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.
But what has gone out of our time is the attitude of worshipful resignation before the inconceivable and the fatal. It is quite possible that all that has happened in the course of the millennia is that we have only switched metaphors. The low level of spirituality is a historical constant. Today, for all our rhetoric about freedom, uniqueness, and choice, we project ourselves as complex structural or functional units. In medieval times, people tended to see themselves as pieces of pottery, humble or magnificent, turned out by the hand of God and intended for different but predetermined uses. The milk jug was not to covet the status of the wine amphora.
The school of Behaviorism is just a modern equivalent of the old belief in predestination. For Behaviorists, given enough time and sufficient data, human life is entirely predictable; whereas for the medieval mind man is stamped at birth with personal and social essence as if God wielded an ontological cookie-cutter: star, bell, circle. But there is a subtle discrimination to be made here. For medieval man, though human life may be predetermined, God’s purposes remain eternally inscrutable. We can never know the why and the how of divine ordination. Thus the habit of obedience and reverence before the power and the mystery of the universe in which man was allowed to participate. A thread of the sacramental runs through all that brutality and ignorance we read about. We regard ourselves, however, as more enlightened than our forebears and in many ways we indisputably are; yet in assuming the paradigm of mechanism — in changing metaphors — we have forfeited our essential humanity to the illusion of indefinite perfectibility. Next year’s model will be better than this year’s.
Today there is no doubt that we tend compulsively to think in terms of object, function, or mechanism whenever we consider the incalculably human. Love is something to be “worked at” like a problem in mathematics that must be solved for the sake of its practical application. Friendship is called a “support system.” A Pascalian terror before the cold immensity of the universe is excessive “stress,” as if one were absorbing too much force for the mental “structure” to distribute and resolve successfully. For post-structuralists, a novel or a poem is only the manifestation of an “abstract model.” Wisdom is a kind of “flexible adaptability.” Desire is libidinal “tension” which must be “discharged.” And what was once called “making love,” an expression that however glibly it was employed still retained the implication of a genetic mystery, is today airily dismissed as “having sex,” a phrase which seems to concede in the direction of honesty but really betrays our attitude of therapeutic mechanism — like having an enema, a check-up, or an operation. Sex is an excellent way of running the machine.
The cybernetic revolution has only abetted this most infectious of diseases. We not only tend to regard ourselves as biological computers but have begun to fall in love with cute little nuclear-powered robots with numbers for names and fuse boxes for brains or with the nimble and magical denizens of simulated realities. Some of these can even build sculptures of light to create a Halo of nobility and bravely accompany us into the game world. The joke is that we will have to wait until the Grade-B humanoids take over the world for the numinous and spiritual dimension of life to make its retributive comeback. At some critical point in this manganese utopia the robot will insensibly begin to consider his support system as a friend, his repair facility as a prophet, and his cell recharger as that most profound and unsearchable of mysteries, a spouse.