The Adventures of Dog Man

David Gordon White’s Myths of the Dog-Man examines how cultures interact with the concept of the “other” in three major civilizational traditions: Christendom, India, and China. White has a number of keen insights and makes impressive connections across cultures. But a key aspect of his work bothered me greatly, and so first, a rant.

Before warming up, I acknowledge that the job of the academic involves risk. They should not just affirm the immediate cultural norms in a rote manner. The scholar who functions as they ought will always walk a tight-rope, which can feel lonely. Like anyone, they search for community, but perhaps have a harder time of it because of their partial cultural distance from many of those around them.

Perhaps that is why many academics feel their job involves the opposite–that of praising the “other” while critiquing one’s own culture. That, at least, puts them on the other side of the suspended rope. We can see this as a personal attempt to connect with something. Having started by crafting a respectful, and perhaps even appropriate, distance with one’s surrounding culture, perhaps even unconsciously, the academic seeks something new to connect with.

But at least the narrow-minded idiot disdained by the academic has built a thing that people can live in, however narrowly they live. The academic always in love with the “other” can offer critique of their home base aplenty, for sure. But could they navigate a monster-truck rally?*

White seems to treat the “other” in his work as an inherent moral good, which is extremely flat thinking. The “other” we encounter could be bad or good. It would depend. I elaborated at length about this dynamic, found in Christ and patterned throughout the world, in this post here, so I will not elaborate at length now. White seemingly has no cognizance that navigating the other brings great peril to one’s soul and one’s civilization. Union with the “foreign other” brought down Solomon, the wisest of kings, and his failure brought down Israel. Abraham made his servant swear to find a wife for Isaac only among his own people, and God showed him Rebecca by the well. It took Wisdom Himself to navigate to “marry” the “other” at another well with success many centuries later (John 4).

Of course the Old Testament takes care to avoid the sclerosis that possibly infected ancient Egypt and China. The Israelites were to take care to “leave” a day at the end of the week, to leave their garments and their fields with a fringe (Lev. 23:22), so that the edges of society could come right to your door. And of course, we see Ruth, and especially Rahab, who prefigures Photine.**. What White fails to see is that the “foreign” does not just change the core. The foreign “other” also must change–the change goes both ways.

So yes, I–perhaps unjustly–detected some know-it-all smarminess from White, who looks a fool for telling us that a quarter has a picture of an eagle on one side.

But I still absolutely liked this book. White teaches us a great deal about the symbolic role of the “other.”

First, regarding the title of this post, apologies and thanks to the wondrous Dav Pilkey, whose books about a half-man, half-dog crime fighter had great truck in the Mathwin household some years ago Pilkey’s books usually have the the core as boring, stuffy, adult authority figures. His heroes come from the fringe to bring justice and order. Pilkey may not be pleased to hear it, but this pattern fits many biblical heroes, such as Ehud (left-handed), Samson, and the like. But his use specifically of a “dog-man” certainly qualifies as a “symbolism happens” moment.^

For as White shows, different cultures across time and space have viewed the dog as an outsider, and “unclean.” At the same time, dogs guard boundaries, and they help protect the center. This paradox, this interplay between good and bad, outside and inside, shows in our experience in a number of ways:

  • Dogs form the boundary between the human and the animal world. No other pet does this in quite the same way. Think of how having a dog will lead you to interact more with nature when you take them for walks, and how the dog will protect you from nature. Think too of how dogs, much more than cats, for example, function as a social lubricant between humans who might otherwise stand awkwardly beside each other.
  • The Romans conceived of the “Lares,” the ancestral divinities who wandered borders protecting home and hearth, as dogs or men clad in the skins of dogs.
Two Lares flank a dog
Lares as Dog-Men
While we do not see the dog motif here directly with the Lares above, note how they guard against the snakes below
  • Note how many many military veterans suffering from trauma work with dogs to help integrate them back into “normal” human society.
  • Think of Cerebus, who guarded the passage of death, or Anubis in Egyptian civilization. Here again, dogs stand in the gap. For the Egyptians, Anubis had close association to the “Dog-Star,” Sirius. The rise of Sirius heralded the “dog-days” of summer, the terrible heat linked with death. But–the rise of Sirius also meant the Nile would soon flood, bringing life back to Egypt. Once again, we see the dog associated with boundary and transition, the bringer of death and life.
  • In the Alexander Romance, of which versions exist across multiple different cultures, Alexander meets the “Cynocephalae,” men with faces of dogs, at the edge of his travels in the east.
  • In Hindu tradition, there is the example of the great sage Visimitra. He shows up in story about “how to rule when time has arrived at a low-point, when all things have become slave-like.” In the story, a terrible drought has beset the land at the end of the Treta age for 12 years. Visimitra, known for his strict purity and asceticism, goes into the forest and eats the hind leg of a dog, over and against strong objections from those around him, for the dog was most unclean, “the vilest of all game.” After he eats, Indra sends rain and the earth revives. “Thus one who is expert and high-souled, and a knower of solutions,” the story concludes, ” . . . ought to maintain a firm conviction of dharma and adharma in this world.”
  • Chinese culture generally closed itself off from the outside, yet they too have stories involving dog-men. But in an indirect way (no dog-men directly in the story) the following Taoist acecdote I find most illustrative:

The Emperor of the South was called Shu. The Emperor of the North was called Hu. And the Emperor of the center was called Hun-tun. Shu and Hu at times came together and in Hun-tun’s territory. Hun-Tun treated them very generously. Shu and Hu discussed how they could emulate Hun-tun’s virtue, saying: “Men all have seven openings in order to see, hear, eat, and breathe. He alone has none. Let’s try boring him some.” Each day, they bored one hole, and on the seventh day, Hun-Tun died.

White notes that the Taoists saw the greatest good in optimal potential, i.e., uncut stone, uncut cloth, etc., with the Tao preceding the regimentation of creation itself. This parable then, spoke against the Confucian school, the “meddling busybodies” who wanted all things ordered, classified, managed, and understood. One has to leave some room for the fringe.

But . . . the tradition that seems most open to the dog man comes from White’s very own backyard, that of Christendom. In your face, White! It seems as if the cat has been caught . . . by the very person trying to catch him

For sure, White spends plenty of time looking at the The Apocalypse of Pseudo-Methodius, a medieval text that emphasizes the role of the Church in keeping out the “other” from infecting the world. “Methodius” may have borrowed from stories about Alexander the Great building a wall to keep out the barbarians. Again, if we turn to the paradigm outlined above, we can say that the emphasis on the dangerous aspects of the other absolutely has its place. Another example of this emphasis comes from the Estonian Kynocephalae Daemon, similar in theme to the Apocalypse noted above:

The Dog Snouts live at the edge of the world, where the earth ends and heaven begins.  They must stand guard at this edge, so that no one may enter heaven there. . . . They dwell behind a great mountain.  The mountain forms a border between the land of men and that of the Dog Snouts.  By general consensus, a company of Russian soldiers stands guard here, lest the Dog Snouts come over the mountain.  Were they to come, they would tear every man limb from limb.  They have great strength so that none can resist.

The Dog Snouts threaten the world with destruction.  One need not fear, however, so long as the troops stand guard.  Those soldiers refuse to be trifled with, and victory always stands with them.  

In some regions it is believed that each town contributes a portion of the guard of this mountain, because all share in the burden of not wanting the end of the world.  Even so, one time the Dog Snouts did break through into the world of men.  They came to lay waste our land, but a violent hailstorm drove them back across the mountain, which we guard now more strongly than ever.

Though this idea of the other bringing destruction certainly has its role in the Christian tradition, a variety of Christian saints have strong associations with dogs. The birth of St. Dominic, founder of the Dominican order, took place after his mother dreamt she carried a dog with a torch in its mouth in her womb. His feast day in the west also took place in summer’s “dog days,” observed in the first week of August. Compostello in Spain still is one of the most traveled of Christian pilgrimages, and has very early roots. This has significance, for the Compostello site resides right at the western edge of medieval Christendom, the place where the sun sets, towards the land of the dead. One tradition states that on July 25, the rise of the Sirius star, St. James of Compostello opened the gates of heaven to the souls of the dead.

But the story of St. Christopher the Cynocephalae has pride of place. Different versions of the story exist, with some overlap. The first, from an Ethiopian text called “The Acts of the Apostles Andrew and Bartholomew . . .

Then did our Lord Jesus Christ appear unto Andrew and Bartholomew and say, “Now depart into the desert, and I will be with you; and be not afraid, for I will send unto you a man whose face is like unto a dog, and you shall take him into the city.”

And the apostles went forth with sorrow, for the people of the city had not believed.  They walked for a time and came to rest and fell asleep.  When they slept, the Angel of God lifted them up and brought them to the City of Cannibals.  Now there came from that city a man looking for another man to eat.  And the Angel of God said unto him, “O thou man whose face is that of a dog, behold–you shall find two men sitting under a rock, and when you arrive there, let no evil thing happen to them through you, for they are servants of God.

And the dog-man trembled and asked the Angel, “Who art Thou?  I know neither thee nor thy God, but tell me of whom you speak.”  

[Here follows a long discourse of the angel to the man about God, the gospel, etc.]

Then the man said, “I wish to see some sign so that I may believe in all His miraculous powers.”  Then at the same hour fire came down from heaven and surrounded that man with the face of a dog, and he was unable to withdraw himself.  He cried out, “O God whom I know not, have compassion upon me and I will believe.”  The angel answered and said, “You must go with the Apostles every place they go, and follow all of their commands.”  

“O my Lord, I am not like other men, and I have no knowledge of their speech.  And if I be hungry, where will I find men to eat?  I should certainly then fall upon them and devour them.”  The angel replied, “God will give unto thee the nature of the children of men, and will restrain thy nature.”  The angel stretched out his hands and brought the dog man out of the fire and cried out to him in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost.  Then the dog-faced man became as gentle as a lamb.

The dog-faced man rose up and went to find the Apostles.  Now–his appearance was terrible.  He stood 4 cubits in height, with teeth like that of a wild boar, and the nails of his hands were like great hooks, and his hair came down over his arms to resemble the mane of a lion.  When he came upon the Apostles, they became as dead men through fear of this man.  Then he laid hold upon them and said, “Be not afraid, O my spiritual fathers,” and God took the fear from Andrew and Bartholomew.

Then Andew said, “May God bless thee, my son.  But tell me thy name.”   “My name is Hasum [meaning ‘Abominable’ in Parthian].  And Andrew said, “You speak rightly, for a name is oneself.  But here is a hidden mystery, for from now on, your name shall be ‘Christian.’”  Then they journeyed back to the city.

Now Satan had gone ahead of them into the city.  Andrew prayed as they approached, “Let all the city gates open quickly.”  And as Andrew spoke, the gates of the city fell down, and the Apostles and ‘Christian’ (he who had the face of a dog) entered.

Then the Governor commanded the town to bring hungry and savage beasts to attack the men.  Then the man with the dog-face prayed, “O Lord Christ, who did take my former nature away from me, restore it now and strengthen me with thy power, so they may know there is no other God but thee.”

And then he became as he had been, and grew quickly in wrath and might.  He looked at all in great fury, and slew all of the beasts set against them, and tore out their bowels and ate their flesh.  When the men of the city saw this, they feared exceedingly, and set upon the men and each.  More than 700 of them died.  And God sent a fire to surround the city, and none of them could escape.  Then the people cried, “We believe that there is no other God but your God, and no other savior other than Christ the Lord.  Have compassion upon us!”  And so the Apostles prayed to God for them . . . 

And the Apostles came unto the dog-man, and prayed that his bestial nature would flee from him, and that the nature of the children of men would be restored, and Christian became as gentle as a lamb once more.  When the people and the governor saw this, they took olive branches in their hand and bowed before the Apostles, who told them of the grace of God.

The western version of the story . . .

Christopher was of the lineage of the Canaanites, and he was of a right great stature, and had a terrible and fearful cheer and countenance, and he was twelve cubits  of length.

And as it is read in some histories that, when he served and dwelled with the king of Canaan, it came in his mind that he would seek the greatest prince that was in the world, and him would he serve and obey. And so far he went that he came to a right great king, of whom the renown generally was that he was the greatest of the world. And when the king saw him, he received him into his service, and made him to dwell in his court. 

Upon a time a minstrel sang tofore him a song in which he named the devil, and the king, who was a Christian man, when he heard him name the devil, made anon the sign of the cross in his visage.  And when Christopher saw that, he had great marvel at what sign it was, and wherefore the king made it, and he demanded of him. And because the king would not say, he said: If thou tell me not, I shall no longer dwell with thee. 

And then the king told to him, saying: Alway when I hear the devil named, I fear that he should have power over me, and I garnish me with this sign that I have protection from him.

Then Christopher said to him: Can  the devil hurt you? Then is the devil more mighty and greater than you. I am then deceived of my hope and purpose, for I had supposed I had found the most mighty and the most greatest Lord of the world, but I commend thee to the Devil, for I will go seek him to be my Lord, and I his servant.

And then [Christopher] departed from this king, and hastened him to seek the devil. And as he went by a great desert, he saw a great company of knights, of which a knight cruel and horrible came to him and demanded where he was going. Christopher answered him and said: I go seek the devil for to be my master. And he said: I am he that thou seekest. And then Christopher was glad, and took him for his master and Lord. 

And as they went together by a common way, they found there a cross, erect and standing. 

When the devil saw the cross he fled, and brought Christopher about by a sharp turn. And after, when they were past the cross, he brought him to the highway that they had left. And when Christopher saw that, he marvelled, and demanded why he feared that sign.  And the devil would not tell him.  So Christopher started to take his leave.

So the devil told him: There was a man called Christ which was hanged on the cross, and when I see his sign I flee from it. 

Christopher said: Then he is greater, and more mightier than thou, when thou art afraid of his sign, and I see that I have chosen you in vain, when I have not found the greatest Lord of the world. And I will serve thee no longer, go thy way then, for I will go seek Christ.

And when he had long sought and demanded where he should find Christ, at last he came into a great desert, to an hermit that dwelt there, and this hermit preached to him of Jesu Christ and informed him in the faith diligently, and said to him: This king whom thou desirest to serve, requireth the service that you fast often. 

And Christopher said to him: Require of me some other thing, and I shall do it, for how can I fast?  I know nothing of this. And the hermit said: Thou must then wake and make many prayers. And Christopher said to him: What are prayers?  I can do no such thing. And then the hermit said to him: Knowest thou such a river, in which many be perished and lost? Christopher said he knew it well.

Then said the hermit, “Because you are strong and tall, reside by that river, and take them on your shoulders to the other side.  Do this and I pray our Lord will show Himself to you.”  Christopher agreed and went to the river.

Christopher took a staff to help him traverse the river, and he stayed there many days.  One night he heard a voice in his sleep.  He awoke and went out, but he found no man. And when he was again in his house, he heard the same voice and he ran out and found nobody. The third time he was called and came thither, and found a child beside the river, who asked Christopher to bear him across the river.

And then Christopher put  the child on his shoulders, and took his staff, and entered into the river. And the water of the river arose and swelled more and more: and the child was heavy as lead, and as he went farther the water increased and grew more, and the child got heavier, so that Christopher struggled mightily and thought himself and the child lost.  Finally he made it to the other side and dropped to the ground.  “Child, what is this, seeing that I almost died in carrying someone so little.”

And the child answered: Christopher, you have not only borne all the world upon thee, but also borne Him that created and made all the world, upon your shoulders. I am Jesus Christ the King, whom you serve at this river. And because you know that I say the truth, set your staff in the earth by thy house, and tomorrow it shall bear flowers and fruit, and then he vanished from his eyes. And then Christopher set his staff in the earth, and when he arose on the morn, he found his staff bearing flowers, leaves and dates.

And then Christopher went into the city of Lycia, and understood not their language. Then he prayed our Lord that he might understand them, and so he did. And as he was in this prayer, the judges supposed that he had been a fool, and left him there. And then when Christopher understood the language, he covered his face and went to the place where they martyred Christian men, and comforted them in our Lord. 

And then the judges smote him in the face, and Christopher said to them: If I were not Christian I should avenge mine injury. Christopher pitched his rod in the earth, and prayed to our Lord that to convert the people it might bear flowers and fruit, and it did so. And then he converted eight thousand men.

And then the king sent two knights to fetch him to the king. They found him praying. The king sent many more, and they set them down to pray with him. And when Christopher arose, he said to them: What do you seek? 

And when they saw him in the visage they said to him: The king hath sent us, that we should lead thee bound unto him.  And Christopher said to them: If I would, you should not lead me to him bound.  And they said to him: If you put it that way, we’ll say that we could not find you.

It shall not be so, but I shall go with you. 

And then he converted them in the faith, and commanded them that they should bind his hands behind his back, and lead him so bound to the king. And when the king saw him he fell down off the seat, and his servants lifted him up and revived him. And then the king inquired his name and his country; and Christopher said to him: Before I was baptized I was named Reprobus, and after, I am Christopher; before baptism, a Canaanite, now, a Christian man. 

The king said: You have the foolish name of Christ crucified.  He could not help himself–he cannot help you. So, cursed Canaanite, why not sacrifice to our gods?  Christopher said: Thou art rightfully called Dagnus, for thou art the death of the world, and fellow of the devil, and thy gods be made with the hands of men. 

And the king said to him: You nourished among wild beasts, your words are wild language, unknown to men. If you now sacrifice to the gods I shall give to you great gifts and great honors. If not,  I shall destroy you by great torments. Christopher refused.  The king killed the knights with him, and threw Christopher in prison.

And after this he sent into the prison to St. Christopher two fair women, of whom one was named Nicæa and that other Aquilina.  The king promised them many great gifts if they could draw Christopher to sin with them. 

And when Christopher saw that, he set him down in prayer, and when he was constrained by them that embraced him to move, he arose and said: What do you seek?And they were afraid of his cheer and clearness of his face, said: Holy saint of God, have pity on us so that we may believe in God.

And when the king heard that, he commanded that they should be let out and brought to him. “You women are deceived, but I swear to you by my gods that, if you do no sacrifice to my gods, you shall perish by an evil death.” they said to him: “We will sacrifice.  Command that people come to the temple to witness.”And when this was done they entered in to the temple, and took their girdles, and put them about the necks of their gods, and drew them to the earth, and brake them all in pieces, and said to them that were there: “Go and call the doctors to heal your gods!”

And then, by the commandment of the king, Aquilina was hanged, and a right great and heavy stone was hanged at her feet, so that her body broke severely. And when she was dead, and passed to our Lord, her sister Nicæa was cast into a great fire, but she issued out without harm all whole, and then he made to smite off her head, and so suffered death.

After this Christopher was brought to the king, and the king commanded that he should be beaten with rods of iron, and that there should be set upon his head a cross of iron red hot and burning, and then after, he sat Christopher on a stool of iron, and set fire under it, and cast therein pitch. But Christopher took no harm.

And when the king saw that, he commanded that he should be bound to a strong stake, and that forty archers pierce him with arrows. But try as they would, the arrows always missed. Then by the commandment of the king he was led  to be beheaded, and then, there made he his death. His head was smitten off, and so suffered martyrdom. 

Now the king had suffered a wound in his eye. And the king then took a little of Christopher’s blood and laid it on his eye, and said: “In the name of God and of Christopher!” and he was healed. Then the king believed in God, and gave commandment that if any person blamed God or St. Christopher, he should be slain with the sword.

Many icons of St. Christopher depict him with a dog’s head:

For many years, St. Christopher’s feast day occurred on July 25, which coincided with the rise of the Sirius star, so important to the ancient Egyptians.

My favorite St. Christopher icon comes from the East and shows him with St. Stephen the proto-martyr. The image reveals something crucial that White misses. Yes, Church acknowledges the importance of the other, that Christ reaches the outer-limits, and even that the beast in us can be used against evil if tamed and transformed. But it also shows St. Christopher on the left, and St. Stephen on the right, the place of honor, vis a vis the unseen Christ. Furthermore, it also shows that how what lies outside pays honor to the inside. Christopher shows deference to Stephen here. The fringe has legitimacy, but contra White, the center, not the fringe, gets pride of place. An addiction to the “other,” so common in so many today, will serve no one, and does no honor to the greatest hero of the Dog-Men. That’s not how St. Christopher would want it.

Your physique was overwhelming and your face horrifying. You willingly suffered trauma from your own people. Men and women tried to arouse consuming fires of passion in you, but instead they followed you to your martyrdom. You are our strong protector, o great martyr Christopher!

Prayer for the feast day of St. Christopher


*Perhaps this is unfair. I would have a hard time with this as well.

**St. Photine is the name of given by Catholics and Orthodox to the woman in John 4.

^I suppose I should say that it would be a mistake for the reader to get caught up in whether or not people with actual dog’s heads really ever had a physically observable existence. To ask the question in itself means that one fails to perceive in the manner of traditional cultures. Whether or not such creatures had a “physically observable existence” was not the point for them–it should not be for us. Rather, we can begin by thinking of the meaning of Dog-Men–they are bestial, they have lost something crucial of their humanity, they have become unclean and must be made whole once more.

I find it intriguing that American culture seems to value dogs more highly than almost any other culture. Why might this be–many theories no doubt exist. I am convinced, however, that a large part of the answer involves the fact that America itself lies at the “edge,” the farthest reaches of Western civilization. In a traditional concept of the world, America, the un-tapped “pure potential” functioned as the ultimate symbolic fringe. No surprise, then, that we would associate ourselves with the animal traditionally relegated to the fringe.

Kevin Kelly’s Mind, and . . . Matter

I vaguely remember sometime in high school discovering the idea that “technology is neither good or bad in itself, but one can use technology for good or bad ends.” As a young American teen whose greatest life-changing event might have been the switch from cassettes (the sound muddied and faded so quickly!) to CD’s, that idea served as an important corrective.

But years later I distinctly remember coming across Lewis Mumford, who made the striking point that the design and use of the technology shapes us as much as we shape it. We may create a tool, but then immediately afterwards, the relationship turns symbiotic. Using a shovel all day will shape certain muscles more than others. A civilization, for example, that comes to rely on computers will inevitably prioritize certain skills and values over others.

The developed world’s response to COVID made me wonder whether or not Mumford could have gone even further. As many have noted (Paul Kingsnorth, Mary Harrington, etc.), the existence of the internet and other digital technology seemed to drive our policy, i.e., “We can work online and have food delivered, so we should do so.” The tail wagged the dog.

Some intellectual spaces, such as perhaps The World Economic Forum, believe that technology will fix all of our GDP’s everywhere, have yet to learn what I learned at 16. I have few worries about such people, because they seem fundamentally naive and out of touch. Much more interesting, and so potentially much more impactful for good or ill, is the work of someone like Kevin Kelly, as demonstrated by his two books, What Technology Wants, and The Inevitable. Kelly helped cofound Wired magazine and has a wealth of practical experience with technology and the tech world. He spent much of his youth trekking around the world technology free. He has worked extensively with conservation efforts. Kelly has his foot in many worlds, and possesses much more experience and intellect than most anyone who talks about technology. As his recent Wikipedia page picture indicates, this man has the look of a true believer–a prophet or a madman, but certainly no fool.

At the core of Kelly’s thoughts lay a few key principals:

  • Certain technological advances and changes are ‘inevitable’ precisely because we do not choose them. Rather, technology, which he names in corporately personal terms, “The Technetium,” functions as a living part of our environment.*
  • Just as we have the task of cooperating with our natural environment, so too we have the task of cooperating with the “technical” environment. But because both Nature and the Technium are alive in like ways, the process of adaptation to technology is not artificial, or anti-human, but natural and organic to human existence over time.

As he writes,

Our concern should not be about whether to embrace [the Technium]. We are beyond embrace; we are already symbiotic with it. At a macro-scale, the technium follows an inevitable progression. Yet at the microscope, volition rules. Our choice is to align ourselves with this direction, to expand choice and possibilities for everyone and everything.

Technology, he argues, wants what all life wants, which means increasing flexibility, opportunity, emergence, complexity, specialization, ubiquity, freedom, beauty, diversity, and yes, sentience. He writes elsewhere that,

Living organisms and ecosystems are characterized by a high degree of indirect collaboration, transparency of function, decentralization, flexibility, redundancy of roles, and natural efficiency; these are all traits that make biology useful to us and reasons why life can sustain its own evolution indefinitely. So the more lifelike we train our technology to be, the more convivial it becomes for us . . .

The fact that the pace of societal adaptation of new technology has dramatically increased over the last century shows us that this process of conviviality and symbiosis has also increased. Kelly want us to know that life works this way, and always has. We can try and invent better technologies as opposed to worse ones. But we cannot avoid a partnership with technology, just as we cannot avoid a partnership with Nature.

Kelly has a variety of observations to demonstrate that the development of new ideas and technology acts independently from material linear causation. Something operates outside of purely singular human volition. Among other things, he notes that successful authors/screenwriters get sued all the time for supposedly stealing ideas from other authors. Investigation then shows that such authors never came across the work of those that sue them.** We see the simultaneous development of blowgun techniques from tribes in the Amazon and in Borneo with no contact whatsoever. We see Luther and Zwingli coming up with very similar theology at the same time without ever interacting with each other. We see similar technological progression across cultures that have no contact. Some of the processes have an explanation in material causation, but others not, such as why rock art precedes sewing development almost uniformly.

Such propositions get at something transcendent, and Kelly quotes Carver Mead on this, who writes,

Moore’s Law is really about belief systems, it’s not a law of physics. After long enough, people talk about it in retrospect, and in retrospect it looks like a curve, a physical law, and people talk about it that way. But if you actually live it, as I am now, then it doesn’t feel like a physical law. It’s really a thing about human activity, it’s about vision, it’s about what you’re allowed to believe.

Kelly obviously recognizes variability. Not everything, or even most developments, end up fully entering the Technium. The question revolves more around the “wanting” of technology. He writes, “The poppy seed wants to become a plant, even though a fair amount of them end up on bagels.”

Kelly writes persuasively and uses a variety of examples and techniques to drive his points home. He avoids claiming that every technology has value. He spent a lot of time among the Amish, and praises them for how they interact with technology. Contrary to typical belief, the Amish have nothing against technology per se. But they put a tremendous amount of energy into monitoring how technology impacts their community. They make distinctions, but they base these distinctions (such as riding in cars, but not owning cars) on careful observation over long periods of time. They are not arbitrary, nor hypocritical. The point he wishes to make I think is–even with the Amish, human interaction with technology will happen, as it has always happened. Let’s work together, like the Amish, to maximize our understanding of technology and how it shapes us, while understanding that it will certainly shape us.

All of this sounds reasonable. I remember railing against email in the late 90’s, but I use it all the time now. I resisted getting a smart phone for many years, but now have one. Kelly would tell me, “There, there, it’s ok. You’re not a bad person, you haven’t betrayed any crucial moral principle. You simply are doing what humanity has always done.”

But I can’t quite accept this. Perhaps email and smart phones have a reasonable place in the world. In the end, however, the totality of Kelly’s book left me cold, though I could not put my finger on why for a few weeks . . . until I read portions of a book on medieval views of memory.

Mary Carruthers’ The Book of Memory: A Study of Memory in Medieval Culture is alas, not one that I could read cover-to-cover. Long stretches of the work delve into very technical matters that I lack the patience or interest to digest. But she makes some of her more general points with great clarity, and charitably illumines a world with different values than our own. In her introduction she cites the reflections of the contemporaries of two acknowledged great geniuses–first Einstein from our time, and then, St. Thomas Aquinas.

The greatness of Einstein lies in his tremendous imagination, in the unbelievable obstinacy with which he pursues problems.  Originality is the most important factor in any scientific work.  Intuition leads to unexplored regions of thought, though intuition is difficult to explain rationally.

No great scientific achievement happens without wandering in the darkness of error.  The more imagination is restricted, the more work moves only along a definite track, which limits new ideas. The ground is safer here, and that means fewer mistakes.  No great man is always correct.  Einstein’s recent paper might be wrong, and Einstein would still be the greatest of scientists today.

The most amazing aspect of Einstein is that he directs his whole vital force to one object–original thinking.  Slowly I came to realize that here his greatness lies.  Nothing has the importance of physics.  No personal life can match the comprehension of how God created the world.  One feels that behind his external calm his brain works without interruption–nothing can stop it.  

The clue to Einstein’s role in science lies in his loneliness and aloofness.  In this respect he differs from other scientists.  He never studied at a famous university–he worked at a patent office.  The isolation served as a blessing, since it prevented his thought from wandering into already established channels.  This ‘loneliness,’ this refusal to march with the crowds but looking instead to his own path, is the most essential feature of his creations.

Reflections of Leopold Infeld, who worked with Einstein at Princeton

And now, St. Thomas:

Of the brilliance of his intellect and his soundness of judgment, sufficient proof lies in his vast literary output.  His memory was extremely rich and retentive: whatever he once read and grasped he never forgot; it was as if knowledge were added to his soul as one might add pages to a book.  

Consider, for example, that admirable compilation of patristic commentaries on the four gospels he made for Pope Urban, and for the most part, he dictated from texts that he already had read and committed to memory while staying in various monasteries.  Still stronger is the testimony of Reginald [his secretary] and of others who took dictation for him.  All declare that he used to dictate to three separate secretaries at once, and occasionally four, on different subjects at the same time, completely from memory.  No one could do such a thing without a special grace.  Nor did he seem to search for things yet unknown to him.  Rather, he simply let his memory pour out its treasures.

He never set himself to study or argue a point, without first having recourse to prayer mingled with tears.  When perplexed, he would pause and pray at length, and when returning, he found his thought so clear that it seemed to show him, as in a book, the pages that he needed.

Reflections of Thomas of Celano, friend of Reginald, one of St. Thomas’ principal secretaries

On can glean a great deal from these short few paragraphs. We can start by noticing that the modern world view of genius means breaking from the past, and the older view meant connecting more firmly with it. Moreover, we see that the development of a strong memory for the medievals involved something akin to moral virtue, a “special grace.”

Memory involved reading, among other things. Carruthers shows that for the medievals, reading and memory were not for their own sakes. Rather, like the bee (the medievals viewed bees very highly for a number of reasons), they were to take the raw material of the text and turn into something “sweet,” like honey. This sounds unremarkable, but the medievals put a particularly earthy twist on how they discussed the process of reading. She writes,

The writer [of the Regula Monachorum] speaks of various stomach rumblings, belchings, and fartings that accompany the nightly gathering of monks.  But, he continues, as a famous pastor has said, just as smoke drives out bees, so belching caused by indigestion drives away the Holy Spirit [i.e., improper eating, or the taking of things into the body, caused improper means of expelling things from the body].”  

But this does not mean that all belches and farts were viewed negatively, per se, as it would be possible to have proper bodily “ex-takes” as you would proper bodily intake.  The Regula Monachorum declares,

Wherefore, as the belch bursts forth from the stomach according to the quality of food, and the index of a fart is according to the sweetness and stench of its odor, so the cogitations of the inner man brings forth words, and “from the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Lk. 6:45).  The just man, eating, fills his soul.  And when he is replete with sacred doctrine, from the good treasury of his memory he brings forth those things which are good.

Carruthers comments,

The notion of Spirit as breath or wind is biblical; modern scholars, accustomed to thinking of this trope as a mere figure of speech, would never make the connection with a belch or fart that the medieval writer did.  Modern scholars who think they have observed class rivalries, or a “medieval unconscious” at odds with its piety in the texts that deal with memory work, would do well to consider the pervasive image of monks at prayer as spiritual flatulence.  This trope was often intended to provoke laughter and humility, and we should not assume it to be impious.

Just as we might say that our Constitution, for example, functions as a kind of decision-making technology, so also medieval memory techniques functioned as a technology. But what differentiates Kelly from the older understanding is this mixing of the heavenly and the earthly, talked of so starkly by the medievals. Kelly only seems to care for what comes next, and concerns himself more or less only with how we will adapt to the Technium. As to why the medievals thought of memory as a moral quality, I assume that one must gather the past to live rightly in the present. As for the future, well, it has no reality because it has no existence. But the past, while not equal in “reality” to the present, functions differently for us. We can, and must, have a connection to it.

Kelly sees a continuing “loss of body” as humanity’s only possible future. It is “inevitable” that we fly upwards and join with all of the etherealizing tendencies of modern digital technology. Thankfully such a vision can certainly never completely come to pass. Those that want the Metaverse will still need workers to lay cable. The heavens, after all, cannot exist without Atlas holding them up.


*This post is not the place to discuss the reality of corporate identities and personalities. But John Vervake and Jonathan Pageau do a good job of trying to explain the idea here and here.

**Some of the examples he cites are weird and uncanny, like JK Rowling getting sued for stealing the idea of an author who developed a story about a wizard school, whose hero is named Larry Potter, who has a scar, etc.