In our time the task of understanding ourselves is perpetually frustrated by the almost instinctive blending we make of two contradictory modes of being: the mechanical and the spiritual. Because we are short on spiritual reality we are long on mechanical models. We confuse the instantaneity of the computer with the timelessness of genuine insight. We think of memory as a form of storage, learning as efficient programming, education as the acquisition of skills and techniques, harmony as smooth functioning, self-development as the accumulation of isolable and multiple capacities like a Black & Decker kitchen-center or a Swiss Army knife, self-expression as a kind of accelerator-pushing to burn off excess fumes. And — the cardinal sin — we consider spirit itself as the free exercise of charity in exactly the same way as a mechanism must be used from time to time without a designated purpose in order not to jam with rust or dust. Our attitude to the super sensible is basically hygienic. We live the disenchantment of the world.

When the Duke in Browning’s “My Last Duchess” says that he refuses to stoop to indicate to his wife just what adjustments to make in her conduct in order to settle his doubts and so preserve the marriage, he is articulating a fundamental humanism. Today we merely visit a counselor, a.k.a. a gender reconciliation facilitator, who listens, ruminates, tinkers, and offers recommendations to repair a marriage gone on the blink — much as a garage mechanic puts his ear to the hood, plays with the engine, quotes various alternatives, and concludes by replacing a few parts to get the buggy on the road again. What we have done is assimilate the evangelical mystery of marriage to the intricate functioning of a twelve-tappet, fuel-injected turbo-Jag. Snafty and impressive as this may be, it is still just a metal case with a lot of repetitively moving parts.

Even the psyche is compared to elaborate mechanical or objective paradigms. For Carl Jung the soul is a telluric mound which must be excavated by the psycho-archeologist who wishes to penetrate to ever deeper levels. For Freud it is a huge and complicated hydraulic system with its pressure-chambers, reservoirs, and manifold displacements. To paraphrase philosopher Gabriel Marcel, it is not a mystery, merely a problem. Psychic health is simply a matter of getting the defective item into the diagnostic clinic and making the appropriate adjustments — unless, of course, the whole engine has seized and fused upon itself in an irreversible psychotic meld.

I am not speaking here of the inveterate and beneficial tendency of language to diffract its meanings through the prism of metaphor. Metaphor, as everyone knows, is the semantic substratum of language and all real communication is paradigmatic in nature. We think and utter in terms of models, figures, and comparisons, effortlessly and unconsciously. What I am drawing attention to is the prodigious emphasis we have placed on one particular category of experience whenever we think about ourselves or our relationships. I don’t know enough about history to chart a convincing etiology of what by now is a fundamental predisposition. The Industrial Revolution seems a likely candidate as the original carrier of the virus until one remembers that pre-industrial novelists created shameless heroines chatting about the size and proficiency of a man’s “machine” and that pre-Common Era philosophers postulated a fine haze of rarefied particles to account for the composition of the human soul.