Death and the Magus

Cultural Cocoons

Do Caterpillars Dream of Butterflies? When its time comes a caterpillar begins to spin a cocoon around itself and goes into a kind of hibernation. Later the chrysalis splits open and a beautiful flying creature emerges ready for mating and egg-laying. If the chrysalis suffers any kind of trauma it becomes a tomb for the caterpillar who will never emerge as a butterfly. I assume human beings who fantasise about being immortal after their death are spinning symbolic explanations of the meaning of life to surround themselves as cultural cocoons. If the cocoon ever includes the irrational fear of death as non-being, or an irrational conviction that one’s own ego is so important that it must continue for ever through offspring or reputation, then it has to die and will never emerge in a higher form.


Shaw’s fascinating play “Back to Methuselah, a Metabiological Pentateuch” written a hundred years ago touches on this theme. He was inspired both by Darwin’s theory of biological evolution, and Bergson’s less mechanistic interpretation, to imagine a future rejuvenation and prolongation of some peoples’ lives. His play culminates in the appearance of a few people who realise that if human beings are at the cutting edge of the evolutionary process we cannot possibly know what may or may not happen to us in the future. They begin to evolve further after a hundred thousand years of biological stasis. At last now we can avoid believing in the absolute inevitability of death and the consequent immortality compensations. Maybe our ecstatic flying dreams and belief in heavenly beings are caused by some pre-adaptive innate release mechanisms in the brain awaiting the right symbolic stimulation,


Anticipating the evolution of life from matter would be inconceivable to a fictional observer. The transition from simple cells to complex organisms with nervous systems and then from individual organisms to complex social role systems are also unimaginable qualitative leaps. As a non-reductionist who regards the whole as more real than the sum of its parts I regard human meaning systems expressed in symbols as yet another unimaginable evolutionary qualitative shift beyond animal consciousness. Ask yourselves this. What happens next? What is our destiny?