Fountain of Youth: Erasure Poetry

Day 21 of NaPoWriMo.  Today’s prompt was erasure poem.  I did one back in 2013.  Today’s poetry as Mary Ruefle calls erasure (but not a poem)  is derived from an article Who Doesn’t Want to Live Forever?  The Cult of Singularity by Derek Beres.


Fountain of youth,
seeking of eternal youth,
ability to live forever,
desire to transcend the flesh.

Wizards, sadhus, and alchemists have all claimed,
correct chemistry, the key to perpetual existence:
Pranayama, the transmutation of lead into gold,
concoction of nutrients in pill,
transferring consciousness into a machine.

Future machines - more humanlike than humans.
A new theology,
a silicon intelligence,
the new and complete God,
the matter and energy in the universe.

Like singularity, futurism.
Artificial intelligence becomes
more intelligent than simple biology

A slippery slope,
into Nietzche's abyss -
transcending biology, upending
evolution altogether.

Optimism has problem -
The fateful moment of singularity
with its promise of
more peaceful future.

Futurists using science to overcome science.
But the Buddhists knew: when contemplating the self,
the brain is studying itself.

Stay forever young taking a
dip in that fountain.
Utopia has robots, and humanity.
Immortality is the desire to transcend fear.


In the original text form:

While the Fountain of Youth is generally ascribed to the conquistador Juan Ponce de León — located in Florida, perhaps, or the Bahamas, or the Yucatan — the legend itself is far older. The seeking of eternal youth is as old as literature itself: Herodotus wrote of it; Gilgamesh nearly had it until his fateful nap.

Truth is, searching for the ability to live forever is probably much older than our texts reveal. Human beings have long struggled with this mortal coil we’ve all been wrapped within. The desire to transcend the flesh — so prominent in early yoga texts; so evident in biblical lifespans — has been with us for thousands of years.

And for thousands of years wizards, sadhus, and alchemists have all claimed such an inheritance. Our flesh is merely an engineering problem. Once the correct chemistry is understood, the key to unlocking a perpetual existence will be at hand.

That key used to be pranayama, intense breathing exercises, as well as the transmutation of lead into gold. Today our understanding is more nuanced — it could be resveratrol, the “good stuff” in red wine, or some other concoction of nutrients in pill form. Anyone for a frosty mug of soylent?

Perhaps the biggest change over the millennia is the understanding of “what” is perpetuating itself. In prior times it was a soul that needed to transcend this “meat body” that our true selves carried around. Today, however, it’s all about transferring consciousness into a machine.

Don’t take my word for it: In The Singularity is Near, Ray Kurzweil writes,

In fact these future machines will be even more humanlike than humans today. If that seems like a paradoxical statement, consider that much of human thought is petty and derivative … Our future primarily nonbiological selves will be vastly more intelligent and so will exhibit these finer qualities of human thought to a far greater degree.

If this all sounds like a new take on theology, that’s because it is. As Kurzweil states in the book, “We need a new religion.” He goes on to describe a silicon intelligence that will occur once we “transcend biological intelligence.” This is the new and complete God, a “sublimely intelligent” entity that will wake up after we humans have “saturated the matter and energy in the universe with intelligence.

Last week Kurzweil revealed his somewhat normal breakfast habits — well, as normal as smoked mackerel, dark chocolate, and soy milk might be — before admitting that his intake before a hundred or so pills, totaling a few thousands of dollars a day in supplements. At 67, he prefers to state his biological age being in the “late 40s.”

Like singularity, futurism is a borrowed term: An early 20th century Italian artistic movement by the same name emphasized speed, technology, youth, and violence. Only violence is mostly brushed aside in the race to the singularity, the moment when artificial intelligence becomes more intelligent than that offered by simple biology. As Kurzweil writes,

Our merger with technology has aspects of a slippery slope, but one that slides up toward greater promise, not down into Nietzsche’s abyss. Some observers refer to this merger as creating a new “species.” But the whole idea of a species is a biological concept, and what we are doing is transcending biology … We are upending biological evolution altogether.

Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad have been studying the dangers of gurus and cults for decades. In order for a person to be considered a wise agent revealing a special message for humanity, they must convince people to distrust themselves and their surroundings. As they write in The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power

If one’s viewpoint is mainly historical, optimism is difficult to muster, because history has not shown the human species capable of intelligently handling the power and problems created by its technological cleverness.

The fateful moment of singularity calms that fear with its promise of a more intelligent, and therefore more peaceful future. All of this petty biology so far has not served anyone in the truest, highest sense. 

Linking religious ideology with science is nothing new. If you’re hoping to create a new religion, you actually need a bit of it: Christian Science, which ironically is science in name alone, considering that prayer not medicine heals you; Scientology, again, in name only, as the auditing leads to one of the most insane science-fiction disasters ever dreamed up. Some even call the most neurotic of this lot “creation science.”

Futurists, however, firmly root themselves in the sciences in hopes of transcending them. The very thought of using science to overcome science has a foundation in our neural structure, something the Buddhists knew long ago: when contemplating the self, the brain is studying itself.

What is not being studied, however, is the world outside of Silicon Valley. We might laugh at the HBO sitcom or awkwardly gaze at the ingredients in soylent, but something about this entire endeavor feels in-group. Besides being available to only an elite few, the notion of spending thousands a day to stay forever young sounds more like a fear of death than a promise of taking a dip in that ever-elusive fountain.

Sure, all technologies come down in price over time. But what in our culture today could possibly hint at an even playing field void of financial concern? It is estimated that up to $5 billion could be spent on the 2016 presidential campaign, while it leaked that Spotify is lawyering up to try to pay lower royalty rates. Nearly half the world’s population lives on under $2.50 a day. Any utopia has to address that first, not robots.

Humanity, and by extension our technologies, is accelerating rapidly — Kurzweil and legions of futurists are correct about that. Little will stop this trend, save environmental catastrophe. But trying to sell an idea like immortality is probably as old as language itself. Like all heads at Google, Kurzweil is selling an ideology, one that will eventually be capitalized upon by whoever holds the patent. The desire to transcend biology and the fear of losing it are two sides of the same coin — a coin that will land regardless of how many times he tries to flip it.

Erased Aristotle

This is the beginning.

Almost anything can happen.

This is where you find

the creation of light, a fish wriggling onto land,

the first word of Paradise Lost on an empty page.

Think of an egg, the letter A,

a woman ironing on a bare stage

as the heavy curtain rises.

This is the very beginning.

The first-person narrator introduces himself,

tells us about his lineage.

The mezzo-soprano stands in the wings.

Here the climbers are studying a map

or pulling on their long woolen socks.

This is early on, years before the Ark, dawn.

The profile of an animal is being smeared

on the wall of a cave,

and you have not yet learned to crawl.

This is the opening, the gambit,

a pawn moving forward an inch.

This is your first night with her,

your first night without her.

This is the first part

where the wheels begin to turn,

where the elevator begins its ascent,

before the doors lurch apart.

This is the middle.

Things have had time to gets complicated,

messy, really. Nothing is simple anymore.

Cities have sprouted up along the rivers

teeming with people at cross-purposes—

a million schemes, a million wild looks.

Disappointment unshoulders his knapsack

here and pitches his ragged tent.

This is the sticky part where the plot congeals,

where the action suddenly reverses

or swerves off in an outrageous direction.

Here the narrator devotes a long paragraph

to why Miriam does not want Edward’s child.

Someone hides a letter under a pillow.

Here the aria rises to a pitch,

a song of betrayal, salted with revenge.

And the climbing party is stuck on a ledge

halfway up the mountain.

This is the bridge, the painful modulation.

This is the thick of things.

So much is crowded into the middle—

the guitars of Spain, piles of ripe avocados,

Russian uniforms, noisy parties,

lakeside kisses, arguments heard through a wall

too much to name, too much to think about.

And this is the end,

the car running out of road,

the river losing its name in an ocean,

the long nose of the photographed horse

touching the white electronic line.

This is the colophon, the last elephant in the parade,

the empty wheelchair,

and pigeons floating down in the evening.

Here the stage is littered with bodies,

the narrator leads the characters to their cells,

and the climbers are in their graves.

It is me hitting the period

and you closing the book.

It is Sylvia Plath in the kitchen

and St. Clement with an anchor around his neck.

This is the final bit

thinning away to nothing.

This is the end, according to Aristotle,

what we have all been waiting for,

what everything comes down to,

the destination we cannot help imagining,

a streak of light in the sky,

a hat on a peg, and outside the cabin, falling leaves.

Notes: NaPoWriMo 2013 Day 26.  Prompt today was to take a poem and erase it, take away words from it, to form a new poem.  I choose Billy Collins’ Aristotle.  I really admire Billy Collins ever since watching this TedTalk.  His poetry seem simple, effortless, but still exhibit amazing depth at the same time.