’. And for the critic Bryan Appleyard, whose opinion on other matters I’ve found cogent, Gray’s book was ‘unquestioningly one of the great works of our time’. Others have expressed similar appreciation. It may seem aberrant to fly in the face of such universal celebration, but as far as I can tell from reading Gray’s books, he is basically a misanthropic pessimist, whose pro-nature and pro-animal remarks express little more than an emotional dislike for human beings. This misanthropy is something we’ve already seen in Lovecraft and is obvious to anyone who reads Sartre, his championing of human freedom notwithstanding.
I say I am perplexed by the importance Gray is given, because his philosophy seems as grim as Schopenhauer’s, who also believed existence was meaningless, and expresses a ferocity toward human values reminiscent of the Marquis de Sade. I would even go as far as to say that remarks similar to Gray’s anti-human rhetoric have been used in other contexts to justify murder, although I don’t believe Gray himself intended his own comments for that purpose. Yet Gray’s dislike of human beings leads me to suspect that he would not be too troubled if some of them quietly disappeared. Sadly, his animosity toward humans is predictably welcome because of our environmental concerns and guilty conscience about the planet. We have such a bad conscience about ourselves that one could say practically anything negative about human beings and be applauded for it as a deep thinker. Concern for the planet, however, can lead to some troubling places.
In Straw Dogs Gray remarks that from ‘Gaia’s’, or the earth’s, point of view ‘human life has no more meaning than the life of a slime mould’. When I wrote an article about Gray’s idea some years ago, I pointed out that a similar assessment of human importance was championed by Charles Manson, currently serving a life sentence for the murders of Sharon Tate and Rosemary and Leno LaBianca in 1969.32 Of the many pseudo-philosophical remarks Manson made and which were taken seriously by otherwise intelligent people, one was that a scorpion’s life was more important than a human’s. While in prison, Manson had time to reflect on this insight, and to elaborate on its application. According to Manson, people and the ‘system’ were killing the planet. When Manson’s ‘Family’ killed Sharon Tate – eight months pregnant – as well as Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, according to Charlie they ‘gave their lives’ and ‘took lives’ in order to ‘clean up ATWA…the whole life of the earth, in love and concern for brothers and sisters of soul’.
ATWA is Manson’s acronym for Air, Trees, Water, Animals (sometimes All The Way Alive), the name Manson gave to his radical ‘ecological movement’, shepherded by himself and two members of his Family, Lynette ‘Squeaky’ Fromme and Sandra Good. It may seem unbelievable, but as Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke points out, in recent decades Manson has been re-invented as an ‘eco-warrior’, and much of his rhetoric is eerily resonant with that of influential eco-groups such as Earth First!, the Animal Liberation Front, the Greens, and a good portion of New Age philosophy. The Earth First! founder Dave Foreman declared that ‘we are all animals’ and agreed with Manson that human life is of no particular importance. ‘An individual human life has no more intrinsic value than an individual Grizzly Bear (indeed, some of us would argue that an individual Grizzly Bear is more important…).’ Although Gray would probably agree with this, I don’t believe he would go to the lengths Manson did to make his point. But some of Gray’s remarks make clear that being nature-oriented is not all sweetness and light. Whether we want to recognize it or not, there is a dark side to Gaia.
Gray’s central idea is that ‘humans think they are free conscious beings, when in truth they are deluded animals,’ a borrowing from Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), who, in his Genealogy of Morals (1887) said that ‘man is the sick animal’. (Nietzsche’s Zarathustra called us the ‘cruellest animal’ as well, a sobriquet with which Gray would no doubt also concur.) Free will, morality, and other specifically human concerns are for Gray simply illusions, just as they are for H. P. Lovecraft and the neuroscientists who believe consciousness is merely an epiphenomenon. We are, for Gray, fundamentally a rapacious species, intent on eradicating other forms of life, and we should own up to this, and forget all the nonsense about being anything other. Rather than call ourselves homo sapiens Gray suggests homo rapiens. Of course, not everyone agrees with this, and not all critics of this position are weak-kneed spiritual types. At the New Humanist website – where one finds ‘ideas for Godless people’ - Raymond Tallis, a secular humanist philosopher, takes Gray to task for arguing that we are nothing more than animals, a symptom of what Tallis calls ‘Darwinosis’. A similar sensibility informs the historian of science Kenan Malik’s book Man, Beast, and Zombie (2001). Yet both Tallis and Malik would, I suspect, be surprised to find themselves in the company of a spiritual thinker like the poet Kathleen Raine (1908-2003), who agrees with them and against Gray that ‘nowadays the term ‘human’ has been inverted to the point of signifying precisely what is least human in us, our bodily appetites…and all that belongs to natural man.’
All our problems, and those of the planet, according to Gray, stem from our misconceptions about ourselves, and from our inveterate fantasy about being able to ‘transcend’ the ‘human condition’, which, as far as I can tell, is for Gray of the ‘only human’ character spelled out in the Introduction. Gray apparently has no capacity to grasp human greatness, and any reference to it is merely the cue for some remark to cut us down to size. What Maslow’s ‘fully human’ would elicit from him I can only guess. ‘A glance at any human,’ he tells us, ‘should be enough to dispel any notion that it is the work of an intelligent being’. This remark would not be out of place in the writings of the Romanian arch-pessimist and one-time fascist enthusiast Emil Cioran (1911-1995), the titles of whose books – The Trouble with Being Born, A Short History of Decay, On The Heights of Despair – would not be incongruent with Gray’s own. ‘In every man sleeps a prophet, and when he wakes there is a little more evil in the world,’ ‘By all evidence we are in the world to do nothing,’ ‘So long as man is protected by madness, he functions, and flourishes’ – these are all taken at random from A Short History of Decay (1949). Cioran’s misanthropic reflections are on first glance effective, because their aphoristic style has a shock effect, like a sharp jab to the ribs. Prolonged reading, however, reveals their basic hollowness. The same, I think, can be said of Gray’s work. Cioran’s misanthropy and cynicism about human values paved his way to a profoundly anti-democratic political philosophy that had no qualms about eradicating undesirable human beings, like Jews. The flipside of not liking human beings is not always saving the planet.
What seems to raise Gray’s ire is the idea that we can in any way be ‘masters of our destiny’. In 1957, Julian Huxley (1887-1975), brother of Aldous Huxley, and one of the most important biologists of the twentieth century, said that the universe was ‘becoming conscious of itself…in a few of us human beings’, and that we had been appointed ‘managing director of the biggest business of all, the business of evolution…’ He made these remarks in an essay entitled ‘Transhumanism’, in which he expressed his belief that ‘the human species can, if it wishes, transcend itself.’ For Huxley this meant ‘man remaining man, but transcending himself, by realizing new possibilities of and for his human nature’, a sentiment with which I, and this book, are in accord – although Huxley’s term ‘transhumanism’ has been adopted by proponents of a ‘man-machine merger’ with which I am not in sympathy. Huxley even spoke of ‘the cosmic office’ to which we find ourselves ‘appointed’, a phrase with obvious similarity to the idea of ourselves being cosmic caretakers. Gray will have none of this and would, I suspect, greet any idea that we can direct our evolution with derisive scorn. Like Jacques Monod and Lovecraft, Gray sees little but chance at work in ourselves and the world. Not surprisingly, at the beginning of his chapter headed ‘The Human’ in Straw Dogs, Gray quotes Monod on mankind’s desperate efforts to deny its ‘contingency’, a favourite word of Sartre’s, which expresses, for Sartre at least, the fact that we are in no way essential to the world.
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