08 October, 2007

Between Being and Non-Being

At the heart of our fears, the essence of our innate tremors, is the individual's cessation of life, our own death. Fear of such mirrors many of our mores, belief systems, and, of course, personal outlooks, even the quality of our lives. Added to our own personal annihilation, is the ending of life, the world around us, life as we know it.

Each is intrinsically connected to the other; in personal extinction, we can be assured that life will cease to be as we cognitively know it, but we can be reassured that life will continue, without us, unending it seems. This has tragi-comic consequences. How depraved to think, no matter how we become reassured that death is part of life, how cruel to feel that a life that sustained our personal existence, can also sustain our personal non-being. It is a canvas from which our eyes will be blinded to; it is a radiance from which we will excluded, forever. At least when we refer to personal death, our culture has built-in coping mechanism by which our belief systems have lent us the reassurance that our lives, perished from physical unity, will continue to live, somehow, and perhaps, ironically, forever. It is a life that exists beyond our perception, beyond our sight and beyond our cries; but it is a life guaranteed, somehow.

Whether we succeed in blinding ourselves to this belief system, truly believe in it, or truly exists, the facts remain that it is very difficult to predict the moment when death sets in. Life doesn't exist in a vacuum, except as a principle, and what seems to be the ending of a particular form of personal existence, may well be the impetus for a different way of being; a recycled form of energy feeding off from one form of life to another.

This is true, even in death at a general level, such as the end of the world, the end of life as we know it and not just at a personal level. The end of life as it could happen in a catastrophic cosmic collision, a nuclear war, or the inevitable end of life one day.

How will this life be, then? First, we can understand that our way of life will continue, even without us, through the legacy, memories or individual achievements we may have created. What we can never understand, even beyond this personal death, is how a new world will emerge depopulated of humans.

This is an intricate and strange position to analyze for we know that life will cease to exist, with or without us, and a timetable is generated then most likelier than not that it will exist without us. The human animal is not the oldest, nor the smartest. We simply are the most vulnerable, come to think of it. Without any greatness to immortality, without any history of survival in a non-human related catastrophe, we are one of life's weakest of living beings.

Yet, the sordid and morbid thought of death, however it is defined, at a personal or general level, is at the core of most of our daily rituals. It fascinates us, as much as it repels it. One implies the other; and for one to exist, the other must cease to be. Between this being and non-being, existence remains, transmogrified into something else, yet pretty much taking on a different energy.

As far back as any of us took pen and pencil in hand, as far back as anyone thought to express the indescribable into some form of symbolic meaning, we have been more fearful to answer the unanswerable than we care to know. Death is final, or so it seems, from a personal and egocentric point of view. It is not only final, it is annihilation of the self, which is something beyond finality. Finality implies a new form of beginning, (perhaps in an afterlife or in a regenerative energy), annihilation implies nothing beyond it.

But as I wrote, a world that ends in one form can regenerate itself into a new form of life. Energy refuses to die, it simply is channeled into something else, new energy. A world depopulated of the human animal is something which gives even the best science fiction writer room to pause, meander in millions upon millions of possibilities, and, in fact, it is something that has been food for creativity in that literary genre which became very popular in the Victorian age, and which H.G. Wells is most famous for.

H.G Wells grappled with these questions and in his many writings, he seems to have been looking for a way out, a way to integrate death as much as life into a world-view that shunned none, but understood the implications of each, with possible ways out of this mess, though none to his satisfaction. Hence, Wells wrote books about creating utopian societies which reverted, when all was said and done, to its opposite, dystopias. Of this the most fascinating is The Island of Doctor Moreau, an eccentric and amoral scientist who lives in an island surrounded by animals vivisected into human beings. The animals, though odd, act and think like human beings, but up to a point. Ultimately, Doctor Moreau left the island taking some of these half-creatures with him to England. As expected, these animals reverted back to their animal self.

A thematic sub-layer of transmutation and death seems to run in many of Wells's stories. Not only about the essentialist nature of life, which involves that revolving door that is life and death, but its impenetrability; its lack of coherence as well as it creative force. Wells never said when the end of the world would be, but he sure wrote about it in his other more commercially successful novels, many of which have been made into movies.

Some daring souls have attempted to posit a time when the end of the world would be. Among these was Sir Isaac Newton, founder of modern physics. Curiously enough, not too long ago some of his personal documents were discovered and put up for auction in the United Kingdom. One of the most fascinating one of these was a letter he wrote in which he wrote that the earth would end in 2060, or, 1600 years after the founding of the Holy Roman Empire.

A recent book by Alan Weisman titled, "The world without us," dares to go with scientific precision where right up until now only those of a feverish mind have ventured to go. His main thesis is simply, yet alarming: what will happen in a post-human world?

Well, here's what will happen once we're all gone: in 2 days the New York Subway will be filled with water; in another 20 days Lexington Avenue in Washington will be a river and many skyscrapers will come tumbling down; after 60 days or more, all of the world's 411 radioactive nuclear plants will meltdown, not to mention that petrochemical plants will become flaming geysers and its toxins be around for decades.

But there's more, and the next facet is fascinating to observe as it seems that life will contract and revert to what it was, hence it would be a return to nature. Our cities will become wilderness, slowly of course, not all at once. Carbon-dioxide will revert to pre-human levels of 100,000 years ago. Domesticated species, or those which will survive, will also return to a state of nature, wild and free, as these same surviving species will revert the slow track across time to forest grasslands. In a million year thence, whatever species manages to survive and gain a level of consciousness will only be fascinated to know and understand some of the peculiarities about us which may have survived, fossils mixed with Barbie dolls.

Which brings me to this point: why do think that we're any different and somehow special among other species and within the world around us? do we still think in that God of the bible which creates life in a few days, fashions people out of dust and are his mere image? I think it is a comforting idea that what we may have gained in consciousness, and hence being able to understand and feel without the marrows of our bones how we will perish, the tragi-comedy of our lives is more to be pitied than not.

If God exists, then somehow our travails in this sad existence we call "life" perhaps can be put into sort of coherent storyline, not something that could have been wasted. On the other hand, if there is a God upon whose ultimate judgment we base our inherent worth and meaning, then this same God didn't seem to have favored any of us as opposed to other forms of life, non-human life, or whatever. It seems this God fell asleep at the switch, really.

Life and death, both, are part of life and it strikes the rich as much as the poor, the human as much as the non-human, and whatever may reside beyond it has nothing to do with what we may choose to happen; mainly, preserve the personal ego from what it may never be separated from the machinery that controls it: that which will perish as either a personal self, or as a general species. And for that, which is the conclusion of our story, the results are the same, theistically speaking or shunning any allusions to transcendence.

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