By Eric Le Roy
Content 18+ Last night, with no intention at all of doing so, I allowed myself to watch a film about Hachiko, the famous dog who waited by the train station for 9 years in hopes that his master would come in the evening. The long awaited man, who had died of an aneurysm, never did make it back, but the undeterred animal was indomitable. Finally, the dog himself passed away, still waiting at the station.
It is not fake news.
For a guy like me, a now aged, blustering but essentially naive gentleman who would embark on Rambo missions but is in fact rather harmless, who would secretly love to cheer the human race only to have the happy bellow die in my throat when the games prove fraudulent, a movie like ‘Hachiko” brings me to the tears that only a broken cynic can shed. Such an ordeal of innocence informs me that I am a person who wants to believe.
Strange, isn't it? I can watch mafia films where the ‘soldiers' of Tony the Capo do despicable things to each other (my favorite being the one where Joe Pesci and his brother get beaten to death with baseball bats, or maybe it's that they get buried and covered with dirt while still breathing after the gruesome mauling) – and then rewind the film and watch it again.
I have often wondered why I view homeless people with sad awe and recoiling wonderment – “How in the fuck did they wind up like that? – but regard homeless animals with such a deep compassion that I want to take them home with me (and on several occasions have). I would never invite a human being in that condition to my home unless they had one hell of a convincing tale to tell. Most people at some point or other, have the chance to make choices. Animals don't. Some asshole just dumps them by the side of the road and drives off.
But then it turns out that Hachiko did indeed make some kind of choice. And it certainly wasn't based on logic, Big Data, or an algorithm. Nor was it down to mathematics unless you can imagine the dog sitting in front of the station saying “Grrrrrr…. nine years now. 365 x 9 with a couple of leap years thrown in. Surely my friend will be marching out of the station one of these days before long!”
No, the dog's loyalty was based on something deeper: total love and blind trust. Now a lot of people would question that. They would say that the dog doesn't really care, that he/she (not ‘it') is just there for the kennel ration and milk bones. Otherwise, ‘Woof woof and Bye-bye ‘Master'. A lot of people who have never earned the devotion of a dog say silly things like that. But if you see the loneliness and anxiety of a dog who has been chained to a fence and compare it to one loping ahead of its human friend on the way for a romp in the park, you cannot mistake the difference. It's what love can do.
I have been reading some interesting stuff lately, a lot of it by Yaval Harari, who has written three very significant books about the homo sapiens past, present, and future. I agree with him up to and past the point where he seems to be saying – I think very clearly – the following: (1) Evolution continues; it did not reach its climax and stop with us; (2) this continuing evolution will cause us to engage our computerized likenesses with greater and greater intimacy in the future, so that eventually we have the same kind of relationships (including falling in love) that we did with humans; (3) at some point, actually not that far away, the homo sapien of now will just be a relic, a curiosity, breathing emblem of a vanished epoch, like the Pleistocene man and the Neanderthal. By then humankind will have become a super machine.
I can buy all of that. In fact, I thought of it before I started reading Harari. His lucid, direct and eloquent confirmation of my worst fears is not anything I can scoff at.
But then comes a sticking point, at least for me, and it sows the seeds of rebellion. For, having swallowed the worst of the news, I am then told that none of our emotions are really ‘emotions' at all; they are simply chemical reactions. That to imagine otherwise is just sentimental claptrap. Biotechnology is hacking us even as we speak, and the result is that none of us are anything more than elaborate inventory machines. As such, everything we do is parceled out in reams and reams of data fed pre-calculation which happens at nano speed – meaning that what we call ‘intuition' or ‘spontaneity' – is entirely deceiving, just a self-congratulatory way of blowing smoke. Thus, the time will come (as it already has to some extent) that the marketing techniques spawned by Big Data will allow ``the Great Algorithm in the Cyber Sky” to know us far better than we know ourselves. The idea that we really have any choice at all is simply romantic rubbish because Big Algoritm Brother has innocuously seized us by the lapels – not like in Orwell's 1984 (with the surveillance camera) but more like Huxley's Brave New World where we are so well-programmed that there is no need for Big Brother or the secret police.
You think this is just a bunch of science fiction bullshit I read while sitting in a barber shop? Think on. Baby, it's not gonna happen; it's happening.
So to me this means that if I am walking down the garden path at dusk with my true love, admiring the evening swallows and the whispering leaves, devout before the setting sun from which the light and fire of my existence emanates, listening to the bark of dogs in a field further on, reflecting on the joys of my life as silver twilight disrobes and reveals the dusk, holding my lover's hand while her murmuring voice ignites my imagination and makes me crave for the soon coming moment when I see her in sacred nakedness and bury my face in the flavors of the hills and valleys of her redoubtable and palpable shape, and finally feel her heat enclose me as I enter her heavenly folds and groan as she gasps, and cry “I love you! I love you! I love you!” as I die the shattering death the French call le petite mort —--
—- that we're nothing more than a couple of oddly malleable test tubes fucking about in a chemistry lab? Can it be that this – THIS – expresses the absolute truth behind every human hope and desire that has ever been?
AdvancedTechnology, Artificial Intelligence, Big Data, and the Big Algorithm say that it is.
And how can we snort at this, as William Jennings Bryant did at Clarence Darrow in the famous Scopes trial of 1937, crying out to the eager-to-believe jury, “I prefer the Rock of Ages to the Age of Rocks.” ??
But Darrow was right. Evolution was right. And now?
I wonder what Hachiko would have thought of all this as he lay faithfully in the winter snow, waiting, waiting. Slinking away when the train brought nothing only to trot back and wait on the dusty summer asphalt as all the tomorrows came and went.. Pricking his ears at the whistle and rumble of the evening train. Waiting. Waiting. Hoping. In the wake of all disappointment Hachiko kept his faith. His mighty love.
Isn't that why his story is still told today and still stirs hearts? He appeals to the best side of us, that which is somehow more than the sum total of its parts. And maybe that is what a soul is, and why no algorithm or Big Data can account for it. Because it cannot be accounted for. Yet it is there. Big Data cannot prove absolutely that there will be a Tomorrow even as its goliath mechanisms sit on the very edge of it. The Big Algorithm can explain why we prefer the polka to the boogaloo or vice versa. Big Data can calculate every dance step Nijinsky and Fred Astaire and Bojangles ever took. But can it tell us why some voice in us, grieving or jubilant, cries, ‘Dance!”
Maya Angelou wrote: “I know why the caged bird sings.” Does BigData know?
But Big Data and Big Marketing soon will have you figured out better than you can do it yourself. So if you walk into an elite cafe and your heart is set on a grande Carmel macchiato in a venti cup, 1/3 whole milk, 1/3 almond milk, 1/3 soy milk, double the amount of vanilla syrup, carmel wall in the cup, no carmel drizzle on top, upside down, tall cup ice, whipped cream, rounded lid, 1 shot extra espresso (decaf), cinnamon sprinkled on top, for the name of Enskakhenneksi please — it will be ready when you walk in the door, served by a robot with an infallible app. that read your body language as you approached the building and immediately clicked on the taste bud sensor.
If you plan to jump out the window, Big Data will know in advance which floor you intend to leap from. If you pick your nose, the Algorithm will know whether you use a hanky and if so how clean it will be, whether you open it afterwards to examine your deposit and for how long; or if you wipe the snot under the chair, eat it yourself, or rub it on the coat of a stranger on a crowded bus.
Yet Yeats' enduring question: “How can we know the dancer from the dancer?” will torment Big Data as it has beguiled philosophers for over a century. If Big Data has any conscience at all of course!
What it suggests to me is that a wildness spurs us on, for which profound explanations are later offered, similar to the astonished utterances and belated exhortations the church deacons would emit if they ever had to deal with a sudden roomful of God plus Angels. They had never really believed it till they saw it, so how would they explain it? They would be shocked and put back on their heels, for they would sense some kind of imminent rebellion—their sermons made dangerously manifest, and they would be right, for it would be, however briefly, the rebellion of insight and discovery, the case of a million questions asked under the shadow of wine on rainy days of dancing or fasting long seasons in craggy mountain cracks,, but always secretly crying “Well, is there an answer or isn't there?—And then being thrilled to orgy or heart attack by the voice that calmly said, “Of course! Are you seriously surprised?”
: We dance For the sake of dancing, and we do so ‘without probable cause. How do we shake up the dance floor of old forms? And, if we do, how can we grasp the old rhythms, the dark ladies and gentlemen of the night in their nocturnal writhings and the nymphs at the May Pole, dew between their naked toes and their breasts alight like moons for the pallid swains that would come with their dawn fishing rods of callow flesh and become fathers?
Lucky for us, there will always be something intangible, a cunning little pickpocket nicking the screws from the valves, or the elves of the night mixing up the figures on the spreadsheet, uncrunching the numbers. Something subversive will always find the seam in the granite, and this worm in the hole is always the agent of freedom when faced with totalitarian dystopia.
Because that's what it will be when infotechnology and biotechnology finish annexing our genes. Who will need an actual brain in the future when a vast network of chips can be implanted into a ‘smart sponge'? Who will need intimate sex when with you in Moscow, Idaho and your wife in Moscow, Russia, you can have deep penetrating virtual cyber orgasms without you leaving the bar stool or her the cosmetic salon. You will be able to clone yourself in cyberspace so that when everybody thinks you have died, they will click on their gadget du jour, and goddammit, there you'll be, grinning like a motherfucker and chattering like a monkey. “Thought you'd get rid of ME, huh? Well, think again, asshole!!!”
Does it sound like Utopia?
So what do you do? You refuse. You break tendencies. You belch when Big Data thinks you are going to fart, even if you really need to sneeze. But you have to be careful with this: don't think that every time the dictator says turn to the left, you must turn to the right. Both are slavery. Just stand there and know only that, guided by your shadow, you must disobey, even if you end up doing what they ask.
I think I must learn to meditate. I think I must exchange the algorithm for Blind Faith, just as the ancient men did. I will pray to the rain gods in my mind. I will look past technological dystopia and all its cocky ‘proofs' and restore the old pagan impulses. And I will make a friend out of God, not because he will save me, but because I suspect that He needs a friend as much as I do.
Everybody who has ever been to school (most of us) has spent time in the biology lab and dissected a frog. I remember when I did it. I was with some squeamish girl who strongly encouraged me to perform the snipping and pulling and probing among the dry, miniscule, by then useless organs. I felt sorry for the dead little frog, and I believed myself to be committing some vaguely vulgar act, as if I were a Peeping Tom peering into the now defunct secrets of the frog's existence. I learned NOTHING. My shrinking violet ‘partner' learned less than that.
It so happened that I lived in a place at that time where there were a lot of frogs. And since I was never one of those child assholes who liked to stomp on ants, crush turtles with cinder blocks and squash frogs, I would watch them, sometimes gently prodding one to goad him into jumping with his long green amazing legs that were so much more advanced than my own. I knew then, as I know now, that what he had become as he vaulted across the air was something the dissection table could never define:
In this day and age, people want to measure EVERYTHING. Smart watches tell you how well you slept, as if you didn't know. The computer tells you if it is raining or not (ask my wife) when simply looking out the window might help.(“It can't be raining now. The internet says not till 2 o'clock!”) Countless psychological surveys ‘reveal' to prospective couples whether they are compatible or not. OK, granted, some of this information might help. But in many cases it simply ruins the fun of discovery. Eventually it throttles what might have been spontaneous and sharpens it into mechanical choreography. And if marketing techniques become so sophisticated that our actions can be predicted before we take them, what is the point in being alive at all?
All other ages of humanity came up with their own answers, and every one of them was based on a great fiction, a more or less benevolent conspiracy of the collective imagination that rendered life on earth comprehensible, bearable, and, to some extent pleasurable.
Most of those failsafe solutions: Alchemy, Sorcery, Astrology, Heaven and Hell, Rational Thought, FACTS, FACTS, and more FACTS fortified by ‘isms': Communism, Capitalism, Fascism, Imperialism, and so on—have died on the vine, been put to death, or had their warts exposed. And now that we are in, well,l what is it exactly? The Computer Age, the Information Age, the Digital Age?—we are no closer to reaching any meaningful understanding than we ever were. Science tells us How; Religion tells us Why?—and the blood flows unabated, the mental and physical carnage unleashed with scarcely a pause.
The human being – the sapien– at his or her best, is an entity capable of reaching ‘impossible' heights when life-and-death consequences are at stake. We have all heard stories about feats of strength and endurance that no one would have thought possible. Old Granny lifting the BMW from the leg of the child it had inadvertently backed over on. Etc. The point is not to say that any of the old biblical ‘miracles' really happened as such. I personally can't buy into seas parting, water becoming wine (how I have wished it in the past, only whiskey would have been better) or the dead coming back to life. My skepticism only increases as I look around me.
Moreover, since part of my work is to keep up with current events, I am treated every day to accounts of the most ghoulish forms of human behavior: severed heads bouncing down the escalators in department stores, dousing the Christmas shoppers with gore; bridegrooms pushing wives off a cliff during the honeymoon; devil worshippers cooking Grandma's heart over an open fire while chanting satanic verses.
That kind of stuff. And you can become jaded that way. The media loves it, at least in the West. They know that they can't sell virtue.
And yet the world is full of unsung heroes; indeed they are probably the glue that holds it all together, not the scoundrel opportunists, parasites, brutes and tyrants who skim the icing from every cake they get their hands on and shit in every garden
I remember when I lived in Tallahassee, Florida, and was working for a nurses staffing agency. I was what they called a CNA (certified nursing assistant) and the company would send me out to private homes or assisted living facilities to take care of old or disabled men. One place I went to was a typical ‘country' family. They were white but they might have been black or purple. Christian family. I used to go out there twice a week and they never even breathed a whisper about “Jayzus!!”, much less preached a sermon or tried to convert me to anything more than agreeing to a second helping of meat and mash after I had finished the first one.
And yet, seeing how they lived, I knew they were on to something, that they understood something I didn't. They knew how to live. O yes, maybe they had a few secrets buried somewhere but there was an unmistakable transparency that rose out of their bodies and eyes – some old, some young – something translucent like those pools that form on the faces of mountain lakes when the fish wake up below and make their clammy beds.
Have you ever, in a moment of especially vivid yet placid reverie, observed some little service performed by man or beast in sunlight, rain or wind, next to one of life's natural altars of wood or stone, and sighed and said inwardly: “This is how it should be.” Have you? And you couldn't define it, exactly, except possibly to understand that here before you was harmony — a coming together of things that produced serenity? As if someone or something had pulled the curtains of the sky away and said “Quick! Look!” — and there they were — for an instant — all answers to all questions?
Does it matter in the end what explanation for this privileged moment is offered? Spirituality or chemistry; soul or algorithm — as long as it works, and as long as you trust what you saw? And does it matter that no one else can see it?
The songwriter Leonard Cohen wrote these lyrics a long time ago:
And Jesus was a sailor
When he walked upon the water
And he spent a long time watching
From his lonely wooden tower
And when he knew for certain
Only drowning men could see him
He said "All men will be sailors then
Until the sea shall free them"
But he himself was broken
Long before the sky would open
Forsaken, almost human,
He sank beneath your wisdom like a stone
I used to wince a little when the name ‘Jesus' was invoked in these beautiful lines because part of me feared, I suppose, any form of indoctrination at all. But I don't any longer, not because I believe in some particular guy named Jesus Christ who cooled all fevers and shook hands with lepers. Those stories are only meant to illustrate a higher thing, something we cannot do without, and that thing is Faith, which is the willingness to accept Grace. None of this necessarily has anything to do with ‘religion'. It has to do with showing respect for the cosmos. And not expecting it to say Thank You.
If I show a beautiful poem to someone who laughs at me because he doesn't see it, does that mean I am a fool or that the poem is empty? And what if he turns around and proudly demonstrates a mathematical formula that merely befuddles me, does that render him a fool and me a wise man? Ignorance always cries ‘Yes!' Humility whispers ‘No.'
No. It means that God exists both in the poem and the balanced equation. Nor does it matter if there is a physical God or not – some bearded jasper with a book of verse in one hand and a calculator embedded in a smart phone in the other. It doesn't matter, for either of us, if that God is there, hovering and glowering like a military statue. It matters that we have been privileged to peek into the beauty of a poem or mathematical equation and see, detaching ourselves from our ego, a sempiternal grace – brief coming together of things that give us faith that, in the grain of sand that contains the universe and in the universe that is only a grain of sand… among countless others…we are safe and sound in a Comfort Beyond All Understanding. Thus we experience exhilaration on a grand scale and blissful humility at the same time.
So if I look at the corner of a huge painting otherwise covered in a great veil, and I conclude that this small triangular ‘relief' is the whole painting simply because it's all I can see, and if, furthermore, I conclude, arrogantly, that my personal interpretation of that minute fragment is the convergence of all intelligence with all that is there – and, what is more, if I try to impose my own dogma based on this dubious conclusion and force it onto others, I am simply a fool, with no more idea of what I am doing than a caterpillar at Heathrow airport.
In one of the nursing homes I used to work in, there was a grand old fellow, albeit frail and a bit shaky, who explained to me how, just before his wife ‘passed on', he had promised that he would meet her “by the Eastern Gate.” In fact, he more or less had his bags packed and was ready to start the journey. No fear. Somehow, I kind of had an idea what he meant and I confirmed it by looking it up – the Eastern Gate, I mean.. What a wonderful sentiment, I thought.
But he knew he would find her, and whatever skepticism I felt made no more difference to him than what Caesar ate for his last dinner.
I thought the same about Hachiko as I walked my own dogs in the deep night after the film.
“How touching,” one might say, dabbing tears from sympathetic eyes.
But I don't think Hachiko saw it that way at all. Each evening he went with the serenity of renewed hope in his heart, and each evening as he waited he was filled with the radiance of anticipation, and, as he wandered home alone afterwards, he must have been sad, but without despair. For he came back the next day and the next and the next. Despair would have defeated that. But it didn't. It couldn't.
The Christian family. The man who went to the Eastern Gate. The dog who went to the station. All of them had a vision – the dog no less than the people – of ultimate reconciliation.
As his own eyes closed for the last time, Hachiko knew for sure he would see his beloved