There is another world, but it is in this one.

— Paul Eluard

As a fresh millennium dawns around us, a new and vital skill is waiting to be born in the human organism, a new talent called for by the curious situation in which much of humankind now finds itself. We may call it the skill of “navigating between worlds.”

The last hundred years have been marked by an explosion of experiential domains, an abrupt expansion in the number of apparently autonomous realms with which people are forced to familiarize themselves. There has been an astonishing proliferation of separable realities, many of them mutually exclusive, that contemporary persons are increasingly compelled to engage in, or at least to acknowledge and acquaint themselves with. Each realm has its particular topology, its landmarks, its common denizens whom one comes to know better the more one participates in that domain. Many of these realms hold a powerful attraction for those who visit them and, complicating matters, many of these experiential dimensions seem to claim for themselves a sort of hegemony, surreptitiously asserting their priority over all other dimensions. Some of these spaces have been disclosed by the questing character of the human mind and imagination. Others have been made accessible to us through the probings of science, often in tandem with particular technological developments. Still others have been created by technologies operating more or less on their own. All of them now beckon to us.

Among the most efficacious of such worlds are those various experiential realms so recently opened by the electronic and digital media.  Over a century ago, the invention of the telegraph and, soon after, the telephone, made evident that geographical distance — the very sense of near and far that determines our bodily sense of place — was no longer an absolute constraint.  I, or at least my voice, could now make itself present somewhere else on the planet, as a friend across the continent could now make her thoughts heard over here, where I sit speaking to her. Our voice, and our ears, now found themselves wandering in a strange, auditory realm, often crackling with static, that reposed outside of our ordinary, sensuous reality — a new experiential dimension wherein earthly distance and depth seemed to exert very little influence.

Another instance of this distance-less dimension was rapidly embodied in the radio, which brought into our home news of daily events happening far beyond the horizon of our everyday landscape — even as those very events were still unfolding! And then the television began to capture our gaze, its flickering glow in the living room replacing the glowing flames around which the family had traditionally gathered each evening. Through its screen, those events happening elsewhere became visible as well as audible realities. Other lands, other countries and cultures suddenly became much more real to us, both in their strangeness and their familiarity. We could no longer ignore them; they increasingly became a part of our lives, just as real as the spiders spinning their webs in the grasses outside, or perhaps — it seemed — even more real. But the television brought other worlds as well: the storied worlds of serials and soap operas whose characters became as familiar to many people as their own families. Or perhaps even more familiar.

In the final decade of the twentieth century another, more expansive, pasture opened up before us: the apparently fathomless labyrinth of cyberspace — a realm far more versatile and participatory than that inaugurated by either the radio or the television. Through the internet and the World Wide Web we seem to have dissolved terrestrial distance entirely, or rather, to have disclosed an alternative terrain wherein we can at last step free of our bodies and journey wherever we wish, as rapidly as we wish, to dialogue and consult with other bodiless minds about whatever we wish.  Or to wander, alone, in a quiet zone of virtual amusements. Instantaneous access to anywhere, real or imagined, is now available for collective engagement or for solitary retreat. Cyberspace, of course, is hardly a single space, but rather an ever-ramifying manifold of possible worlds to be explored, an expanding multiplicity of virtual realities.

The Allure of Transcendence

New as it seems, our fascination with the bodiless spaces made accessible to us by the digital revolution is only the latest example of our ever-expanding engagement with worlds hidden behind, beyond, or beneath the space in which we are corporeally immersed. One of the most ancient of such other worlds, and perhaps the first to exert a steady pull upon our attention, was the dimension of pure mathematical truths, the rarefied realm of numbers (both simple and complex) and the apparently unchanging relations between those numbers. Like great sea-going explorers setting out toward continents suspected but as yet unknown, mathematicians have continually discovered, explored and charted various aspects of this alluring world, yet its lineaments, mysteriously, seem inexhaustible. The mathematical domain of number and proportion has long been assumed to be a separate, and purer, realm than this very changeable world in which we breathe and hunger and waste away — at least since the number-wizard Pythagoras promulgated his mystical teachings in the city of Crotona some two and a half millennia ago — and the vast majority of contemporary mathematicians still adhere to this otherworldly assumption.

Pythagoras’ faith that the realm of numbers was a higher world, untainted by the uncertainty and flux of mortal, earthly life, profoundly affected the thinking of the great Athenian philosopher, Plato, teaching his own students at the end of the fifth century BCE, and through Plato’s writings this faith has influenced the whole trajectory of European civilization. In Plato’s teachings, it was not just numbers and mathematical relations that had their source beyond the sensuous world, but also the essential form of such notions as truth, justice, and beauty;  the ideal form of each such notion enjoyed the purity of an eternal and transcendent existence outside of all bodily apprehension. Plato, that is, expanded Pythagoras’ heaven of pure numbers and proportions to include, as well, the pure and eternal “ideas” that lend their influence and guidance to human life. Indeed, according to several of the dialogues written by Plato for the students of his academy, every sensible thing — every entity that we directly experience with our senses — is but a secondary likeness of some archetypal form, or ideal, that alone truly exists. True and genuine existence belongs only to such ideal forms; the sensuous, earthly world, with its ceaseless changes, its shifting cycles of generation and decay — of coming to be and of passing away — is but an ephemeral facsimile of that more eternal dimension of pure, bodiless forms that, alone, genuinely exist. That dimension cannot be perceived by the body or the bodily senses: the reasoning intellect, alone, is able to apprehend that realm. According to Plato, the reasoning soul, or mind, can never be fully at home in this bodily world; its true source, and home, is in that bodiless realm of pure ideas to which the rational mind secretly longs to return. Genuine reality, for Plato, is elsewhere.

As the intellectual culture of ancient Greece mingled with other cultures in the Mediterranean region, including the monotheistic culture of ancient Israel, and as Pythagoras’ and Plato’s theories came in contact with the new religious impulses stirring on the edges of Hebraic culture, Plato’s eternal realm of pure forms — ostensibly the true home of the intellect — inspired and offered the model for a new notion of eternity: the Christian Heaven, or afterlife. And as this new belief was given shape by the early Christian fathers, this eternity beyond the stars became the dwelling place not so much of the questing intellect as of the faithful and pious soul.

Today, the Heaven of Christian belief, together with the various Heavens proper to other religious traditions, continues to exert a remarkable influence upon much of contemporary civilization. Even avowed atheists find their lives and their thoughts impacted by the collective belief in a heavenly realm presumed to exist radically outside of, or beyond, the palpable physicality of our carnal existence. Variously conceived as “the afterlife” or as “the dwelling place of God and his minions,” such realms are still assumed, by many, to be both the ultimate source of the sensuous world around us and the ultimate end and destiny of our apparent existence. Indeed, such transcendent realms still possess, for many of us, a clear primacy over the earthly world.

The Super-Small and the Ultra-Vast

The ancient fascination with numbers was not only formative for the emergence of Christian notions of Heaven; the mathematics it gave rise to also opened the way for the development of the secular sciences, and hence for the emergence of a host of abstract and increasingly otherworldly dimensions disclosed to us by those sciences. One such realm powerfully impacting our lives today is the supersmall dimension revealed by high energy physics: the subatomic world of protons and neutrons, of gluons and mesons and the mythical quarks of which they are composed, a world of electrons and neutrinos and perhaps, underneath all these, the vibrating one-dimensional loops, or superstrings,  that give rise to all such particles and their manifold interactions. Although very few of us have any clear apprehension of the subatomic world, or of the inscrutable particles that comprise it, we are continually assured by the physics community that this arcane realm is the ultimate source, or fundament, of all that we do apprehend: according to most contemporary physicists, the visible, tangible world glimpsed by our unaided senses is not at all fundamental, but is entirely composed and structured by events unfolding at scales far beneath the threshold of our everyday awareness.

And yet physicists are not the only band of scientists inviting us to look askance at the world that we directly experience. According to a majority of researchers in the neurosciences, the perceptual world that enfolds us — the world of oak trees and grasshoppers and children racing through the spray of a fire hydrant on a sweltering summer afternoon — is largely an illusion. Here, too, at the scale of our direct sensory experience, we must learn to recognize a dimension that is much more primary than our apparent experience; the realm of neurons firing and of neurotransmitters washing across neuronal synapses, of neural networks that interact with other neural networks, a ceaselessly ramifying web of patterns within patterns that continually generates — out of the endless array of photons cascading through our retinas and the sound waves splashing against our ear-drums and the gradients of chemical molecules wafting past our nasal ganglia — the more-or-less coherent appearance of the surrounding world that we are aware of at any moment. Although we have absolutely no intuitive apprehension of these events unfolding within the brain, our colleagues in the neurological sciences insist that such events provide the hidden infrastructure of all our perceptions. They  insist that this realm of neural networks and synaptic interactions must be carefully studied and understood if we really wish to know what is going on — that is, if we wish to truly understand just why the surrounding world appears to us as it does.

Meanwhile, in another set of laboratories, another group of intrepid researchers — molecular biologists tinkering with processes unfolding deep within the nuclei of our cells — have precipitated a collective suspicion that the real and unifying truth of things, at least for organic entities like ourselves, is to be found in the complexly coded structure of our chromosomes. After the discovery of the double-helix structure of deoxyribonucleic acid, or DNA, molecular biology has become the dominant field within the life sciences, with a majority of its practitioners attempting to isolate the specific sequences of DNA that compose particular genes, and to discern the manner in which these genes are transcribed, by multiple chemical reactions, to generate the host of proteins that compose both the living tissues of any organism and the manifold enzymes that catalyze its metabolism. In giant, massively-funded science initiatives like the Human Genome Project, researchers race to map the entirety of the human genome, while other researchers puzzle out the intricate epigenetic pathways whereby networks of genes interact to give rise to particular proclivities, dispositions,  and behaviors. Numerous high-profit corporations devoted to the burgeoning technology of genetic manipulation and modification are busy isolating or synthesizing the genes that ostensibly “code” for desirable traits, eagerly transplanting them into various plants and domestic animals in order to increase, presumably for human benefit, the productive yield of these organisms. Anyone even glancingly aware of these activities begins to suspect that the microscopic world of gene sequences and genetic interactions somehow determines our lives and our experiences. The ultimate source of our personality — of our habits, our appetites, our yearnings, and our decisions — would seem to be thoroughly hidden from our ordinary awareness, tucked inside the nuclei of our cells.

We are often assured that such scientific worlds are entirely continuous with one another — that the subatomic world of protons and quarks is nested within the molecular world that makes up our DNA, that the DNA in turn codes, among other things, for the neurons and neuronal patterns that weave our experience. In truth, however, these worlds do not so easily cohere, for the arcane language that enfolds each of these dimensions is largely closed to the others. Many of those who speak the language of the brain sciences believe that their discipline holds the key to all that we experience, yet an analogous conviction may be found among many who speak the very different discourse of molecular biology and the genome, as do those other experts who traffic in the lingo of particle physics. It may be useful to assume that there are multiple keys to the hidden truth of the world, each key unlocking its own realm; yet the precise relation between these unseen realms — or the precise way to understand the relation between these realities — remains mysterious.

Our access to many of these hidden dimensions was, of course, made possible by the invention of the microscope and its rapid evolution — from the simple optical instruments initially used by Anton Van Leeuwenhoek in the late 1600s to reveal the bacterial world, on up to the scanning-tunneling microscope and the atomic force microscope, which today enable us to examine, visually, the exact structure of a DNA molecule. While Van Leeuwenhoek’s microscopes revealed a dimension one hundred times smaller than the resolution of the human eye, today’s powerful instruments bring us into visual contact with entities fully a million times smaller than our unaided eyes can perceive!

One of the more unnerving jolts to our experience of the world around us (and, consequently, to our experience of ourselves) occurred at the dawn of the modern era, when Nicolaus Copernicus offered a wealth of evidence for his theory — later verified by Galileo — that the fiery Sun, rather than the Earth, lay at the center of the visible universe. What a dizzying disclosure! The revelation that our Earth revolves around the Sun, rather than the other way around, ran entirely contrary to the evidence of the unaided senses, and it precipitated a profound schism between the sensing body and the reflective, thinking intellect. Suddenly, even the most obvious testimony of our senses, which daily reveals the dynamic movement of the sun arcing across the sky and the unmoving Earth beneath our feet, had been dramatically undermined. Henceforth a new, modern distrust of the senses, and of the apparent world revealed by the bodily senses, began to spread throughout Europe. It is clarifying to recognize that Descartes’ audacious philosophical move, cleanly severing the thinking mind from the body — separating the world into two, independent orders: that of res cogitans (thinking stuff), or mind, and that of res extensa  (extended stuff), or matter — was largely motivated by this new and very disturbing state of affairs. For in order to maintain the Copernican worldview, the thinking mind had to hold itself entirely aloof, and apart, from the sensing body. Whether or not Descartes’ ploy was ultimately justifiable, his conceptual unshackling of the cogitating mind from the body’s world freed the modern intellect to explore not only the super-small realms of cells, atoms, and quarks, but also the ultra-vast spaces of star-clusters and galaxies.

And here as well, our access to the mind-shattering vastness of galactic space was made possible by technological instrumentation, in this case by the invention and development of the optical telescope. It was a simple telescope that enabled Galileo to closely observe the other planets and their moons, and so to verify the Copernican theory. Only later did astronomers, using more complex telescopes, recognize what Giordano Bruno had dared to envision in the 16th century (at the cost of his life) — that the myriad stars in the night sky are indeed other suns. And only in 1923 did Edwin Hubble demonstrate that those stars are clustered into galaxies, and that most of those galaxies lie far beyond our own local galaxy, the Milky Way. Today, an orbiting telescope that bears his name reveals not just hundreds, or thousands, but billions of galaxies. We have heard that these galaxies appear to be moving away from one another, and many of us have accepted, intellectually, the strange proposition that the universe is expanding. We have accepted, as well, the assumption of most astronomers and astrophysicists that our universe flared into existence in a primordial “Big Bang” (our most up to date version of the biblical creatio ex nihilo).  We’ve come to believe, quite matter-of-factly, in such logic-twisting phenomena as “black holes,” and in the rather confounding notion that, when looking up at a particular star in the night sky, we are in truth looking backward in time many thousands, or even millions, of years. Today, several of our most interesting and visionary astrophysicists and cosmologists suggest that this expanding universe of hundreds of billions of galaxies is in truth only one of an uncountable plenitude of actually existing universes…

An Outrageous Proliferation of Worlds

Thus, vying for our attention, today, are a host of divergent and weirdly discontinuous worlds. There is the almost impossibly small world of gluons and mesons and quarks, but also the infinitely vast cosmological field strewn with uncountable galaxies and galactic clusters. We may be drawn to penetrate the electro-chemical reality of neuronal interactions that moves behind our psychological life, or perhaps to ponder and participate in the complexly coded universe of genetic reality that lies at the root of all our proclivities and propensities, apparently determining so much of our behavior. Our desire may be stirred, today, not only by the religious heavens that many believe will supersede this world, or by the mathematical heaven of pure number and proportion toward which so many reasoning intellects still aspire, but also by the digital heaven of cyberspace, that steadily ramifying labyrinth wherein we may daily divest ourselves of our bodies and their cumbersome constraints in order to dialog with other disembodied persons who’ve logged on in other places, or perhaps to try on other, virtual bodies in order to explore other, wholly virtual, spaces.

This proliferation of worlds — this multiplication of realms both religious and secular, super-small and ultra-vast, collective and solitary — is not likely to slow down in the coming decades. The accelerating pace of technological development seems to ensure that the proliferation of spaces will continue to snowball. What is unclear, however, is whether the human mind can maintain its coherence while engaged in such a plural and discontinuous array, or disarray, of cognitive worlds. And if so, how?

Today, many persons rely on a kind of Alice in Wonderland strategy, taking one kind of cookie to shrink themselves down, and another to make them grow larger — popping one kind of pill to deal with the mass of digital information they must navigate at their desk jobs, another to deal with their cranky children at home, and still another to withstand the daily onslaught of sadness and hype to which they subject themselves whenever they turn on the News:

“The government of Nigeria today executed three members of the Ogoni tribe, including a world-famous poet, for protesting drilling by the Shell Oil Company on their ancestral lands…” “Mothers! Are your little ones getting the most out of their sleep? Researchers have shown that children under the age of ten have a harder time sleeping than they used to! Try ‘SedaKind™’, the patented sedative for children, now available in five flavors!” “Astro-physicists are scrambling to account for the evidence, published this week in Science, that the universe is several billion years younger than had been assumed…” “An earthquake in Kashmir has left many tens of thousands dead — but first, a message about your hair…!”

And so we tumble from one world to another, and from there to yet another, with no real translation between them: we slide straight from the horror of emaciated refugees running from the latest spate of ethnic cleansing to a bright and sparkly commercial for toothpaste. Turning off the television we may practice tai-chi for twenty minutes, tuning ourselves to the Tao, then go online to buy stocks in a genetech firm whose patented process for inducing cancer in lab mice promises huge short-term returns. The discontinuity — indeed, the sheer incommensurability — between many of the experiential worlds through which we careen on any given day, or which intersect the periphery of our awareness as we go about our business, entails a spreading fragmentation within our selves, like a crack steadily spreading through a china platter. We become increasingly multiple, without any clear way of translating between the divergent selves engendered by these different worlds — we seek to draw our coherence from whatever world we happen to be engaged by at any moment. Or else we become numb, ensuring that no encounter moves us more than any other encounter, that no phenomenon impinges upon us more than any other, maintaining our coherence at the cost of our sensitivity and vitality.

How, then, can we find a way to move, to navigate between worlds, without increasingly forfeiting our integrity, without consigning our minds and our lives ever more deeply to a kind of discombobulant confusion? Airplanes glide head-on into skyscrapers, to which the US president responds by asking citizens to keep shopping; he declares war on an uninvolved country and authorizes the CIA to start spying on environmentalists. Adolescent students strain, during the week, to make sense of evolutionary biology while being taught, on the weekend, that God designed the animals all at once; one unsuspecting eighth-grader posts a smiling photo of himself to an online acquaintance, and within weeks he’s receiving huge amounts of money (from countless people he’s never met) in exchange for stripping naked in front of his webcam every evening. South of the equator, indigenous, tribal communities that have long flourished without any notion of private property are abruptly plunged into the thick of modernity by the arrival of a television in their midst, or by the distribution of gifts by corporations eager to mine their ancestral lands. Such stark instances, for which there exist no maps to help negotiate between discontinuous realities, mirror a disarray becoming more familiar to each of us.

When it does not immediately threaten our way of life, the proliferation of experiential worlds can also, of course, be deliciously exhilarating — a wild ride that regularly spurs us into an alert and improvisational responsiveness akin, perhaps, to that known by white-water kayakers, or by jazz musicians. Can it be, then, that we must accept and adapt ourselves to this ongoing state of dispossession and estrangement? Is it possible that such ceaseless realignment must now become our home — that it is time to welcome the steady slippage from one world into another, from one set of landmarks into another strangely different set, and from thence into yet another, exchanging horizons and atmospheres like we now change clothes — becoming aficionados of the discontinuous and the fragmentary?

It is a tempting dream, but an impossible one. For in the complete absence of any compass, without a basic intuition of how these divergent universes nevertheless connect to one another — without a dependable way of balancing between realms — the exhilaration of steadily sailing from one wave-tossed medium into another cannot help but exhaust itself, giving way, in the end, to desperation, or to a numbed-out detachment void of all feeling.

But how, then, are we to find some equilibrium as we skid from realm to realm?  How to orient ourselves within this deepening proliferation of cognitive worlds? Perhaps by paying attention to the patterns that play across these different realms, seeking subtle correlations, sniffing the air for strangely familiar scents, striving to discern — hidden within this exploding matrix — the faint traces of a forgotten coherence. Perhaps by listening more closely we might glean certain clues to the way these diverse worlds conjoin. . . For indeed certain rhythms do seem to echo between various of these worlds, particular textures and tastes tug at the fringes of our awareness, reminding us of something. . .

Only by such a process of attention can we begin to discern the curious commonalities that are shared among various of these discontinuous dimensions. Only through such careful noticing are we brought to suspect that there may be a particular realm wherein all these common patterns cohere — that among this profusion of worlds there is a unique world that has left its trace upon all the others. A singular domain, indeed, that is the secret source, and ground, of all these other kingdoms; a remarkable realm that resides at the heart of all these others.

Yet how could this be? These experiential terrains seem far too incongruous, too incompossible, for them to be rooted in a common source. And how weirdly multiple and complex that source-world would have to be! If all these alien styles sprout out of the same land, how outrageously fecund and enigmatic would be that place!

Still, what a boon it would be to discover a specific scape that lies at the heart of all these others. For if there is such a secret world among all these — if there is a particular experiential realm that provides the soil and support for all these others — then that primordial zone would somehow contain, within its fertile topology, a kind gateway onto each of these other landscapes. And by making our home in that curious zone, we would have ready access to all those other realms — and could venture into them at will, exploring their lineaments and becoming acquainted with their denizens without, however, forfeiting all sense of orientation. We’d know that any world we explore remains rooted in that mysterious terrain where we daily reside, and so we could wander off into any of these other spaces without thereby losing our bearings; it would suffice simply to step back over a single threshold to find again our common ground.

But surely it would be common knowledge, by now, if there were (among all these diverse domains) a unique world that somehow opened directly onto all these others! Surely it would be a truth taught to us all by our parents and professors as we gradually grew up into this dizzying situation! So we would expect. . . unless: unless the one realm that secretly holds the seeds of all these others has, traditionally, been the most disparaged and despised world of all — unless it is a place our elders prefer to ignore, the one dimension our scientific institutions all habitually overlook and forget. If, that is, this particular domain has conventionally been construed as the most derivative and drab dimension of all — the only realm consistently vilified by our traditions — then perhaps our inability to notice this world and take it seriously (and our reluctance to acknowledge its unruly magic), can be more readily understood.

The Blood and the Sap

The taken-for-granted world of which I speak is, of course, none other than the world we directly experience with our unaided senses — the realm of scents, tastes, and textures in which we are sensorially immersed. Long derided by our religious traditions as a fallen and sinful dimension, continually marginalized by scientific discourse as a secondary, derivative, and hence ultimately inconsequential zone — how shall we characterize the the sensuous world? It is the inexhaustible field of our unmediated experience, the very realm in which you now sit or recline, feeling the weight of your limbs as they settle within the chair, or the rough texture of the ground as it presses up against your flesh. It is the domain of smells wafting in from the kitchen, this field of rippling and raucous sounds, of shifting shapes and of colors: the smudged white surface of the ceiling overhead, or the rumpled gray of the gathering clouds outside the window, their shadows sliding slowly across the road and the bending grasses.

This, in other words, is the body’s world — that elemental terrain of contact wherein your tongue searches out a stray piece of lettuce stuck between your teeth, a fleshly zone animated by the thrumming ache within your skull and the claustrophobic feel of the shoes around your feet. Yet the sensuous field is animated by so much more than your own body; it is steadily fed by the body of the apple-tree and of the old oak with its roots stretching deep into the soil, and the swollen bodies of the clouds overhead, and the warm, asphalt skin of the street, and the humming bulk of the refrigerator in the next room. This living, carnal field seems to breathe with your own moods, yet it’s influenced, as well, by the rhythm of the rain now starting to pound on the roof, and by the dark scent of newly drenched leaves and grass and soil that drifts through the house when you swing open the front door. Shall we step out under those pelting drops to rescue the morning newspaper? Or perhaps that’s too timid for a hot day — haven’t we done enough reading? Why not toss this book into the corner, pry off our shoes and charge out under the trees to stomp and splash in the gathering puddles?

Why not, indeed? Lets do it! Since this –THIS! — is the very world we most need to remember! — this undulating Earth that we inhabit with our animal bodies. This place of thirst and of cool water, this realm where we nurse our most palpable wounds, where we wince at our mistakes, and wipe our tears, and sleepily make love in the old orchard while bird-pecked apples loll on the grass all around us — this world pulsing with our blood and the sap of pinon pines and junipers, awake with the staring eyes of owls and sleepy with the sighs of alley cats, this is the realm in which we most deeply live.

Sadly, it is also the world we have most thoroughly forsaken.

Of course, we have not entirely  lost touch with this place, where the moon slides in and out of the clouds, and the trees send down their thirsty roots, our nostrils flaring at the moistness of the night-breeze. Our flesh calls us back to this earthly place whenever we are injured or sick, whenever we need to wash the dishes by hand, or clean out the overflowing roof-gutters, or simply to empty our bladders and bowels on the toilet. Whenever we stumble and hurt ourselves (scraping our knee or tearing the skin on our arm); when one of our tools breaks or one of our technologies breaks down, we must turn our attentions, if only for a moment, to the bothersome constraints of this gravity-laden Earth that grips our bodies. Yet we’ll linger only as long as we must; we know well that this messy world, with its stains and pockmarks and pimples, is not our destined kingdom. As soon we’ve bandaged our knee, or repaired the dishwasher, or wiped our bottom, we turn our attentions back toward those other, more compelling worlds. We turn back toward the computer screen, or toward the next page of our latest book on how to survive in the digital economy, or toward the churning sounds of a favorite audio disk pulsing out of our high-fidelity speakers; we dial our colleague on the cell phone to ask if she can join us at next week’s conference on the most recent gene-splicing techniques; or perhaps we plunge our attention back into our meditations on the transcendental unity hidden behind the experienced world. It never occurs to us that the most profound unity may reside in the very depths of the experienced world itself, in the unfolding web of interdependent relations that ceaselessly draws the apparently disparate presences of the sensuous cosmos, ourselves included, into subtle communion with one another.

The enveloping Earth — this richly variant world alive with the swaying limbs of trees and the raucous honking of geese — is, of course, the very context in which the human body and nervous system took their current form. Our senses, that is, have coevolved with the diverse textures, shapes, and sounds of the earthly sensuous: our eyes have evolved in subtle interaction with other eyes, and our ears are attuned by their very structure to the howling of wolves and the thrumming of crickets. Whether floating, for eons, as the single-celled entities that were our earliest biotic ancestors, or swimming in huge schools through the depths of the oceans, whether crawling upon the land as amphibians, or racing beneath the grasses as small mammals, or swinging from branch to branch as primates, our bodies have continually formed themselves in delicate reciprocity with the manifold forms of the animate Earth. Our nervous systems are thoroughly informed by the particular gravity of this sphere, by the way the sun’s light filters down through the sky, and by the cyclical tug of Earth’s moon. In a very palpable sense we are fashioned of this Earth, our attentive bodies coevolved in rich and intimate rapport with the other bodies — animals, plants, mountains, rivers — that compose the shifting flesh of this breathing world.

Hence it is the animate, more-than-human terrain — this earthly cosmos that carnally enfolds us — that has lent us our particular proclivities and gifts, our specific styles of behavior. The structure of our senses, our modes of perception, our unique habits of thought and contemplation, have all been profoundly informed by the mysterious character of the earthly world in which we still find ourselves. The sensuous terrain — the material Earth as it meets our senses — thus provides the inescapable template for our experience of every other world we devise or discover. Whether we are plugging into cyberspace or simply synapsing ourselves to the page of a new novel, whether we are mathematically exploring the sub-microscopic realm of vibrating, ten-dimensional strings or pondering the ultra-vast tissue of galaxies revealed by a new generation of radio-telescopes, we cannot help but interpret whatever we glimpse of these worlds according to predilections derived from the one world in which we uninterruptedly live — this bodily place, this palpable Earth where we still breathe and burp and make love. Our intuitions regarding the lineaments of Heaven are inevitably shaped by those sensuous experiences that seem to correspond with such a place of equanimity and ease (luminous clouds drifting in the celestial blue, or a ray of sunlight that suddenly pours through a rent in those clouds and spills itself across a green hillside) and hence our religious heavens inevitably borrow their imagined structure from the evocative structures of this earthly cosmos. The way we envision the workings of DNA and the complex interactions between genes is similarly influenced by our encounter with the way things unfold at the scale of our most direct, unmediated experience of the sensuous Earth around us. How could it be otherwise? It is our age-old encounter with the world at this scale that has provided the very organs by which we see and peer through all our microscopes and telescopes, that has fashioned the complex hands and keen eyes that now design our computer models!

Our comprehension of neuronal structures within the brain, and our surmises regarding the way those structures interact, is profoundly limited by the fact that those neurons did not evolve in isolation from the senses in their ongoing intercourse with the world. The human brain, that is, did not evolve in order to analyze itself — rather it evolved its particular structures as a consequence of our bodily engagement with the sensuous surroundings, and hence has a natural proclivity to help us orient and relate to those ambiguous and ever-shifting surroundings. Whenever we attempt to focus the brain back upon itself, or upon any other dimensions — whether subatomic or galactic — it cannot help but bring those predispositions to bear, anticipating gravity, ground and sky where they are not necessarily to be found, interpreting data according to the elemental constraints common to our two-legged species, yielding an image of things profoundly informed by our animal body and its accustomed habitat.

There is much to be gleaned from our investigations into other scales and dimensions, yet we consistently err by assuming our studies provide an objective assessment of the way these realms really are in themselves. In order to convince ourselves of the rigor and rightness of our investigations, we consistently ignore, or overlook, the embodied nature of all our thoughts and our theories; we negate or repress our carnal presence and proceed as though — in both our scientific and our spiritual endeavors — we were pure, disembodied minds, unconstrained by our animal form, or by our carnal and perceptual entwinement with the animate Earth.

Thus do our sciences, like our religions, perpetuate the age-old disparagement of sensorial reality.  The experienced Earth lends something of its atmosphere to every world that we can conceive, and hence haunts these other worlds like a phantom. Each of the diverse and multiply divergent worlds that cacaphonously claim our attention in this era — whether scientific or sacred, virtual or psychodelic, sub-microscopic or super-cosmological — is haunted by the animate Earth. Each is haunted, in some fashion, by the distant draw of all our thoughts toward that vast and enigmatic horizon that first drew those thoughts forth. Of course many of our professors, priests, and scientists prefer not to confront such vague presences that threaten, out on the very edge of our awareness, to disrupt all our certainties. Still, even the most confident scientists must sometimes find themselves wondering, late at night, how we can have gleaned such marvelous insights into the hidden structure of the universe when the most evident and apparent world that materially surrounds us seems to be choking and retching, its equilibrium disrupted and its diverse plants and animals tumbling into oblivion as a result of our human obliviousness. Can we really trust our apparently brilliant discoveries regarding the unseen causes that move the cosmos when our own local cosmos seems to be falling apart all around us, apparently as a result of our collective inattention? Is it possible that we have forgotten something, that some crucial element of our intelligence has been overlooked or misplaced? Indeed, is it not likely that everything we think we know about other worlds (super-small and super-vast, technological and philosophical) has been distorted by our refusal to recognize our thorough embedment in this world — by our refusal to acknowledge and account for the utter entanglement not only of our bodies but of our minds (our rarefied intellects) within this mysterious lattice of intertwined lives and living elements that we call Earth?

Ethics and Otherness

Of course, the fragmentation and loss of coherence experienced in our individual lives echoes a profound discombobulation within the larger community.  In the absence of a common or broadly shared world, ethical instincts  — including a basic respect for others, and the mutual restraint and conviviality that hold a community together — steadily lose their grip, and indeed morality gradually comes to seem a largely arbitrary matter. When each of us expends so much energy and time engaged in worlds not shared by our neighbors (or even by the other members of our family), when we continually direct our attentions to dimensions hidden above, behind, or beneath the shared world to which our senses give us access, it should come as little surprise that the common sense is impoverished, along with any clear instinct for the common good.

And yet an ethical compass — a feeling for what is right (or at least decent), and perhaps more important, for what is not right — is especially crucial in such an era as this, when our technological engagement in other dimensions gives individuals a far greater power to manipulate experience, to violate others’ lives and privacy, to inflict large-scale terror, and even to eradicate whole aspects of the real. Yet how is a genuinely ethical sensibilityinstilled and encouraged? How is an ethical sense (or, more simply, a good heart) born? Real ethics is not primarily a set of abstract principles; it is not, first, a set of “rules” (or “commandments) that can be memorized and then applied in appropriate situations. Ethics, first and foremost, is a feeling in the bones, a sense that there’s something amiss when one sees a neighbor kicking his dog, that there’s something wrong about hastening to one’s work past a stranger who has tripped and fallen, her grocery bags torn, with their pears, cabbage heads, and a busted bottle of olive oil strewn along the sidewalk. Yet from whence comes the impulse to stop and help? The impulse to intervene with the teenagers stomping on a line of ants, or simply to refrain from taking advantage of another’s bad luck — where do these impulses come from?

It seems unlikely that the ethical impulse can be learned, simply, from the pages of a book (not even from a book as deeply instructive as the Torah or the Koran). Still less can it be learned from the screen of a computer. For while these media readily engage the cognizing mind in various of its aspects, they cannot engage the whole of the cognizing body (this animate, intelligent creature with its muscled limbs and organs and skin) in the way that any face-to-face encounter, in the flesh, engages the whole body. It is in the flesh and blood world of our bodily actions and engagements that ethics has its real bearing. It is here, in this irreducibly ambiguous and uncertain world in which we live with the whole of our beings — with our hands and our feet and our faces, with our bellies as well as our brains — that we are most vulnerable, most affected by the kindness of others, or by their neglect and disrespect. It is here, in this mortal world, that we are most susceptible to violence.

Of course we can strive to be basically responsible when engaged in those other, less palpable realms — for instance, when we are cruising the internet, or responding to a mountain of email, we can certainly try to respect electronic perspectives that are different from our own, or to refrain from violating the integrity and the privacy of other participants. Similarly, we can attempt to be ethical in our experimental researches with gene sequences, or in our laboratory experiments with nanotechnology, or in our electronic explorations of other planets. Yet unless we are already striving to act appropriately in our day-to-day, face-to-face interactions with the things and entities immediately around us, at the very scale at which we live — unless we are grappling with the difficult ambiguity of interacting with other persons and other beings without doing violence to those others — then we have no reason to trust that our more abstract, virtual engagements are genuinely ethical or good-hearted at all. For it is only in this corporeal, earthly world that we are fully vulnerable to the consequences of our decisions and acts.

In those less corporeal dimensions (whether religious, scientific, or technological) we may readily find ourselves interacting with certain ideal presences that have been richly envisioned by our religious traditions, or with various provisional entities hypothesized by our fellow scientists, or with virtual beings invented and programmed for our entertainment. In such abstract, transcendent, and virtual worlds, in other words, we commonly encounter phenomena that may or may not be our own creation — we find ourselves interacting, there, with the manifold artifacts and projections of our own, richly imaginative species. But in the more immediate, palpable world to which our bodily senses give us access, we encounter not only human creations but other creative entities — other persons as unfathomable as ourselves, and other earthborn entities whose sensations and experiences are even more unfathomable and mysterious. It is only here, in the earthly world of our bodily engagements, that we continually come into contact with beings (persons, deer, spiders, hawks) whom we can be sure are not primarily our own fabrications,  but are really other — other selves, other centers of experience richly different from our own.

Even when we encounter another human person over the internet (or via the telephone, or any other technological medium), it is but a filtered and flattened trace of that other person, mediated by electronic circuitry and satellite technology, a virtual presence with which we interact only by (unconsciously) filling out this phantom with our own inadvertent projections and assumptions regarding how our interlocutor really appears at this moment, what sort of things she is doing while tapping out these messages to us on her keyboard or while talking to us on the phone, what is or is not going on around her, what sort of mood she is in, etc.. Whenever we interact with other persons through electronic and digital media it is necessarily a somewhat abstract interaction, and it is difficult to discern whether we are not interacting more with our own projections than with the reality of this other being. However, when I encounter another person in the flesh — both of us immersed in the same context, or place, breathing the same air and enveloped by the same textures and colors and sounds — then I cannot so easily shield myself from the evident otherness of this other person. Assumptions and even projections still inevitably come into play, yet here our projections are far more constrained by the visible, audible, and tactile presence of this other breathing body (by a range of subtle facial expressions, gesticulations, and silent gestures that cannot readily be conveyed via any technological medium — indeed by the countless subtle cues by which breathing bodies in proximity communicate feelings and moods to one another beyond the horizon of our conscious awareness).

It is thus in the sensuous world that we most readily find ourselves confronted by what is genuinely, and indubitably, other than ourselves. It is only in this sensorial terrain that we continually find ourselves in relation to other active agencies that are clearly not of our own making, to a world whose elemental lineaments we can be sure we did not devise. It is only here that we know we are in contact with what really exceeds us. And hence it is here, in this earthly world, that ethical questions have their primary bearing. It is here, first and foremost, that ethical action really matters.

And thus it is here, in the sensorial world, that an ethical sensibility is first engendered in any person. The seeds of compassion are sown in the palpable field of our childhood encounters with other sensitive and sentient bodies, in that richly ambiguous land where we gradually learn — through our pleasures and painful wounds, and through the rage and the tears of others — to give space to those other bodies, gradually coming to recognize in their sounds and gestures and expressions a range of sensations strangely akin to our own, and so slowly coming to feel a kind of spontaneous, somatic empathy with other beings and with our commonly inhabited world. It is this early, felt layer of solidarity with other bodies and with the bodily Earth that provides both the seeds and the soil necessary for any more mature sense of ethics; it is this non-verbal, corporeal ability to feel something of what others feel  that, given the right circumstances, can later grow and blossom into a compassionate life.

The child’s spontaneous somatic solidarity with others is inevitably a tentative and tenuous phenomenon, a layer of experience that emerges only when a child is free to engage, with the whole of her or his muscled and sensitive organism, in the animate world that immediately surrounds her. This quietly empathic layer of experience can arise, that is, only when the child is free to explore, at her own pace, this terrain of scents, shapes and textures inhabited by other sensuous and sentient forms (by trees and insects and rain and houses), and so to discover, gradually, how to resonate with the other palpable presences that surround. It can arise only when the child is not deflected from such spontaneous, sensory explorations by being forced to engage, all too quickly, in the far more abstract and disembodied dimensions that beckon through the screen of a television or a computer.

How much violence has been done, in the latter half of the twentieth century, by planting our children in front of the television! How many imaginations have been immobilized, how much sensorial curiosity and intercorporeal affinity has been stunted by our easy substitution of the television screen, with its eye-catching enticements, for the palpable presence of another person ready to accompany us on adventurous explorations of our mysterious locale? The screen of the computer, too, requires us to immobilize our gaze, and to place our other senses, along with our muscles, out of play. It isolates and engages only a narrow slice of a child’s sensorium, inviting her to set aside the full-bodied world that she shares with the fiery sun and the swooping birds. We should be properly cautious, then, regarding all the new education initiatives aimed at “placing computers in every classroom.” We should be profoundly skeptical about every exhortation by so-called experts to bring our children “on-line” as rapidly as possible in order to ensure their readiness and eventual competitiveness in the new “information economy.” There is of course nothing wrong with the computer, nor with the astonishing realms now so rapidly being opened for us by the wondrous capability of our computers — as long as we bring to these new realms both the curiosity and the restraint, the creativity and ethical savvy that grow out of our full-bodied encounters with others in the thick of the earthly sensuous.  But if we plug our kids into the computer as soon as they are able to walk, we short-circuit the very process by which they could acquire such creativity and such restraint.

The Escape from Materiality

The final years of the twentieth century bore witness to the spread of a new and heartbreaking form of violence among young people in the United States. In every part of the country, increasing numbers of teens were bringing firearms with them to school, and in the course of three years, from October 1997 to April 1999,  seven different kids around the continent had opened fire on their schoolmates, killing twenty-nine people and wounding almost twice as many. Numerous other children, in other communities, were arrested or detained on the suspicion of intending to wreak similar havok. The most collectively traumatic of these events — every one of which seemed to mirror, for the culture as a whole, a vast societal abyss previously unsuspected by most citizens — was the massacre at Littleton High School in Colorado on April 20, 1999, when two seniors, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, walked through the halls gunning down thirty-five students and a teacher apparently at random (thirteen of them fatally) before turning their guns upon themselves. As the culture, along with the survivors, staggered through the cycle of shock, numbness, and outrage, the media straightaway began to focus the collective dismay upon the two adolescent killers themselves: Time Magazine placed the genial faces of Klebolt and Harris on the cover of that week’s issue, accompanied by the stark headline, in large block letters, “THE MONSTERS NEXT DOOR.” Numerous other journals, as well, depicted the two as “monsters;” in later weeks Time went on to describe the boys as “bad seeds” and “Natural Born Killers.” This easy demonization of Harris and Klebolt gave many in the populace a precise target for their outrage; it also helped ensure that few of us would recognize and come to terms with our own complicity in such careless violence. For it is likely that Klebolt and Harris were not at all deranged monsters, but rather impressionable kids who played out, and so made visible for all of us, a growing shadow that belongs to the culture a whole.

Predictably, many of those whose children were killed or wounded in the Littleton shooting have chosen to blame the parents of Harris and Klebold, and are pressing huge legal suits against these couples already struggling under a grief and shame unimaginable to most persons, having lost their own children in such an outrageous manner. (By all accounts of those who know them, including the repeated assertions of young Harris and Klebolt on video tapes that they recorded just before their bloody rampage, their parents were good and caring folks — if a bit lax in monitoring their children’s pastimes) A few of the bereaved have channeled their anger in a more constructive manner, and are working hard to convince lawmakers to enact stronger and more comprehensive legal restrictions on the purchase of guns. Other persons have reacted to the spread of school killings by decrying the ubiquitous violence in the entertainment industry and, in particular, the vicarious mayhem and murderousness of several very popular video-games.  Yet while such folks angrily critique the  content of the interactive entertainments and diversions now so readily accessible over the internet, few — if any — have noticed that the very form of the new digital universe, when continually engaged by children not yet fully awake to the wild complexity of the sensuous world, inevitably encourages a rather reckless disregard for this comparatively drab, difficult, and very mortal world in which they haplessly find themselves stuck whenever they’re forced to go offline.

Young Klebold and Harris — like the other teenagers (ranging from eleven to seventeen years of age) who shot up their own schools in Mississippi, Kentucky, Oregon, and Arkansas — were members of the very first generation of youth that had been brought up online; the first generation that had essentially grown up in steady and prolonged involvement with the computer. Most had been eagerly encouraged, by both parents and teachers, to actively engage in the rapidly emerging technology — not merely to access information but to plunge in and participate in the ongoing evolution of electronic worlds. Interacting with other screen personas without having to endure the strangeness and vulnerability of a face-to-face encounter, activating their curiosities and exercising their instincts for exploration and adventure without risk of physical pain or suffering, many children enjoy a far more exciting and compelling life online than they do in the palpable, bodily world with its boring rules and its tiresome rulekeepers. All around them, these kids notice adults and elders visibly trashing the directly-experienced world — fouling the air with the visible exhaust from their cars on the freeway, clearcutting hillsides and paving over wild lots and wetlands. They hear at school that growing numbers of species are tumbling over the brink of extinction due to the destruction of habitat by adult institutions and corporations supported by their country’s government, and that still other species are being genetically “engineered” by highly respected scientists to better suit the needs of human beings.  Kids and teenagers cannot help but notice, in other words, that the society of adults pays scant heed to the diverse otherness and integrity of earthly reality. Nor can they avoid noticing the innumerable gestures of obeisance made by those same adults toward a host of ostensibly more valuable realities clearly transcendent to the sensorial world — whether toward a religious heaven or afterlife hidden beyond the visible, or toward a subatomic reality hidden beneath the appearances, or toward that purely numerical heaven (composed of either abstract equations or huge sums of money) that seems to determine so much of what happens in the apparent world. American children, in other words, cannot help but imbibe the deep disdain of their parents’ culture for the body’s world — a disdain and a dismissal implicit in the collective assumptions, the discourse, and the actions of all who are “well adjusted” to the society.

Such a culture offers little, or nothing, to counterbalance the fascination that many children now have for the open-ended, interactive expanse of cyberspace. Is it any wonder that, having grown up spending far more time interacting with the digital screen than with palpable people, many teenagers begin to suspect that cyberspace is the truer and finer realm, and that fleshly, carnal reality is but a paltry substitute or delusion? Is not this suspicion a logical extension of their civilization’s age-old disparagement of the earthly sensuous? (After all, Plato himself — launching the entire enterprise of Western philosophy — taught that the ambiguous, shifting world to which our senses give us access was at best a facsimile of that eternal, bodiless realm hidden beyond the stars, and that one’s soul, or self, is trapped in this earthly body as in a prison). And if some kids conclude that their suspicion is correct, and that the bodily world of siblings and school is a bothersome illusion, are they not simply following the implicit lesson of a civilization that ceaselessly paves over the living land on behalf of technological progress and the technological dream of immortality?

It is possible, of course, that the two killers in Littleton were really “bad seeds” — two malignant and vicious “natural born killers” thirsty to inflict as much pain and death upon as many of their cohorts as they could manage. Yet this seems unlikely, especially given the reports of those who knew them. What is far more likely is that these two boys lacked any clear sense of the real substantiality, the depth, the real weight and gravity and palpable actuality of this commonly shared material world, relative to the virtual universe of websites and video games and richly designed virtual worlds in which they spent so much of their time. It is entirely possible that they were no more trying to really destroy people than they were trying to liberate people from the delusion that this rather painful material world — of schoolwork and taunts and family stresses and chores — has any meaningful reality or weight whatsoever.

The closest friend of Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris was Brooks Brown — a classmate who had been Klebolt’s best friend through much of their childhood, and had recently been hanging out with Harris as well. Brown acknowledges that Klebold and Harris had mischievous tendencies, that they were drawn — like many teens — toward darkly shadowed aspects of experience, and that they carried some real resentment toward the football jocks who often taunted them at school. Yet according to Brooks Brown, “What they did wasn’t about anger or hate. It was about them living in the moment, like they were inside a video game.”[1]  A reporter interviewing Brooks Brown seems taken aback by Brown’s honest inability to construe his friends as bloodthirsty murderers, and by his contrary sense that during their rampage “the flesh and blood of the maimed and dying was no more real to them than pixels on a video monitor,” and hence that there was no great need to take their suffering seriously.[2]  Yet Brooks Brown’s perspective is an astute one, and it is probably far more insightful, and far more attuned to his friends’ experience, than the myriad analyses of all the adult experts trying to parse the event and its causes.

Curiously, in the same month that the Littleton massacre unfolded, a remarkable new film, entitled The Matrix, began showing at the suburban cinemas across the United States. A richly conceived and audaciously filmed science-fiction thriller, The Matrix followed the story of its central character, the computer hacker Neo (played by Keanu Reeves) as he gradually awakens to the fact that the everyday world of sights and sounds and smells that he, and everyone else, inhabits is a complex fabrication, a carefully constructed illusion calculated to lull the minds of its human inhabitants and so to keep them from suspecting the horrific reality of their situation: that humankind has been overcome and enslaved by a vast machine that is steadily drawing their vital fluids to power its various schemes. The “matrix” is the name given to this fabricated reality that holds everyone — except for Neo and a motley crew of renegade comrades — in its thrall.

“Matrix,” of course, is the Latin word for “womb;” it derives from the Latin word “mater” (meaning “mother”), and is cognate with the words “matter” and “material.” The premise of the film is that the material world around us — the sensorial matrix in which we find ourselves immersed — is itself no more than a collective delusion, an entirely virtual reality that holds us enslaved, and from which we must liberate ourselves by arduous mental discipline — and by computer-hacking our way behind the visible world into the hidden machinery that holds that world in place. For all its contemporary technological trappings, The Matrix, in this sense, is a profoundly Platonic film, and its runaway success among youth suggests the remarkable extent to which the Platonic faith — the belief in a truerreality hidden behind the sensuous world — has persisted as a structuring leitmotif for Western civilization down to the present moment, and indeed has attained a kind of apotheosis in the age of cyberspace.

The action sequence at the film’s climax takes place in a corporate building that houses the headquarters of the robot villains who are foisting the illusionary world upon the oblivious human race. Neo and his partner, Trinity, walk into this institutional building dashingly dressed in black trench coats. The trench coats conceal a small arsenal of guns and explosives, which Neo and Trinity soon deploy in a artfully choreographed display of vengeful firepower, obliterating the various guards and demolishing the marble walls and pillars of the lobby. When watching the film it is difficult to avoid the resemblance between this pair of trench-coated heroes and young Harris and Klebolt striding into their own institutional building, similarly bedecked with guns and explosives hidden under their own dark trench-coats, intent on their own Armageddon. Like the two figures in The Matrix, Harris and Klebolt striding into their high school are ready and eager to loose their rage on an accepted everyday world that they find intensely oppressive and pathetically overrated, and as they launch their carnage they seem to feel justified in violently exposing this stultifying reality as a sham.

The convergence and similarity between these two events (one fictional, one actual) which became visible in the culture at precisely the same moment, each of them carefully planned and prepared long in advance, should make us all pause, and should stir second thoughts in those who would classify Harris and Klebold as aberrant monsters. Clearly these two were enacting impulses that were brewing more broadly under the surface of the collective culture. Similarly The Matrix — with its multiple guns concealed under gothic trench-coats, its fascination with computer-mediated virtual realities, its suspicion that the visible, tangible world is something of a hoax, and its righteous rage against the boring constraints of this all-too-complacently accepted world — crystallized the zeitgeist of the first generation of teenagers to have grown up online.

Klebold and Harris gave themselves to that zeitgeist with a vengeance. Did either of them ever doubt that they would have the guts to follow through with their scheme? Probably. Dylan Klebold had even made a date for the evening after the massacre at which he and Harris killed themselves.[3]  On April 21st, he and two friends were going out to see a new film called The Matrix.

Drinking the Rain

We can have little hope of rejuvenating a collective sense of the ethical without beginning to acknowledge and honor the forgotten primacy of the one world that we all have in common. Strangely, the only world we all have in common is the very world that we share with the other animals and the plants — this earthly dimension of wind and water and sky, shivering with seeds and warmed by the sun. Hence, it seems unlikely that we will locate a lasting ethic without rediscovering our solidarity with all those other shapes of sentience, without remembering ourselves to the swallows and the meandering rivers.

We are understandably fascinated by the rich promise of our technologies, and deliciously dazzled by the new experiential realms opened to us by the genius of the electronic and digital revolution. Yet our enthrallment with our own creations is steadily fragmenting our communities and our selves; our uncritical participation with technology risks eclipsing the one realm that alone can provide the guidance for all our technological engagements. Indeed, only one realm is sufficiently outrageous and inexhaustibly complex enough to teach us the use and misuse of our own creations.

Only by remembering ourselves to the sensuous Earth, only by recalling ourselves to this bodily land that we share with the other animals and the plants, and rediscovering this place afresh, do we have a chance of integrating the multiple and divergent worlds that currently vie for our attentions. Only by rooting ourselves here, recovering our ageless solidarity with this breathing world — feeling the fur on our flesh, drinking the rain, and listening close to the wind as it whirls through the city streets — only thus do we have a chance of learning to balance and to navigate among the multiple worlds that now claim our attention at the outset of a new millennium.

To paraphrase the words of Paul Eluard at the start of this essay: there are many, many other worlds, yes, but they are all hidden within this one. And so to neglect this humble, imperfect, and infinitely mysterious world is to recklessly endanger all the others.


[1]  Quoted in “Portrait of a Deadly Bond,” in the May 10, 1999 issue of Time magazine, p. 32.

[2] Ibid. These are not Brown’s words, but those of a reporter describing Brown’s viewpoint.

[3] Pam Belluck and Jodi Wilgoren, “Shattered Lives: Columbine Killers’ Pasts Hid Few Predictors of Tragedy,” The New York Times, July 6, 1999.


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