Altered Carbon, a new Netflix show based on Rich K. Morgan’s novel, is a dystopian and cyberpunk noir story set over 350 years in the future. In this future, full of sprawling neon-lit megacities, flying cars and skyscrapers that peak in the clouds, humanity has discovered the secret to immortality through an alien technology that allows consciousness to be downloaded into a “cortical stack.” Stored in the vertebrae of a person, the disk retains their consciousness—very often multiple lifetimes of experiences—which can then be placed into a new body, a “sleeve”, when the old one dies.
The story begins with our protagonist, Takeshi Kovacs, a former member of an elite faction of rebel “Envoys”, getting re-sleeved after 250 years in prison stasis. Takeshi is given a new sleeve and an offer from Laurens Bancroft, one of the wealthiest people — one of the “Meths” — if he helps Bancroft solve his own murder mystery. In exchange, Takeshi will be pardoned from his eternal prison sentence and given a new lease on life.
“Meth” is a shorthand in this world for the Biblical character Methuselah, son of Enoch and the grandfather of Noah. He is known for having lived to the supernatural age of 969 years, the oldest individual in the Hebrew Bible.
The show is a smorgasbord of cyberpunk aesthetic at its peak; layers upon layers of world building, for instance, are showcased in the complex reaction human civilization has had to immortality. The ultra rich, like Bancroft, can afford to clone themselves again and again, living in the same bodies from life to life. The poor can typically afford a new sleeve, but these are at a“bargain” price—bodies of prisoners, for instance, are loaned out in a Neo-Mexican technologized ritual of Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, where deceased relatives literally come to dinner in borrowed sleeves. There are still other factions, like the Neo-Christians, who believe the soul leaves the body upon death and refuse to be re-sleeved. In one chilling scene, the corpse of a priest sits ossified in the confessional, presumably a kind of sacramental relic, but also revealing humanity’s new relationship to the dead and death as a technological retrieval of the traditional belief in the ancestral world in open communication with the living.
Circa 7000 BC, in early Turkish settlements such a s Catal Hoyuk, the dead were ceremoniously buried underneath the beds of the living, so that when one slept, they slept with their ancestors and perhaps even traveled to the spirit world in their dreams. In the future of Altered Carbon, we see a kind of technological retrieval of this more archaic form of consciousness where the dead and the living are actively linked to each other and not so easily distinguishable.
This brings us back to the imagery used in the show. The opening credits remarkably showcase two images that link the technological apparatus of the cortical sleeve with the esoteric teachings present in gnosticism, alchemy, and yoga: the Ouroboros and the Caduceus.
Technology, with its ties to secularity, Enlightenment principles of reason and instrumentality, and the waking mind of rational thinking has its deep underbelly in what we might call the “technological unconscious.” Deleuze wrote that, “even Descartes had his dream [the Angel of reason]… To think is always to follow the witch’s flight”, and so technoculture is always haunted by the specter of the magic and mythic realms of mind that reason sought to purge from itself. Jung would similarly describe machines as exteriorizations of the soul, a kind of dream-craft of the psyche materializing itself into the physical world. So the dreams of mages and alchemists, the fanciful tales of Hermes, the supernatural flights of the yogic siddhis and the machinations of science often find themselves uncomfortable bedfellows. Technology is always an appropriation and literalization of the esoteric.
The symbol of the Ouroboros in Altered Carbon is important. Kovics wears it as a tattoo. The closing image in the opening credits is of a serpent, coiled in a symbol of infinity, biting its own tail. The most obvious meaning we can glean from the Netflix show is, of course, the technological ability to live forever.
The survival of human consciousness from sleeve to sleeve is like the image of the Ouroboros, living and dying ad-infinitum.
Ouroboros has a long history, stretching back from Ancient Egypt’s Enigmatic Book fo the Netherworld in the 14th century BC to Plato’s Timaeus, to Cleopatra the Alchemist’s Chrysopoeia of Cleopatra, enclosing the words, in Greek: “the all is one.” This is a gnostic teaching, similar to Yin and Yang in Taoism, portraying the unity of opposites. Ouroboros is also a potent symbol of the eternity of the soul and an image of the World Soul, the Anima Mundi. The layers here build on each other, but we are also left with the question: is the technological appropriation of the alchemist’s opus, the philosopher’s stone, an equivalent? Is the cortical stack a means for which the alchemical elixir of immortality is attained in the physical world? Or, should we side with the Neo-Catholics in believing that the soul must go on, and on, into spiritual worlds and not be halted in the survival of individual personalities—egos—after bodily death?
While the literal achievement of immortality was secondary to the spiritual enlightenment of the gnostic initiate or alchemist, the distinctions between the two in pre-modern times were not so finely cleaved. The Ouroboros, as a symbol of the lapis philosophorum, the philosopher’s stone, was a magical elixir that would grant immortality to the alchemist. This was their Great Work: to reverse death and realize the potential for a divinized material life. The transmutation of the lower into the higher, and the higher into the lower. Lead into gold. The serpent biting its own tale. Ouroboros.
So there is plenty of precedent in initiatic and esoteric thought, from alchemists to yogic siddhis, for the transformation of the body into a “life divine.” Speaking of the divine life, we find an uncanny parallel between Altered Carbon’s infinite life in the body and the integral yoga of Sri Aurobindo:
“There can be no immortality of the body without supramentalisation; the potentiality is there in the yogic force and yogis can live for 200 or 300 years or more… Even Science believes that one day death may be conquered by physical means and its reasonings are perfectly sound. Forms on earth do not last (they do in other planes) because these forms are too rigid to grow expressing the progress of the spirit. If they become plastic enough to do that there is no reason why they should not last.”
Altered Carbon’s world is one in which the body-as-sleeve has indeed become “plastic enough” for the larger incarnational activities of an individual consciousness, but as we know the “progress of the spirit” is left wanting in the inhuman a-morality of Meths, who lord over the rest of the human species like gods (in some cases quite literally worshipped as such).
Elder Wings and Human Evolution
While the world-building elements of the alien technologies are developed sparingly, we are clued into a few interesting points. The “Elder Civilization” as its called is a long extinct aviary—meaning, winged—extraterrestrial species that left behind the technology of cortical stacks and giant, ancient trees. The esoteric lore here is subtle, but present, and we’ll get to that in a moment.
Let’s first return to the opening credit image of the serpent climbing a winged woman’s body. This is the image of the Caduceus—the staff of Hermes, and, by extension, Hermes Trismegistus. Hermes is a messenger of the gods, but the image itself, of a serpent climbing the body of a woman and achieving flight, is an esoteric description of spiritual evolution.
The esoteric symbolism here, related to the bird-tree-snake motif present throughout the world in the mythological images of the resurrected Phoenix, Quetzalcoatl, and Taoism, should peak our interest. William Irwin Thompson, in Blue Jade from the Morning Star, writes that:
“The snake is the fallen human race; the bird is the bodhisattvic race; the feathered serpent is the human race in the condition of enlightenment. The snake is the archaic brain; the bird is the neocortext, and the feathered serpent is the religious initiate who has consciously moved from physical to spiritual evolution.” (pg. 18)
The opening image of the caduceus is arguably an image of a spiritually illumined humankind—a future supramental human species—where the body has been divinized and rendered immortal for an intensified consciousness to come work and play in a material cosmos. This imagery is all well and fine, but the reality of Altered Carbon’s cyberpunk dystopia is a far throw away from the occult imagery it uses to triumph the technological transcendence of death. Far, far away from “the life divine.” We could dismiss all this esoteric imagery as technological appropriation were it not for the Elders.
The Elders are depicted only as etheric, winged fossils in season one, but associated together with their ancient trees, the “bird-tree-snake” symbolism in the show emerges powerfully in the forefront of our minds. But what does it mean? We could surmise that the Elders are a kind of gnostic counterpart for humanity: a celestial race whose depiction lends itself to believing they are from a higher plane, gifting our species (intentionally or not) with the technology to liberate ourselves from bodily death and the entrapment of singular incarnation.
This is a gnostic motif, as we commonly find in technologized mythologies, of liberation from bodily entrapment. As Thompson also suggests in the myth of Quetzalcoatl, the presence of a nahual, a celestial twin, is also a deeply gnostic motif. The Elders are our celestial twins, reaching their way to aid humanity even if only through their fossils.
Thompson quotes Hans Jonas, “It symbolizes the heavenly or eternal self of the person, his original idea, a kind of double or alter ego preserved in the upper world while he labors down below… leads to the interesting theological idea of the savior remaining in the upper world during his terrestrial mission.”
This also affirms what Jeffrey Kripal describes as the gnostic “human as two” — the waking, ego and the hidden, occluded super consciousness the lurks within our minds and bodies, waiting to spring forth into a new enlightenment of the body. The human with wings.
In this interpretation of the story, Altered Carbon is a modern myth of gnostic evolution, with our celestial twins, the Elders, guiding our labored and piece-meal terrestrial incarnation down below in the image of the cyberpunk megacity. In my view, the message of the show is not that we should fear the evils immortality should bring but that with the power of the stone — the elixir of immortality — comes a call to live a life more divine, not less, and that we should not see ourselves as gods but as half-mortal, half-immortal beings learning, however imperfectly, however crudely, to grow their wings.