David Bentley Hart: consciousness Ltd.

Imagine a day when the algorithmic processes in computers will have become so advanced that they can convince their programmers of the existence of real personal agency on the other side of the screen, and a method is then devised for impressing a convincing simulacrum of living minds on the canvas of that binary platform. And then imagine that people were to begin, as far as they could tell, to download themselves into that virtual realm and to dispose of their bodies in this world, not realizing that in fact these little virtual eidola with which they’re replacing themselves in fact have no inner experience at all. And, of course, once the exchange has been made, and only these virtual shadows of the ‘downloaded’ remain, no one in this world can tell. They would continue to converse with these seemingly transferred selves and wouldn’t know that they’re actually interacting with no one at all–conversing with nothing, that is, other than a digitally generated illusion. And then imagine that, in time, everyone in the world were to decide to become ‘immortal’ by the same method, and to transfer themselves into deathless virtual forms. And, as a result, the entire world becomes a magnificently elaborate program mimicking the behaviors of living persons, but entirely devoid of so much as the faintest twinge or twinkle of consciousness.

— David Bentley Hart, Roland In Moonlight, (Brooklyn, NY: Angelico Press, 2021), 131.

Some terminological oddities aside, like using ‘downloaded’ for ‘uploaded’ (and Hart persists in calling printed files PDFs and DOCs as if they were, like Roland here says, binary… I mean, digital files), this replacement of inner experience by the time of technics is already there in the concept of screentime, in the movement of cinematic imagery, or motion writing. (see lectures on moving image, lecture 7ff.) In other words, no sooner said than done.

Before this, Roland, the dog, has said those “poor souls who’re so terrified of their own personal extinction that they fantasize about the day when they might be able to download their consciousness into [sic.] computers” would do better to ‘download’ [here the term fits] themselves into books … by writing their autobiographies” for the reason that “the paper and ink and bindings of the book would be no less conscious than those electrical notations made by any software [sic.] that might be designed to receive their ‘souls’.” (Ibid., 130)

– Pinturicchio, Bernadino of Siena, 1480s

I am not entirely certain how anyone ever learns to speak about the death of his or her parents. To those who knew them, there is nothing one need say. To those who did not, there is nothing that one can. Everything one might try to communicate would be fragmentary at best.

— Hart, ibid., 312.

It seems to me [says Roland, the dog] that among your species there are three classes of chronic cultural sentimentalists: those fixated only upon the past, those obsessed only with the future, and those capable of happiness only in the fleeting present. All are deluded. It’s a rare anthropine soul indeed that knows how to place his or her hopes and allegiances in the eternal. That’s why, for instance, political conservatism is typically so infantile, splenetic, resentful, and petulant a philosophy. It’s also why so much bien pensant liberalism lapses so effortlessly into inflexibly adolescent sanctimony. And it’s why those who live entirely in the fashions of the moment exist in a state of perpetual distraction and anxiety and fascination with the trivial.

— Ibid., 353.

Roland again:

To Freudians, of course, the death-instinct could only seem to be a longing for a slackening of the tensions and constant neural stresses of the life-instinct–the élan vital seeking to subside again into the blessed oblivion and anonymity of pure matter. But the deeper truth of both instincts, toward life and death both, however disfigured and dissociated from one another they might be by your wounded natures, is a more original longing for the ultimate, for the final divine consummation of spiritual love. Even the darkest impulses of self-destruction, even the pain of suicide–there’s a still more primordial innocence in that, one that can never be extinguished, one that makes it impossible for any final culpability to attach to it. It’s a damaged but at some level sincere expression of the same love that compels the contemplative to flee from his or her ego into a final unio mystica. Or that drives two lov-ers [the word, interestingly, is split over two pages] to seek release from themselves in emotional and sexual fusion, each in the other’s embrace. Or that prompts parents to have children, and thereby to will their own displacement by a succeeding generation. In either the tenderest or the most tragic surrender of the empirical ego to its own dissolution–in that final fatigue of the conatus essendi–there’s always the memory, the promise of an eternal longing not for nothingness, but for the whole of being… for liberation from selfishness, union with all… in a God who is all in all. (Ibid., 354-355.)

– dated to between 1CE – 199CE

Which is why I speak of the horror of sheer limitless successive existence. The desire simply to perdure forever, the resentful refusal to die– which at a deeper level is also the refusal to die into the now. But that sort of dying, that relinquishing of the past–that’s precisely what life is. It’s also a matter of relinquishing the self that clings to the future so long as that future is understood only as the ego’s mere duration. […] True life is a dying into the now, and ultimately the fullness of life is a dying into the eternal now. And learning to live is learning the art of dying fruitfully. Unless the grain…

Itzcuintli Dog With Me, Frida Kahlo, 1938

… so much of what Hart writes, in Roland’s voice or his own, and there are tiny spots where it might actually be Hart letting his dog speak for itself, in character: so much goes against the grain.

For all the resonances with Bergson (élan vital, inner experience, temporal over spatial experience), or those with Bataille (particularly inner experience), Hart’s ‘soul’ consists in individual rational consciousness. He does not consider that the ultimate, God, telos, is made in the image of this consciousness, is in its nature of, as Bergson writes, impending over the future; and that its terminus lies in its own determination, as an horizon for conscious (or, as Hart often says, intentional (Husserl might be added to the list of philosophical presences without speaking roles in the book)) experience.

Consciousness is for Hart God: limited to being transcendent, not immanent. Neither the transcendent that is necessary to being immanent, nor that necessity of the transcendent called singularity in immanence.

To learn to die properly is to learn to live, says Roland.

— Hart, ibid., 355.

Setting the limits of consciousness {God}, end to end:

… [Roland:] the final reality of all things–the world where the lion and lamb lie down together–is the real and eternal world of the first creation, the only world really created by God, not contaminated with the illusion and transgression of a fallen cosmos. And, from the perspective of eternity [add Spinoza], it’s always already been accomplished. We began there together because that’s our one true end in the eternal–the ground of spirit where we’re all present to one another in unity.

— Ibid., 359.

David Bentley Hart gives the dwarves full reign. He even let, lets them take over his dog (dog Roland to the dark tower came). Here’s the antidote, Levrero again:

It’s difficult to spot one’s prejudices, which take root in the mind in a strange and inexplicable way, accompanied by a certain sense of superiority [which in Hart manifests itself in pretension, and he says as much]. Those dwarves settle in like absurd dictators, and we accept them like revealed truths. Very rarely, because of some accident or chance occurrence, we find we have to reconsider a prejudice, argue with ourselves about it, life a corner of the veil and peer through the gap at how things really are.

— Mario Levrero, The Luminous Novel, translated by Annie McDermott, (Sheffield, UK: And Other Stories, 2021), 72.

In those cases, it’s possible to uproot them [like habits]. But the others are still there, out of sight [like habits], carrying us foolishly in all the wrong directions.

— Ibid.

some Chinese poets from Hart page 319, op. cit.:

Du Fu’s austere lucidity

– 杜甫 Du Fu, 傅抱石 Fu Baoshi, 1959

Li Bai’s magnificent glittering combinations of the wildly visionary and naïvely sentimental and gaily whimsical … and the mad eruptions and lightning-bolts of his language… and his […] nature mysticism.

– 将进酒 [Bring in the Wine], 李白 Li Bai

in Buddhist moods we crave Wang Wei

– 王维 Wang Wei

when one’s feeling a bit like Chinese Rimbaud, only Li He or Li Shangyin can satisfy.

– 李賀 Li He
– 義山 Li Shangyin