Some centuries before the Common Era, in a sweltering outskirt of the ancient Roman Empire, a nameless wanderer, unkempt and covered in rags, climbed atop a boulder in the midst of a bustling market, cleared his throat and began shouting for no apparent reason:
“Mark my harangue, monstrous abode of the damned and you denizens of this godforsaken place! I have only my stern words to give you, though most of you don’t recognize the existential struggle you’re in; so I’ll cry foul, slink off into the approaching night, and we’ll see if my rant festers in your mind, clearing the way for alien flowers to bloom. How many poor outcasts, deranged victims of heredity, and forlorn drifters have shouted doom from the rooftops? In how many lands and ages have fools kept the faith from the sidelines of decadent courts, the aristocrats mocking us as we point our finger at a thousand vices and leave no stone unturned? And centuries from now, many more artists, outsiders, and mystics will make their chorus heard in barely imaginable ways, sending their subversive message, I foresee, from one land to the next in an instant, through a vast ethereal web called the internet. Those philosophers will look like me, unwashed and ill-fed, but they’ll rant from the privacy of their lairs or from public terminals linked by the invisible information highway. Instead of glaring at the accused in person, they’ll mock in secret, parasitically turning the technological power of a global empire against itself.
“But how else shall we resist in this world in which we’re thrown? No one was there to hurl us here where as a species we’re born, where we pass our days and lay down to die–not we, who might have been asked and might have refused the offer of incarnation, and not a personal God who might be blamed. Nevertheless, we’re thrown here, because the world isn’t idle; natural forces stir, they complexify and evolve; this mindless cosmos is neither living nor dead, but undead, a monstrous abomination that mocks the comforting myths we take for granted, about our supernatural inner essence. No spirit is needed to make a trillion worlds and creatures; the undead forces of the cosmos do so daily, creating and destroying with no rational plan, but still manifesting a natural pattern. What is this pattern, sewn into the fabric of reality? What is the simulated agenda of this headless horseman that drags us behind the mud-soaked hooves of its prancing beast? Just this: to create everything and then to destroy everything! Let that sink in, gentle folk. The universe opens up the book of all possibilities, has a glance at every page with its undead, glazed-over eyes, and assembles miniscule machines–atoms and molecules–to make each possibility an actuality somewhere in space and time, in this universe or the next, until each configuration is exhausted and then all will fly apart until not one iota of reality remains to carry out such blasphemous work. How many ways can a nonexistent God be shown up, I ask you? Everything a loving God might have made, the undead leviathan creates instead, demonstrating spirit’s superfluity, and then that monster, the magically animated carcass we inhabit will finally reveal its headlessness, the void at the center of all things, and nothing shall be left after the Big Rip.
“I ask again, how else to resist the abominable inhumanity of our world, but to make a show of detaching from some natural processes of cosmic putrefaction, to register our denunciation in all existential authenticity, and yet to cling to the bowels of this beast like the parasites we nonetheless are? And how else to rebel against our false humanity, against our comforting delusions, other than by replacing old, worn-out myths with new ones? For ours is a war on two fronts: we’re faced with a horrifying natural reality, which causes us to flee like children into a world of make-believe, whereupon we outgrow some bedtime stories and need others to help us sleep.
“We conquered masses in what will one day be called the ancient world have become disenchanted with Roman myths, as the cynicism of the elites who expect us to honour the self-serving Roman spin on local fables infects the whole Roman world. Now that Alexander the Great has opened the West to the East, we long for revitalization from the fountain of exotic Eastern mysticism, just as millennia from now I foresee that the wisdom of our time will inspire those who will call themselves modern, liberal, and progressive. And just as our experiments with Eastern ideas will afford our descendants a hiding place in Christian fantasies, which will distract Europeans from their Dark Age after the fall of Rome, so too the modern Renaissance will bear tainted fruit, as technoscientific optimism will give way to the postmodern malaise.
“Our wizards and craftsmen are dunces compared to the scientists and engineers to come. Romans believe they’ve mastered the forces of nature, and indeed their monuments and military power are staggering. But skeptics and rationalists will eventually peer into the heart of matter and into the furthest reaches of the universe, and so shall confirm once and for all the horrifying fact that nature is the undead, self-shaping god. The modernists will pretend to be unfazed by that revelation as they exploit natural processes to build wonders that will encourage the masses: diseases will be cured and food will be plentiful; all races, creeds, and sexes will be made legally equal; and–lowly mammals that they are–the future folk will personally venture into outer space! Alas, though, I discern another motif in reality’s weave, besides the undead behemoth’s implicit mockery of God: civilizations rise and fall according to the logic of the Iron Law of Oligarchy. Take any group of animals that need to live together to survive, and they will spontaneously form a power hierarchy, as the group is stabilized by a concentration of power that enables the weaker members to be most efficiently managed. Power corrupts, of course, and so leaders become decadent and their social hierarchy eventually implodes. The Roman elite that now rules most of the known world will overreach in their arrogance and will face the wrath of the hitherto conquered hordes. As above, so below: the universe actualizes each possibility only to extinguish it in favour of the next cosmic fad.
“And so likewise in the American civilization to come, plutocrats will reign from their golden toilets, but their vanity will undo their economic hegemony as they’ll take more and more of the nation’s wealth while the masses of consumers stagnate like neglected cattle, again laying the groundwork for social implosion. For a time, that future world I foresee will trust in the ideal of each person’s liberty, without appreciating the irony that when we remove the social constraints on freedom of expression, we clear the way for the more indifferent natural constraint of the Iron Law to take effect, and so we establish a more grotesque rule of the few over the many. Thus, American government will be structured to prevent an artificial tyranny, by establishing a conflict between its branches and by limiting the leader’s terms of office, but this hamstringing of government will create a power vacuum that will be filled by the selfish interests of the mightiest private citizens. In whichever time or place they’re found, those glorious, sociopathic few are avatars of undead nature, ruling without conscience or plan for the future; they build economic or military empires only to bring them crashing down as their animal instincts prove incapable of withstanding temptation. Conservatives excel at devising propaganda to rationalize oligarchy; modern liberals will experiment with progressive socialism only to inadvertently confirm the Iron Law, and so liberalism will give way to postmodern technocracy, to the dreary pragmatism of maintaining the oligarchic status quo while the hollow liberals pretend to offer a genuine political alternative to conservatism.
“What myths we live by to avoid facing the horror of our existential predicament! We personify the sun and the moon the way a child makes toys even out of rocks and twigs. The scientists of the far future, though, will investigate not just the outer mechanisms, but will master the workings of human thought. They’ll learn that our folk tales about the majesty of human nature are at best legends: we are not as conscious, rational, or free as we typically assume. Our ridiculous lust for sex proves this all by itself. We have contempt for older virgins who fail to attract a mate, even though almost everyone would be mortified to be caught in the sex act; at least no one remains to pity the throngs of copulating human animals, save the marginalized drifters who detach from the monstrous world. Psychologists will discover that while we can deliberate and attend to formal logic, we also make snap, holistic judgments, which is to say associative, emotional and intuitive leaps. Most of our mind is unconscious and reason is largely a means of manipulating others for social advantage. But even as modern rationalists will learn as much, rushing to exploit human weaknesses for profit, they will praise ultraconsciousness, ultrarationality and ultrafreedom. These secular humanists will worship their machines and a character named Spock, and they’ll assume that if only society were properly managed, progress would ensue. Thus, Reason shall render all premodern delusions obsolete, but that last, modern delusion of rationalism will be overcome only through postmodern weariness from all ideologies.
“The curse of reason is that thinking enough to discover the appalling truth of natural life prevents the thinker from being happy. That curse might be mitigated, though, if we recognize that the irrational part of our mind has its own standards. We crave stories to live by, models to admire, and artworks to inspire us. Our philosophical task as accursed animals is to assemble all that we learn into a coherent worldview, reconciling the world’s impersonality with our crude and short-sighted preferences. Happiness is for the ignorant or the deluded sleep-walkers; those who are kept awake by the ghost story of unpopular knowledge are too melancholy and disgusted by what they see to take much joy. When you face the facts that there is no God, no afterlife, no immortal soul, no transcendent human right, no perfect justice, no absolute morality, no nonhuman meaning of life, and no ultimate hope for the universe, you’ll understand that a happy life is the most farcical one. We sentient, intelligent mammals are cursed to be alienated from the impersonal world and from the myths we trust to personalize our thought processes. We are instinctive story-tellers: our inner voice narrates our deeds as we come to remember them, and we naturally gossip and anthropomorphize, evolved as we are to negotiate a social hierarchy. But how do we cope with the fact that the truest known narrative belongs to the horror genre? How shall we sleep at night, relative children that we all are, preoccupied with the urges of our illusory ego, when we’re destined to look askance at optimistic myths, inheriting the postmodern horror show?
“Shall I proceed to the final shocker of this woeful tale that enervates those with the treacherous luxury of freedom of thought? Given that nature is the undead self-creator of its forms, what is the last word, the climax of this rant within the undead god? While there’s no good reason to believe there is or ever was a transcendent, personal deity, we instinctively understand things by relating them to what’s most familiar, which is us; thus, we personify the unknown, fearing unseen monsters in the dark, and so even atheists are compelled to blame their misfortune on some deity, crying out to no one when they accidentally injure themselves. But if there’s no room in nature for this personal God whose possible existence we’re biologically compelled to contemplate, and there’s nothing for this God to do in the universe that shapes itself, the supreme theology is the most dire one, namely the speculation that Philipp Mainlander will one day formulate before promptly going insane and killing himself: God is literally dead. God committed elaborate suicide by transforming himself into something that could be perfectly destroyed, which is the material universe. God became corrupted by his omnipotence and insane by his alienation, and so the creativity of his ultimate act is an illusion: the world’s evolution is the process of God’s self-destruction, and we are vermin feeding off of God’s undying corpse. Sure, this is just a fiction, but it’s the most plausible way of fitting God–and so also our instinctive, irrational theistic inclination–into the rest of the ghastly postmodern worldview to come.
“Is there a third pattern manifesting throughout the cosmos, one of resistance and redemption? Do intelligent life forms evolve everywhere only to discover the tragedy of their existential situation, to succumb to madness or else to respond somehow with honour and grace? Perhaps we’ll learn to re-engineer ourselves by merging with our machines so that we no longer seek a higher purpose and we’ll reconcile ourselves to our role as agents of the universe’s decay and ultimate demise. Maybe an artistic genius will emerge who will enchant us with a stirring vision of how we might make the best of our predicament. From the skeptical, pessimistic viewpoint, which will be so easily justified in that sorrowful postmodern time, even our noblest effort to overcome our absurd plight will seem just another twist in the sickening melodrama, yet another stage of cosmic collapse; a cynic can afford to scoff at anything when his well of disgust is bottomless. But there’s a wide variety of human characters, as befits our position in a universe that tries out and discards all possibilities. I rant to the void until my throat aches and my eyes water. The undead god has no ears to hear, no eyes to behold its hideous reflection, and no voice with which to apologize or to instruct–unless you count the faculties of the stowaway creatures that are left alone to make sense of where they stand. So may some of you grow magnificent flowers from the soil of my words!”
The sun had set and most of the townsfolk had long since returned to their homes, having ignored or taken the opportunity to spit upon the doomsayer. A few remained until the end of his diatribe, their mouths hanging open in dismay and when they glanced at each other, asking what should be done, they lost sight of the preacher as he had indeed scurried away as promised, homeless, into the dark.