Many years ago I moved to England, where for a mercifully short time I was a graduate student. Absolutely alone when I arrived and not knowing a single person in the British Isles, my circle of acquaintances soon became quite different from what it had been at home, and included eventually a famous Englishman who began what appeared to me to have been the tentative process of introducing me to a secret rite. A secret rite? Good God, I despise such things. Read on, because I left the country before I got very far in my introduction, and feel no compunction about discussing it.
The secret societies of which we know are by definition not entirely secret. Some tend to silliness, like the Secret Service, some of whose members are so taken with being secret agents that they carry themselves so as to stand out like orangutans in the Louvre. (Looking alert is not the same as being alert.) Some societies are secret but only mildly so, like the Masons who put Masonic decals on their cars and wear Masonic jewelry. Of course, no one knows precisely what it is they are up to, but neither do they. The smaller an organization the better chance it has of achieving real secrecy, but Yale's Skull and Bones, for example, is famous only because it is supposed to be secret. Harvard has two similarly elite groups, the Signet Society and the Porcellian, which, because they operate in the open, are virtually unknown. In challenging everyone to find out, secrecy coquettishly unseats itself.
But not always. Some secrets are in the main successful. Within the notoriously open American intelligence apparatus, for example, are inner chambers entirely opaque to the public, and historians have left out many covert initiatives of government because the prime movers and their operators have been discreet unto death. So perhaps with the rite to which I was so briefly introduced that its secret is still safe.
Whatever it was, it centered (honest to Betsy) on the Egyptian god Thoth, whose Hellenized name was (obviously) Hermes Trismegistus. When the dentally challenged peer (teeth apart, he could give ex tempore orations in Latin) who introduced me to this first told me about it I thought he was mocking me, but he wasn't. Nor was he on LSD. Though it could have been, for all I know, nothing more than a kind of "I hate girls" club for barmy English aristocrats, Hermetism does have a long, impressive, and secretive history, which, to my wonder, I was assigned to study. At first blush it seemed much like the standard run-of-the-mill Eastern mystical cults of antiquity, to which, as a Jew, I have a profound and inbred aversion. (Just for starters, I can't stand incense.) Though inexact and self-contradictory (if you have mystery, you need neither precision nor consistency), its major themes were that everything in the universe is actually only one thing, that divisions (such as between various fields of study and endeavor) are therefore illusory and destined to fall, and that by a process of development that is half a conscious inquiry and half a subconscious, mystical tide, man will eventually unify his disparate understandings, obtain knowledge of the unity, achieve immortality, and go on actually to become a god.
Quite familiar, most of this, the standard stuff of hubris and heresy, all of which would appear to be contradicted by the record of history and confounded by the constancy of human nature the human nature not of theory but of actuality. Nonetheless, these beliefs cannot be written off merely as impractical. They run through the ages in an unbroken thread and have shown themselves to remarkable effect in the Renaissance, in a trail that led through alchemy to modern scientific inquiry, in the Age of Reason, and in the magician John Dee of Mortlake, a Hermetist whose navigational formulae are part of the reason I am writing this in English rather than Spanish.
I do not have the ancient and delicate volumes that (after appearing in my robes and kneeling to an oath never to keep an open flame within its precincts) I consulted in the Bodleian Library, so I cannot attest as to whether or not in the Hermetic oeuvre one finds the word convergence, but it is found elsewhere, and in a somewhat familiar guise, though perhaps not as familiar as the terms in which it has been presented by the editors of Forbes ASAP. Despite its definite air of absurdity and even lunacy, Hermetism includes expressions of elemental human tendencies, temptations, and truths. Though you may abandon it as I did even before taking it up, it comes back at you from various points of the philosophical compass.
To wit, Teilhard de Chardin. Ordained as a Jesuit priest in France in 1911, a heroic stretcher bearer in the trenches of the Great War, he contributed notably to the great enterprise of science, lived in inhospitable deserts, jungles, and stranded captivity in China during the Second World War, and wrote not, as is commonly and incorrectly stated, to reconcile science and religion, but, rather, simply to find the truth. That truth, greater than any human endeavor, would by definition easily encompass both reason and revelation. To my mind, Teilhard's great accomplishment was to confound the hapless nihilism based on the misapplication of the idea of entropy (if all things merely decline and energy levels drop, then what we know or dream is nothing more than a candle burning down) with an exposition of how elemental physical forces are conducive to aggregation and, thus, higher form. One cannot rely upon entropy as a philosophical precept and at the same time accept the evidence of evolution, and few who would reject the evidence of evolution would be content with entropy as a philosophical precept. That is to say that the evidence of evolution planetary, biological, systemic in any form points to a progression toward a higher state and suggests the presence of a motivating and organizing force even if it be only an inexplicable coincidence of natural laws. And if evolution is merely a metaphor for creation, the light ahead is still the same.
But Teilhard went much further, arguing that in the agglomeration of various elements into things more and more complex, able, and sentient, there is a path of convergence, that the various phenomena on their upward courses have not developed and are not developing along independent lines but are aimed at the same point, in short, that everything that rises must converge. Even in separate evolutionary careers marked by analogy rather than a common origin (such as those of winged birds and insects) elemental forces make for a convergence in both form and function. Teilhard's vision of concordant physical and spiritual evolution meeting at a single point, which by any name is God, is the deeper background of the contemporary fascination with the idea of convergence.
But are the indications of what some may take as impending convergence only an analogy and unsuited to the graver implications attributed to them? Are they the product of careless observation and definition? And is there a fault in the notion of convergence even in its highest and most elegant formulation?
Convergence (movement toward or terminating in the same point) is neither coalescence (things growing together), concaulescence (the coalescence of separate axes), concurrence (running together), nor conglomeration (forming into a more or less rounded mass). The forces and trends of human existence are always coming together or moving apart. Even as they run askew they are, in relation to each other, variably closer or more distant. That is the nature of things, but to imagine that now they are all running closer, or, more portentously, that they are on the path of convergence, is to invest the normal patterns of existence with inflated significance.
If we choose to work and shop around the clock with no customary rest or truce, and if we must be accessible at all times rather than risk losing an opportunity as we retreat, and if our teachers scoff at dividing their subject matter into history, literature, and science and wade instead into an amorphous "interdisciplinary" bouillabaisse that relieves them of the responsibility of knowing what they are talking about, it is not because we are at the brink of some great convergence, it is because we lack the discipline, focus, and wisdom required to maintain divisions and make distinctions. Not surprisingly, in this age, we are attempting to dress this grave failure in a metaphysical gloss until it appears a success.
Generation after generation, given the right circumstances, tries to square its circle, imagining itself close to the answers of the eternal questions that it cannot come even close to answering. An independent offshoot of this is the scientific arrogance that, feeding off man's natural deference to the most powerful tool he has yet devised, imagines a world run according to scientific principles, a supposedly benevolent dictatorship of the boffins. But though nature is identifiable by the simplicity and elegance of its laws, to which all natural phenomena readily conform, humanity is different. It is a hive of countless and surprising variables, and it cannot be understood, much less managed, according to scientific principles. When such principles are applied to it, the product is misery and death. As the history of half the world in this century shows, even when so discreet and systemic a thing as an economy is directed according to "scientific principle" (which is only that thing that some fallible someone says it is), it ends in dismal failure. Humanity requires for its understanding and governance not science but art, and when this is forgotten, as in the case of Samuel Johnson's natural philosopher who, having electrified a bottle, thinks that the problems of peace and war are inconsequential, the result is coercion. The result is irrational mankind forced by frustrated and indignant masters to do what they expect of it, and if you doubt this, turn to history.
We are at the cusp of a new millennium, and though the numerology of millenarianism has even less significance in regard to events or conditions than the positions of the stars and planets have in regard to destiny or mood, the power of coordinated belief, mass suggestion, and mass illusion is demonstrably accountable (as it was during the last millennial shift) for the feeling that we are at the verge of something, all of which plays to the deep-seated desire for final resolution. Even in Marxism, "contradiction" will cause a "fall" after a "struggle," and the denouement, as in most religions, will be the convergence of previously disparate elements in harmony, in "a new heaven and a new earth."
Not only do we who live now want this as much as it has ever been wanted; my generation, the generation born after the war, is convinced that it deserves it. Our fathers returned from a struggle of mythical proportions, and their victory was absolute. In the War of Independence we achieved self-determination but did not destroy England. After the Civil War we emerged as a single nation that nonetheless was half vanquished. And in the First World War we came to terms with an opponent that we had failed to crush and reconfigure. But in the Second World War our armies destroyed and occupied enemy countries more powerful and threatening than any we had ever faced. We leveled them, conquering every inch. In a famous photograph, Churchill struggles gamely through the ruins of Hitler's Chancellery. It was done. It was complete. It was more than Wagnerian. It made the Iliad seem like small potatoes. And yet, these were our fathers, one generation removed. They told us that we were smarter than they were, that we would stand on their shoulders, that they had fought for us (it was true), and that we would outshine them.
Having been deprived of any such opportunity purely by circumstance, many of us then went on to hallucinate it. Drugs probably helped a bit, as did a surfeit of material things, and the degradation of the educational system. This generation has abused and discredited the past and convinced itself of its capacity to repair and remake the world not according to the principles that preceding generations have proved with blood, patience, and genius, but in contravention of them, by its own set of newly made laws, hardly a single one of which is not precisely what will lead it to the misery and destruction that it does not know, having been lifted beyond such things by the sense and sacrifice of its elders. This generation, by and large, that has done more than any other to cut the ancient sinews that have kept us whole and alive, this generation, characterless, spendthrift, and vain, that has lost the capacity of embarrassment, this generation that has desecrated history, buried the word, murdered tranquility, and done about as much as can be done to turn the world into a cartoon, is sure that it is on to something big: convergence, consilience, theories of everything, immortality, perfection.
But is it? Take for example its hopeful meows about immortality. Like good Hermetists, some who speculate on such things have latched on to the notion that immortality is almost around the corner. No matter that the world of life is like a river that disappears mysteriously over a fall, and that of all the billions who have come before, and of all the billions alive today moving inexorably toward the edge, not a single one has failed and not a single one will fail to go over. Now it has become fashionable here and there to comfort oneself with the hope that this death will be defeated by a machine like the one in which resides the miracle of the spreadsheet.
But between expectant lips and this particular cup are distances so vast that you had better take a good look around while you can, for even if in some far distant time everything in one's memory can be preserved or transferred to some medium of storage, it is not the sum of these things that makes the soul, but how they are integrated and with what speed, depth, bravery, and unpredictable wit. It wasn't what Raphael knew, but that things of beauty simply flew off his hand. All the great worlds of information packed into the Library of Congress do not, in their totality, begin to make a life. Nor would merely linking them create consciousness, the essence of which remains an utter and absolute mystery. No mechanism for cradling the soul will ever be found better than the one we have been given, and if something eventually comes close, that which will be left out will be that which looms largest.
The illusion of the perfectibility of man is based on ignorance of his splendidly complex nature, which is weighted and counterweighted already so delicately and brilliantly that amending it would be far more profitless a thing than, say, rewriting Shakespeare for the better, or adding a backbeat to Mozart's "Soave sia il vento." Even the faxless and benighted medievals knew that immortality was one of the elements not only of heaven but of hell. Thus, Paolo and Francesca and their eternal kiss. For every tick there is a tock, for every triumph, a defeat. This is the balance of human nature, and it cannot be countermanded.
And yet we persist in thinking that it can. Often, as with Daedalus and Icarus, it is a matter of degree, of pace, adjustment, patience, and humility, because our designs too quickly run out of control. Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Mao, and their hundreds of millions of followers, all were convinced of a dream of perfection that they would bring first to their countries and then to the world. But one need not be a psychotic in control of a nation to suffer the same delusion. A friend of mine in college wanted with a vengeance to burn down, quite literally, the world's greatest library and replace everything therein (which is to say nearly all recorded human knowledge) with the contents of his battered spiral notebook. According to him, this would have become the basis of a just new order. Needless to say, he wouldn't let me see what he had written, because I existed on too low a plane.
The electric flow of hubris is such that it touches all classes, all types, all times. Someone who is understandably if not forgivably centered on himself can easily misinterpret the course of events as part of a planned or evolving harmony favorable to his destiny or opinions. Lack of humility comes from an insufficient attention to how the world really works. The illustration of this has been one of the cornerstones of literature from its earliest beginnings, and in regard to it there is a lesson of history at every turn. Consider the dialectical placement of statements by three of what Churchill called "English worthies," in this case Conservative politicians in the national government of the late thirties. Mussolini said of them, "These, after all, are the tired sons of a long line of rich men, and they will lose their empire." (He was right, of course, but it didn't do him terribly much good.)
First, the thesis, from Sir Samuel Hoare, then home secretary, in March of 1939. He saw a "golden age" about to dawn, when "five men in Europe, the three dictators and the prime ministers of England and France," would converge (not his word), and "in an incredibly short time transform the whole history of the world." The antithesis came on the very same day, when Lord Halifax told Ribbentrop that (according to Halifax's memorandum), "Experience of all history went to show that the pressure of facts was sometimes more powerful than the wills of men: and if once war should start in Central Europe, it was quite impossible to say where it might not end, or who might not become involved." And, finally, the synthesis, in Neville Chamberlain's speech to the Commons of September 3, 1939: "Everything that I have hoped for, everything that I have believed in during my public life, has crashed into ruins." So much for the golden age.
The optimism and confidence of the fin de siècle the one a hundred years ago became the First World War; the Second World War; the Holocaust; the Cold War and its attendant, costly, proxy wars; and a century as much or more of alienation, misery, and death as of progress and the alleviation of suffering. Churchill was able to make an exception to the rule of blindness in the age of appeasement only because he had been an optimist prior to the Great War, and had bitterly learned the lesson he went on to teach not that one policy or another is always right, but that throughout history grandiose expectations are almost always confounded and overturned in tragedy.
Thomas Hardy knew not only that fate deals severely with what he called "the Pride of Life," but how. In "The Convergence of the Twain: Lines on the loss of the Titanic," he wrote:
And as the smart ship grew
In stature, grace, and hue,
In shadowy silent distance grew the Iceberg too.
Alien they seemed to be:
No mortal eye could see
The intimate welding of their later history,
Or sign that they were bent
By paths coincident
On being anon twin halves of one august event,
Till the Spinner of the Years
Said "Now!" And each one hears,
And consummation comes, and jars two hemispheres.
Teilhard de Chardin's recognizably Hermetic concept that salvation comes through the development and convergence of human capacities with the divine is a doctrine with a dark side that he chose optimistically and faithfully to ignore, a side that Yeats (he of balancing this life with this death) expresses with customary and disconcerting beauty:
There all the barrel-hoops are knit,
There all the serpent-tails are bit,
There all the gyres converge in one,
There all the planets drop in the sun.
That something is very wrong with this notion of convergence in even its highest and most elevated formulation is supported by its most eloquent critique, in "Everything That Rises Must Converge," a simple and profound short story by Flannery O'Connor. In it a mother and son travel on a city bus in the newly integrated South. The mother clings to the old ways and is clearly wrong in doing so, but, in practice, she is kind and good. The son is the apostle of progress and justice, but in practice he is smug and cruel. He represents pride in achievement, faith in emerging perfection, reason, justice, the linear concept of history. She humility, tradition, conservation, circularity, continuity, mercy, and forgiveness.
It is no coincidence that in the interplay between the two in the context of their individual struggles he finds that his actions have assured "his entry into the world of guilt and sorrow." And it isn't a coincidence that the title of the story, which Flannery O'Connor wrote to address the great French philosopher, is from Teilhard, for it is a velvet demolition of his belief that mankind can evolve to perfection.
If salvation depends on development and advancement, what does this imply about the lame, the weak, the befuddled, and the oppressed? Are they by implication less beloved of God? In one spare short story, mortally ill Flannery O'Connor, with the Southern and Celtic knowledge of hubris and defeat running naturally in her blood, checkmated Teilhard's grand erudition, multiple volumes, and splendid dreams. This she did with the same kind of totally unexpected, breathtaking power of the Maid of Orleans, or Anne Frank. She, who would never know temporal glory, or be rewarded in this world, who died without husband or children, who suffered and had no sway, she knew the simple truth that salvation is ultimately a matter of grace. That is, when all is said and done, man is simply unable to construct the higher parts of his destiny, and must know this to survive even the simpler challenges that he is expected to meet.
Convergence is not a fact on the horizon but a contrivance of human vanity. Wait as long as you wish, it will not come.