Divinity and dust

In preparation for an upcoming holiday to Rome, I sought out a book about the city’s history. Robert Hughes’ Rome was recommended to me by a friend. Early in the book Hughes recounts a visit to a market held in the Campo dei Fiori where he encounters the brooding statue of the 16th-century Dominican friar Giordano Bruno, who was also a prodigious thinker and writer. Accused and convicted by the Roman inquisition, he was burned at the stake in 1600 as a heretic.

Among his most egregious violations of church doctrine was his belief that there were many worlds orbiting distant stars and his willingness to entertain the idea that these worlds might have their own life on them–and presumably their own gods, or at least their own distinctive understanding of a universal God.* What caught my eye, however, was Hughes’ claim that it is easy for us, today, to accept that there are a plurality of worlds.

How easy is it, really, for us to accept this idea of the universe? I suppose many of us accept it so far as we do not reject it outright, as heresy or blasphemy. Sure, we’ve learned to do that, and to accept a kind of profound alienation from the cosmic order of things. An alienation best captured, perhaps, by our deep fascination with the possibility of alien civilisations–though our imaginative exploration of contact with such civilisations largely alleviates any fears such an encounter raises by suggesting an underlying sameness between humans and an alien other.

But do we easily accept this idea of a plural cosmos? Do we take it into our selves, embrace it and put it at the centre of our being? Less so, perhaps. Evidence of this reluctance abounds here on own deeply familiar planet, where the plurality of humanity itself presents such a problem, where we live with a plurality of cultural worlds, where technology reinforces our solipsistic tendencies to the point we might think of ourselves as living in psychological worlds all our own.

I reckon, we are—on average—unwilling to really give up our belief, our hope, that the world is fundamentally a coherent unity, even if it might be a strange or unorthodox kind of singularity. We may not protest against the facts of science suggesting the world is a vast material system, with no intelligent purpose and even less care for our human concerns, but this is only because those facts refuse engagement with our fears, offer no response to our emotional anxiety. Signs of refusal and denial are everywhere. We do not desire a universe without divinity, without a special place for humanity. We hold, desperately, to the hope that there is some order which can give us meaning beyond ourselves, beyond our small speck of rock floating in a vast nothingness

We’re faithless modernists, play-acting postmodern heretics, grieving believers. To really accept a modern vision, a scientific perspective revealing only a great expanse of unknown, unmeaning, uncertain existence would require bringing our sense of self, of society, of morality into an alignment with an understanding of existence that makes our word “universe” (turned into one) literally meaningless, as fact and hope.

We’ve had many properly modern prophets of this shift, well aware of the disorientation that comes not from losing one’s bearings or becoming unmoored, but of a deeper loss of orientation that comes with realising one’s bearings were always false, that stability was only absolute drift. The more heroically-minded of those prophets have counselled us to embrace this new vision of the world and ourselves, to make something of ourselves in this reality.

To believe in the promise of such a world also requires believing in its horrors as well. And, less obviously, it confronts us with our own power as much as our powerlessness, our meaning as much as our meaninglessness. We are both divinity and dust. We are temporary arrangements of matter stumbling foolishly in the dark. We are living substance that can see light in the infinite dark expanse. And beyond all the other living substance we’ve yet discovered, we have looked deeper and longer into that darkness, searching for light. We’ve learned to make our own light, beautiful and comforting and useful, but also terrifying and dangerous and destructive. The great expanse of nothingness behind our dreams of gods and cosmic order is the backdrop, providing the contrast that brings our (as far as we know) unique experience of being living, light-perceiving, light-generating substance into high relief. 

To truly accept the cosmos as an infinite expanse–as empty and full, ending and beginning–is to know there’s no better place. This is the place to be. These are the people to be with. We have no choice. We are privileged to be here at all. I wager we are still a long way off from being able to understand and embrace ourselves as living, light-perceiving, light-generating substance in a vast existence that is mostly dark and mostly lonely.

The old humanism is afraid of the modern human–it’s strange and plural experiences, it’s fragility, it’s monstrous power. It placed the human in a rational order, gave us exalted status in a divine plan, promised a feeling of inherent and inexhaustible goodness. But this is also a controlling, punishing, limiting order of the human, subject to demands of greater authority, greater reality and rationality than we are capable of–it asks us to live a dream made of the rejection of experience and existence as we know it.

But to be posthuman is to be post-life. The anxiety of the anthropocene, the denigration of the human as virus, the dread of the climate crisis. This is fear of ourselves run amok (from Malay amok ‘rushing in a frenzy’. Early use was as a noun denoting a Malay in a homicidal frenzy). A fear of dancing beneath a diamond sky with one hand waving free, a fear of an original relation to creation, of responsibility, of having to accept ourselves.

The climate crisis is a confrontation with ourselves, not nature, with our wants and our cruelties, our indifference and insatiable need. We are afraid we won’t like ourselves very much in the aftermath, afraid we will like ourselves too much to act. And we fear we will see ourselves as we truly are but receive no revelation, no transformative moment of transcendence, just confusion, inarticulate horror, irresponsible joy, and nihilistic pleasure. And what will we make of our ability to adapt and move on from anything, to survive the consequences of what we’ve done without acquiring virtue?

We can sing songs to celebrate our extinction, or the extinction of our conceits, but we sing with eyes closed, pretending the world wouldn’t be extinguished with us. The world we know, which is everything we know, gone. The darkness and the light will cycle, the creating and destroying of mute matter, the living and dying of substance that cannot create its own living light.

Or, as some dream, perhaps we’ll leave behind some source of artificial life, some thinking machine. But all the running of numbers–with no one to feed it, speak to it, play with it, use it, fear it–is nothing but a programme self-executing, a very long string, with a weight on the end, unwinding a very long time, then sputtering, and finally the stillness of the gallows.

With or without acceptance of the plurality of worlds, we’ll continue, beautiful and ugly, creative and destructive, busy being born and busy dying, as much of the shadow as the light. A humanism of this world, not of our dreams, is a loving acceptance of ourselves as the best and worst, and everything in between, of this strange experience of being living-substance, of being divinity and dust.

*This is all just riffing on some changes Bruno laid down 400 years ago.

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