Imagine two hypothetical worlds. The inhabitants of the first world are immortal in body—they do not age, they cannot be harmed, they cannot die, their lives last forever. But they all have a weak memory, a little like Alzheimer’s disease, which makes them forget everything not directly related to everyday life, that is, to what’s right in front of them. They can function daily, they can talk, cook, work, play—they can survive, they can exist—but they cannot focus for a long enough time to read a book, they cannot recollect past events, they do not know their history, they retain nothing of their family and friends, and they know nothing of their ancestors. Thus they live forever, or rather, they exist, but the nature of that existence is wholly transient, attached firmly to the present, and because they have no long-term goals or purposes—which, in any case, they would have no power to pursue—they do not engage in the construction of anything lasting.
The inhabitants of the second world are mortal in body. They live for a short while, and then they die, either of old age, or disease, or war, or of any other misfortune. But, unlike the inhabitants of the first world, they possess a memory. They remember their history, which they record for others to read in books. They write their own accounts and experiences of the world which others can pick up and experience through their words. They transcend the limitations of their mortal body through a mind which is ready to process and assimilate the recorded knowledge and experiences of those who came before them, knowing that when they die there will be others willing to hear them, willing to resurrect their thoughts once more, and to build on those thoughts, transforming them into something greater. Having been sentenced at birth by the cruel world, they defy their sentence by building an everlasting creation outside of themselves unto which they embed a little fragment of their soul, and when that soul is finally extinguished, the fragment will be picked up, resurrected, built upon by others in their stead, who will come to know who you were, what you felt, what you desired, and having felt these things they will, in turn, offer a part of themselves unto that great edifice, keeping the structure strong and alive for others yet to follow.
We can say that the inhabitants of the first world are immortal in body, the second in mind. Although the people of the first will live forever, their mind will die again and again every day, leading to a sort of animated existence rather than intelligent life. The people of the second world have to suffer physical death, but they have the advantage of being able to truly live, and the death which they suffer is only physical, not spiritual1, for what their mind thinks and feels can be passed on to others to live again.
Our world is beginning to resemble the worst of the two, for while we are yet to possess immortality of body, we are today losing the immortality of mind. Tradition has been eclipsed by liberal individualism, destroying common value systems to make way for the preferences of individuals who are prepared to assert those preferences in the absence of even the tiniest sliver of education and enlightenment. The world of everlasting objects—that is, works of art, architecture, poetry, philosophy— has been replaced by the world of consumer objects, created, as their name suggests, for consumption only. Lasting only a short while, these consumer goods either perish in their use or are sucked into the black hole of obsolescence. History disappears as well, for have we not reached its end? When political action is no longer needed, nor desirable, only existence remains, and besides, who today reads history books? Finally, having rid the mind of the supernatural, man discovers that God is dead, but not only is He dead but purpose is gone with Him, and since there is nothing to offer in its place, the absurd man offers this “nothing” back with a straight face, or perhaps with a smile. We must imagine ourselves happy.
The problem with modern consumerism isn’t just that the objects it produces last only a short time, the problem is that the style and content of those objects is focused only on providing value in the present, closing off its potential to act as a conduit for mankind’s communion through time. In other words: we no longer see and feel our past selves, we no longer share experiences through time, we are no longer involved in the construction of a common world which exists and survives beyond our mortal lives.
This trend will not likely be reversed. Technological growth is too rapid to allow any lasting patterns to remain, and even if we wanted to keep them it would be impractical and irrational to try to hang onto them2. Victor Hugo once wrote that the book killed architecture. By this he meant that cultural, historical, political and religious symbols which were once embedded in architectural ornaments have, since the invention of the printing press, migrated from the walls of the building to the pages of the book. The book is much cheaper to produce than a stone bas-relief, and by means of replication it is more durable, too. Cultural symbols have been stripped from the world of architecture and use objects, migrating to the world of art and the pages of the book, but there they are undergoing another transformation for that art is itself becoming transient. In our consumer society, art objects, which historically artists have strived to make timeless, have now become transient consumer goods. This is most obvious in the arena of films and music, where there industry is pumping out record after record and film after film, with remixes and remakes reusing previous content for the sake of producing something new. Unlike tradition, which clings to a common core, these “remakes” are merely simulacra of past art, using it as burning fuel rather than as a core upon which something higher could be built, so that with every remake a film is destroyed and remade anew, being re-created in the image of the current generation. These objects are attached firmly to the present, offering an experience that lasts a short time, to be forgotten and never brought back. They do not aim to communicate eternal truths or to celebrate past deeds, their objective is a brief evocation of an emotion, for which they do not need to remain, being created and re-created in the perpetual cycle of the consumer market.
Being unable to fight it, the modern man embraces the transient nature of his life. He tells himself to live in the present, to not take life too seriously, to enjoy the moment and the experience, since that is everything he’s got. Finding himself in a world without meaning, a world in which his work is condemned to perish, he has no way out other than to accept his predicament, framing it in a way that shifts all value onto the present. In doing so, he, like an inhabitant of the first hypothetical world in the example above, destroys the immortal potential of his mind, which has the advantage of operating through time by means of a memory embedded in the material world. By shifting his worldview onto the present he ceases not only to seek out the past in order to learn about and feel what others before him have known and felt, but ceases also to produce objects that aim to communicate his own feelings and knowledge to future generations. The only timeless knowledge that he retains is practical knowledge: scientific discoveries and their practical applications in consumer technology. This practical knowledge allows him to expand his presence in the world and improve his physical wellbeing, but it does nothing to expand his human condition, it does nothing to elevate and develop the nature of his spirit.
We cannot live in the past nor the future, but we can live through the past and into the future. A common world of timeless art nourishes the undeveloped mind, filling it with the experiences and wisdom of past lives, changing the nature of the human condition and its experience of the present in which it lives. An object that aims to communicate eternal truths or notable deeds projects those things into the future, to be picked up, learned and used by minds yet to come. In this way, our spirits can persist through time by attaching pieces of themselves onto the material world outside of them that is much more permanent than themselves, but this can only happen when there are spirits in the future willing to continue the chain by resurrecting the works of the past.
They’ve left us their feelings, their music, their art, their words, their thoughts. They’ve left us pieces of themselves, as best as they could express them. And now we no longer remember that those objects were made by people like us, that those words were written by living people, with real lives and ambitions, griefs and joys, by spirits that are mirrors of ourselves at a different time and in a different place. They ripped a piece of their soul and painstakingly embedded it into the material before them, and we view it casually as if it was any other thing, or we read their words as carelessly as we read the newspaper, and we forget them just as quickly as we’re done with them. That is the best and last thing that remains of their spirit, pleading for our attention, pleading to be seen, to be felt, to be known. The spirit is screaming, but these screams are silent to our ears. With a turn of our head we destroy its last lifeline, we cut the thread of thought, letting it fall into the bottomless abyss.
Or—we look at it, we examine it carefully, giving it the time and care it deserves, we give this little fragment of a soul the only thing it needs to survive: the attention of our mind. If that soul has wings, it will fly, provided we give it the air to do so. By focusing our mental energies on a manifestation of a human spirit—a book, a poem, a painting, a musical composition, any object which is used as an outlet for its maker’s thoughts, values and creativity—we bring it forth from the dead world of material objects into the living world of the mind—we resurrect it, within ourselves. Plato wrote that all learning is a process of remembering, that we already know everything and it’s just that our spirits have forgotten it as they went through death and rebirth. I would say that learning about the lives and the work of our ancestors is, much the same way, a process of remembering, for were they not also human spirits, just like ourselves, who made these works? They were us in a different time and place, and by resurrecting their life and work we resurrect not just the tiny fragments of their souls, but ourselves, we bring back our past into living memory, remembering and reconstructing our very selves from the little fragments of external memory left for us.
- I use the words spirit and soul in the sense of the human consciousness, i.e. a consciousness processing a certain pattern, thereby feeling and thinking the things stored in that pattern. Whether or not there is a soul as a separate entity from our physical brain does not matter in this context.
- There is one way to retain something of a common world in an environment that is undergoing rapid change, and that’s to create a fictional world. Fictional worlds, such as those created by writers like Tolkien, create a fixed, shared experience that retains its core elements even as everything around it changes. These fictional worlds won’t last, but while they enjoy popularity they act as a temporary replacement to the loss of shared values, identity and stability in the real world.