Cocktail parties in the San Francisco Bay Area aren’t for everyone and most of those in the audience at a recent talk I gave had never been to one. This is understandable. Many of them were surprised at my insistence that we are living in “a transhumanist moment.” I suspect a correlation. A story is in order.
A few years ago at such a gathering I asked an innocent question about the talisman on the necklace worn by a young man I was speaking to.
“It is to inform medical professionals in the event of my death that they are to chop my head off, put it on ice and fly it to the cryogenics lab in Arizona. There, one day when technology is sufficiently ready, I will be brought back and returned to a living body.”
These sorts of interactions, while not an everyday occurrence, are common enough in educated circles here that one can avoid becoming nonplussed. In a strange way I gained respect for that young man. Here is someone who is self-aware of the question of the meaning of life in the face of our atheistic materialism. While most consumers go to work, and return home to blithely watch television (or in pandemic mode, switch tabs from spreadsheets to Netflix), this guy is thinking. And he is thinking of a way out.
So is Amazon. They’re thinking of a way out, for you. They ran an ad during last year’s poorly-viewed Super Bowl for Alexa, their disembodied voice robot—disembodied that is, until now. Behold: Alexa’s Body. In the ad, a woman is introduced to the new Alexa and is asked, “this couldn’t get any better, could it?” At first she starts to agree. Then, staring out the window, she realizes it could–if the little black robot speaker were clothed in a celebrity’s body. In her daydream, the ripped, handsome robot-celebrity makes her shopping lists, turns on her sprinklers, and reads her a romance novel in the bath, while her horrified, digitally cuckolded husband looks on.
The normal viewer may laugh at this as a harmless ad, but to those tuned in it is quite threatening. Ads don’t just create new fantasies for us—even a novel fantasy is one that fleshes out a fantasy already living in our heart. So why do we have this fantasy? Or if we don’t already have it: how would an enfleshed celebrity robot-slave appeal to something inside us? Asking the question basically answers it. Our desires are more transparent, and often more base, than we would like to believe. So what if we brought such a thing about, truly?
Asking such questions about this ad leads us to ask even more fundamental questions: What is the nature and direction of our desires? Does human desire have an intelligible shape? Will our desire be fulfilled? In other words, what do we really want? Why?
While this seems like an overly philosophical starting point for an interrogation of Rod Dreher’s new book about the experience of the Soviet dissidents, I think it is appropriate given the rise of the left was in response to questions operating at this fundamental level of human desire.
The left offered an answer, the same answer that it has offered since at least as far back as the French Revolution. The fact that we hardly consider the questions at all anymore is a sign of how satisfactorily we consider the situation resolved and the case closed – and thus, how utterly complete the left’s philosophical victory on the basic human questions has been, for at least a century.
But those questions start to be asked again when the systems people trust for answers falter or sputter. The end of the Soviet Union, which happened in my lifetime, was just such a moment for the people living on the other side of the Iron Curtain. But the story we tell about that in America is false and self-aggrandizing. In our version, we heroically resisted the tyranny of the Soviet system until the day when freedom, faith, and family rose victoriously in America.
In reality the Soviet system simply collapsed. It was a system that offered answers to the sorts of fundamental questions listed above, and when no one could believe the answers it offered any longer, it folded and walked away from the table of history. It was an empty suit, or as Eliot writes, a “hollow man.” It was killed by its own cynicism and the incompetence it bred.
No doubt America had a part to play in that (we were less incompetent, had self-regard), but much as we sanctify our participation in WW1 and WW2 (and, I’ll say it, the Civil War) so too our role in ending the Cold War was not the role of our self-imagining. This isn’t even so much a matter of history being written by victors but rather that all nations’ self-conception is as the middle kingdom.
Rod Dreher’s book is having a moment. I commend it to you to read. But, and I hope he will agree with me, you really should take his book mostly as a sign that points you back towards the actual Soviet dissidents themselves. We cannot intellectually live by Dreher alone.
If the dissidents have anything to teach us, we are more likely to learn it from direct engagement with them than we are from another’s reading of them. Dreher spurred me to re-engage those thinkers. For that I am grateful. Further, we must consider them on their own before we consider what they may have to tell us about our moment in history and how we need to respond. Otherwise, we may make the all-too-common error of seeing in their writings a reflection of ourselves. Narcissus is new every morning.
To this end I will be spending some time in the next few months engaging in these pages directly with Solzhenitsyn, Havel, and Milosz (and perhaps others), in an effort to inject whatever is good and true in them into the hive-mind of American Christianity.
The ultimate goal, from where I sit, is to help readers realize that the Gospel offers a precise answer to the fundamental questions of desire. What we desire and how, if at all, we can get it, are the ultimate questions. The answer ultimately being that we desire God and that God took on a body and came to us so that we could have him as our own. This is the best news!
I am happy to report that the last I heard, the young man at the cocktail party converted to Christianity and stopped paying for the emergency cryogenic service. May this be an omen of things to come.
*Image credit: Unsplash.