[Originally published Mar. 1, 2015.]
“In most of our versions of paradise, sacred or secular, heaven is a place where dreams come true,” Garrett writes. True enough, yet what he omits to note is that human dreams of perfection are essentially contradictory. We may dream of a cosmos governed by moral laws but we also want one in which our cherished personal attachments can sometimes be exempted from these laws. We would like ourselves and those we love to be spared ageing and death; but if our wishes were granted, whether by divine decree or by means of the new technologies that futurists in Silicon Valley are coming up with, we would cease to be the creatures we are and become unrecognisable to one another. Our inability to form any coherent view of the afterlife results from it being a projection of needs and impulses that are irreconcilably at odds.
Now, as in the past, there are many who look to another life to resolve these conflicts, but the anarchy from which they seek to escape is inside themselves.
In Jesus’s world, the Son of Man would arrive in his kingdom, the last would be made first, and each person would be repaid according to their deeds. In Marx’s world, the communist society would regulate the general production and allow each person to try their hand at being a hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic, according to their whims. In Nicholas Carr’s world, looking backward rather than forward this time, personal technology has distracted us from our authentic selves, and if we can just plug our ears with wax and ignore its siren song, we can get back to whatever deep, meaningful things we were assuredly doing with our lives before the mid-’90s. In these sorts of narratives, imagination fails at the crucial moment and leaves us with a vague “happily ever after” denouement, where we have healed and become whole. Once we reach this state, then what? No one ever says. It seems to be assumed that we’ll know an ideal state when we reach it, and having done so, we’ll be content to bask in it indefinitely.
I, on the other hand, suggest to you that most people don’t actually know themselves well enough to know what would make them content, and even if they were to luck into contentment somehow, boredom and mischief would soon drive them back to dissatisfaction again. More money in the checking account? A prettier appearance? More time to read good books? The dictatorship of the proletariat? The Second Coming? It doesn’t matter what you give them; people will always find new ways to make themselves unhappy again. However beautiful a design you manage to weave from your circumstances, the threads will immediately begin unraveling. You may even start picking at them yourself.
Kenan Malik credits Hegel with the insight, overlooked by previous philosophers, that humanity was above all else a work in progress. Human nature did not burst onto the scene fully formed as if winking into existence from a vacuum; individually, it was shaped through interactions with others, and socially, it was shaped through the evolving stages of history’s dialectic. Having grasped that humanity’s story was born in motion and conflict, though, Hegel gave in to the temptation to envision it eventually coming to rest on a static plateau, deciding, conveniently enough, that the historical dialectic was destined to reach its final resolution in the Prussian state. Many others since then have likewise found themselves unable to conceive of human existence outside the self-serving conventions of narrative structure. Whether they see the ideal human subject as needing to be discovered in the past or created in the future, they all still assume that the meaning of existence reveals itself in the conclusion. But a chord ringing out interminably would be the death of music. A pose held indefinitely would turn even the most graceful dancer into a statue. The motion is the meaning.
The human spirit is a shark with just enough awareness to turn one eye up toward the light shimmering down and dream of a world without constant motion, the scent of blood, and mindlessly gnashing teeth. The denizens of the world above know better, though. In our world, we are required to swim forever — in currents of our own making, if need be — or else die.