Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Pierre Lecompte du Noüy

Pierre Lecompte du Noüy, a prominent French doctor, wrote a book intended for a general readership titled Human Destiny, and evidently it was popular even in translation else I might never have seen it. It came out in 1947. I stumbled across it in our local library. Our library is small, despite the wealth around here—and no theme visible—unless it is to buy what seem to be advanced books of the popular kind. So here was Human Destiny, its subject, broadly-speaking, evolution. And I took it home to read.

Du Noüy was a distinguished scientist although he came from an artistic family. His mother was a well-known novelist, his father an architect. Little of that spirit clung to the doctor, however. In a somewhat minor key he belongs to the transitional generation in which I place figures like de Chardin and Jung—people who were emerging from the forest of science into the dim outer edges of light—and people who had real difficulty shaking the residues of materialism even though inwardly drawn to the higher ranges.

The book is one of those bottom-up theories in which spirituality is born of matter. In du Noüy’s case evolution ultimately produces what he labels “conscience”; he pictures morality as the future path of evolution. Conscience will somehow lead to another leap in some remote time. The doctor offers very meager hopes for individuals in that he seems to doubt that “souls” exist and thus continue beyond the grave. His focus of admiration is “human dignity.” He also embraces the piety that seems to have come down to us from the nineteenth century—held by scientifically inclined but well-meaning people (like my Mother)—that we “live on” through our deeds and contributions. Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori, etc. The man must have been a moral paragon to think that such a view could possibly inspire mankind to heroic self-denial; at bottom his vision offers no hope for the individual. But du Noüy was clearly not an intuitive, poetic type and therefore missed a whole dimension of his theme. He thought that the miracle—at least the last miracle—was the human brain—which tells me that he never pondered the paradoxes of consciousness or the mysteries of inner life. The book has a distinctly nineteenth century flavor. The New Age had been born (Mary Baker Eddy had died in 1910) but was still just a child…

Nonetheless Human Destiny is valuable. The scientific presentation—contra positivism—is very well, expertly argued. True, the book fizzles out as it advances and we discover that overcoming the body and embracing a purified form of Christianity is our destiny—and that thereby we shall create Spirit, as it were. But what struck me as most telling was that du Noüy ultimately gets stuck on the brain. He is satisfied with his solution because he finds “conscience” on the one hand and “free will” on the other—the two pillars of morality, which is his aim. He is moved by love of his ancient tradition, which I assume from context is Catholicism; the book is structured to preserve this tradition up to a point. But while the Catholic project is to save souls, the goal for du Noüy is in the world itself: ultimate salvation lies somewhere in the future when vast majorities shall have at last embraced the evolutionary project. In effect, while referring to this future, he doesn’t actually “go there,” as we say today. And his knowledge of the “other tradition” is quite minimal and deficient.

Du Noüy’s half-way stop, half-way in matter, not quite all the way out of it and thus in the pure light of spirit, arises because he saw evolution as a relentless but unconscious filling of every ecological niche, seeking and experimenting until it finally achieved us. He is stuck on the brain because spirit and brain seem absolutely fused, but the brain evolved, hence had to have priority. But everything depends on where you start. I find it much easier to see spirit as prior and matter facilitating its action in a material dimension. But never mind that. What du Noüy thought that he saw is the emergence of spirit; deep down he was a progressive. What I see when I look around is more of the same, with or without spirit. With humanity’s emergence—if emergence it was, rather than arrival—evolution certainly expands, but where it trends is the same old place. It continues to build even bigger structures: institutions, nations, and empires this time. These, in turn, develop ever better nervous systems, economies, and modes of controlling their cellular components, namely us, while retaining the same sorts of reactive but ultimately stupid behaviors that the dinosaurs already had. A lack of mind, of real awareness, is strongly evident despite the lively chatter. The collective does not seem to hear the little wisdom that it occasionally produces.

My own walk-about tells me that du Noüy was wrong in thinking that evolution will be collective. The natural tendency of aggregation into ever greater wholes continues, but the outcomes one envisions are rather ominous: devastating wars or ecological disasters. Like Teilhard de Chardin, who came well after him, du Noüy evidently anticipated some kind of new miraculous event suddenly arising from massed Christian morality. For de Chardin this was the noosphere; and that scientific priest even envisioned the hand of evolution hard at work in concentrating people along the coastlines and the waterways of the continents. He should see these cities now. Whatever else they are—and clearly they are an evolution, along with satellites, computers, and the Internet—they are not spirit in any genuine sense of the word.

Indeed, I get apocalyptic images as I look at the shape of the future. It seems as if, after man came on the scene, the locus of evolution shifted to mankind and new creatures are now arising from within the human mass as various semi-conscious collectives. They both exist as independent institutions and simultaneously form organs and functionalities of yet other larger entities. They exist quite independently of little cells that temporarily make them up. Lincoln’s War Department is the Pentagon today. It is the same entity but filled with all new people. People form all of these collectives but people don’t really control them. Collectives have a “life of their own.” Individuals in temporary charge of these new dinosaurs enjoy the illusion of enormous power; they become puffed up, inflated, by being suddenly so large. Yet they can almost never act entirely on their own so that, in collective decision-making, that radical, new, original something, the unity of spirit, of individual consciousness (or conscience, as du Noüy would have it) is compromised away into mere nature.

Sometimes these new, collective beasts eat one another—as Disney is now eating Marvel Entertainment. The digestive juices of the aggressor eventually deform, change, and absorb what had a distinctive character of its own.

As collectives have gained ever more in power—not just physically, as in employing everyone, but also as images, as entities, as presences, as actors—we have developed a dualistic view of morals, of rights and wrongs, and justice. We simply accept that these enormous actors (with a life of their own, remember) have freedoms and rights superior to our own. When one eats another and layoffs are announced, we simply accept this. We simply transfer cells from Enron to the State Unemployment Office. When the Pentagon violates employment contracts by “stop loss” decrees and thus holds people in involuntary servitude, we accept this because the Pentagon is one of those minor godlets, one of evolution’s new little leviathans, destined to live, a mortal godlet, to be sure, until its parent, the American Empire, someday dies in a great chaos of dissolution.

Evolution has continued, to be sure. The way we are proceeding, the far future seems to hold no animals or plants except those grown in vast mono-cultures by man for his nutrition. Man will have swallowed Nature whole, will have become nature; all individuals will just be cells of ever more complicated structures, all with a life of their own, and these lives shall have the precedence always. Distopia. Well, actually, it won’t really be like that. The age of the dinosaurs eventually ended. At current rates of so-called progress, we shall destroy ourselves as we now are. It’s almost certain. Something new will come eventually. The show might actually start over. It wouldn’t be the first time. Oil will run out…

The spirit is a radical phenomenon and cannot be set equal to the brain. For me the problem is to see how brain and spirit interact and what that means. The spirit is radical, but in its most meaningful forms quite weak and inconsequential. Du Noüy thought that freedom was a key—but I look around and see mankind in chains, the pawn of its own institutions.

For this reason it’s good to recall Jesus’ words when he said: My kingdom is not of this world. That must be true. The evolutionary vector opened by the dawn of mind points in a radical direction: out of this dimension. In our dimension the very force that ultimately brought forth brains—and perhaps thereby freed the spirit captured here by some cosmic calamity or placed here by some design—is still at work doing what it has evidently always done, by some half-conscious necessity: build more and more complex structures in very much the same old way. The spirit is radical and may simply be catching a ride, passing through, a stranger in a strange land, bound for somewhere else.

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