Missing Character   /   Spring 2024   /    Thematic—Missing Character

The Character of Tragedy

Plot is the key to character.

Martha Bayles

Waiting for Godot (detail), 2005, by Anthony Breslin (b. 1966); private collection, © Anthony Breslin, all rights reserved, 2024/Bridgeman Images.

They give birth astride of a grave, the light gleams an instant, then it’s night once more.” Many years ago, reading that unsettling line from Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot for the first time, I decided that the Irish playwright was too bitter a cup for me. That judgment was too hasty. After subsequent readings and performances attended over the years, I began to see that Beckett was up to something quite different from fashionable despair. To begin with, the line is spoken by Pozzo, an unsavory character who pretends to be in command of others but is not even in command of himself. His only real power is over a wretched slave called Lucky, whom he keeps on a leash and abuses in petty, ugly ways. That this line comes from Pozzo allows us to take it with a grain of salt.

We live in a secular and pluralistic age, in which our religious faith, if we have one, is rarely a taken-for-granted inheritance—a given. More commonly, we choose our beliefs, then endeavor to sustain them against a cloud of doubts, including our own. This can be hard in a world where the death of God is a cliché recited by schoolchildren, and the good guy in a popular TV series says to a man he is about to kill, “In case you don’t already know, there’s no such thing as heaven.”11xKayce Dutton in Yellowstone, season 1, episode 1, “Daybreak,” directed by Taylor Sheridan, written by Taylor Sheridan and John Linson, featuring Kevin Costner, Luke Grimes, and Kelly Reilly, aired June 20, 2018, on Paramount Network. Pozzo’s grim assertion was shocking back in 1953, when Beckett’s play was first performed. Today it seems almost immune to doubt.

Until recently, the one faith Americans did take for granted was that science and technology were leading humankind toward a better future. In the digital age, that faith has raised the expectation, in some quarters, that cutting-edge research in brain imaging, simulation capacity, and artificial neural networks will soon make possible the transfer of an individual’s entire mental life—thought, sensation, memory, emotion, psychology—from his physical brain to an exceedingly complex computer file.

Pursued by well-funded researchers, this dream of “mind uploading” is the perennial one of achieving immortality. But there are at least four objections. The first comes from scientists and philosophers convinced that before the mind of a living person could be uploaded to a computer, the “hard problem” of consciousness would have to be solved. And that, writes philosopher Thomas Nagel, would amount to a new scientific revolution:

Our own existence presents us with the fact that somehow the world generates conscious beings capable of recognizing reasons for action and belief, distinguishing some necessary truths, and evaluating the evidence for alternative hypotheses about the natural order. We don’t know how this happens, but it is hard not to believe that there is some explanation of a systematic kind—an expanded account of the order of the world.22xThomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False (London, England: Oxford University Press, 2012), 30.

The second objection is that because subjective consciousness cannot be explained by the methods of even the most advanced physical sciences, it is impossible to know with absolute certainty that another human being is conscious, much less whether that entity is software ensconced in a futuristic supercomputer. No matter how many details from my mental life that software were to replicate, you could never be sure that my consciousness—my subjective experience of being alive—had been successfully transferred. Even if the supercomputer were to swear on a stack of tech manuals that it was feeling my feelings and sensing my sensations, that claim could not be verified.

The third objection follows from the second. Without my physical body living and breathing through every moment of my allotted span, it would be hard to imagine what sort of thing my mind would be. Nagel does not use the word soul, and his conception of what he calls “theism” is regrettably simplistic. But again, we live in a secular age. So rhetorically, his bracketing of religion makes all the more persuasive his call for a new science able to account for the mysteries of consciousness, cognition, and value.

The fourth objection is that this dream of digital immortality collides with a nightmare recently in the headlines: general AI. Not to be confused with generative AI (a term for artificial intelligence apps that can produce images and documents on demand), general AI refers to what tech guru Ray Kurzweil calls “the singularity”—an “ultrahigh” intelligence that will cause “a rupture in the fabric of human history” as it “expand[s] outward in the universe at the speed of light.”33xQuoted in Charles Arthur, “Want to Impress Your Friends? Tell Them Internet Growth Is Sigmoidal, Not Exponential,” The Guardian, November 26, 2007, https://www.theguardian.com/technology/blog/2007/nov/26/wanttoimpressyourfriendst.

Were such a thing to occur, it is hard to imagine that any individual consciousness, whether embodied or uploaded, would survive. Kurzweil’s “rupture” would in fact be a closure, because what does human life consist in, if not “a narrow, direct path through the finite”? The phrase is from theologian William F. Lynch, who defends that narrow path in these terms:

Human time, when lived according to its basic flow, is a highly subtle, complicated, and sophisticated intellectual process. Yet many an intellectual, devoted to the pure intelligence, rejects this process as though it were a sickness.… The “man in the street” often understands what the intellectual does not: that true reality is contained within the dramatic temporal life of the body.44xWilliam F. Lynch, Christ and Apollo: The Dimensions of the Literary Imagination (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2005), 36–37, 58–59. First published 1960.

Lynch wrote this in 1960, two years before British-born mathematician I.J. Good floated the idea of superhuman intelligence. More cautious than Kurzweil, Good remarked, in a much-discussed paper published in 1966, that “the first ultraintelligent machine is the last invention that man need ever make, provided that the machine is docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control. It is curious that this point is made so seldom outside of science fiction. It is sometimes worthwhile to take science fiction seriously55xGood presented the lectures on which the article was based at the Conference on the Conceptual Aspects of Biocommunications, Neuropsychiatric Institute, University of California, Los Angeles, October 1962, and the Artificial Intelligence Sessions of the Winter General Meetings of the Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers, January 1963. I.J. Good, “Speculations Concerning the First Ultraintelligent Machine,” Advances in Computers 6 (1966): 31–88, https://doi.org/10.1016/S0065-2458(08)60418-0. The quote appears on page 33.  (emphasis added).

Good cited no titles, but an obvious example of prescient midcentury science fiction is Childhood’s End, the third novel by Arthur C. Clarke, which was published in 1953, the same year Waiting for Godot premiered. The two works occupied very different cultural strata. Beckett’s play, an avant-garde work that opened in Paris and stirred controversy across Europe, was at the high end of highbrow, while Clarke’s novel, a sci-fi tale by a former Royal Air Force radar operator published by Ballantine Books (a purveyor of cheap paperbacks), was at the low end of lowbrow. But that difference has ceased to matter, because by drawing from the same ancient well, both works speak as eloquently now as they did then.

That well is classical Greek tragedy, understood as a dramatic portrayal of a character who, while navigating the inevitable contingencies of an embodied, time-bound life, is suddenly brought low by extreme suffering unrelieved by God, the gods, or any other transcendent source of meaning. The key to tragedy is the degree to which that character bears the torment without succumbing to despair. From that crucible emerges the steel of virtue.

No Character Without Plot

If the Poetics, Aristotle’s treatise on the subject of tragedy, is rarely studied today, it is largely because the French Neoclassicists of the seventeenth century turned Aristotle’s descriptions of Greek tragedy into prescriptions. Finessed by Corneille and Racine, ignored by Molière, challenged by the Romantics, and rejected by the Modernists, the Poetics was all but forgotten by 1953. But each in his own way, Beckett and Clarke heeded the deeper insights it contains.

The most important of these insights is that plot is the key to character. Aristotle did not reach this conclusion because he thought character unimportant. Rather, it was because, as he argued in the Ethics, the only way for one human being to discern the true character of another is to observe the other’s actions over a long period, preferably a lifetime. In the theater, where such lengthy observation is not possible, tragedy forces the issue by taking “a man like ourselves,” who despite his good intentions stands “between the two extremes” of “eminently good and just” and “vice and depravity,” and subjecting him to at least one wrenching, agonizing “reversal of fortune.”66xAristotle, Poetics, 76.

Thus, Aristotle defines tragedy as “an imitation of an action that is complete, and whole, and of a certain magnitude,” in which the “plot…is the first and most important thing.” He further states that a “well-constructed plot” needs a beginning, middle, and end—and that the best plots are “complex” in the sense of including various heart-stopping twists. These include “Reversal” (peripeteia), in which a key event turns out to mean the opposite of what is expected; “Recognition” (anagnorsis), in which a new discovery changes everything; and “Scene of Suffering” (pathos), in which a character experiences emotional distress, physical agony, or violent death (or all three).77xIbid., 65–66, 72–73.

As a postwar Modernist in good standing, Beckett did his best to reject these prescriptions. And he succeeded to the point that one admiring critic called Waiting for Godot “a play in which nothing happens, that yet keeps audiences glued to their seats.”88xVivian Mercier, “The Uneventful Event,” Irish Times, February 18, 1956, 6. It is not quite true, however, that Beckett’s masterpiece lacks a plot.

On a stage bare except for a lone, sickly tree, two shabbily dressed companions, Vladimir and Estragon, idle their time away in expectation of a meaningful encounter with Godot, an ill-defined personage who is rumored to be on his way but never quite arrives. The only other characters are the unsavory Pozzo, who goes blind while tormenting his slave, Lucky, and two messenger boys, one in each act, who show up to say, first, that Godot is not coming yet, and, second, that he is not coming ever. But while Beckett gently but relentlessly mocks Vladimir and Estragon for counting too much on the unseen Godot, he does not mock the audience for being foolish enough to sit in the dark expecting something to happen. Instead, he enlists its sympathy for Vladimir and Estragon’s wan hope that their earthly existence amounts to more than a glimmer between womb and tomb.

This empathy marks the difference between Beckett and the Theater of the Absurd, with which he is often associated. According to the critic Frank Kermode, the Absurdists scorned the moral and civilizational heritage of the West as baggage that “ought to be ignored,” while Beckett respected it as “a source of order” that, regrettably, was no longer usable.99xFrank Kermode, The Sense of an Ending: Studies in the Theory of Fiction (London, England: Oxford University Press, 1967), 115. No doubt this is the same Beckett who, while sitting in a busy tearoom, overheard an American academic say, “Beckett’s an artist!… He doesn’t give a fuck about people!” and responded in a loud voice, “But I do give a fuck about people!”1010xJames Knowlson and Elizabeth Knowlson, eds., Remembering Beckett, Beckett Remembering (2006), quoted in James Wood, How Fiction Works (New York, NY: Picador/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008), 95.

It is hard to give a fuck about most characters in the Theater of the Absurd. For example, The Lesson—Eugène Ionesco’s one-act play about a lunatic professor who mentally tortures an idiotic female student, then stabs her to death—evokes only tedium, followed by relief. That is not true of Waiting for Godot. There are no heart-stopping plot twists, to be sure. But there is a contrast in behavior—between Pozzo’s nonstop bitching and moaning and Vladimir and Estragon’s pathetic struggle to sustain their belief in Godot—that evokes contempt toward the former and sympathy (tinged with wry amusement) toward the latter.1111xThe pun on “God” seems obvious until we remind ourselves that the play was originally written in French, in which the word for “God” is Dieu. And that is a plot, of sorts.

The Art—and Pleasure—of Tragedy

To explore these matters further, I invoke the spirit of American philosopher Walter Kaufmann, whose 1968 book Tragedy and Philosophy debunks several clichés encrusting the modern understanding of Greek tragedy. One such commonplace, endlessly recycled through SparkNotes and course syllabi, is that the “tragic hero” is brought down by a “tragic flaw” (hamartia), usually an excess of “pride” (hybris). Kaufmann dispatches this formula by pointing out that neither Aristotle nor the great tragedians dwell on heroes, focus on tragic flaws, or share the monotheistic belief that pride is an offense against God.

Another cliché is that all tragedies end badly. When William Dean Howells, the elder statesman of nineteenth-century letters, quipped, “What the American public always wants is a tragedy with a happy ending,” the novelist Edith Wharton interpreted that as a dig at the sentimental optimism of American readers.1212xQuoted in Edith Wharton, French Ways and Their Meaning (New York, NY: D. Appleton & Company, 1919), 65; and A Backward Glance (New York, NY: D. Appleton & Company, 1934), 147.  But Aristotle made a similar observation about Athenian theatergoers—noting, first, that they preferred tragedies that end well (as did he), and, second, that a tragedy need not end with a terrible reversal of fortune, as long as it includes one along the way.

Kaufmann’s prime example is the Oresteia trilogy by Aeschylus. The first play, Agamemnon, begins with the title character returning to his troubled kingdom of Argos flush with victory after the ten-year siege of Troy, only to be slaughtered in the bath by his queen, Clytemnestra, in revenge for his having sacrificed their daughter Iphigenia on the eve of his departure. The final play, the Eumenides, ends with a jubilant affirmation of Athens as the enlightened polis whose patron, the goddess Athena, brings the spiraling evil of Argos to a just resolution. This happy ending notwithstanding, Kaufmann judges Agamemnon “second to none in the powerful tragic emotions it engenders.”1313xWalter A. Kaufmann, Tragedy and Philosophy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973), 50–51. First published 1968.

The Greek names for the tragic emotions, eleos and phobos, are invariably translated as “pity” and “fear.” But as Kaufmann notes, the English words are transitive (I pity someone, I fear something), while the Greek words are not. This is important, because as Kaufmann persuasively argues, the tragic emotions we feel during a play are not really aimed at the characters onstage. Instead, they grip us from within, as though the pain were our own. To illustrate, Kaufmann recalls his own response to the agony of Cassandra, the captive Trojan princess whom Clytemnestra slaughters after slaying Agamemnon: “Who am I to feel sorry for her? It is not as if I were secure and comfortable and looked down on her misery; it would come closer to the facts if we said that when my suffering had become unbearable she suddenly lent it voice.”1414xIbid., 51–53.

But Kaufmann also asks, “Why do tragedies give pleasure?”1515xIbid., xv. Why, indeed, do scenes of great agony that, if encountered in real life, would disturb or traumatize us, provoke a radically different response when witnessed as part of a dramatic performance? Aristotle’s answer is low-key but persuasive, because it makes room for the imagination. Which is to say, it makes room for art:

Objects which in themselves we view with pain, we delight to contemplate when reproduced with minute fidelity, such as the forms of the most ignoble animals and of dead bodies. The cause of this again is that to learn gives the liveliest pleasure, not only to philosophers but to men in general.… Imitation, then, is one instinct of our nature.1616xAristotle, Poetics, 55. (emphasis added)

“Imitation” is the standard English translation of mimesis, another word Kaufmann would have us reconsider. Far better, he says, to translate mimesis as “make-believe” or “pretending.” Offering the example of “a three-year-old child…putting a yellow block on a blue one” and saying “This is a sandwich,” he speculates that “perhaps the child’s delight in pretending is even more basic than its delight in imitation1717xKaufmann, Tragedy and Philosophy, 43. (emphasis added). In other words, mimesis does not “hold a mirror up to nature” (another cliché) so much as it fashions a truer and more universal understanding.

In De Anima, his treatise on the soul, Aristotle defines imagination (phantasia) as a faculty distinct from mind, perception, and belief.1818xAristotle, De Anima iii 3, 414b33–415a3.  The objects we imagine we do not regard as real. Thus, it follows that when we contemplate these imagined objects, we do so with a degree of detachment that, while greatly inferior to the pure contemplation of the gods, is one of the highest pleasures of which we mortals are capable. (About this Plato must have agreed, because after all, what is the Republic but an exercise in make-believe, in which Socrates and his friends stack up imaginary blocks and say, “This is a perfectly just city”?)

In sum, the tragic emotions amount to a heightened state of consciousness whose searing intensity is weirdly akin to elation. For Kaufmann, the essential factor is the poetry: “When suffering is voiced in magnificent poetry, we feel a sense of liberation as our own hopelessly tangled and mute grief is given words and takes on wings.”1919xKaufmann, Tragedy and Philosophy, 58. I agree, but the effect is not just aesthetic. It is moral, in a sense hard to grasp nowadays. As the present article was being written, the British theater eminence Sir Kenneth Branagh was directing and starring in a production of Shakespeare’s King Lear. While praising Branagh’s Lear, the reviewer for The Economist asserted that “the purpose of tragedy” is not “a kind of practice in grinning and bearing it.” It may seem so, the reviewer continued, judging from Edgar’s oft-quoted rebuke to his father, Gloucester: “What, in ill thoughts again? Men must endure / Their going hence, even as their coming hither: / Ripeness is all.”2020xWilliam Shakespeare, King Lear, 5.2.  But this line, sniffed the reviewer, is “a homily on stoicism that makes a priggish sort of moral.” What the play is really doing, we are told, is “demanding greater compassion for injustice.”2121x“‘King Lear’ and the Purpose of Tragedy in Dark Times,” The Economist, November 1, 2023, https://www.economist.com/culture/2023/11/01/king-lear-and-the-purpose-of-tragedy-in-dark-times.

This misses the point so thoroughly, I can only guess the reviewer stepped out for a late dinner at Scully St. James’s and missed the end of Act V. Of all the injustices committed in the play, the greatest is Lear’s banishment of his daughter Cordelia for refusing to gush with love for him on command. But an even greater injustice—death—constitutes the final Scene of Suffering. First Cordelia dies, prompting Lear to lament, “Why should a dog, a horse, a rat, have life, / And thou no breath at all? Thou’lt come no more, / Never, never, never, never, never.”2222xShakespeare, King Lear 5.3. Then he dies while trying one last time to revive her.

Last I checked, meeting death with stoic courage rather than “ill thoughts” and despair is no easier today than it ever was. And priggishness has got nothing to do with it. Unless, of course, we believe science and technology will soon make us immortal, like the gods.

A Modern Tragedy, Hidden in Plain View

Arthur C. Clarke was not a great tragic poet. And with one or two notable exceptions, the characters in Childhood’s End have all the depth of cardboard. But this novel is not just a modern exemplar of Aristotle’s “well-constructed plot.” It is also a remarkably prescient meditation on the futility of finding a technological solution to mortality.

The plot of Childhood’s End divides neatly into beginning, middle, and end. Part 1, “Earth and the Overlords,” is set in the late twentieth century (as imagined in 1953), when the United States and the Soviet Union are engaged in a space race that is really a Cold War arms race. This and all other conflicts cease abruptly when a fleet of giant spaceships arrives. As the ships disperse, casting their shadows over every major city, the aliens, who for some reason refuse to show themselves, announce that they are the Earth’s new “Overlords”—and because they possess vastly superior cognitive and technological powers, resistance would be futile.

So far, so simple. A zillion sci-fi stories start like this, then devolve into interminable battles between brave Earthlings and hideous invaders. But the plot of Childhood’s End is also complex in the Aristotelian sense. The first in a sequence of Reversals occurs when the Overlords, hidden in their menacing ships, turn out to be saviors, not conquerors, bringing universal peace and prosperity. Once these blessings are secured, the Overlords’ long life spans allow them to wait another fifty years for humankind to forget what life was like before. Then comes the first Recognition. The Overlords’ mother ship descends to Earth for the first time, and down its massive exit ramp strides Karellen, the mighty and benevolent “Supervisor for Earth.” Ten feet tall, with an armored carapace, expressionless face, curved horns, leathery wings, and whiplike tail tipped like a spear, he is the spitting image of Satan. But apart from a ripple of recoil among the elderly, no one cares.

Part 2, “The Golden Age,” evokes the Greek myth of a timeless realm in which humans share the bountiful Earth with the gods. To be accurate, the Greek Golden Age did not include women; they were created as a punishment for Prometheus after he stole fire from the gods. “The Golden Age” in Childhood’s End does include women, although like most twentieth-century science fiction it posits no change in their societal role in its imagined future. The men may be reaching for the stars, but their wives are still cooking, cleaning, raising the kids, and trying not to get too emotional.

One of those women is Jean, the girlfriend of a television producer named George. At a party hosted by a wealthy collector of books about paranormal phenomena like clairvoyance, telekinesis, telepathy, and out-of-body experiences, George and Jean meet an Overlord called Rashaverak, who is studying the collection—because while the Overlords do not possess the mental capacity for paranormal activity, they are keenly interested in the topic. (They do not say why.)

At a session with a state-of-the-art Ouija board, Jean faints after going into a trance and reciting what appears to be a random sequence of numbers. Later, another guest, an astrophysicist named Jan, surreptitiously identifies the sequence as the star-catalogue number of the Overlords’ home star. But because the location of that star is a closely guarded secret, he tells no one. Meanwhile, Rashaverak tags Jean, an ordinary woman who could not possibly have known the number, as a clairvoyant who might bear children with similar powers.

In Part 3, “The Last Generation,” it is still the Golden Age, but human life is beginning to stagnate. Apart from a few stubbornly curious souls like Jan the astrophysicist, scientists are limited to make-work approved by the Overlords. As for artists, they try to sustain creativity on an island called New Athens, which has attracted many settlers, including Jean and George, now married with two children. But with a growing sense of foreboding, Jean and George watch their children, Jeffrey and Jennifer, begin to change.

First, Jeffrey is saved from a tidal wave by a telepathic message from a distant Overlord, after which he starts having all-consuming visions of cosmic events in remote galaxies. His baby sister, Jennifer, makes her toys levitate above her crib. Soon every child on Earth is entering a trancelike state cut off from other people, most painfully their parents. Right on cue comes the second Recognition: This transformation, connected to the Overlords’ interest in paranormal phenomena, has been underway since before the Overlords arrived, and there is no way to stop it. There never was.

The scene then shifts to Jan, whose undiminished scientific curiosity about the Overlords leads him to stow away on a supply ship bound for their home planet forty light years away. Traveling at nearly the speed of light, the ship reaches its destination in what for Jan is a few weeks, spent in self-induced hibernation. Upon waking he is welcomed, more or less, by the local Overlords. But for all the wonders they show him, Jan feels as “helpless” as “a man from the Stone Age, lost in a modern city.” Eventually, when his human mind has “nearly reached the end of its resources,” he hitches a ride home.2323xArthur C. Clarke, Childhood’s End (New York, NY: Ballantine, 1977), 209–17.

But eighty years have passed on Earth, and upon Jan’s return there is no one to greet him but Karellen, the Supervisor for Earth, who together with a diminished staff is wrapping up the Overlords’ mission. Breaking the news gently, Karellen informs Jan that he is the Last Man, because the rest of humankind has become extinct. As for the children, all that remains of them is a mass of featureless manikins with matted hair and sealed eyes, swarming like locusts on a faraway continent. After showing Jan live video of this phenomenon, Karellen shares the story of what happened, with a degree of emotion, similar to human compassion, that surprises Jan.

That story is a prolonged Scene of Suffering. First, all the parents on Earth watched helplessly as their spellbound sons and daughters were relocated to a nameless continent that had been depopulated to make room for several million young bodies to waste away as their conscious minds were gradually extracted from their physical brains. As the full horror of that process sank in, all the adults on Earth, not just the parents, succumbed to despair, suicide, self-indulgence, and violent depredation against others.

Now that Jan is the Last Man, he and Karellen become friends—to the fullest extent possible for two such different beings. In the course of their conversations, Jan learns that Overlords derive no benefit from destroying Earth. They are merely following the orders of the “Overmind,” a vast cosmic intelligence that unceasingly scours the universe for life forms that—like humans—have minds capable of supporting paranormal activity. The Overlords are then sent to harvest those minds and in effect feed them to their metastasizing Master. The point is that, however intimidating the Overlords’ appearance, power, and longevity, their minds lack paranormal powers, a limitation that renders them mere servants “trapped” in an evolutionary “cul-de-sac” that dooms them to permanent “individuality,” “self-awareness,” and “emotions, at least some of which were shared by humanity.”2424xIbid., 222–23.

As this friendship ripens, so does the massed consciousness of the Earth’s former children. When that mass becomes a swarm capable of jostling the moon in its orbit, the Overlords take their cue and prepare to leave before the swarm is swept into space and absorbed into the Overmind. On that day, the Earth will self-destruct, and with it the Last Man, Jan. Karellen offers to take him along, but Jan chooses to stay and convey the details of the approaching Apocalypse to Karellen and the others after they have departed.

“Apocalypse” is the wrong word, of course. In Earth’s final moments, when Jan witnesses the swarm leaving the Earth, he describes it as “a great burning column…reaching above the western horizon.”2525xIbid., 233. This image recalls the pillar of fire leading Moses and the Israelites through the desert. But neither this nor the satanic appearance of the Overlords augurs a Last Day when God or Christ or Allah judges the righteousness and wickedness of individual souls. There are no more individual souls.

Or are there? Just before the Earth’s destruction, Jan ponders the immense fact that “the billions of transient sparks of consciousness that had made up humanity would flicker no more like fireflies against the night,” and tells himself, “This is not tragedy, but fulfillment”—evidence that human beings “had not lived utterly in vain.”2626xIbid., 222–23. The image of sparks joining together in a great blaze seems a bit like the destiny of souls in Hinduism, Buddhism, and other religious traditions rooted in ancient India. Or, closer to home, like Emerson’s notion of the “Oversoul,” drawn from an eclectic mix of Eastern and Western sources.

But the Overmind is not about souls. It is a cosmic intelligence that cares nothing for the creatures from which it draws its sustenance. In this respect it resembles the ultraintelligence predicted by Ray Kurzweil and before him I.J. Good, who at least tempered his enthusiasm with the hope that “the first ultraintelligent machine” would be “docile enough to tell us how to keep it under control.” Docility is not an attribute of the Overmind, and Clarke’s ambivalence toward that imaginary power is reflected in his book’s title. Does Childhood’s End refer to the dream of humanity shedding its childhood for something infinitely greater? Or does it refer to the nightmare of human children losing their souls as their parents go mad with grief?

Clarke himself must have pondered this question. In a poetic passage, he describes how the exploding Earth caused “gravitational waves [that] crossed and re-crossed the solar system, disturbing ever so slightly the orbits of the planets.” When the ripples passed, the planets “pursued their ancient paths once more, as corks floating on a placid lake ride out the tiny ripples set in motion by a falling stone.”2727xIbid., 236.

Clarke could have ended with this passage, leaving us consoled by the thought of a cosmic Overmind witnessing those ripples. But he assigns that consoling thought to Jan the astrophysicist, then shifts our attention to a tragic figure who has been there all along, hidden in plain sight. In his departing spaceship six billion kilometers beyond the orbit of Pluto, Karellen muses on the fate of the Overlords, forever cut off from communion with the Overmind:

His people were no better than a tribe that has passed its whole existence upon some flat and dusty plain. Far off were the mountains, where power and beauty dwelt, where the thunder sported above the glaciers and the air was clear and keen. There the sun still walked, transfiguring the peaks with glory, when all the land below was wrapped in darkness. And they could only watch and wonder; they could never scale those heights.2828xIbid., 238.

This imagery looks back to the ancient Greek view of human beings as earthbound, mortal, and awestruck by the immortal gods disporting themselves on Olympus. And Karellen’s reference to “those heights” anticipates the twenty-first-century dream of freeing human minds from the “meat space” of human bodies and connecting them to a pure, expanding intelligence that has no need of faith, hope, empathy, art, imagination, contemplation, courage, endurance, even despair—because it can hack its way through every obstacle in perfect disregard of where it is going, how it is getting there, and what it might destroy (or be destroyed by) along the way.

But the story does not end there. According to Homer, the immortals on Olympus actually envied the mortals on Earth, because despite its brevity, human life is full of intensity, passion, and glory, not to mention pity and terror. In the passage just quoted, it might seem that Karellen envies the humans for having escaped mortality. But read on, and a very different picture emerges.

In this hollowed-out corner of the universe, the only possible object of envy is Karellen himself, because he is the only living creature left whose character has been formed and tested in the crucible of a tragic existence. The hard-won virtue of that character is evident in the final judgment he pronounces on his own kind: “They would hold fast until the end: they would await without despair whatever destiny was theirs. They would serve the Overmind because they had no choice, but even in that service they would not lose their souls.”2929xIbid., 238 (emphasis added).