Saturday, January 15, 2011

Connie Willis' "Blackout" and "All Clear" -- and the meaning of our lives

Connie Willis's two-volume book, Blackout and All Clear, takes us via time travel back to the Second World War and the Nazi bombings of London. It's a long book -- over 1100 pages, in two volumes, both published in 2010, that really are not two books but just separately published halves of one. But it rewards reading, for Willis' vivid portrait of a remarkable part of our actual past, and for the way she brings her weave of plot lines to its transporting conclusion.

The book is also a work of faith. Though Willis does not assert that God's hand is at work, and in fact the vehicle for the plot is time travel and the workings of the time "continuum," nevertheless the essence of the book, I feel, is that God is in the machine (here, continuum).

Yet the practical moral of the book is not that all will be well, but rather that acts of loving kindness are worth undertaking. The second volume begins by quoting Churchill: "You will make all kinds of mistakes; but as long as you are generous and true, and also fierce, you cannot hurt the world or even seriously distress her." It is worth doing the best we can, and each of us should join in the world's efforts with the hope of achieving good results. No one is an island, and no one is disqualified.

Perhaps it is surprising, perhaps it is proof that we are all part of one culture, but these lessons are very much like those David Brooks draws in an essay called "Social Animal: How the new sciences of human nature can help make sense of a life," in The New Yorker, Jan. 17, 2011. There Brooks tells an extended parable about the life we now lead, culminating in the words of a (possibly fictional) neuroscientist, who says that his studies of the brain led him to give up an image of himself "as a lone agent." Now he feels that "we inherit a great a river of knowledge, a flow of patterns coming from many sources." When we become "immersed directly in that river," we flourish. "I've come to think," says the neuroscientist, that "[h]appiness isn't really produced by conscious accomplishments. Happiness is a measure of how thickly the unconscious parts of our minds are intertwined with other people and with activities. Happiness is determined by how much information and affection flows through us covertly every day and year."

Brooks' neuroscientist also mentions that for some people this experience comes "when they feel enveloped by God's love." For Willis, the experience of God's love doesn't seem to be one of absence or contemplation. Nor is it a feeling that even believers always enjoy. I think she would say, rather, that the times when we feel this divine love sustain us during the daily struggles of life, as we make our many mistakes.

Now is that feeling illusory? A conventional secular answer, certainly consistent with the views of Brooks' neuroscientist, is that connection is real, while envelopment by God's love just a confused perception of that reality. Perhaps so. But it appears that the capacity to feel a "mystical sense of oneness" has a concrete foundation in our brain circuitry. (So Dr. Kevin Nelson, author of a recent book on "near-death experiences," explains in an interview on Salon.) Like the capacity to feel connection with particular people, the capacity to feel connection with some larger whole is part of our biological makeup.

That neither proves nor disproves the truth of these experiences, as Dr. Nelson rightly points out. Perhaps, again, the biological capacity for connection is innate, the particular transposition to religion a misperception. The turn to religion might be useful, in the same way that overconfidence seems to be useful in enabling people to move through life, but still objectively mistaken. Perhaps. But it is interesting that our brains are primed for experiences like this. We are in some ways very good at perceiving the world despite our physical limitations -- compare the feats of baseball players discerning the path of pitches which as they approach the plate are literally moving too fast to be followed. It seems at least possible that our capacity for this kind of feeling reflects that there is indeed some greater whole to be perceived.

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