Of the many great lines in The Matrix, my favorite comes during the fight between Agent Smith and Neo in the subway station. As the two grapple, we hear the subway car approaching. “Do you hear that, Mr. Anderson?” Agent Smith asks Neo, “That is the sound of inevitability. That is the sound of your death.”
When I was in Africa watching a couple of lions eat a topi, I thought about that line. I thought about what I would have said to the topi the day before. “See those lions over there, Mr. Topi? Hear their roar? That is the sound of inevitability.” In the great Darwinan machine, the topi is fulfilling its role: food. Pretty neat if you’re the lion or a spectator, like me. Less so if you’re Mr. Topi. But we are all just like that topi, really. Inevitability swirls around us. Sometimes we notice it. Usually, we don’t, I think.
(And I often wonder which is better, even though I conistently try to notice it rather that get blindsided by inevitability. That’s another shitty thing about consciousness. Shrimp, I bet, don’t worry about that. Nor do sponges or sea slugs.)
Inevitability is all around us, particularly in the social world, the world of politics and hierachies and status displays. It’s a world I’m pretty sure I’ll never get used to. My only hope is to try to understand it intellectually, because I certainly don’t get it intuitively. The social world is a mystery to me. I’m sure it’s pretty mysterious to most people, actually. Maybe that’s why social functions always involve alcohol: we need to be tranquilized because the whole show is so insane.
Last night, I went to a function at a local restaurant. My firm had rented the place out and we were served a really fabulous dinner. (I had the duck. “Do you hear that sound, Mr. Mallard? That is the sound….”) Much wine was drunk. Much hilarity ensued. Much gossiping was done. And I was shocked at how much backbiting there is, even among nice people. Many people not present didn’t hear the sound of inevitability. The sound of gossip and politics. The sound of favors being paid back.
Human beings are strange animals. They scare me. Lawnmowers and chainsaws are dangerous machines. So is dynamite. But a human being is the most dangerous machine of all. Because it’s smart. It thinks. It has volition. It has goals. It’s fucking terrifying. It is usually confident and often wrong.
Consider Cho Seung-Hui. I watched his video manifesto, which is both chilling and rediculous. The press coverage of the Virginia Tech massacre has been interesting. Folks hunt around for causes, like the absense of gun control laws. The more shocking conclusion is that gun control laws probably wouldn’t have prevented anything.
Crazy people do crazy things. The guy is clearly not right in the head. He sounds schizophrenic. Or something. I think that’s all there is too it. Is he “evil,” as Peggy Noonan suggested in the WSJ? That question makes no sense. How does calling him evil explain anything or help prevent something like that happening in the future?
It doesn’t. But calling something “evil” is a palliative. It’s an explanation, of sorts, if you’re used to thinking in nonsensical categories like “good” and “evil.” I don’t think there’s any such thing. “Evil” means “I really, really, really don’t like that.” “Good” means “I really, really, really like that.” The Emotivists were right. Good and evil are remnants of iron-age psychology. Cho Seung-Hui was a dangerous machine who malfunctioned in an enviroment where he could do a lot of damage. And he did. And it was horrifying. But that’s all there is to it. It makes no sense. You just have to accept that. Sometimes things don’t compute.
“Not to be born is the best for man” is Auden’s gloss on Sophocles’ sentiment: “it is best not to be born, and that after birth the next best by far is that a man with all speed should go to the place from whence he came.” But once you’re here, you may as well enjoy it. Just hope that fortune smiles on you until you are gone. Kroesus added an important codocil to these ideas: “no man can be judged as happy until after his death because sadness and misfortune can befall any man up until that final moment.” True that. The winds of inevitability swirl around us. It’s probably better to put on headphones so you don’t hear them.