The conscious cosmic caddis fly

Herman Tennessen, « Homo telluris : The conscious cosmic caddis fly ». in J. L. Christian (Ed.), Extra-terrestrial intelligence : The First Encounter, Buffalo, N.Y., Prometheus Books, 1976, p. 249- 256.

September 7, 1975

Mysteries of man : the conscious caddis fly


My dear reader, if you have the patience to accompany me this fact, I imagine that you shall find it much less of a strain to follow me the rest of the way. From here on my notes are bound to be less ponderous and perspicacious, for seceral reasons. One, about which the Zeteticans warned me, is that a rapid psychophysiological deterioration set in about thirty years after my return to earth and has been accelerating since my 178th birthday ! I had notice it already at home, in Hilary Hall. And so did my wise and gracious Italian wife, Alicia, and possibly even my children. That is why I left. But more about this later.

The second reason is that the topic is of more general human interest : How is it possible for any conscious, intelligent being to live and breathe his allotted number of breths facing the stark reality of the inevitable, incontestible certitude of being nor more ?

Third, the Zeteticans seemed to make a particular efort- with the aid, I assume, of their enormous popularization machine- to lower themselves to my level and to adapt their verbal interchange to what they took to be my implicit «  world, » my conceptual framework.

But what could I tell them ?

I started by talking about religion. I tried to convey to them the startling fact that otherwise sane and mentally competent humans would flatly deny the origin of Homo sapiens as a haphazard contingency, a fortuitous accident in the randomly risky raffle of survival on evolution’s enormous wheel of chance and instead seek refuge in myths about some all-mighty, all-wise, all-benevolent being (or beings) who created the world — and man with it — for some purposes or other, unknown to all but that being itself.

No one, I assured them, in either my father’s or mother’s family was in any way prone to succumb to such superstitions. But some of the servants at Hilary Hall were. They went to church outrageously early on Sunday mornings, and I once went with them. I was madly in love at that time with a young chambermaid named Mona. She was from the Shetland Islands, and wasfrightfully Christian. I asked her why she prayed in church She said she prayed for my safe voyage to Pernambuco, where I was to join my father in a few weeks to inspect a coffee plantation he had bought in Brazil. « But, » I said, trying to detect some order in the madness, « surely that must be blasphemy. To pray is to imply that this God of yours actually goofed when he created the world and, like some lousy plumber, has to come back to fix things up again — maybe, with a little miracle or something. » She almost cried. She was beautiful. Now, she explained, not only would I perish on the sea, I would most certainly go directly to Hell and suffer eternal torture. I felt sorry for her and said no more. But I was glad I was leaving shortly. After she had so glaringly exposed her muddled mind, I no longer had much of an eye for the beauty of her body.

The Zeteticans quietly interrupted my retrospections. They were not, they said, interested in our servants’ primitive superstitions. They were concerned with humans, they said, who were not illiterate, or cowardly, or intellectually dishonest.

Here, it seemed to met that the Zeteticans  were naive. They made no allowance for the individual human’s aptitude for distraction ; laxness of determination ; lack of precision and consistency; indefiniteness with regard to beliefs, thoughts, and feelings; and so on. Religious myths should never be seen as aclear anddeliberate choice of a comforting lifelie, with a possible exception made for Blaise Pascal. To most, it is mainly a reservoir of unrelated verbal responses that serve as substitutes for rational arguments in mankind’s bewildered demand for meaning, order, and justice — in « the world, » and in « life. » Why such a demand should exist in human thought at all is a mystery to me. Obviously meaning, order, and justice are words that are conceptually limited to certain aspects of some human enterprise. It would be what recent philosophers refer to as a « category mistake » to try to apply  them to «  the totality of human existence as such »- let alone to «  the world »

The Zeteticans, however, did not ! tend to share my feeling of puzzlement. It would seem quite natural, they suggested, for any individual conscious caddis fly to try to compensate for its absurdly brief existence by attempting to see its life in a means-to-an-end relationship within some wider context. That is, as the Zeteticans saw it, exactly what individual humans were, and still are, attempting.

I was, in a way, compelled to consent. But I also made it clear that , although their point was well taken, it could scarcely be construed as a justification for any metaphysical « meaning-of-life-and-world » demand. They had merely, and at the most, made the enterprise psychologically intelligible, plausible, or perhaps even excusable against the background of human ephemerality. They agreed. Moreover, they explained, that sort of thing was just what they were after. To attempt to demonstrate the fatuous fallacy in the reasoning behind a metaphysical meaning-demand seemed to them nugaciously superfluous. Their concern here, I gathered, lay primarily with the ludicrously low level of ambition that, by and large, characterizes humans’ metaphysical meaning-demands.

Some human beings, they believed, would consider their lives « meaningful » provided a certain psychophysiological state prevailed during most of the interlude between conception and consummation, namely, a state wherein (a) the parasympathetic nervous system was predominantly activated, rather than sympathicus; (b) acetylcholine is produced rather than novoadrenaline (from the ganglions) or adrenaline (from the suprarenals); and (c) the blood is being rushed to the intestines and genitals rather than to the brain and muscles. «  Of course, » I replied in astonishment, «  you have described a state to which humans would generally refer as pleasure, happiness, joy, bliss, contentment, satisfaction, cheerfulness, comfort, ease, peace of mind, serenity, tranquillity, and (more recently) state of thriving. Almost all humans, but particularly Englishmen, see these sorts  of things as the principal and prime justification for their existence. They make life worth living. »

There was a long pause before the Zeteticans responded. For once, I thought to myself triumphantly, / have stumped theml Even with these innumerable conceptual schemes at their hands, they were obviously hard put to find a single one within which to make any sense of such ravingly eccentric value priorities. They finally  concluded that I had exaggerated and oversimplified — which I had. Very few humans, if any, keep a clear- cut hedonistic budget, listing the length and intensity of positive and negative experiences, so that, when lying on their deathbed, they can figure out the degree to which they may be justified in assigning a meaning to their lives. First of all, many of them will not restrict themselves to « happiness » and the like. They find a stable acetylcholine state tedious, boring, and even unworthy of men. They require a somewhat adrenaline – spiced existence. And seek their sources of excitement and thrills in a miscellaneous menagerie of diversions and pastimes: mountain climbing, glider flying, rodeo, horror movies, merry-go-rounds , roller coasters, earthquakes, bingo, bowling, baseball, big- game hunting, or golf; scandals, distant disasters, contract bridge, car racing, crossword puzzles, curling, professional roller-skating, hockey, LSD, television, meditation, eroticism, free love, narcotics, sexual orgasm, promiscuity, pornography,  perversity, obscenity, bigamy, monogamy, commercials, protest marches, beauty contests, music festivals, charity bazaars, weddings, funerals, and other processions and parades, teach-ins, love-ins, be-ins, grand masses, tenure denials and executions, pot smoking, glue sniffing, suicide and other « kicks »; terrorisms, hijackings, wars, conspiracies, rebellions, revolutions, church work, firework, and ladies’ teas(with hats). There are even those who titillate themselves by attempting to achieve a total awareness of theactual human condition and then exploiting their insights into the absurdity of life as means to ‘ heighten the sense of living. »

But as I repeatedly emphasized in my report to the Zeteticans: It isn’t that simple. Once more I drew their attention to the peculiarly underestimated cognitive as well as empathetic disintegratedness of the human consciousness. The Zeteticans, however, appeared  strangely reluctant to accept fully my claim that we humans-I have found this to be the rule rather than the exception- are admiringly capable of simultaneously maintaining a multitude of logically incompatible positions. And since the whole field is so thoroughly muddled, it is with the greatest ease that the average human can permit himself to remain totally untouched by an argument that, by more objective standards, ought to be devastating to his chosen priorities.He may even distort such a counterargument so as to make it produce the psychological effect of a decisive pro argument for a favored position. This is, I suppose, a mechanism that is not entirely unrelated to what some recent psychologists would call « cognitive dissonance. » Or as my old teacher Arthur Schopenhauer would have put it: « Wer ueberzeugt wird wider Willen, bleibt seiner Meinung dock im Stillen » — « The empathetic disintegratedness may or may not be independent of its  cognitivecounterpart. » There couldwell a form of feedback here. But, essentially, empathetic disintegration is different. It is the rather mysterious psychological mechanism that effectively prevents a piece of lethally destructive information from penetrating into a person’s volitional layers, where it could cause irreparable damage. It is permitted instead to remain comfortably on the intellectual surface.


When it comes to retaining a hedonistically acceptable state, with a parasympathic acetylcholine predominans , there cannot be much doubt, I assured the Zeteticans, that the most effective metaphysical ontological hebetants is mortal man’s knack for extracting briefs intervals from the total term of his existence and filling them either with pastimes like the rather special ones listed above or, more often, with the safest, greatest, greyest, and most generally optunding inappetence- labor, that is, «  useful » physical or mental exertion, often which an added ingredient of superficial, nonintegrated belief in myths about God and an afterlife. Either one may be used as opium for the People. « Work, » reads the constitution of the USSR, « is the duty of every citizen, according to the principle: He who does not work, neither shall he eat. » « Produce! » cried Carlyle: « Were it but the pitifulest, infinitesimal fraction of a product, produce it in God’s name. » There are already areas on earth where 2 percent of the population will soon be able to produce more than the other 98 pecent can possibly consume. Yet Tellurians shall have to kill  600 milliard more free hours. Leisure counsellors will have more than petty weekend neuroses on their hands. Aristotle said that a society, unprepared for true leisure, will degenerate during good times. Too much leisure with too much money has been the dread of societies throughout the ages. That is why nations cave in. The German futurist Robert Jungk devoted a series of television programs to a study of work addicts and their «  leisure-osis » in more advanced societies where «  die Zukunft hat schon begonnen. » His solution was to form quartets, repair or buildone’s own television set, or better still, build completely useless machines- something like Alexander Calder’s mobiles with built-in –motors. Whether this may be a better answer than anything that labor-plus-myths can offer seems to me a toss-up. However, it doesn’t take a psychologist to predict that if humans try to fill their leisure time by, say, putting a small, white ball into a slightly larger hole, they will, as a people, go quietly nuts. The time is close when professional golf, baseball, football, hockey, wrestling, and roller derbies just won ‘t do to keep the labor force under a sufficiently permanent sedation. An increasing number are seeking higher thrills- or more thrilling « highs. »


Someone said he had a friend who liked to shoot model airplane glue. No one else had heard of that. Sniffing glue, yes; but not shooting it. They had heard of people doing something to paregoric and shoe polish and then shooting it, but the high was reported to be no good. Heroin, of course, was the best. Heroin and a bombita. It gave the best high, completely relaxed, not a problem in the world.

 » But that’s not really the best high, »  » one addict said. Do you know what the best high really is? » The voice was serious. Everyone turned and stayed very quiet to hear, maybe, of a new kind of high that was better than heroin, better than anything else. « The best high » — the voice was low and somber — « is death. » Silence. « Man, that’s outta sight, that’s somethin’ else. Yeah, no feelin’ at all. » Everyone agreed. The best high of all was death.*


The only snag in this whole line of reasoning is  its pathetic oversight of a most disheartening fact: that there will be no one in that defunct cadaver to enjoy this « best of all highs. » Even more obvious, of course, is the impotence of religious myths. Atheism is extinct in the more advanced parts of the world — for lack of opposites. Even in my student days a serious atheist was considered a slightly ludicrous bore. Religious myths were neither pompously condemned nor solemnly repudiated but received as charming subjects for art and poetry — like old-fashioned steam engines are today, or antique hot-water bottles. Needless to say, the myths have, in this form, lost all potential for consolation.


On the other hand, an excessive stress on logico-rational knowledge perfection many in itself serve as an effective means to hebetate the death awareness in man and prevent the growth of the courage for dread and anguish.  A case ad rem is Lev Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, a most impressive demonstration of the fact that the only decisive, crucial criterion for true insight into one’s own fate is the internalization of the awareness and not tenable evidence or crystalline clarity. Ivan was thoroughly convinced of the logic of the syllogism: Caius is a man; all men are mortal ; therefore Caius is mortal.


That Caius- man in the abstract- was mortal, was perfectly correct; but he was not Caius, nor man in the abstract: he had always been a creature quite, quite different from all others. He had been little Vanya, with a mamma and a papa, with Mitya and Volodya, with the toys, a coachman, and a nurse, and afterwards with Katenka and with all the joys, griefs, and delights of childhood, boyhood, and youth. What did Caius know of the smell of that striped leather ball Vanya had been so fond of? Had Caius kissed his mother’s hand like that, and did the silk of her dress rustle so for Caius?  Had he rioted like that at school when the pastry was bad ? Had Caius been in love like that ? Could Caius preside at a session as he did ? Caius really was mortal, and it was right for him to die ; but for me, little Vanya, Ivan Ilyich, with all my thoughts and emotions, it’s altogether a different matter. It cannot be that I ought to die. That would be too terrible.

If I had to die like Caius I should have known it was so. An inner voice would have told me so, but there was nothing of the sort in me and I and all my friends felt that our case was quite different from that of Caius. And now here it is!” he said to himself. It can’t be. It’s impossible ! But here it is.



Finally the truth filtered through to Ivan, and suddenly he realized in his bonesand marrow that his malady was not merely a matter of a diseased kidney but of leaving behind him as pointless a life as any other life and facing ultimate andtotal obliteration. «  For the last three days he screamed incessantly. »

« Nothing. » said my fellow student Sören Kierkegaard.  » is to me more ludicrous than a man who rushes to his job and rushes to his food; when a fly rests on the busy executive’s nose, or the draw-bridge goes up, or a tile falls down and kills him, my heart rejoices with laughter. He reminds me of the old hag, who, when her house was on fire, only saved the poker. What more does he save out of his life’s conflagration? »


Ivan Ilyich was exactly such an assiduous executive. The major  » welfare » problem facing the conscious caddis fly, Homo ephemeralis, is the fact that the enormous expansion of mass education plus the explosionlike increase of leisure time will permit present and, not the least, future generations to anticipate Ivan  Ilyich’s shriek with a margin of perhaps thirty to sixty years, which will make for a relatively long shriek. The question is whether it is morally right or psychologically possible to forearm man against such pernicious insights, and whether it is in accordance with human dignity to permit, or even tempt, man into some sort of more or less attractive, sophisticated, high-brow life-lie at the expense of his full humanization. This, I said to the ZEteticans, is one aspect of the predicament inherent in a conscious caddis-fly existence, and one that few humans have any inclination to face.


*This passage is cited from an old Life magazine that was lying about. The aristocratic scholar had probably found it beneath his academic dignity to enter such a plebeian reference in his notes.


Herman Tennessen, « Homo telluris : The conscious cosmic caddis fly ». in J. L. Christian (Ed.), Extra-terrestrial intelligence : The First Encounter, Buffalo, N.Y., Prometheus Books, 1976, p. 249- 256.