A universe from nothing? Or: desperately seeking transcendence in a materialist world

by Fausto Ribeiro

Lasar segall dorLet us imagine for a moment the following story: a man is sitting at the edge of a cliff, marveling at the immensity below and all of its beauty – a resplendent lake, enormous mountains, a vast field covered with trees, maybe a small village with a few lovely houses whose chimneys release a white, innocent smoke. There is a notebook on the man's lap; in it, with a worn-out pencil, he registers in the form of poetry his impressions about that which he has the good fortune of witnessing. A beautiful woman then approaches from a nearby trail and sees him; upon realizing what this stranger is doing, she is immediately overcome with a great emotion, an expectation so ravishing that her hands start to tremble slightly: here is a man who writes poems about nature's enchantment, about it's mesmerizing beauty! Instantly the woman conceives in her mind a whole image of who this man is, of his values, of his rich inner universe. She passionately contemplates, above all, the possibility of a real connection between the two of them. Nervous, she walks slowly in his direction and touches him gently on the shoulder, in the hope of initiating a conversation that would confirm her expectations. When he turns to face her, however, she suffers a shocking disappointment: the man is ugly; his features clearly violate the universal principles of beauty neurologists affirm exist.

Automatically, in a snap, before any words are said, the whole mental edifice built by the woman crumbles, and while flushing awkwardly, she pronounces a few random sentences about the amazing view, about the lake, about the low probability of rain for that afternoon. The man answers with some other banalities, courteous but tense in light of the unexpected encounter with a woman so much more beautiful than him, so out of his usual reach. A brief silence imposes itself, and the woman glances furtively at the man's notebook. She reflects for a few seconds. When the silence becomes unbearably uncomfortable, she – already taking a few steps backwards – mumbles as a goodbye a prefab phrase about how nice it was to have met him, to which he responds politely, struggling in vain not to show how disappointed he is with the abrupt end of a conversation that had already provoked in him, so soon, the beginnings of an embarrassing arousal.

The woman then walks away in quick steps, unconscious that her brain is already working to set up the mechanism of defense that will prevent her from making the unfortunate meeting the object of any posterior rumination. In a few minutes, maybe a few hours, she will have forgotten about the man's existence. Nevertheless, the ruins of the hope that had illuminated those brief moments before she saw the man's face will remain dammed up in the grey area between her conscious and her unconscious self, being yet one more grain of sand in the mountain of repressed anguish to which, throughout her life, she will give many different names and prescribe many tentative solutions.

The man, on the other hand, will immediately lose the inspiration to continue his poem; confused, he will go back to his cabin. He will dine a microwave-heated lasagna (one of the pretty houses he had seen from the top of the cliff was in fact a small unity of a supermarket chain), he will drink a few glasses of wine; later, he will half-heartedly work on the revision of the poems written that day, finding them to be silly. He will then go to his bedroom and, with the aid of digital entertainment, practice the loneliest of sports while thinking about the woman. Afterwards, he will take a tranquilizer and sleep alone in a king-size bed. In between the “uneasy dreams” that will certainly follow, he shall notice that to his anguish – present for so long he hardly remembers its beginning – he has never wanted to give any names, nor has he prescribed for it any form of active solutions.

For many centuries it has been understood that a rather different story deserved to be told. In it, the man too would have been blessed with good looks by what we now call darwinian evolution, and the more favorable unfolding of the fortuitous encounter would be filled with the kind of instances and emotions that encompass all that is sublime and, at times, tragic about the “human spirit”. The manner in which these ecstatic feelings took place, as well as the degree of earnestness and innocence in the language employed and the actions performed, were arguably one of the indicators of the literary period in question.

However, at some point in the late 19th century, a conclusion was reached that perhaps this story had ceased to be entirely worthy of our attention: the horror and the irrationality which permeated human lives were now so absolute that literature would no longer be allowed to focus indulgingly elsewhere. Later, during the 20th century, such realization reached a paroxysm: how could one possibly write about idyllic love amidst the absurdity of a war machine? Hence the 1930 words by Brazilian poet Carlos Drummond de Andrade:

The survivor

Impossible to compose a poem at this stage of human evolution.
Impossible to write a poem – a single line, even – of real poetry.
The last troubadour died in 1914.
He had a name that no one remembers anymore.

There are terribly complicated machines for the simplest necessities.
If you want to smoke a cigar, press a button.
Jackets button themselves up by electricity.
Love is made through wireless telegraphy.
No need for a stomach in order to digest.

A wise man declared to The Newspaper that there is still
a long time before we reach a reasonable level of
culture. But fortunately, by then I'll be dead.

Men haven't improved
and kill each other like bugs.
The heroic bugs are reborn.
Uninhabitable, the world is more and more inhabited.
And if the eyes relearned to weep it would be a second flood.
(I suspect I've written a poem.)

And so the disturbing literature of the 20th century was made by these sparse survivors. Now, in the drowsy dawn of the 21st, it seems to wane at the shadow of the ubiquitous giants of cynicism and irony – resources once invaluable to writers, but now swallowed by crushing mass entertainment and digital stupor. If a lyricism that fancies itself as liberating seeks, in desperation, to resort to such tools in order to fulfill its mission, such naiveté can only be looked upon with bitter and sympathetic pity.

Lets go back, then, to the story of the clumsy and failed encounter. Could it possibly hold, in all of its pathetic unhappiness, a meaning capable of granting a few more fading breaths to 21st century literature – to allow the ball of the western canon to keep on rolling, however penitently? Could the horror of the war of machines (which, even as it suffocated art, allowed it to subsist under an excruciating bondage) be replaced by the depressive realism which inevitably takes hold of us as we realize, thanks to neo-darwinism and neurology, that our animality is, finally, not only inescapable, but in fact the very defining trait of our existence? How should we react to the discovery that it is not just theocentricism, but also humanism that is a chimera based on blind faith – the discovery that it is not only god, but perhaps even the transcendence of the human spirit that may be dead? And what should we say about the fact that even that old story – the one told so many times, in which there was an agreement of desires between the man and the woman – was nothing but the description of a chance meeting between two animals of the same species, whose biological compatibility allowed their brains to release neurotransmitters that caused well-being, satisfaction, and ultimately sexual ecstasy, thus generating a state of mind which humans (primates endowed with admirable linguistic skills) chose to call “happiness” or even “love”? Should these two stories, in light of it all, continue to be told, or has literature finally become a superfluous enterprise? Can humans, in the end, remain silent in the face of that which presents itself to us – even if only by a mere illusion of our fallible animal brains – as metaphysical, sublime, or terrible?

To these questions, the glistening lakes and snowy peaks observed by the man in our story are indifferent. Illuminated as they are by a cosmos which, scientists tell us now, may have sprung up from nothing at all, they follow their steady and purposeless path in utter silence. Nevertheless, hopeful fools are compelled by their cursedly quixotic souls to glimpse at the possibility of a second flood and, like Sisyphus, to suffer ridiculously through the brief infinity of their individual lives. They then pour desperate sentences in word processors, much like their ancestors knelt on hard church benches, begging for an elusive, quiet, and perhaps unreachable mercy.