“Unsuspecting Souls” — a history book about now

Every so often I interview someone on my Pathways radio show who presents a unique idea. Professor Barry Sanders is one such person. Observing the culture wars that are being fought in the press, I was amazed from reading his new book to realize to what extent our strong cultural attitudes — and conflicts — were formed during a spooky 19th century. I enjoy history when it is made as interesting as this!

Sanders give us the background for our tendency for escapism, wherein we would usually rather imbibe the shadow images of film (via movies and tv) more than we care to FEEL our bodies, our feelings, all of our senses. As a result, he says we have become largely disembodied creatures, losing what he refers to as a “haptic” sense of life (I love learning new words :-).

“Unsuspecting Souls: The Disappearance of the Human Being” is the history of how humanity lost its bearings — how we had an identity-crisis, if you will — in and throughout the 19th century. It is an extremely readable and fascinating history of the period, as well as an examination of how the trends that took hold then are still plaguing us now. We have been steadily losing our souls — i.e. that which defines us as ‘human’ — and the process has only been accelerating since 1800, especially since the dawn of moving pictures.

This is the story of the rise of science (and opposing it, fundamentalist strains of religion clinging to the church’s “divine order” of things), the industrial revolution with all of its dehumanizing effects, plus a cornucopia of time and labor-saving inventions — including the clock, rapid transportation, telephone, camera, motion pictures, amusement parks and automatic weapons. Worst of all, we had the experience of violent mass carnage of an extent the world had never seen, taking place right here on American soil, via the Civil War in which the equivalent of what would be 6 million Americans today slaughtered each other.

Meanwhile, the literature of the period reflected the de-souling of human beings, with almost every major author producing works that featured ghosts, the “undead,” man-made monsters, etc. as well as popular strains of “spiritualism” arising to promote contact with spirits unseen via seances, psychics, etc. Adding to the hallucinating quality of the period was the synthesis in the west of opium, heroin, cocaine, nitrous oxide, ether — all of which were extolled by the leading minds of the time as gateways for mystical experiences and the meaning of life — promoted by the same authors and Sigmund Freud himself.

It is a fascinating period, rendered all the more intriguing by the author’s meticulously researched details, presented in the form of true and almost unbelievable vignettes, that reads like an adventure story. What a catalyzing time was this!

This is not a book that can easily be boiled down. It is a profound work that deals with what are essentially spiritual issues. Who (or what) are we? What is the difference between being alive and “having a life” (and how is the concept of “having a life” a natural byproduct of becoming a “human resource,” a cog in a soul-crushing machine)? When does human life begin? How can we conquer death by prolonging life (our ongoing preoccupation, as opposed to returning to a celebration of the natural ‘human’ aspects of life)? What does it mean to be alive? What does it mean to be human? Listen to my Pathways interview to hear our fascinating discussion on these topics!

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