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1990 BOOK PRIZE WINNER: CURRENTINTEREST : On O.B. Hardison's 'Disappearing Through The Skylight'

November 04, 1990|MARK C. TAYLOR | Taylor teaches at Williams College and is writing a book on 20th-Century religion, painting and architecture. and

In a popular variation of an Indian creation story, a young boy asks his father what holds up the world. Well-versed in mythology, the father promptly replies that the world rests on the back of a very large turtle. "But what holds up the turtle?," the boy asks. After a moment's reflection, the father responds, "A huge elephant." As might be expected, the son still is not satisfied and proceeds to ask, "And what is under the elephant?" Now thoroughly exasperated, the father declares, "Son, it's elephants all the way down!"

What the East has long known but the West has only recently discovered is that we all need illusions of some kind to understand and impart order to our lives--turtles and elephants or other kinds of fiction that help us comprehend experience. So understood, the father's reply might be translated: "Son, it's images all the way down."

Poet Wallace Stevens, puts it this way: "The final belief is to believe in a fiction, which you know to be a fiction, there being nothing else. The exquisite truth is to know that it is a fiction and that you believe it willingly."

Many people deeply resist the claim that reality is essentially a matter of turtles and elephants or images, fictions and interpretations. Even Stevens is uneasy with his conclusions.

To discover winter and know it well, to find,

Not to impose, not to have reasoned at all,

Out of nothing to have come on major weather,

It is possible, possible, possible. It must

Be possible. It must be that in time

The real will from its crude beginnings come.

In his remarkable book "Disappearing Through the Skylight: Culture and Technology in the Twentieth Century," O.B. Hardison Jr., University Professor at Georgetown University, responds to the urgency of Stevens' questioning: "In fact, it is impossible." We are necessarily prisoners of our preconceptions, he writes; "there is no way out. . . . We know nothing that has not been invested with ourselves."

As culture evolves, "reality" itself becomes increasingly artificial, disappearing through "the skylight," our field of vision. In the modern world, concepts and images "no longer seem to objectify a real world."

Hardison traces "the disappearance of the real world" in five interrelated areas: nature, history, language, art and human evolution. In the course of the argument, he brings together an extraordinary range of material from Dada to quantum physics, from Bauhaus architecture to Cyborgs, from Cubism to robots, to create a provocative interpretation of cultural change.

Many of Hardison's questions and conclusions at first seem utterly baffling. The question, "Does nature exist?," seems absurd, for example, but Hardison asks it because he sees "nature" as a cultural artifact, a system of laws and assumptions "created in part by man."

Thus physics, chemistry and other natural sciences are similar to the turtles and elephants in the Indian myth. They are, in a sense, artistic creations.

When pushed far enough, modern science and modern art arrive at the same conclusion. "Modern art opens on a world whose reality is not 'out there' in nature defined as things . . . but 'in here' in the soul or mind." In a certain sense, modern science and technology join modern art to realize the dream of the avant-garde: The world is transformed into a work of art, and life becomes aesthetic.

Hardison shifts from analysis to prophecy in the closing pages of the book. Man, he contends, "is in the process of disappearing into the machines he has created."

He sees hope rather than despair in the disappearance of man into machine. Invoking Teilhard de Chardin's notion of the "noosphere," in which the earth is "becoming enclosed in a single thinking envelope," Hardison concludes: "This sounds less like a death than a rebirth of humanity. Perhaps it is the moment of triumph of the noosphere. Perhaps, however, it is the moment at which the spirit finally separates itself from an outmoded vehicle. Perhaps it is a moment that realizes the age-old dream of the mystics of rising beyond the prison of the flesh to behold a light so brilliant it is a kind of darkness."

Perhaps. But there is a darker side to the tendencies Hardison so ably charts. The erasure of differences often is repressive rather than liberating. Sameness is not always desirable. The search for unity can become so all-consuming that individual and cultural differences simply are wiped away.

Hardison's argument is haunted by a disturbing apocalypticism in which creation requires destruction. Though Hardison believes his argument is radically novel, he has actually rewritten a very old story by reinscribing the narrative of death and rebirth as the disappearance of man into the machine. No longer created in the image of God, man now creates God in his own image. Deus ex machina becomes Deus est machina , or, more precisely, Machina est Deus (the machine is God).

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