Sunday, May 16, 2010

Israel, transhumanism, science fiction, the Book of Enoch, and Narnia

ISRAEL, TRANSHUMANISM, SCIENCE FICTION, THE BOOK OF ENOCH, AND NARNIA: An interesting article in H+ Magazine looks at technology development in Israel.
Israel’s Value to Transhumanism
Written By: Hank Hyena
Date Published: May 11, 2010

Imagine this sci-fi scenario: A small tribe with unique literature, customs and myths believes they’ve been “chosen” for a glorious destiny. But they’re driven out of their native land, forced to wander the globe for aeons, persecuted and annihilated, until they’re impelled by a utopian novel to return to their homeland. They name their new city after the inspirational book and their country becomes a technological powerhouse... but still, they’re surrounded by enemies. They wage eternal war, they hover between hope and apocalypse… their contributions to humanity are astounding but they continue to fear total extinction.

Familiar? Of course. I’ve described Israel and the Jews. A four-millennium saga with floods, burning bushes, diasporas, miracles, massacres, temples, pogroms, holocausts, and 180+ brainy Jews receiving Nobel Prizes — 22% of the total awards garnered by only .25% of the population. Today’s Israel — a dynamic nano-nation tinier than New Jersey in size and numbers — is imagination made concrete, the material manifestation of Theodor Herzl’s futuristic, Zion-inspiring 1902 book Altneuland (translated as “The Old New Land” in English, and “Tel Aviv” in the Hebrew translation by Nalum Sokolov.)

Is Israel valuable to Transhumanism? Yes. Even though most Israelis worry about surviving next week and regard contemplation of the year 2025 as impractical because they might be “pushed into the sea” by then. Yes. Even though membership in the Israeli Humanity Plus chapter is only 50-100 with twenty regular attendees. Yes, Israel is a crucial player in H+ and here’s why:
Various points follow, mostly about Israel's contributions to cutting-edge technology, but this one stands out:
Science Fiction: Israel has been described as “the birthplace of science fiction.” For chariots in the sky, eco-cataclysms, invisible voices, and other paranormality, check out the Torah. Want a hero traveling through space, searching for the secrets of creation? Examine the apocryphal books of Enoch, circa 300 B.C. [should be third century BCE and later - JRD] In contemporary Israel, “political science fiction” dominates the genre, with the vast majority of successful books using the homeland as a setting. A utopian-intended society tottering on the edge of annihilation is obviously ideal for SF. A partial list of important authors would include Pesakh Amnuel, David Avidan, Dan Zalka, Etgar Keret, Orly Castel-Bloom, Gail Hareven, and Addy Zemach.
I'm surprised that transhumanists haven't taken more notice of Merkavah traditions and ancient biblical pseudepigrapha involving human deification, which seem like a natural source of inspiration. It may be that they just haven't heard of them.

This just-quoted paragraph ties nicely into to the recently raised problem of Why there is no Jewish Narnia by Michael Weingrad in the Jewish Review of Books:
To put it crudely, if Christianity is a fantasy religion, then Judaism is a science fiction religion. If the former is individualistic, magical, and salvationist, the latter is collective, technical, and this-worldly. Judaism’s divine drama is connected with a specific people in a specific place within a specific history. Its halakhic core is not, I think, convincingly represented in fantasy allegory. In its rabbinic elaboration, even the messianic idea is shorn of its mythic and apocalyptic potential. Whereas fantasy grows naturally out of Christian soil, Judaism’s more adamant separation from myth and magic render classic elements of the fantasy genre undeveloped or suspect in the Jewish imaginative tradition. Let us take two central examples: the magical world and the idea of evil.

Christianity has a much more vivid memory and even appreciation of the pagan worlds which preceded it than does Judaism. Neither Canaanite nor Egyptian civilizations exercise much fascination for the Jewish imagination, and certainly not as a place of enchantment or escape. In contrast, the Christian imagination found in Lewis and Tolkien often moves, like Beowulf or Sir Gawain, through an older pagan world in which spirits of place and mythical beings are still potent. Nor is this limited to fauns and elves. This anterior world can be dark and frighteningly alien, as Tolkien has Gandalf indicate in The Two Towers. “Far, far below the deepest delvings of the Dwarves,” the wizard says, “the world is gnawed by nameless things. Even Sauron knows them not.” Lewis sounds the same note in Perelandra when, far below the surface of the planet Venus, his protagonist catches an unsettling glimpse of alien creatures, and wonders if there might be “some way to renew the old Pagan practice of propitiating the local gods of unknown places in such fashion that it was no offence to God Himself but only a prudent and courteous apology for trespass.”


This is of course the plot, in a nutshell, of The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, and much of Lewis’s Space Trilogy too—which, for that matter, concludes with the forces of good being led not by a Christian but by the pre-Christian Merlin. Judaism is far more skittish about acknowledging the existence of powers acting apart from God, even in rebellion—which leaves a lot less room for magic.

To be sure, all the elements necessary for classic fantasy—magic, myth, dualism, demonic forces, strange worlds, and so forth—can be found sprinkled here and there in biblical and rabbinic literature. Much of it is developed in Jewish folklore, and theoretically developed and dramatized in the kabbalistic literature, especially the Zohar, which may even draw on the medieval literature Lewis lovingly described in his scholarly work The Allegory of Love.

For the last hundred years, various anthologists have attempted, with greater or lesser ideological urgency, to collect these elements and weave them together into a usable Jewish “mythology.” Hagai Dagan’s Ha-mitologiyah ha-yehudit (The Jewish Mythology, 2003) and Howard Schwartz’s Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism (2004) are only the most recent compilations that posit and seek to restore a supposedly repressed or marginalized Jewish mythic vitality, a project that runs back through Buber’s Hasidic collections and Berdichevsky’s emphasis on Judaism’s earthy, pagan side. Yet the very necessity of all these attempts to retrieve and weave together these elements suggests their marginality. While Lewis could remain within orthodox, or at least “mere” Christianity in writing his books, the Jewish writer leaves the realm of the normative in order to develop the mythologies that are the fantasy writer’s natural materials. Put another way, Tolkien and Lewis both referred to Christianity as the sole true fairytale. Jewish thinkers are far less likely to consider this praise.
I have some reservations about Weingrad's conclusions. This view of Judaism succumbs to the temptation to think that which is not normative is marginal. The historical situation was much more complex. The piece also polarizes aspects of SF and fantasy which they really share in common. Both involve imaginative creation of worlds, although hard SF insists on these worlds being extrapolated from current scientific knowledge whereas epic fantasy externalizes internal conflicts with imagined worlds and beings. But the overlap is considerable.

The ancient apocalypses, the magical literature, the Merkavah and Kabbalistic mystical literature, and even (perhaps to a lesser degree) traditional rabbinic aggada are all obsessed with the imaginative creation of worlds inhabited by supernatural creatures. (And the Jewish visionaries actually, you know, go there.) Can we really class, say, the ascent traditions of Enoch in the book of 1 Enoch as SF rather than fantasy? The texts certainly use astronomical knowledge and the like as part of the imagined world of Enoch. And, as just noted, ├╝ber-techno-geeks like transhumanists can find inspiration in the Enochic literature even today. But in these texts we find angels, magic, giants, damned spirits, and scenes from God's throne room, themes normally much more associated with fantasy (e.g., all of them appear in Tolkien's work).

It is true that Judaism brooks no rivals with God and so tends to lack satanic figures of any stature (although Sammael can at times take on a near-satanic role). But the problem of evil remains and the mystical literature often grappled with it by finding evil buried in the nature of God, which is even scarier than the more dualistic solutions.

In short, Judaism, like Christianity, has historically had ample interest in myth, magic, and the problem of evil, and any view to the contrary is both anachronistically normative and, even aside from that, selective. Naturally, Judaism and Christianity start from different assumptions and explore such themes differently in their imaginative literature, but I don't think there is any simple explanation for why there is no Jewish Narnia (yet).

UPDATE (21 July): More here.