Last year, I held my tongue when it came to questions. No one however asked directly as I recall what was most important to me. What is going to happen to me after I die? This is only the prologue to other questions that go to a root of human consciousness for me, is there order or no order in the universe? If there is order does it represent in my own life a pattern that is supposed to mean something for me. What meaning does my life have? Is there order or simply random event in my life? Does what I do effect the order of the universe in any important way, in any way that effects its order?
According to the scholar of religious philosophy Harry Wolfson, Spinoza believed that memory would survive, though he had no logical proof for this belief. Human actions would therefore matter because they would be bound up with memory. Evolution and DNA in part confirm that at least in limited spans of time this is true. What will survive me? What is most important in the last two thousand years, I feel is the human capacity to enact symbols, to identify reality with them.
A friend who is both a distinguished mathematician and a rabbi, likes to quote Maimonides to the effect that only original thoughts will survive in the after life. This is after all, a consoling thought to a mathematician, since "original thoughts" are the métier of the sciences. And it is with "fear and trembling" that I tread through the gates of EDGE site on the sacred ground of scientists.
As a novelist however, I beg to differ with the particulars of this hope, for originality is not necessarily important in the world of fantasy or rather what is compelling is not necessarily what is most original. The very word "invention" has in some of the early responses, a scientific, or pseudoscientific interpretation. I believe (as someone who has seen briefly — though in a state of such high anxiety I can readily admit — they may have been hallucinations — ghosts), that the act of symbolic enactment is a key to the riddle of consciousness and the most important of human "inventions." Nor do I think such "enactment" or symbol drama is entirely a "human" invention. For I believe I derives from play, though in human beings it has come to combine play with the self reference of thought about existence. The latter drama of symbols I think it is part of the uncanny tension between the weight of the Unknown (which I choose to personify with a Capital) and consciousness.
The story that has historically "galvanized" Jewish thought and then Christian thought is the Biblical saga of the sacrifice of Isaac, where a family or tribe obviously familiar with human sacrifice, passed to its symbolic enactment. In the Sinai desert, years ago, a German sociologist, Gunnar Heinneson, told me that the Jews were the first people to do away with the exposure of unwanted infants. You can speak volumes about human values, but without ceremonies that address terror of the Unknown, the human majority falls prey to the overwhelming anxiety of death and its handmaiden, survival.
I am not enough of a historian or anthropologist, to insist on what Gunnar spoke of as fact. Symbolic enactment obviously goes much further back in human history than the Biblical world in which we have idealized patriarchs and matriarchs. It probably derives from the play that we can observe among animals. It is however, a process that is constantly being refined. I can appreciate that the Sioux Indians when they knocked an opponent on the head with a stick rather than killing him, also invented something that civilization needs — an extension that the rage for national sports teams may well answer. We recognize, I think, as a society that feels that peace with ourselves is important, that exposing children who are actually delivered, on door steps, brutalizes us as a people of shared customs.
Steven Rose speaks of inventions as concepts. It is in bringing ourselves back, again and again, to the concept of invention and in particular of the invention of symbol in the light of our fear, that I think both the human body and mind find themselves in a balance that allows them to experience that mysterious state that Plato called the "good" and the Bible referred to as "completed" or "perfect": or "quiet within oneself."
I would challenge Colin Blakemore's assertion that control of human destiny has shifted from the body to the mind. The mind after all is finally subject within the human span to the body, just as the latter has no conscious existence without the mind. We have to reinvent a form of the Shamanism that seeks to bridge this division within contemporary religion or suffer a terror that will devastate most of us in mind and body. When we seek overwhelming joy, in sex, art, music, even the pursuit of knowledge, or understanding, some of us are asking to be just that, overwhelmed through the mind but throughout the body and that has to be part of my "greater good" or "balance." At Thanksgiving dinner, two prominent friends in the lofty upper spheres of the university were mocking the blessing of human organs as they passed to the recipient. I felt the opposite, that in the bleak sphere of the hospital, it might be important to a system in shock. The symbol dramatized recalls inspired pages of Milosz on the dance and the way movement locates us in the universe.
Space grows bleak without a sense of this location and dangerous in its suggestion of no meaning. I think we need a more powerful sense of symbol if we are to avoid the fear that our very mastery of technological invention spurs. If human sacrifice was found to be unnecessary, so could heroic distinction based on war, national identity based on exclusion, social identity based on wealth, even the more exaggerated rewards of entrepreneurship, great wealth. Some years ago I suggested (in the "Village Voice") that the Israelis and Palestinians could find a lasting peace if they both acknowledged large parts of what is called "Israel," what is called "the West Bank," even what is called "Jordan," in other words, Biblical Canaan, as sacred space and turned what was still empty into religious park. Tragically, their statesmen can not invent such a symbolic space.
To answer Colin Blakemore, I certainly found the contraceptive pill a liberation, at first. Soon, however, it seemed to confuse some of the deepest impulses of sexual joy. I am not sure that the puritanical strategies of the 19th century in which eroticism was buried in passionate friendship were not more effective as symbolic of the desire to be one with another than sex in which no children were intended or hoped for. I would never want to go back to a world without the pill or effective contraceptives, but I am not sure we have mastered its implications for the body or the mind in that body. For the pill has no ceremony, no weight of ritual behind it and the meaning of its communion still awaits definition.