I find these days that even friends with no religion have begun to speak in religious terms. Recently, within a single week, I heard the word “demonic” used five times, four times by people who don’t believe in demons. Stranger still, and not long after, I found myself in two separate conversations in which the sort of men who would never speculate upon the coming of the “end of days” began, with some embarrassment, to do exactly that.

The subject, in each case, was transhumanism: transgenderism, artificial intelligence, artificial wombs, the melding of man and medication, man and machine. There was a sense that we were arriving at a moment of choosing—choosing, each of us, whether we would continue to be what we were originally made, male and female, mortal, fallible, passionate, irrational, seemingly random in our individual qualities and yet recognizable, even if only in metaphor, as the image of God. Or would we, through medication, surgery, implants, and the like, become whatever it is we would: happier presumably, smarter in some sense, maybe even eternal in some sense, free in form, no mere image of God, but electric gods ourselves?

Believers and unbelievers both, we wondered in these conversations, sometimes ironically (or maybe irony was simply a form of mental self-defense): Was it possible that this choice we were approaching, between a human or a cyborg future, was the final sorting of sheep and goat, sinner and saint, saved and damned, that the Bible foretold?

Faith is, after all, a matter of interpretation, a decision to believe in a certain meaning of things. Does the body’s journey from cradle to grave express the odyssey of a sovereign self, or is it a random fandango of forces, ghost dancing with deluded ghost then gone? This man, this woman, this embrace—are they making love or merely having sex? Even these words right now—are they rough tools for passing insights from mind to mind, or lies that we tell ourselves to give human shape to nothingness? If we do decide to carve and medicate and modify our brains and bodies until we leave our created selves behind, will we be losing anything that was ever really there?

So, yes, an aspect of these questions is decidedly religious, even if only in metaphor. The resurrected Christ met his disciples on the road to Emmaus for the specific purpose of interpretation. He interpreted their scripture for them to show that history was prophecy, events were parables and that every law, every ritual spoke of him, of God. For 1,500 years of Christendom, the world was infused with that interpretive revelation. Then the process went into reverse. We began to interpret the spiritual as an emanation of the material. What had seemed the labor of angels became a kind of clockwork. The mysterious ways of a man and a maid became the ephemeral emanation of hormones and instinct. Morality, gender, the life of the self—all were just social arrangements, brain interacting with brain in an unconscious evolutionary strategy game of power and advantage.

We have now reached the nadir of that mode—or the zenith, depending on where you stand. This is that moment that Nietzsche talked about, the “catastrophe” of a civilization awaking to find its foundations gone. Just as Dostoyevsky’s God-forsaking Ivan Karamazov predicted: “For every separate person . . . who believes neither in God nor in his own immortality, the moral law of nature ought to change immediately into the exact opposite of the former religious law, and that egoism, even to the point of evildoing, should not only be permitted to man but should be acknowledged as the necessary, the most reasonable, and all but the noblest result of his situation.”

The end of days, indeed.

The fact that I turn to literature for guidance—heart-and-mind-forged literature rather than theories of literature or brain scans or evolutionary just-so stories—gives my own perspective away. Too bad. I’m old. There’s very little left of me but wisdom. I have no time to argue with materialists, autistics, or the French. To me, it seems, two stories serve as an in-depth guide to the choice before us. They are the last great plays of William Shakespeare—who else?—two plays that are essentially one play, locked in an infinite regress of self-interpretation: King Lear and The Tempest.

King Lear, to my mind, is the Pietà of literature, the greatest work by the greatest practitioner in his field during one of the field’s greatest epochs. It is also—startlingly—the story of our present moment. The play tells of the end of an era, that transitional moment when the meaning of things is up for grabs, all common ground is gone, and the lust for the power to define the world threatens a culture with dissolution.

So it is with us today. The baby boomers are dying. A greater generation left them an empire, as David did Solomon. Like Solomon, they grew rich and then gave themselves over to eros and false gods. Philosophically estranged from their cultural inheritance—the glorious experiment of American liberty—they failed to pass down their way of life and its meaning. Division and decline are threatening. What will follow next? Who will decide?

Shakespeare’s hero-king, Henry V, made life and meaning one. He understood that his royalty was a role constructed out of “ceremony”—awe-inspiring rituals in which “homage sweet” was too often replaced by “poison’d flattery.” But he proved that a man might play that noble role of king in such a way that he became more and better than himself.

King Lear has lost this wisdom. Enamored of the flattering awe that greets the performance of kingship, he has become an idolater. He believes that the image is the thing itself. Thus, he divides his kingdom between his two flattering daughters and exiles his truthful daughter, Cordelia, along with Kent, the one advisor who will speak honestly to him.

What follows is the collapse of the state. The chief engineer of the disaster is Edmund, the bastard younger son of the Earl of Gloucester. He rejects the hierarchical social structure that decrees that his “illegitimacy” renders him less than the son of married parents. Why should I be called base, he wonders, “when my dimensions are as well compact, my mind as generous and my shape as true as honest madam’s issue?” He wishes to replace such hierarchical constructs with Nature. “Thou, Nature, art my goddess. To thy law my services are bound. Wherefore should I stand in the plague of custom?”

This is—or will one day become—the Rousseauian delusion, the idea that man, set free from corrupting society, will unleash the native nobility of the savage. In fact—as godless philosophers from the Marquis de Sade to Michel Foucault tell us—merely natural man is governed by the will to power. And, in pursuit of power, Edmund engineers the disgrace of his legitimate brother Edgar, who escapes to the moors.

The play now follows the increasingly powerless Lear’s descent from king-by-social-construct to a state of nature. His flattering daughters peel the ceremony off him like a hide. They strip him of his entourage of soldiers—first half of them, then two-thirds, then all. What does he need all those soldiers for? they ask. “O, reason not the need!” Lear cries. “Allow not nature more than nature needs, Man’s life is cheap as beast’s.”

Growing mad with helplessness and grief, he stumbles out onto the moors during a raging storm. It is perhaps the greatest and most profound piece of stage business ever constructed. Lear shouts impotent orders at the downpour as if he were king of heaven, in control of the elements: “Rage, blow!… Strike flat the thick rotundity of the world!” But with ceremony gone, his power is illusion. Nature—the material world—is indifferent to his wishes or his good. Lear’s fool, the wisest man in the play, drolly recommends a return to civilization and, anachronistically, to its religion: “Holy water in a dry house is better than this rainwater out o’ door.”

Lear comes upon the once-noble Edgar, now naked, homeless, pretending to be a demon-haunted lunatic. “Is man no more than this?” Lear asks. “Such a poor, bare, forked animal.” Lear removes his own clothes and falls naked to his knees. Amid the storm, he prays.

This is the moral hinge of the play. In prayer, broken down to his most basic natural state, Lear discovers another nature, human nature, in which morality’s cornerstone lies hidden like a treasure in the heart’s core. He feels for the poor. “Poor naked wretches,” he prays, “wheresoe’er you are,

That bide the pelting of this pitiless storm,

How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides,

Your looped and windowed raggedness defend you

From seasons such as these? O, I have ta’en

Too little care of this. Take physic, pomp.

Expose thyself to feel what wretches feel,

That thou may’st shake the superflux to them

And show the heavens more just.

As it turns out, it is not material nature that brings heaven’s justice to the world but this other nature, with its in-built Christian agape, the love for even the lowliest of our fellow selves. Rather than mere emanations of the will to power, our “social constructs” are, or can be, that part of creation that imposes God’s loving image on the loveless world. We are, or can be, that part of creation that unites nature to the kingdom of heaven through charitable love.

It’s too late for Lear. The truth drives him mad. The rest of the play is unrelenting tragedy and death. But it is at the very moment that Lear is on the heath, impotently shouting orders at the storm, that the play—like some superhero movie sequel set in the multiverse—branches off into another version of itself. The scene on the heath, the spiritual hinge of Lear, is exactly where The Tempest begins.

Prospero binds the love of Ferdinand and Miranda with the restraining ties of marriage. (Lebrecht Authors/Bridgeman Images)

The Tempest opens with a king impotently shouting through the noise of a raging storm. He is on a sinking ship. The boatswain tells him to get out of the way: “What care these roarers [waves] for the name of king?”

Then, in a fantastical shift out of Lear-world, we move to a nearby island, where we discover that this storm, the sinking of the ship, the miraculous survival of its passengers, the entire scene is not the accidental production of an uncaring nature but a creation out of the mind of a magician, Prospero. We have left Lear’s nature-stricken political kingdom of power-seeking and entered the kingdom of the human imagination. Here again, the fate of the state will be worked out through the relationship of a father to his daughter.

Once the Duke of Milan, Prospero was usurped by his brother with the help of the king of Naples. He has lived in exile on this island with his daughter Miranda for a dozen years. During this time, Prospero has gained control of the island’s spirits. These are led by two strange beings. One is the airy Ariel, once imprisoned by Sycorax, an evil witch. The other is Sycorax’s child Caliban, a degraded homunculus, who once attempted to rape Miranda.

As the play begins, Providence has brought Prospero’s enemies within his reach. His brother and the king of Naples, and also the king’s son Ferdinand, are passing by on a ship, on their way home from a wedding. Using his magic, Prospero incites the storm, sinks the ship, and brings the passengers safely to shore. With Ariel’s magical help, he proceeds to control and punish them in various ways—all but Ferdinand, whom he draws to himself and to Miranda.

Ferdinand and Miranda fall in love at first sight. Prospero is delighted by the match. But rather than leave the pair to nature, he binds their desire to the very social construct that Lear’s bastard Edmund sought to cast off, the rights and restraints of marriage. First, he forces the proud prince to earn his bride through unprincely physical labor, so that he will understand Miranda’s worth, “lest too light winning makes the prize light.” Then, when Ferdinand is ready, he brings the lovers together. But he warns Ferdinand: “If thou dost break her virgin-knot before all sanctimonious ceremonies may with full and holy rite be ministered,” the marriage will be cursed. What Edmund rejected, Prospero demands.

The engagement of Ferdinand and Miranda is celebrated by a masque—a wedding show—in which the spirits of the island, once servants of Sycorax, perform the roles of the goddesses of marriage, fertility, and eros, though the last cannot appear in person until “all sanctimonious ceremonies” are complete. Through the use of the theatrical ceremonies of marriage, Sycorax’s creatures of lust and power are transformed into goddesses of life-giving love.

The marriage of man and woman is the play’s center. The stories of both Lear and The Tempest are not only stories of fathers and daughters; they are dramas of inner struggle. The exiled and doomed Cordelia and the cherished and elevated Miranda are at once themselves and the symbolic animas of their fathers. Miranda’s marriage, in bringing together man and woman, also represents making one flesh of the male and female self. Marriage is theater, a performance in which yang and yin, will and surrender, power and creation, justice and mercy, meld into all that is required for full spiritual humanity. The transgenderism that materialist modern man seeks to accomplish with the bloody scalpel and the toxic syringe, the imagination allows us to fulfill completely with a man, a woman, and a wedding. We already have everything we need.

When the wedding masque is over, Prospero makes his famous “our revels now are ended” speech, often considered Shakespeare’s farewell to the stage. It speaks of how theater and the world that it represents, and we ourselves, will all ultimately vanish “into air, into thin air.” “We are such stuff as dreams are made on,” Prospero says, “and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”

That line may sound as though our lives are nothing, a series of meaningless hallucinations. But I don’t think so. Dreams require a dreamer. Our imaginations—which have uplifted the desires of the flesh into the unity of love—were themselves imagined into being by love itself. Physical life interpreted by the imagination into a theater of spirit transforms us into the image of love and connects us with the love that made us in its image.

The Tempest ends with the magician, a unified soul, setting aside the bitterness of his exile. He forgives his enemies. He frees the creative Ariel into the ether. Of Caliban and his lustful designs on Miranda, he humbly declares: “This thing of darkness I acknowledge mine.”

He then steps forward and addresses the audience directly, asking us to free him from his island of exile by making the play’s journey to forgiveness our own. Prospero’s—and Shakespeare’s—final words echo the Lord’s Prayer and make reference to Catholic ritual: “As you from crimes would pardoned be, let your indulgence set me free.” Through ceremony—on stage, in church, in our daily lives—the performance of love is made real.

We seem to be fast approaching a moment when we will be forced to choose between a human or cyborg future. (Mark Stevenson/Stocktrek Images/Getty Images)

In these two plays, Lear and The Tempest, a single story unfolds simultaneously, once as flesh and once as spirit; once as tragedy, once as a comedy of grace. The difference lies in the imaginative interpretation of physical life into spiritual truth and the willingness to use the body to perform the rituals that bring that truth to life.

To live such a spiritual life is to surrender to the rites that connect physical life to spiritual meaning. Central among them is the universal rite of marriage between man and woman, which makes divided humanity whole. Such surrender puts constraints on the free expression of the individual self. Paradoxically, it can also expand the self into something greater than its material nature. There are those, I know, who do not fit into the normal ritual categories. This is a source of pain and tragedy—and comedy, too. But the spirit is more flexible than our prejudices. It has room for the eccentric variety of creation. Tolerance, kindness, and, most important, agape can cover a multitude of what we once called sins.

That said, the fact remains: human nature is made with a purpose, its varieties of expression are not infinite, its paths to tragedy are wide and broad, its paths to enlightenment and joy are strait and narrow. Fortunately, our created selves are both the map and the territory. We were born to find the way.

Lear and The Tempest provide the guidance we need at the crossroads. There is, of course, nothing wrong with using medicine and technology to improve the health and effectiveness of the flesh in the service of our humanity. But after a slow, centuries-long tumble from truth to materialism, we have dropped with the setting sun of faith into an increasingly visible darkness of self-ignorance. We no longer know who we are or what we are or what we were made for.

So we are indeed fast approaching that moment when we will be forced to choose whether to be cyborg or human, sheep or goat, damned or saved—whether to escape the tragic pain of our humanity by butchering and medicating and interfacing our humanity out of existence, or whether to learn anew how to imagine this earthly kingdom into the image of another, greater, kingdom that is already within us.

Top Photo: On the moors, mad with grief, Lear shouts orders at the elements, as if he were king of heaven. But his power is an illusion. (Bridgeman Images)


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