I’ve been worrying lately, gentlefriends. I think we all have; there is plenty that is worrisome in the world. Lately though, my worries have begun to shape themselves; heretofore vague anxieties have begun to coalesce into a morass of doubt through which all my thoughts must struggle. Worse, I have not found anything particularly comforting w/ which to buoy myself up. I cannot arrive at any kind of satisfactory explanation for the conundrums which I have taken to posing for myself recently, and while normally this wouldn’t bother me so much as arouse my curiosity, I am also at a loss to discover an objective way that I might make what are known as value judgements.
During my freshman year of college, I took a philosophy course called Ethics. To be honest, I don’t remember much of it, but one thought experiment in particular has stayed w/ me: Imagine that there is a machine that can replicate every experience and individual might encounter in real life, to the extent that a person hooked up to the machine would be unable to tell the difference btwn the ersatz world and the real one. Their experiences would be exactly the same (What, you thought the Wachowski brothers came up w/ this first?).
The question then posed to us was, would you prefer to be hooked up to the machine, or to live in the real world? We unanimously voted for the latter option. Okay, our professor said. But why?
We didn’t have an answer. If one was not quantifiably or qualitatively different from the other, why did it matter? Why were we so sure? If we felt so strongly, surely there was a better reason guiding us than just that feeling?
In the latest issue of The New Yorker, Patricia Marx explores the burgeoning friend market. Feeling lonely? You can hire actors to pose as a friend or family member. If you’re looking for something more permanent, you can buy a robotic companion.
My immediate reaction was one of sadness and dismay. How did the people availing themselves of these services come to be so alone? Where were their real friends? Why hadn’t I thought of charging people for the privilege of basking in my presence?
Then again, I was forced to wonder: would going to dinner or a dance class (two things that Marx says rented companions are often contracted to do) w/ a “real” friend as opposed to a “paid” one be intrinsically better? Other considerations aside, would I enjoy the specific experience more or less?
While you might be able to purchase a playdate, you obviously can’t buy a relationship w/ someone. Or can you? If you have someone at your disposal in whom you can confide, who will offer a sympathetic ear, who will accompany you wherever you want to go, aren’t you still getting the experience of friendship, and reaping the same benefits? Does it matter if the feelings are financed, if the outcome is exactly the same? Intuitively, I want to say YES, it matters a great deal…but I am as unable to explain why now as I was five yrs ago.
Last night Stephen Colbert interviewed Sean Kelly, one of the authors of the new book All Things Shining. In the interview, Kelly quoted Neitzsche’s on sacredness, saying that the things sacred in a society are the things which it unacceptable to laugh at or mock. (Somewhat confusingly, Neitzsche also wrote, “Laughter I declare sacred: you higher men, for my sake learn to laugh!”*)
What Kelly means is that there is nothing that really binds us together anymore; we have become estranged from each other. He cited football as one of the few things we have left that allows us to experience connection en masse. Once he mentioned sports I ceased to pay attention, and as he talked I thought of that scene in Avatar, where all the Na’avi sit together in front of their spirit tree and literally plug themselves in (through these handy wires growing out of their heads) into its roots, in order to participate in a sort of communal prayer. This connection, Kelly seems to believe, is what is missing from our secular age, and leading to all sorts of unpleasant and pesky emotions, like despair. The cure for the malaise is to interact w/ other humans, not just on a social level, but to try and think the same hopeful thoughts and embrace the same beautiful truths.
One man’s cure is another man’s kitsch. In The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera write that the “feeling induced by kitsch must be the kind the multitudes can share….How nice to see children running on the grass!…How nice to be moved, together with all mankind, by children running on the grass!…The brotherhood of man on earth will be possible only on a base of kitsch.” Which is exactly what ecclesiastical doctrine is–a clever amalgam of allegories that use familiar archetypes to inspire a single reaction in a large group.
In a commencement speech delivered in 2005, David Foster Wallace declares that in “the day-to-day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping.” Furthermore, “an outstanding reason for choosing some sort of God or spiritual-type thing to worship — be it J.C. or Allah, be it Yahweh or the Wiccan mother-goddess or the Four Noble Truths or some infrangible set of ethical principles–is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.”
Not only is it important to maintain the presence of the sacred, but that which is elevated must be chosen w/ care. Not to say there aren’t some worthwhile notions in religion, but is this the only comfort the world has to offer? The best advice of the greatest thinkers of our time? In the quest for a fulfilled and happy life, is my only recourse to try and seduce myself w/ a pretty story about benevolent power and divine purpose?
But what if I don’t want to embrace religion? What if I view it as regression, a step away from the light instead of towards it?
*The Birth of Tragedy, 1886.