and all was dreary, great robot limbs, robot breasts,
robot voices, robot even the gay umbrellas.
—D.H. Lawrence (from the poem The Gods! The Gods!)
I have this recurrent nightmare, the details of which I never quite remember—but it always leaves the same lingering sensation of shaky disquiet.
What I do recall is feeling that I’m all alone, falling in the midst of an immense space that just keeps expanding in all directions, on and on, oppressively—drowning me without mercy in its overwhelming extension. I recoil from this repellent medium, from its viscous, hostile emptiness. But strangely, I experience my visceral sense of dread as if at a distance from myself: abstracted from my own bodily form. And still I fall, enfolded in a suffocating cosmic embrace. I know this abyss to be unsuited to life: it is a vicious trap, a perverse artifice, an unbounded cosmic snare. It’s very dimensionality, barbed with sadistic vectors, clamps down implacably on my despair. A sort of Gnostic nightmare…
They—the “Gnostics”—were a collection of very peculiar religious sects that sprang up at about the time of Jesus, and around the same parts. They had their heyday in 3rd century Alexandria, and were, even by the fanciful metaphysical standards of the time, quite bonkers. Some practiced extreme asceticism, to mark their disdain for “this leaden world of the flesh,” while cultivating the divine spiritual spark which they believed connected them to “the true God,” “the secret God,” “the absent God,” who dwelled almost unimaginably far away, in the remotest of heavens. Others practiced indiscriminate sexual promiscuity and reveled in shockingly transgressive behavior for the very same reasons. I found out about them in this fascinating little book by somebody clever and French called Jacques Lacarrière. (I pilfered it from my father’s library the last time I visited.)
The only information that has come down to us about this unusual assortment of religious eccentrics is contained in the dire condemnations of them written by the early Church Fathers—who hated them with a violent passion—to denounce and suppress “this perverse heretical scum.” Such hatred is understandable, given that the Gnostics believed and professed that “the Lord”—that jealous, vengeful, quirkily philo-Semitic, but nevertheless somehow purportedly universal God of the Old Testament—, creator of Heaven and Earth, was actually a delusional demon: a “demiurge,” who only thought that he was God, and consequently botched his wrong-headed attempt at a cosmic craft project. This, the Gnostics believed, is why we toil and suffer. This is why evil exists in our corrupt material world—why, in fact, according to their sensibility, the world is thoroughly drenched in evil. The demiurge just fucked things up.
The “gnosis” or secret knowledge that the Gnostics claimed to possess was not simply that the God of the Jews and the Christians was an incompetent bungler, but more importantly, that a real, benevolent, and all-powerful Deity did in fact exist after all—only that this God, the real God, was perched almost infinitely far away, atop a bewildering hierarchy of heavenly spheres. They believed that the Earth was encompassed by concentric shells of increasingly refined spiritual plains: beyond the moon, the sun, the planets, and the dome of the “fixed stars,” lay multifarious levels of angels and powers, dominions and thrones, cherubim and seraphim—and again beyond those, a heavenly realm of the purest spiritual fire that was the Lord’s abode. Their conviction was that this distant and secret God manifested Himself in the material world only as a kind of spiritual spark present in each one of us. It was this divine spark that endowed humanity with the means to escape the clumsy demiurgic creation it found itself mired in. To them, we are all aliens from another world: spiritual interlopers stranded in a prison of flesh.
Now, I don’t think that there’s anything properly prophetic about my recurrent bad dreams. Especially on a Thursday, I don’t presume to claim any communications from the Almighty. The usual suspect is rather the restless ferment of my unconscious psyche. “So not prophetic, but merely neurotic…” —comes the inevitable diagnostic pronouncement in a German accent. Still there is something unsettlingly suggestive to me about this intimation of a purely evil material world, a world from which we should feel—from which I should feel—radically foreign. Of course, taken as a feature of Gnosticism, this is nothing but an extreme and paroxystic variant of boring old Christian doctrine, to which I am simply indifferent. But transmogrified by me—or by my unconscious, if you prefer—into an intimate metaphor for my own condition, it finds in me an eerie, a dismaying resonance. The sharply dismal impression of not belonging, of standing out, of being apart, of burning with an exotic fire which more often than not seems to trigger something like an allergic reaction in my social environment (or is it the other way around?)… All this certainly does feel very familiar: a sense of being trapped, estranged, and always somehow in danger of falling apart, because of some fundamental incompatibility—some visceral intolerance and disconnection, like an organ graft that just won’t take…
“Oh for fuck’s sake! You can be so insufferably melodramatic.” says flinty Charlotte, the annoyed and judgmental observer.
“Well it’s all true—in a way. And also, right now, I need the attention,” replies needy Charlotte the actor, the self-ensorcelled weaver of elaborate fables.
These days, in a sort of compulsive reverie, I keep imagining myself as a robot. Over and over, the notion presents itself to me with a disconcerting insistence, seemingly of its own accord, as a sort of “solution” to a problem I haven’t quite formulated. Now, you should know that I’m very good at fantasy and magical thinking—at fooling myself just enough to suspend disbelief. So sometimes, in this impulsive, wishful play, I do actually manage to solidify the conviction, if only for an instant, that I’m like one of those characters from the TV show Westworld—you know: a robot which looks and feels convincingly human; one that actually believes it’s a human, despite being nothing more than an elaborate contraption stuck in preset behavioral “loops,” with no free will, and only capable of behaving according to the narrow parameters that have been programmed into it. No real choices to make. No indecision, no guilt, no regret… What a relief! And also, imagine how splendid it would be to be able to have the defective parts of you, whatever they are—the ones responsible for all the angst, and the torment, and mal de vivre—simply replaced, at a moment’s notice, in a straightforward operation, like changing a car’s carburetor or something. No fuss, no muss—no need for the pious list-making, or, alternatively, the marathon heuristic babble of psychotherapy. Or even better, you could just get your code revised or have somebody add some corrective “plug-in.” I keep getting lost in this pipe dream.
“On and on with the self-pity and rhetorical affectation…”
“Oh shut up and just leave me alone!”
Two years ago something happened. The details don’t really matter: I inherited a lot of money from somebody terrible, and gave it all away; somebody else, somebody I loved so very much disappeared forever, all of sudden. So I dropped all the plates I had been spinning, and they shattered. And, on a dark and stormy night, I wound up at the emergency intake of a psych ward in the Margins, where a fatuous, unsympathetic, “clinically” impersonal, and surreptitiously domineering lady-psychiatrist became very irked that I dared refuse her peremptory pharmaceutical ministrations. Because I did want to feel them, all the feelings, the overwhelming tide of them—even if it threatened to engulf me. I didn’t want to take the magic pills that make you simple and assuaged, that make the sound and the fury subside; I didn’t want to take them, even if they fixed me for a while and gave me respite—even if they made me artificially buoyant. So it turns out, when given a chance, I didn’t actually want to “become a robot” after all, and let some callous mechanic, some self-righteously meddlesome technician, presume indifferently to reconfigure my brittle experience as if it were a defective fuel pump…
“And, heartrendingly, the string section swells…”
“You are such a bitch.”
In the “being a robot” fantasy itself—as opposed to any conceivable literal or even metaphorical accomplishment of it—I guess what appeals to me the most is the prospect of unassailable security. If I was really a robot, I would be immortal—or “amortal” anyways—, which would be nifty, I think. But it would only be any good if I could also remain myself, as I am now—only perhaps, tenderly, mercifully unknotted; to remain myself and not be transformed into someone, into something else. I want to be preserved from painful change not by gaining access to some vapid timeless heaven, but by devising a kind of harmless bubble of becoming: one without death, without loss, without grief. Those vexatious parts of life would just be engineered out of it, but I would nevertheless keep my familiar human dispositions (and my smashing figure). I want a nirvana where you can keep going to the book store to buy books you might never read, and eating too many spring rolls in cheap Vietnamese restaurants, and drunkenly making out with magnetic strangers at parties, and locking yourself in closets to bathe in the deliciously melancholy smell of lavender, and taking aimless walks at dawn to salute the rising sun. Or better, I want a paradise where the day is always breaking, so I can commune endlessly with the joggers, and the ambling dogs, and the delivery boys, and the grave men in suits who gather at train stations. I want to hold the people and the trees and the buildings in my everlasting gaze. I want to breathe in the loose, bracing air, and know that this—all this—will go on forever; or rather that some fresh variation of it will be eternally repeated, in secula seculorum, for my own benefit and satisfaction. It would be like Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence, but with a touch of Bach. And when the Sun finally grows old and swallows the Earth, it would go on still—except on a spaceship or something, and I would make my escape regardless.
“So much fear, sweetie, and so much clinging…”
“I know, I know—”
Obviously, my hopeless mechanical fantasies are not original, nor is my yearning for the heavenly kingdom (however idiosyncratic my homespun version of it). These days, there seems to be a well-shared infatuation for this type of escapist bunk: robot bodies, “transhumanism,”—imaginations of the future in which the metaphysical flotsam of the ages, drowned for a time in the flood tide of scientific rationalism, surfaces back up in quasi-plausible technological guises. We can’t really believe as we once did in a divine spark or in an immortal soul—so instead earnest Russian billionaire types pay scientists to contrive uploading their “consciousness” into androids, or—why not?—the great cloud computing database in the sky. It’s all quite preposterous, of course, and desperately pathetic. But still… What a gas it would be to cheat death and reduce life’s dire complications to a sort of cybernetic Sudoku.
“—it’s just that sometimes, I need a little shelter.”
The robots in Westworld wanted some sort of vague emancipation they couldn’t properly picture. The Gnostics wanted a mystical union with the spiritual principle of the universe. But what do I want, really? —As a human now, and perchance as a robot in the future?
As yet, I cannot vouchsafe a satisfactory answer. (It goes without saying that, if I get my way, the robots of a brave new tomorrow will all sound like Henry James…)
In any case, let’s have the rest of that poem we started with:
of the presence of the gods was
like lilies, and like water-lilies.
In the future, perhaps I’ll be a flower.