“Earthly Bread”

by Sam Buntz

“And the sublime comes down
To the spirit itself,

The spirit and space,
The empty spirit in vacant space.
What wine does one drink,
What bread does one eat?”
–Wallace Stevens

The acceleration of our drive to entertain ourselves–of our new-found
ability to almost never be bored, to be supplied with an external
stimulus as readily as if it were a part of our own bodies–may be
humankind’s most valiant attempt yet to “live by bread alone.”  There
are (we are told) two kinds of bread: the heavenly and the earthly.  I
won’t attempt to define the former kind of bread, for now — but the
earthly bread is what we eat everyday, in both a literal and
figurative sense.  Consider the nature of bread: it is made from the
pure wheat of Nature, tempered and altered by human craft. Perhaps the
communion wafer is used to symbolize the body of Christ because he
represents the divine power within the human, just as bread is an
example of human power exercised within the natural world.  But the
earthly bread remains bread–mere matter.  Despite all this, in our
present age, human power has managed to so alter and change the stuff
of the natural world that the actual materiality of that stuff seems
to almost vanish.  The earthly bread that sustains us comes from a
wide variety of screens, from increasingly powerful microchips and
pulses of electricity.  Matter has been made to strain at its own
materiality–sounds and images pop out of the ether, and the human
will easily arranges them.  Whim has never had so much latitude.  Whim
was once the province of the gods, and to a lesser degree, of monarchs
and nobles–now, huge swathes of the developed world can control
orchestras and computer-generated panoramas with an ease inaccessible
to the Roman and Mogul Emperors.

In the 16th Century, Francis Bacon predicted that, by gaining
increasing knowledge and control of the fundamental laws of the
universe, humanity would gradually reduce all matter to a state of
pure plasticity, gaining the ability to continually shape and reshape
all that we see around us and within us: he foresaw the rise of
plastic surgery, of climate control, and of nearly every other kind of
control we have managed to exercise or seek to exercise over the
external world.  It is only inner space that remains relatively wild
and unshaped, uncharted (unless you are a yogi)–a perpetual frontier.
Psychology has made valuable efforts, but the innermost Himalayas of
the self are still free from a full exposition (in my view).  The
aborigines of the interior have not yet been subjected to total
colonization and extermination, though that may or may not be around
the corner–may not even be possible. At any rate, I don’t propose to
suggest that having this kind of control over absolutely everything is
wholly bad, though I respect and understand all the arguments for why
it is bad.  I’m not sure that, in the final analysis, we will be very
successful in dividing the kinds of control we find acceptable (say,
curing cancer) and unacceptable (say, human cloning.)  My purpose in
writing this isn’t so much to argue against a future Brave New World,
as it is to see the tendency to gain greater control over an
increasingly plastic nature as part of the attempt to live on earthly
bread alone, on the products of Nature radically altered by the human
intellect, while still remaining, at their most basic, sub-atomic
level, part of Nature. We have managed to transform nearly everything
on earth into something plastic, changeable–everything responds to
our will.  And our facility with the scalpel, by which we shape and
reshape the world, is growing everyday.  The weather and climate may
still menace, still appear relatively un-molded by human innovation.
But I wouldn’t be surprised if they gradually become subject to our
will, as well.

Of course, many among us assert that there is no such thing as
heavenly bread, but only the “produce of the common day,” the earthly
bread.  D.H. Lawrence believed that there was, indeed, such a thing as
heavenly bread, but that most people who asserted they were hungry for
it were really only hungry for a jazzier version of the earthly bread.
The human craving for “miracle, mystery, and authority”–the earthly
powers with which Satan tempts Jesus, prompting the savior’s famous
rejoinder, “Man cannot live by bread alone, but by every word that
proceeds from the mouth of God”–was unquenchable, in Lawrence’s view.
Jesus needed to allow Satan–with a kiss–to give people the “miracle,
mystery, and authority” that they craved, in the form of a Church,
with its rituals and pageantry, which all are simply ways of giving
the earthly bread back to people while pretending that it is heavenly
bread, in order to satisfy their ostensible craving for this higher
form of nourishment.  But for Lawrence, only a living “connection to
the infinite”–not to the finite world, the world that can only bring
forth earthly bread–that could truly satisfy himself, and the few
other people whom he believed to be truly sincere.

But at the present day the finite world has never *seemed* more
infinite–the earthly bread’s tastiness has never been so enhanced, so
buttered-up.  I don’t meant to bash Satan or connect an excessive
regard for techno-entertainment or for smartphones to Satanism by
making this comparison–if that were true, I would prove a Satanist
myself, most of the time (which is not to say that I’m not, or that we
all aren’t, insofar as we buy into the finite world’s illusions of
infinitude), but this power–the power of making the finite world
totally available, of making it seem to suffice–was the very power
offered to Jesus by Satan when he was tempted in the wilderness.  The
chance to feel like a god, or even like God, while remaining ensconced
within the limits of the finite world, has never been as readily
available as it is today. The power to utterly shape–to gain relative
control over one’s consciousness and alter it through drugs, to gain
control over one’s body through any number of supplements and drugs
and surgeries, to gain control over the external world and make it
more pleasing through iPhones, iPads and all the rest–has never been
so accessible.  Every person has complete liberty to create his or her
own private heaven…or hell. The power bestowed by the sorcerer on
the sorcerer’s apprentice can lead to a parade of obedient or
disobedient broomsticks.

Himself a user of hashish and opium, the great 19th Century French
poet, Charles Baudelaire, considered the mind of the habitual
pot-smoker: “All the surrounding objects are so many suggestions which
stir in him a world of thought, all more colored, more living, more
subtle than ever, clothed in a magic glamor…But a savage and burning
cry darts from his breast with such an energy, such a power of
production, that if the will and the belief of a drunken man possessed
effective power this cry would overthrow the angels scattered in the
quarters of the heaven: ‘I am a god’…If by chance a vague memory
slips into the soul of this deplorable thrice-happy one — ‘Might
there not be another God?’–he believes that he will stand upright
before Him; that he will dispute His will, and confront Him without
fear.”  Though this might be a bit hyperbolic when it comes to the
proposed effects of marijuana–are all the pot-heads out there, spread
out among half-emptied boxes of Oreos and tubes of Pringles,
entertaining an imaginary god-hood? (maybe the question is not *so*
absurd)–it is a perfect description of the powers which the full
battery of our present day control of Nature promises us.  Baudelaire
is not really describing hashish so much as he is describing a full
feast of earthly bread.

Nine days out of ten, this may very well work.  Yet there remains this
other thing.  Let’s just say that–this “other thing.”  The tenth day
is the suggestion of another reality, not dependent on the external
powers leached from Nature–whether those powers are medicinal or
narcotic, electronic or analog. The existence of the heavenly bread is
obviously a matter of experience–one to be asked for and received,
tasted and known, not argued over or endlessly questioned.  If the
earthly bread proves too fully nourishing and satisfying, it is
possible–as I have suggested–that any remembrance of the heavenly
bread, or any reason to believe in it, could fade out altogether.  But
I think that this is unlikely.  The entire business of fallen and
broken humanity consists in asserting that what cannot suffice will
suffice–that the finite can substitute for the infinite, spurning
that “connection with the infinite” that Lawrence sought.  Yet, as
William Blake said, “More! More! is the cry of a mistaken soul.  Less
than All cannot satisfy man.”  Some parts of the self will always
remain wild, un-colonized and untouched, save by the sincere soul.