by Charles Carreon
August 14, 2019
Meet Loren Eiseley
I am stealing this title from a collection of essays by Loren Eiseley because it so perfectly encapsulates an important idea. Loren Eiseley launched his writing career from the unglamorous field of paleontology. He was a bone-collector, as he sometimes put it. His brilliant essays on the human condition – written from the vantage point of geological timespans – have inspired countless readers to think more deeply about who we are, how we became this way, and what we might become – if we can escape the darkness of our evolutionary past. Take this brief excerpt from the book whose title I’ve cribbed:
Loren Eiseley wrote:“I compose, or I make clever objects with what were originally a tree dweller’s hands. Fragments of his fears, his angers, his desires, still stream like midnight shadows through the circuits of my brain. His unthinking jungle violence, inconceivably magnified, may determine our ending. Still, by contrast, the indefinable potentialities of a heavy-browed creature capable of pouring his scant wealth into the grave in a gesture of grief and self-abnegation may lead us at last to some triumph beyond the realm of technics. Who is to say?”
The Invisible Pyramid – A Naturalist Analyses the Rocket Century, pp. 93-94 (1971 Scribners).
In this short paragraph, Eiseley spans the gulf between Australopithecus and Homo Sapiens, between the darkness of the arboreal forest and the terrible illumination of the hydrogen bomb, and concludes by pinpointing the origin of compassion in our longing to care for our dead.
Why Is the Pyramid Invisible?
Written in the late sixties and early seventies, The Invisible Pyramid is an urgent contemplation by a profound thinker who arrived at the precipice facing all humanity about forty years ahead of the crowd. The book is comprised of seven essays that turn round a central theme inspired by President Kennedy’s commitment to put a man on the moon -- why humans are reaching for the stars, what we hope to find there, and what we might be hiding from here on earth by seeking to hurl ourselves into the heavens.
Comparing the space program to the pyramids of Egypt, Eiseley wrote:
Eiseley wrote:“This effort has become the primary obsession of the great continental powers. Into the organization of this endeavor has gone an outpouring of wealth and inventive genius so vast that it constitutes a public sacrifice equivalent in terms of relative wealth to the building of the Great Pyramid at Giza almost five thousand years ago. Indeed, there is a sense in which modern science is involved in the construction of just such a pyramid, although an invisible one.”
Id., p. 87.
Further on in the book, he makes reference again to the immense monuments left behind by our ancestors, who apparently commanded tremendous resources, leaving behind a legacy in stone, whose full significance we can only vaguely apprehend:
Eiseley wrote:“Egypt, which had planted in the pyramids man’s mightiest challenge to effacing time, had conceived long millennia ago the dream of a sky-traveling boat that might reach the pole star. The Maya of the New World rain forests had also watched the drift of the constellations from their temples situated above the crawling vegetational sea about them. But of what their dreamers thought, the remaining hieroglyphs tell us little.”
Id., at pp. 129-130.
I See the Pyramid
When I grasped Eiseley’s meaning, I suddenly envisioned our whole society, all of us, living inside an immense pyramid of inconceivable proportions – as real as the cellphone in my pocket, the fast food restaurants and strip malls on every corner, the endless ribbons of asphalt that stretch out to the mountains and the plains, the airliners that ply the skies, the satellites that orbit above us. This vast construction, created to pursue an evanescent dream of material fulfillment, is our invisible pyramid. We have mortgaged the future of the planet, the lives of future generations, to this dream. We have become what Eiseley calls, “the world-eaters,” a race of beings who consume the earth voraciously, turning resources to waste in an accelerating drive to create and sustain a network of illusions. Now, as our habits of consumption threaten to destroy our dreams forever, we look to the stars for an escape route. Trapped on a poisoned planet, we now see billionaires reaching to establish orbital havens from whence they can gaze down on their dominions from a safe remove.
Writing in the sixties and seventies, Eiseley saw danger in our society’s reliance on scientific knowledge to guide us forward. He had not foreseen, and therefore did not address another danger – that humanity would nostalgically turn back to the past, seeking comfort in mythical cosmologies, priestcraft, and magical thinking. He did not anticipate that millions of people would turn their backs on the empirical view of reality, and take refuge in what Carl Sagan called “the demon-haunted world,” a world populated by forces that can damn or redeem in an instant, banishing the inconvenient reality in which the technocrats have sewn us up.
The Individual's Search for A World-Structure
In my view, each one of us builds his or her own invisible pyramid of belief. By a lifelong expenditure of mental energy, we construct our view of reality, and in it, we abide. Others cannot approach us without passing through the invisible gates we have constructed. When they visit, they must sit on the furniture we provide, within the walls we’ve constructed, seeing the limited view outside our windows, if indeed we haven’t simply painted images on the walls to simulate the external world in a style that comports with our projections. Most people, of course, consider it quite beyond their ability to design their own abiding place. They shop for designs, often emulating the living spaces occupied by those they admire or envy.
Religious Worldviews -- Readymade & Guaranteed to Please
Those with the biggest aspirations, those who want to have the most clearly superior abiding places, often shop for a religious structure to enclose themselves. Religions accommodate this impulse by creating lavish structures that purport to be genuine, authentic, reliable, exquisite, and eternal. Amazingly enough, when you buy a religious design, you are always promised the penthouse suite, the apex of perfection, the most perfect house in the City on the Hill. Purchasers are amazed to discover that all of this wonderfulness is well within their means. Making the down payment is always as easy as tendering your belief. You sign a blank piece of paper, and move right into the model home. Later, the realtor comes by with a copy of the full contract. It stipulates that you must live there forever, can never move out, submit to the authority of the homeowner’s association, promise to keep your lawn watered and mowed, and will not conduct ping pong tournaments in the garage. Also, only certain types of sex are permitted in the bedrooms, certain kinds of foods can be cooked in the kitchen, and particular types of clothing washed in the laundry room.
Yes, the overwhelming characteristic of the religious worldview is rigidity. Only in this way, the realtor explains, can you be sure that your neighbors will not offend you, and you will not offend them. Your choices are limited, but this is a time-saver. Your ambitions and personal hopes become irrelevant, but on the other hand, no one can embarrass you about how you live, because you live just like everyone else. There is safety in numbers, and you are one fish in an immense, silvery school that moves in a unified, harmonious dance.
Within this realm of uniform views, in which all questions have an appropriate doctrinal answer, the outer world is irrelevant. Your only concern is to eliminate all of the impulses to individual thinking and conform yourself to the right way of seeing things. When you can achieve this form of “right thinking,” you gain full membership in the “enlightened society.” Eventually, you can even dispense with your calendar, because in this realm, there is no change. Time never passes. Troublesome events never occur in this gated community. You are safe in your place, and the uniformed security guards drive by four times a day and four times a night. Because the religious life is a total commitment that pays off in complete contentment.
The Joy of Belonging
The disadvantage of moving into such an ideal realm seem to have escaped the people who have been moving into these conceptual communities. It does not occur to most of them that the invisible pyramid that they are laboring to construct is actually a monument to the ambitions of other people. The joy of laboring communally on a project that is supposed to bring universal satisfaction is often a relief from a life of individual striving in a world without meaning. Having been told all of our lives that there is some kind of meaning in life, and having been unable to find it for ourselves, we may be greatly relieved to have it provided.
Hidden Drawbacks of the Spiritual Tract-Home
But life, unfortunately, has a habit of intruding into our idealized realms. For all the promises we receive from those who sell us idealized homes in perfect psychic subdivisions, trouble seems unavoidable. The greatest problem is that almost all religions have their basis in belief systems that were evolved long before Galileo discovered the moons of Jupiter, or Einstein worked out the theory of relativity, or Bohr established the quantum nature of matter. Thus, we can only abide in these perfect mental habitations by ignoring the incongruency between scientifically-observed reality as we have grown up to know it, and the doctrinal formulations that guarantee our psychological comfort. We may discover terribly inconvenient, even terrifying aspects to our perfectly-designed abode – hell in the basement, an attic filled with strange deities speaking in foreign tongues, a backyard that stretches off into eternity, with strange figures stalking back and forth menacingly in the eternal twilight. And when you think about moving out, there’s that damned contract.
Finding Your Own Alternative
Yes, of course, you have to live somewhere. You have to have a view of the world. You have to have a comfortable sitting room to share with your friends, a kitchen to cook in, a bedroom in which to sleep and make love. But in designing that place, you should not let nostalgia be your guide. Nor should you look to move into a place just like the one your friends moved into last week. Rather, as I see it, you should do the minimum amount of construction possible, preserving as much of the original view as you can. Look for durable materials to build with, natural materials that don’t jar with the environment as you perceive it. Don’t be afraid of the world as you know it to be, and build a rational structure that reflects your own, genuine needs. True, there are no off-the-shelf blueprints for such a construction. But at least you won't become the victim of a pyramid scheme.