Monday, July 12, 2010

Convergence by Mark Helprin

Teilhard de Chardin's recognizably Hermetic concept that salvation comes through the development and convergence of human capabilities 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 the notion of convergence in even its 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, 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, 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 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 is the function of perfectibility, 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 the Celtic knowledge of hubris and defeat running naturally in her blood, checkmated Teilhard's great 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.

At least since the Enlightenment, man has modeled himself and his society upon the machine. Slowly shorn of his knowledge of and feel for nature and human nature, he has been brought over to the principles ( and, often, the mere effects) of speed, efficiency, economy, and emotional detachment: doing the most with the least; just-in-time inventory; lack of feeling; absence of commitment; neutrality of conscience; all the techniques common to a business, an organization, a mechanical contrivance, or a modernist novel. But neither nature nor man are machines, and, treated as machines, they sicken.

Convergence is not a fact on the horizon but a contrivance of human vanity. It will not come from a hand-held toy, an electronic network no matter how powerful., or a machine that sits on a desk. It will not come by virtue of universal or near-universal agreement or by virtue of the new. Wait as long as you wish, it will not come.


  1. In the spring of 2007 the New York Times asked Mr. Helprin to write an op-ed, on a subject of his choice. He searched is memory for something innocuous: Copyright! “Except for Hollywood lawyers, who are not even human, who thinks about copyrights other than the few who hold them? Who really cares, or even knows the most elemental facts? I worried about putting my audience to sleep...”

    In fact, his op-ed defense of Copyright law aroused a hornet nest consisting of more than 600,000 of largely critical internet postings, particularly in the “Chronicles of {supposedly} Higher Education” and among many 'independent' computer software developers who generally operate in an ill-defined zone between Copyright and Patent law which they claim stymies innovation and progress.

  2. This book is a response to the criticism of his op-ed piece and his arguments for Copyright law and its extension is convincing, though other parts of his polemic seem weak and self-contradicting.

    In particular, the simple Jeffersonian principles of economic justice in which the independent, 18th century yeoman farmer takes center stage seems inappropriate for the modern, state corporatism of industrial economies. At least in my mind, the neo-feudalism of the Finance, Real Estate and Insurance Sectors in contemporary America rule out the sort of direct Jeffersonian correlation between liberty and property which Helprin attempts to defend. He almost sees what's going on but not quite. Never-the-less, his argument for Copyright and many of his aesthetic judgments stand.