Monday, October 17, 2016

Unsex me here!

I had a falling out with Robert, the gila monster who lives near my desert hut in Pearblossom.  Robert had opened up to my telepathic overtures and we had quite a rapprochement, for a while, until I reviewed Yuval Harrari's book about the next stage of human evolution- Homo Deus- where we'll be gods (see next post).  Robert told me gila monsters attained this "godhood" long ago without the fanfare humans go for, which I was willing to believe, but then he told me humans could not attain "godhood"- or as he called it, "awareness," because we're too fucked up and don't want to be aware anyway.

"What do you mean we don't want to be aware?" I asked, "What else would we want?"

"What else?  You want to have sex with each other night and day."  Robert has learned a lot about humans from me.  "At least gilas have a season for mating and male combat.  You have one season: mating and male combat."

"So what?  I'm telling you we humans are evolving out of this.  We'll be able to remake our physiology with a limited mating season, and with the free time we'll evolve."

"As if!" Robert snorted, "If you're any indication, I won't hold my breath."

I was suddenly weary of Robert's superior species routine.  I needed a break from him and the random human conversations at the Family Dollar Store, so I decided to spend the weekend in San Diego.  I booked a cheap hotel on the waterfront for Friday and Saturday nights, filled my 2007 Camry and set out.  The trek began on the lonely 138, hugging the desert foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, then turned south on the 15 through Cajon Pass, to San Bernadino and on to San Diego.

I arrived late Friday to the news that if only women voted, Clinton would win, and if only men voted, Trump would win.  The story quickly vanished from the airwaves, too radical in import for the mainstream.  I couldn't wait to get into the San Diego crowds and check things out.  

The main objective of my trip was to walk to Balboa Park and see museums, but it was too late for that Friday, so I headed to the Gaslamp District nearby for dinner.

Young and old lined the sidewalks up Broadway.  I dipped into random thoughts and yes, there were gender differences clearly affecting the presidential election.  Most women thought, "It's about time one of us made it through the gauntlet of male dummies!  I forgive your sins, Hillary, go for it!"  Most men thought, "All my life I've wanted to grope women all around me, like an octopus, yes, like Harpo Marx, like a frenzied dog grinding his pelvis at multiple moving targets.  Trump fights for inappropriate male desire.  No one else admits it exists, let alone defends it."

These explorations soon gave way to hunger, but most of the restaurants were crowded and geared towards couples, where I would have been a sorry spectacle eating alone.  Finally I found a relatively quiet bar that served dinner.  An attractive waitress in her mid-twenties greeted me at the bar with a big smile.  She said her name was Trina.  She was wearing cut-off jeans that had been carefully tailored to cover as little as possible.  A few more beauties assembled, hanging around in the background as Trina grilled me on what kind of martini I wanted- dirty? with a twist? Bombay gin?  Each time I made a choice, she grinned from ear to ear and said, "All right!  Good choice!"  I dug into her mind and found that she was toying with the idea that I might be sugar-daddy material.  Realizing how glum my dinner would be without such illusion, I allowed the fantasy to play out, mostly a passive exercise in not revealing that I live alone in the desert and my best friend is a gila monster.   Thankfully sleepiness came upon me by 9:00pm and I slipped into relief and darkness in the hotel room.

By 7:00am I was dressed and seated in the dining room for the minimalist breakfast: reconstituted scrambled eggs, a tiny selection of cheap pastries, coffee.  A TV screen on the wall forced everyone to consider a woman who said Trump was all over her, followed by Trump implying the woman was not attractive enough for him to be all over.  I scanned the other hotel customers as they ate and discussed the coming day.  The women thought: "This guy is every male bully I've dealt with rolled into one."  The men thought, "I want to be able to grope any woman I'm attracted to, but I am not rich enough.  You have to be rich in order for women to let you do that. This guy is me if I would be rich."

Enough on this dreary subject!  Fast forward: I'm walking uphill on Cedar.  Turning left on 6th I'm on the ridge of Cabrillo Ravine.  The El Prado bridge takes me over the ravine (which these days accommodates the apocalyptic roar of Highway 5) to a complex of museums built in 1915 for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition.   I hang a left into the Globe Theater complex.  The courtyard is filled with several high school classes, here on field trips to see Macbeth.  

"Unsex me here!" calls out an agitated boy, who is prodding a girl with a plastic sword.

"Mr. Anderson," calls the girl to a fortyish man in a tasteful sweater and slacks, "Brad is harassing me!"  

"Calm down, Brad!  Leave Terry alone, and remember what that line is supposed to mean!"

"I do, Mr. Anderson," Brad mocks with a leer, pointing the sword towards Terry, now at a less threatening 30 degrees, "It means Lady Macbeth wishes she were a man, so she could be strong and have any idea what to do."

With this basically correct interpretation Brad leaps towards Terry, the sword behind his back, calling "Gotcha!" as Terry screams in shock and delight.  Mr. Anderson looks around to see who expects him to do anything, sees only me, and goes back to scrutinizing a clipboard.  

Mr. Anderson might have instructed Brad that it's Macbeth himself who lacks resolve and doesn't know what to do.  Here's the context of Lady Macbeth's line:

Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here,
And fill me from the crown to the toe top-full
Of direst cruelty.

From this we learn that in Shakespeare's time it was thought that "direst cruelty" was a male trait, not normally found in women.  Quite a change in 400 years!

Around the corner I found the irresistibly named "Museum of Man," full of beautifully composed models of pre-modern hominids.  My favorite was Lucy, the famous three million year old adult female. She was about as tall as a seven year old modern human.  Her upper arms were long and swung from tree branches, but her legs were humanlike, designed for upright walking.  I gazed into Lucy's sad but focussed eyes, trying to jog a telepathic response, which you'll see in posts below has taken me to the future, so that I might go back millions of years to this lost soul.  Lucy finally spoke, though to me or from me I couldn't tell: 

We were a kind of you, we walked along the forest floor for vast generations, until you killed us.  You will never know our forest floor, our philosophy, the throb at the heart of the universe that beat through us and our forest floor.

Next was Heidelburg Man.  He looked like my grandfather, a Ukrainian who dealt in schmattes.  The broad forehead and wide lips, the wise patient expression, the random hair. H. Man was reconstructed from a 400,000 year old jawbone  There seemed no way to know if he had wanted to grope every attractive female he saw, but it would stand to reason.  What else about him stood to reason?  Without loincloths, how were such things handled?  Were they handled?  Are these questions important?  Would a Trump presidency clarify anything, beyond clarifying that patriarchy is in peril?

Unsex me here, ye gods of men
Genetic rules did not intend
The tools and hard drives in my den
To sport and rule outside my ken

Nor women in this feisty round
No key to touching have they found
No logic to the urging sound
Of gametes playing lost and found.

Unsex us here election day
All coming after then can say
Our species finally had its say.
And Robert?  Just coyote prey!

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

"Homo Deus," notes on Yuval Harari's new book

Is there anything more dangerous than dissatisfied and irresponsible gods who don't know what they want?

Yuval Harari

Yuval Harari, born in 1976, is an Israeli historian and professor of history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The quote above is from his previous book, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, (2011 in Hebrew, 2014 in English), which makes the point that human culture in the post-tribal age of large populations derives its coherence from "fictions," mental constructs with no concrete reality, such as gods, money, laws, nations and human rights.   

In his new book, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, Harari describes our future: Through bio-engineering, artificial intelligence and advancing medicine, we will become, by definition, gods, with indefinitely long lives and complete creative license to design ourselves and our environments.  

Harari's logic is compelling, though one might add that we don't know what a god is, only what it does.  As in physics, where we label atomic particles in terms of their behavior and effects on other particles- not in terms of what they are, which we don't know- so, even though we may define a god as "a super-human being or spirit worshipped as having power over nature or human fortunes" (OED), that describes what a god does, not what it is.   Whatever a god is, though, that's what we're going to be, Harari writes.  The transformation will usher in the age of Homo Deus, and herald the eclipse of Homo Sapiens.  In other words, we're about to go extinct:

Every day millions of people decide to grant their smartphone a bit more control over their lives or try a new and more effective antidepressant drug.  In pursuit of health, happiness and power, humans will gradually change first one of their features and then another, and another, until they will no longer be human. 

Harari is as much concerned with our progeny's difficulties in figuring out how to be gods as he is with our extinction:

When humankind possesses enormous new powers, and when the threat of famine, plague and war is finally lifted, what will we do with ourselves?  What will the scientists, investors, bankers and presidents do all day?  Write poetry?

He may have answered his own question.   Others have come to the same conclusion about our final purpose.  In Arthur C. Clarke's The City and the Stars (1956) a vision of ultimate humanity features two small human settlements on a desert-covered earth of the far future. One of the groups lives in a self-sustaining mechanical environment of which no one knows the origin and which no one has any idea how to operate or repair (fortunately it repairs itself). Inhabitants spend their time writing poems which they send to each other.  The other group lives a tribal, nomadic life in portable tents.  Their distinguishing feature is that they are telepathic, so no one can lie. Presumably they handle honesty by speaking to each other in poetry.

By the way, I ran some of these ideas by my gila monster friend, Robert, and he was somewhat contemptuous.  He informed me that his kind had achieved this putative godlike state eons ago.  He said all it represents is re-entrance to the cosmic womb, which he said is humankind's goal, though we won't admit it.

I think at this point I owe my readers a poem.  

If I were a god

By Harry the Human

If I were a god
I'd find it odd
that even a clod
who'd been so awed

by seeming divinity
(though he felt no affinity)

lurched in the void
feeling scared and annoyed
where a soul should have buoyed
godlike views, not destroyed 


Yes, imagine it: I am a god, writing poems like this for all eternity!  

Harari is an exceptionally thorough, clear and fascinating author, the perfect antidote to the infantilism of an American presidential campaign.   I highly recommend him!