A world of made
is not a world of born--pity poor flesh
and trees, poor stars and stones, but never this
fine specimen of hypermagical
ultraomnipotence. We doctors know
a hopeless case if--listen:there's a hell
of a good universe next door;let's go
E. E. Cummings
After considering human enhancement over the weekend, it seems fitting to reflect on its evil alter ego, cultural degradation, on a Monday. I had long meant to get around to Saul Bellow's Mr. Sammler's Planet, but taking it on the cruise ship was a deliberate exercise in incongruity, sort of like schlepping Madame Bovary to a boxing match, or packing "Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction" for an outing to Chuck E. Cheese's. But its theme of cultural decadence seemed somehow appropriate in the sybaritic surroundings, and Bellow's coruscating prose served as a model in miniature for the blazing Caribbean sun that, ultimately, was its progenitor.
Mr. Sammler's Planet was discussed in a typically trenchant post by D. G. Myers at A Commonplace Blog; it is easily the most entertaining and thought-provoking novel about a basically crotchety character that I have ever read. Published in 1970 and set in New York City, it is the story of the Holocaust survivor and general avatar of Old World culture Artur Sammler and his deep dismay amid a society that seems to have cast aside all cultural, material, sexual and scientific restraint. The very first paragraph frames the book well:
Shortly after dawn, or what would have been dawn in a normal sky, Mr. Artur Sammler with his bushy eye took in the books and papers of his West Side bedroom and suspected strongly that they were the wrong books, the wrong papers. In a way it did not matter much to a man of seventy-plus, and at leisure. You had to be a crank to insist on being right. Being right was largely a matter of explanations. Intellectual man had become an explaining creature. Fathers to children, wives to husbands, lecturers to listeners, experts to laymen, colleagues to colleagues, doctors to patients, man to his own soul, explained. The roots of this, the causes of the other, the source of events, the history, the structure, the reasons why. For the most part, in one ear out the other. The soul wanted what it wanted. It had its own natural knowledge. It sat unhappily on superstructures of explanation, poor bird, not knowing which way to fly.
I love that last part--Freud in a nutshell, no? Or inasmuch as Freud himself aspired to be the ultimate explainer, this is perhaps the narrative and aesthetic riposte to Freud, and the whole modernist and Enlightenment project.
The classically deracinated, alienated man, Sammler finds himself in a world he barely recognizes. Obviously he interacts with what, biologically, are other Homo sapiens, but some kind of cultural speciation seems to have taken place--by means of his transit across the Atlantic Ocean and the 1960's--such that he no longer feels he is among his own kind. There has been a transvaluation of values, embodied in the general kooky flakiness of his own daughter and in the appalling children of his nephew and New World benefactor. Common sense appears to have drained from the world. All of this occurs against the backdrop of the time's fervent enthusiasm about the moon landing and mankind's presumed cosmic destiny. As all eyes turn toward the heavens--and away from the earthly decay all around--the irony, perhaps even the pathos, is rich.
I highly recommend the book--Bellow's best in my opinion except perhaps for The Adventures of Augie March.
Bellow's book came to mind when I was reading Thomas Mallon's article in The Atlantic about prospects for sending (unmanned) spacecraft to other solar systems. Around the same time that Sammler had appeared, when progress of the space program paralleled growing awareness of overpopulation and environmental destruction, the anthropologist Loren Eiseley had published The Invisible Pyramid, which evinced similar ambivalence about human restlessness. As a writer long fascinated both by humanity's mercurial ambition over the eons and by the wider natural world, Eiseley couldn't help being alarmed and saddened by the tremendous environmental threat posed to the latter by the former. As a somewhat bitter metaphor for space exploration he proposed the tendency of some fungi to shoot spores randomly into the air when their own life cycles and locales are exhausted. On this account humanity's perennial sense of Manifest Destiny is not so much heroic as cancerous.
What does it say about us if the essence of human nature is to change its own nature, that is, to have no essence? Doesn't that mean that consciousness is basically destructive, or should we say creative? Is self-enhancement a rejection of the self (death, in effect), or its natural developmental trajectory (greater life)? Is space exploration a rejection of the earth, or the fulfillment of a promise that evolved on earth? We must accept ourselves, yet we must change. Paradox.