The Transhuman Metaphor


« Scientific revolutions are in fact metaphorical revolutions. »i

I´d like to reverse this assertion and to generalize it. Any metaphorical revolution opens the door to scientific, philosophical and political revolutions.

Any truly new and powerful metaphor bears a vision, a projected, imaginary view of the world, and therefore, in favorable circumstances, can engender new changes in the real world, or even new worlds.

A good metaphor carries the seeds of a new « narrative », of which it is only the first image, the initial élan. Any truly revolutionary vision is the first sign of an archipelago of new concepts in the making, with their potentially disruptive power.

For example, the idea of a « noosphere »ii, coined by Teilhard de Chardin, reveals an « envelope » of thoughts, bathing humanity with its flows and energies, and will have unimaginable implications on the social and political level.

The metaphor of the « transhuman » (trasumanar), first used by Dante in the Divine Comedy, is perhaps even more brilliant, since it points to the actual existence of a « meta-sphere » of consciousness and life.

“Trans-humanity » is in perpetual transhumance. It has a vocation to reach unheard of worlds.

Dantesque « transhuman » and modern « transhumanism » should not be confused. “Transhumanism », a recent word, embedding a new ideology, has nothing to do with the metaphor initially proposed by Dante more than seven centuries ago.

There is nothing metaphysical about “transhumanism”. It only contains the idea that technical and scientific evolution will, it is assumed, favor the appearance of a « singularity ». Vernor Vinge and Ray Kurzweil are its prophets. This « singularity » will embody a tipping point towards an intellectually and physically « augmented » humanity.

This « transhumanism », it seems to me, is flatly reductive. Science and technology are the bearers of considerable openings, but it is naïve to believe that they alone will determine the conditions for a transformation of humanity, its leap, its passage towards transhumanity.

More than forty thousand years ago, the caves of the Palaeolithic were already secret, deep sanctuaries, frequented by shamans, some of whom were also artists.

The Palaeolithic religion, to which the cave paintings bear witness, still escapes the best informed analyses today (the enlightening work of Alain Testart show the intrinsic limits of the modern approach of paleo-anthropology).

All of these paintings, whose execution is spread out without discontinuity over a period of many thousands years, testify to an assumed perception of a ´transcendence´ by men in the Palaeolithic. Cro-Magnon Man, already a Homo Sapiens, was perhaps wiser than modern man, in this regard, — wiser by a wisdom of which the world today has no idea.

BirdMan Lascaux

The former President of the French Republic, François Hollande, was not known to be a specialist in transcendence. But, in a speech delivered before a Freemasonic Lodge, he ventured into a few considerations on the future of humanity.

He declared in particular :

« You also wanted to think about the incredible mutations that the new technologies of the living allow us to guess: this is what is called transhumanism or augmented man. This is a formidable question: how far to allow progress, because progress must not be suspected, we must encourage it. How can we master these serious ethical questions? What is at stake is the very idea of humanity, of choice, of freedom. So in the face of these upheavals that some people hope for, that others fear, the vision of Freemasonry is a very precious compass in these times, and a light that helps to grasp the issues and to respond to them. »

When it comes to metaphors, there is a great deal of freedom allowed, of course, but it is important to maintain a minimum of coherence.

Comparing the « vision » to a « compass » and a « light » seems to be a somewhat twisted trope.

The « gaze » of the pilot is guided in the direction indicated by the « compass ».

But the compass depends on the law of magnetism, not optics.

It is then strange, baroque, to suggest that a « gaze » or a « vision » may be a « compass », as if it could create an imaginary North, at will, and as if it could moreover and ipso facto generate an illuminating light.

Throwing metaphors around without care, just brings more disorder in the great circus of the world.

iMichaël Arbib, Mary Hesse. The Constructions of Reality. 1986

iiCf. The work of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin

The most pathetic verses in literature


The poet was guided in his long quest by Virgil, then by Beatrice, to the threshold of the Empyrean. The supreme vision, he has not yet seen it, however. What appears to him then, in the shape of a white rose, is the « holy militia that Christ espoused in his blood ». And in this great flower, plunges, like a swarm of bees, another army of angels, flying and singing the glory of him who sets them ablaze with love. And all these angels « had faces of bright flame, and wings of gold, and the rest so white that no snow comes to this end ».i

Dante marveled at the « triple light », divine, penetrating, which shines « like a star » in this quiet kingdom, – and he thought back on all the road he had already traveled, from the human to the divine, from time to eternity, from corruption to justice, and on what still awaits him…

« I, who had come to the divine

from the human, from time to eternity,

and from Florence to the just and healthy people,

of what astonishment I should be filled with! »

Mute with stupor, indeed, Dante sees « eyes, inviting to love, shining with the light of another and their own laughter ». He also sees with a single glance « the general shape of Paradise ». He turns to Beatrice, to question her, but she is no longer there! In her place, an old man, dressed in glory.

« Where is she? « asks Dante at once. The old man replies that Beatrice has brought him down in her place, to bring Dante’s desire « to an end ».

But, adds the old man, – who is, in reality, St. Bernard:

« If you look at the third row

from the highest tier, you will see her again.

on the throne won by her merits. »

Dante looks up and sees her, « who made herself a crown of eternal rays reflected in her. »

Beatrice was at an immeasurable distance from Dante; she was very high, far beyond the reach of a mortal eye, – but it was like nothing, « for her image came down to me unmixed ».

From his abyss of remoteness, Dante addresses Beatrice:

« O lady, in whom my hope comes alive,

and who suffered for my salvation

to leave in Hell the trace of your footsteps,

of so many things I have seen

by your power and kindness,

I recognize grace and virtue.

You pulled me from bondage to freedom

by all these ways, by all these modes

that you had the power to use.

Preserve in me your magnificence,

that my soul, which thou hast healed,

is untied from my body by pleasing you. »

The tone is high, the prayer urgent, the love burning. The poet already despairs of his misfortune. He has just been abandoned by his lover at the very moment when he thought he was reaching Paradise, in her company.

What happens then? Three verses say it, – « the most pathetic verses that literature has ever given us », according to J.L. Borgèsii.

« Cosi orai; e quella, si lontana

come parrea, sorrise e riguaradommi ;

poi si torno a l’etterna fontana. »

« I prayed like this, and so far away

that she seemed, she smiled and looked at me ;

then she turned back to the eternal fountain. »

Beatrice smiles at Dante one last time, then turns her back on him to devote herself to the divine vision.

Borgès was so moved by these verses, that he collected comments about them from various authors. For Francesco Torraca: « Last glance, last smile but a sure promise ». Luigi Pietrobono, in the same vein: « She smiles to tell Dante that her prayer has been answered; she looks at him to prove once again the love she has for him. « 

Ozanam goes in another direction and considers these verses to be a modest description of « Beatrice’s apotheosis ». But Borgès is not satisfied. He wants to go further. It is really a question for Dante, he says, to let us glimpse the « nightmares of delight ».

The « nightmare », in the Empyrean, on the threshold of ultimate happiness? What a strange idea, that this Borgesean incision!

At this point, a little biographical reminder is perhaps necessary.

One day, in a street in Florence, Beatrice de Folco Portinari did not respond to a greeting from Dante. Did she only love him? It must be thought that she did not. She had already married Bardi. And shortly after this incident she died, at the age of twenty-four.

Dante had always loved her, but in vain.

And now he had found her again, a little later, in his long literary quest. He even thought he had found her again forever, before the eternity of Paradise opening up to him, in his close company.

Suddenly, « horror »… Beatrice smiles at him but turns around and prefers the eternal fountain of light.

Francesco De Sanctis, for his part, had commented on this passage as follows: « When Beatrice walks away, Dante does not let a complaint escape; all earthly residue has been burnt in him and destroyed. »

But this interpretation is false, says Borgès. Nothing has been destroyed, and all the « horror » of the situation is contained in the expression: « so far away that she seemed ».

The smile seems close, like the last glance, but Beatrice is in fact so far away that she becomes forever inaccessible, once again sending Dante back to his solitude.

I would like to propose yet another interpretation, which has nothing romantic about it, but rather aims at metaphysics. Dante’s love for Beatrice, however high it may be, is only a metaphor, it seems to me. Beatrice died in 1290, and Dante wrote The Divine Comedy from 1307 to 1321. The last pages, the very ones that are commented on here, were therefore written more than thirty years after the death of the beloved.

For Dante, the Beatrice in The Divine Comedy is a figure, an image, a trope, a vision at last, which refers not to the memory of a certain Florentine of the Middle Ages, but to his own soul.

Dante is not guided by the appearance of an imaginary and inaccessible Beatrice, descended from the Empyrean, but by his soul, which brings her back to life and is inspired by her.

Dante’s soul, at the end of his quest, is already burning with divine fire. Suddenly, he sees her moving away. She separates from him. She leaves him! But Dante is not dead. He has crossed Hell, Purgatory and here he is in the Empyrean. He is alive, like Aeneas, Orpheus, and other explorers of the beyond. Not being dead, Dante’s soul is still united to his body. And yet she rises, on the advice of Saint Bernard.

« From this point on my vision went further

than our speech, which yields to vision,

and memory gives way to this excess. »iii

In this strange, intermediate state, Dante’s soul lacks the mobility proper to souls who have actually passed to the other side of the experience of death.

Dante describes Beatrice’s departure as if it were the flight of her own soul. The last smile, the last glance, are not “”promises: they are rather delicate metaphors (of death).

Why does Dante confide such ringing certainties, confronting Florentine cynicism and the indifference of the world, unhesitatingly revealing his secret?

Dante has written a work that is not only the product of his creative imagination, but which also recounts Dante’s experience of death, his journey beyond what can be told.

But which can be somewhat evoked, however.

« Such is he who sees in dreams,

and, the dream being over, the impregnated passion

stays, and he doesn’t remember anything else,

such as I am now, for my vision

almost completely ceases, and in my heart

still flows the softness that was born from her.”iv

The vision almost has ceased. In the light leaves the sentence of Sibyl was lost. But Dante did not forget everything.

« O sovereign light that so much raises you up

above mortal thoughts, repeat a little bit

to my mind of what you looked like,

and make my tongue so powerful

that a spark of your glory

can reach to future people.”v

On the brink of death, Dante was very bold. He resisted. He knew how to « unite his gaze with the infinite value ». He planted his eyes in the eternal fire.

How well I understand these verses! How faithfully I follow Dante in the memory of his journey!

« In its depths I see that is recollected,

lovingly bound in one volume,

what in the universe is disseminating itself :

accidents and substances and their modalities

as fused together, so that

that what I’m saying about it is just a glimmer.

I do believe that I saw the universal form

of this knot, for in saying these words

I feel in me a widening of the enjoyment.”vi

Dante! Very human brother! Discoverer of heights! You have not failed in any way, you have been able to transmit the spark that remained to the people of the Future.

« Thus my soul, all in suspense,

stared, motionless, attentive,

and was constantly on fire looking again.

In this light one becomes such

than to turn away from it for another vision

is impossible to consent to forever.”vii

Like Dante’s, from now on my words will be « short compared to what I remember ».

O how little is enough to say! How the look afterwards laughs! I myself was bound in the night to this eternal view, and « for this flight my wing was too weak ». My wing, yes, but not my soul.

O Dante! Hail to thee through the ages. You have given me the strength to say again, in veiled words, what you proclaim in incandescent verses! Your « high fantasy » has lost none of its power! You have propelled my desire through the ages like a wheel wider than any world!

iDivine Comedy. Paradise, XXXI

iiJ.-L. Borgès. Neuf essais sur Dante. Le dernier sourire de Béatrice. In Œuvres complètes t.2. Gallimard. 2010, p.861

iiiDivine Comedy. Paradise, XXXIII

ivDivine Comedy. Paradise, XXXIII

vDivine Comedy. Paradise, XXXIII

viIbid.

viiIbid.

The Transhumance of Humankind


At the last song of Purgatory, Beatrice said to Dante: « Do not speak like a man who dreams anymore ».i If Dante complies with this injunction, the rest of the Divine Comedy can be interpreted as a reference document, as far from the dream as from fiction.

In the immediately following song, which happens to be the first song of Paradise, Dante makes this revelation:

« In the heavens that take most of the light I was, and I saw things that neither knows nor can say again who comes down from above; for when approaching its desire our intellect goes so deep that the memory can no longer follow it there ».ii

Dante didn’t dream, one might think. He really saw what he said he saw « in the heavens », he didn’t make up his visions at all, and he was able to tell us about them after coming down « from up there ».

His memory has kept the memory of light, depth and desire, even if the memory is always behind the spirit that goes, and if it cannot follow it in all conscience, in exceptional, unheard of, unspeakable moments.

Without preparation, the spirit suddenly rises into heavens, sees the light, desires it, sinks into the depths, goes into the abyss.

On the way back, stunned, blinded, without memory, the intelligence begins to doubt what it has seen. Was it only a dream?

In the same song, Dante elliptically explains the true nature of his experience:

« In his contemplation I made myself like Glaucus when he tasted the grass that did it in the sea, the parent of the gods. To go beyond the human cannot be meant by words; that example is enough for those to whom grace reserves experience »iii.

To say « going beyond the human », Dante uses the word trasumanar.

Glaucus’ herb, what was it? Hashish? One of those herbs that are used in shamanic concoctions? Sôma? Haoma?

« Going beyond » implies a disruption. « Overcoming the human being » means leaving humankind behind, leaving it in its supposed state of relative helplessness.

Translated more literally, and playing on the common origin of homo and humus, the word trasumanar could be translated as a sort of ontological, metaphysical « transhumance« .

Like a transhumance out of human nature, an exodus out of inner Egypt, forged by millennia.

This is also the recent dream of « transhumanism ». The accession to a supernatural, a trans-natural, trans-human other state of nature.

The body or soul reaches an extreme point, and with a single pulse they are driven out of themselves, to reach an « Other » state.

Which « Other » state? There are many answers, according to various traditions.

Teilhard de Chardin described this leap towards the Other as a noogenesis.

Akhenaten, Moses, Zoroaster, Hermes, Jesus, Cicero, Nero, Plato, had a brain similar to ours. What did they see that we don’t?

Materialists and skeptics do not believe in visions. Nothing has really changed for thousands of years. But materialism, skepticism, « realism », lack explanatory power, and do not take into account the deep past nor the infinite futures.

Life has evolved since the oyster, the mussel and the sea urchin, and it continues to rise. Where is it going?

The question becomes: when will the next mutation occur? In a few million years? In a few centuries? What will be its form: biological, genetic, psychological? Or all this together? A tiny but decisive genetic mutation, accompanied by a biological transformation and a mental rise, a psychological surge?

The planetary compression is already turning to incandescence. The anthropocene crisis has only just begun. Environmental, societal, political, the crisis is brewing. It remains to mobilize the deep layers of the collective unconscious. There are many warning signs, such as the death drive claimed as such.

The growing forms of an immanent neo-fascism that can already be diagnosed in our times represent a warning.

They indicate the birth of the death drive, the need to bypass the humankind, to leave it behind, perplexed by fears, blinded by false ideas.

Glaucus’s grass, Dante’s trasumanar, will take on other forms from the 21st century onwards. Which ones?

Poetry, the one that reveals, always gives lively leads.

« As the fire that escapes from the cloud, expanding so hard that it no longer holds within itself, and falls to the ground against its nature, so my spirit in this banquet, becoming greater, came out of itself and no longer knows how to remember what it did. »iv

Lightning falls to the ground, and Dante’s spirit rises to heaven. Dante no longer remembers what he does there, but Beatrice guides him in his self-forgetfulness. « Open your eyes, » she said, « look how I am: you have seen things that have given you the power to bear my laughter. »

Dante adds: « I was like a person who feels like a forgotten vision and who strives in vain to remember it. »

I would like to highlight here a crucial relationship between vision, laughter and forgetting. Beatrice’s laughter is difficult to bear. Why? Because this laughter sums up everything Dante has forgotten, and evokes everything he should have seen. This happy laugh of the beloved woman is all she has left. This laughter is also what is necessary to find the thread. Not all the poetry in the world would reach « a thousandth of the truth » of what that « holy laugh » was, Dante adds.

Dense, Dantean laughter. Opaque, obscure. This laughter reopens the eyes and memory.

There are other examples of the power of laughter in history. Homer speaks of the « unquenchable laughter of the gods »v. Nietzsche glosses over Zarathustra’s laughter. There are probably analogies between all these laughter. They burst like lightning without cause.

Dante says, in his own way: « Thus I saw superabundant light, dazzled from above by fiery rays, without seeing the source of the lightning. »

He sees the lightning bolt, but not its source. He sees the laughter, but he has forgotten the reason. He sees the effects, but not the cause.

There is a lesson in this thread: see, forget, laugh. The transhuman must go through this path, and continue beyond it. Laughter is the doorway between memory and the future.

Since his Middle Ages, Dante has warned modernity: « We now preach with jokes and jests, and as long as we laugh well, the hood swells and asks for nothing ».vi

The hood was that of the preachers of the time, the Capuchins.

Nowadays hoods have other forms, and preachers have other ideas. But the jokes and jests continue to fly. And we laugh a lot these days, don’t we?

The transhuman hides away, probably far beyond all these laughter.

i Dante, Purgatory, XXXIII

ii Dante, Paradise, I

iiiIbid.

iv Dante, Paradise, XXIII

v Iliad I, 599, et Odyssey VIII, 326

vi Dante, Paradise, XXIX