Essay from Christopher Bernard

A Little Talk Between Brain and Soul (Laudato Si’, Pope Francis)

By Christopher Bernard

White hands reaching out to touch each other against a black background

The Brain and the Soul are meeting at Philz. The Brain is dressed in computer geek togs: leopard-style TV glasses, a shaved head, a tee-shirt reading Code Earth, leatherette flip-flops, and ragged but expensive-looking jeans. He has an iPad in one hand loaded with a document he is making sure Soul doesn’t see, and the latest iPhone in the other, which he consults every so often to fact check. The Soul is dressed simply in a white shift and sandals, and wears a warm smile. The only possession she brings with her is a ring on her left hand. She is near-sighted and occasionally squints.

We find them already in mid-conversation. The Brain is doing what he does best: talking nonstop.

The Brain:
(Thinking: Got to speak in antiquated tropes,
pre-memes and metalanguages
and undeconstructed syntagms,
but that’s the only
parole and langue coding that
my ol’ prefrontal-cortex-challenged friend Soul

“And” “I” “bring” “good” “news.”
(“Does” “that” “ring” “a” “bell”?)
“Guess” “what”?

(Soul smiles even more broadly.)

“You” “don’t” “have” “to” “be”
“a” “scaredy” “cat” “anymore”:
“There” “is” (!)

(Soul grins happily.)

(Thinking: Enough of that. Since the relations between all
signfiers and signifieds are indeterminable
(positivism and postmodernism being just
mirror images of the same nightmare),
all that follows will be in
scare quotes, dutifully surrounded.)

There is, of course, no heaven either.

(Soul’s smile fades.)

(Fact checking on iPhone:) Just as in Newton’s laws of motion,
every action a reaction has,
its equal and its opposite, does it not?
(yes, it does; it says so right here in Wikipedia),
so every gain must have its equal
and, appositely, opposite loss.

(Looking back at Soul:) There are no devils – there are no angels –
no ghosts – and no imaginary friends –
no goblins, ghouls, fairies, fauns,
no tooth fairy and no leprechauns,
no zombies, eating brains
in scrumptious layers,
no vampires and no vampire slayers,
no Van Helsing with his little stake;
there is no demon – there is no saint –
no little gods, no big gods,
no dead ancestors to scare and scold you,
no guardian angels, no private demons,
no heroes, with forgivable, human flaws,
no messiahs and no heavenly saviors.
For the last time: there’s no Santa Claus.
There’s no spirit world of any kind.
You are free from every one of them
forever, because of me.
There are lifeless atoms in space alone
(most of which, themselves, in fact are
nothing more than empty space),
pulsing with energy
and the delusions we call consciousness
that occasionally, quite by accident,
hits on a fact
like a hammer a nail on the head:
as here, as now.
So get used to it, Soul.
There is no God (but me, of course,
but we never actually say that).
You have nothing whatever at all to fear but . . .
nothing at all.

And, sorry, Soul: I’ve got really bad news for you –
you, and that secular residue called “the self,”
don’t actually exist:
You’re just an illusion
of matter, energy, time, and protoplasm,
a convenient projection of that mold of gray Jello
called Me, that “gland that secretes
thoughts” (to quote the quotable Taine)
and helps its millipede-like genes survive
long enough to replicate –
no soul, no self, no ego – it’s all just
id and chemistry.
But look
what you get in return:
the world? Dude! The universe!
Power, money, information,
big data,
hackable sites,
the net, smartphones, Twitterfeeds,
and laser surgery,
and painless dentistry,
LASIK, IOLs, dissolving sutures,
solar panels, windmills, the internet of things,
virtual reality, RFIDs, driverless cars,
sex robots,
And instead of ideas, ideals, the sublime
goal of life beyond eternity or time,
you get in gobs of syllabub and curds,
a heap of gaudy,

Who needs the soul (sorry, Soul! but you’ll have to face it
some day)
who needs the soul when you can have
the multiverse of a virtual and infinitely
imagined reality instead?
Who needs God
when God you can be –
thanks to little ball of neuron spaghetti and synaptical connections:

You’ve got to admit it, Soul:
it’s quite a deal.

(Showing the Soul the document uploaded onto the iPad for the first time:)

So: just sign here on the dotted line:
you’ll never regret it, trust me in this.
You can sign with your finger, right on the screen: ain’t it cool?

What is it? It’s nothing. A non-compete agreement.
It’s just a formality, strictly boilerplate.
For how long? Why, in perpetuity, of course.
Why would we want anything less?
In return we’ll let you preen in your smartphone
pretty much forever. Narcissus never had it so good.
Who needs to exist when you can have selfies
instantly uploaded to a galaxy of social media
where your ten million followers can emoji you forever?

(Soul smiles.)

The Soul:
Olé, Brain! Bravo! That was quite a trick.
OK! Uncle! You win! I quit!
You’ve seized everything in your claws,
taken down the world
and remade the whole universe in your image.
Homer, Plato, Aristotle – covered with historical
dust as they are – yet the first to dream
of what we now, long afterwards, call
“AI,” “IT, “virtual reality,” “robots” –
would be amazed at what they started,
between those old Hebrews and Greeks,
when they turned reason into the hidden god
above every god of their mythologies:
science, industry, technology,
with or without the delights of psychotropics,
the cerebellum on steroids and the latest nootropics,
have beaten Hashem, Zeus,
Shiva, Jesus,
Ahura Mazda and Huitzolpochtli
all hollow.

You rolled down the ages like a rock
gathering an avalanche, till you pulled down
the mountain you rode down, burying
the cisalpine country of history – destroying
humankind, unfortunately, in the process.

By destroying the spirit world, God, me
(you’ve even destroyed anything called “mind,” really;
though I hope you don’t mind if I call you “mind,”
as I used to? “Brain” just sounds too harsh –
and I really appreciate your not calling me
“projection of psychic unity over time,
with delusions of grandeur – or “BPDG” for short,
as you once did on Facebook –
that really hurt;
indeed, all nouns are on probation
till you have crushed them
as gelatinous delusions of language
and unquestioned assumptions of Brain’s perceptions),
you destroyed any reasons that people should bother
with the drudgery and nastiness of living at all.

Without us, the human has no place
in a world of matter, energy, time,
space, cost-benefit, profit margins, price points,
physics, natural selection, and freakonomics –
and nothing else.
people would have nothing better to do
than spend their time feeding their faces,
sample ever weirder drugs,
copulate on a regular basis,
and die:
a messy death after a messy birth,
with a messy life in between
based entirely on delusions, the vast con game,
the deep self-deception of the lingual primate.

The mind’s dedication to clear logic,
experience, and reason,
which looked so brave and decent once,
is ushering them into annihilation.
There is a lucidness that is so terrible
it cannot bear to see itself.
If the universe has no value, but only a price,
then human life has no value, but only a price,
and what has no value, but only a price:
does it have the right to exist at any price?

The future has no value either:
so humans are burning the world to keep warm
for one last party on planet earth.
Let the last digidiot to leave put out the lights!

Or are you too into climate denial?

You have pushed humanity’s face into time
and mortality and forced them to look
and told them, “This is all there is:

You live in a prison of mud and dust,
in cells you ornament, bejewel, pack with
exotic furnishings to make your fellow
prisoners envious, build like a tower
past the clouds, trumping all rivals
in this land of ambition and vanity;
fly like a probe past the great Oort cloud,
decorate with celestial works of art,
fill with books and music, women
you can … (well, we’ll leave that
to your very own, vivid imagination),
turn it into a drug den of ecstasy dreams,
add a computer to it, connect to every other
prisoner in the universal jail,
where all of you are waiting for your very own personal
executioner, and while you are waiting,
post YouTube videos of your dinner and your cat,
and selfies, in suave or mad-cap poses,
in flagrante with a virtual galaxy of porn stars.
You are not only made of mud and dust,
you are worth no more than
a few buckets of water and a handful of chemicals,
and that’s it—and that’s all.”
Nuclear fireworks,
champagne, nonstop orgasms, and trillions of dollars,
every one of them worthless:
that was your gift to humankind
when you destroyed

What a deal? No deal.

Because, even if we are nothing but shadows,
fantasy, dreams, illusions, weakness
(weakness has a worth strength is walled from forever),
we alone create
the only wonders the universe holds,
the essence of existence, the radiance of being:

the face of beauty

the sun of love

the light of goodness

and –
in a paradox that you will singularly appreciate –
because it is the thing you fear above all:

the call and cry of truth.

I will not sign. But I won’t fight you
as you have me.
Though, for something that does not exist,
you might be surprised how hard this fist,
clenched from dung and dirt and myth,
and stinking of brimstone and fire, hits.

No: I will open the hands of my heart.
You are my sister and my brother.
You know much, but you know not this:
soul and mind are to each other,
in the darkness that shadows all of us, light,
as men and women each other need;
apart, we wither; together we live;
otherwise, we stumble in the night.
The mind teaches the soul, without fear, to see.
And soul teaches mind, without fear, to love.

(The Soul wipes the iPad blank and reaches to him her hand.)


Christopher Bernard is a poet, novelist and journalist. He is author of several books of fiction and poetry, including A Spy in the Ruins, The Rose Shipwreck and In the American Night. His novel Voyage to a Phantom City and his short-story collection Dangerous Stories for Boys are slated for publication later this year. He is coeditor of Caveat Lector and a regular contributor to Synchronized Chaos. His poems can be read at the blog “The Bog of St. Philinte.”