The ambit of ambition

Looking after Number One, Bedford Square. By Steve Cadman, London

Looking after Number One, Bedford Square. By Steve Cadman, London

It was a bright and still morning as he stepped from his elegant Georgian town house in Bedford Square, the ad-be-clad double-deckers delivering the day’s first visitants to The British Museum on the far side of his familiar Fitzrovian neighbourhood. Sunday. Church bells pealing. An absence of sharp tailoring on the now ambiguously accoutred. More of a crinkled linen state of affairs, for those consciously á la modish. A day of rest, not of work, not for most. Free of the throbbing urgency of nine-to-five-ness; though usually for him, for my erstwhile friend, it was seven-to-ten-ness. Long days keeping his holed ship afloat. A captain of business anticipating, in some dread, any skipper’s final obligation should the waterline be holed.

A resting day, yes, and so he strolled towards a wooden bench in the tweet-filled square oasis, these days now twice tweet-filled, but then just sparrow emanations. A time to consider: options, options. In the past, Virginia Woolf may well too have weighed her fate here, before in time lining a weighty overcoat’s pockets with stones and walking into the River Ouse on a similar Spring day four decades ago. Across the square, another local resident, John Maynard Keynes, would have sat considering means to palliate Capitalism’s frequent waterline breaches. Later still it would be Madonna Ciccone, then Lady Gaga, eyed at discrete distances by ex-vets, they too bereft of options within their muscle-twitching watchfulness. This quadrant, hemming in.

Madonna's Blond Ambition Tour Corset. By Brandon Carson, San Carlos, USA

Madonna’s Blond Ambition Tour Corset. By Brandon Carson, San Carlos, USA

A short stroll to the workplace; thirty seconds to key the alarm codes; an ascent to a now eerily quiet office; a passive stare at his Mac Classic and the sleep-depriving spreadsheet printouts; pour a single malt; more – at least three fingers; slump in the chair; toss the carton of Pethidine onto the desk; options, options. The ship was going down, and it needed half a million to stay afloat. These days, his home in Fitzrovia would amply cover that sum, nine or tenfold. But this was back in Thatcher’s day, and besides, the bank already had a charge over the house. Options, options none. He takes a pill, the first of forty. Clarity pacifies the mind where options once had wearied. Each pill a pocketed stone; each bell-tolled minute a step closer to the river.

And so it was, upon that bright sun Sunday, my friend found his way out. A victim of his own designs, sunk by ambition. Now I’m told that such striving is a healthy, natural human quality, hearing politicians’ endless mantras of ‘aspiration’, of people wanting to ‘get on’, to ‘work hard’, to ‘climb the property ladder’, and thereby ‘doing the right thing’. The message is clear: compete or fall by the wayside. I must set goals to ensure my security, must compete – perhaps even against my own instincts – so as to propagate and extend familial interests. Who, ultimately, is served, though? I witnessed so many follow this ambition-laden trajectory over the years, and learned that whatever promise was fulfilled, and mostly it was not, the price was heavy.

Thatcher bags, displayed on the day of her funeral. By Rachel Clarke, London

Thatcher bags, displayed on the day of her funeral. By Rachel Clarke, London

Can sufficient ever satiate my fundamental desire for contentedness, or am I bound to a striven life irrespective of my material needs? As I heedlessly clamber, eyes directed skywards, over the failed ambitions of the many less able to compete, as I turn my thoughts away from the price others pay for my cutting myself a larger slice of the pie, do I feel true to the ethics I would so glibly espouse, in knowing I really am ‘doing the right thing’? Again, who or what is served in my assumed, self-centric ambitions, other than a vague article of misplaced faith which somehow came to inhabit me as if a given of nature? If my contentedness subsists in the ambitious pursuit of wealth or status, so my innermost needs are met. The thing is, it seems it is not so.

The ambit of ambition is exposed in asking just such questions, and yet why would I ever doubt my assumptions; why should my ambition be bounded? Is it not so that, just as my erstwhile friend believed, an endless succession of frontiers are there to be conquered, each elevating one to an ever higher degree of fulfilment? Or has what I serve now become a vacuous promise, a point at which my remaining time – perhaps a span shorter than I suppose – would best be passed in restraining my purblind acquisitiveness? Oh, the justifications leap quickly to one’s defence, do they not? As always, we find the complex though habituated easier than the simple yet uncustomary – a perverse trait in many higher animals, even we, the paragon amongst them.

The house was sold; the bank and preferential creditors paid off; the Mac and remaining assets auctioned; and in short time, Madonna arrived in the square – for the very first time – and Thatcher, in tears, left Downing Street – for the very last time. Unlike so many, and would he but have realised it, my friend could have attenuated his pernicious cupidity, spared himself that opiate-dulled submersion into the darkened waters of quietus. Most have not even the choice to indulge likewise such avarice, their ambitions extending no further than providing essentials, with perhaps the occasional purchase of some brief cheering. So it is that my words are as irrelevant to them as ineffectual they are to those spellbound by an ambit-less ambition.

Dog spider dreams

A colour woodcut by Yamamoto Shōun, 1906

A colour woodcut by Yamamoto Shōun, 1906

The world is as it seems; the world is not what it seems. We each of us hold to either statement in any given moment. For the greater part, we incline to the former; yet now and again must hold to the latter. How can the world be other than it seems; it is self-evident is it not? That is how we go about our days; at least, until reason supervenes and we see the evidence is faked.

Example: I observe a Heron on the far side of the river, for a while admiring its own still and statuesque beauty. My world is at one with nature, with this creature; I feel connected, blessed in some minor way. And then in an instant I see that the Heron is in fact a torn grey plastic bag that has become tangled in the distant bushes. The world is no longer what it seemed to be.

None of us knows how frequently appearances in awareness deceive us. We may wrongly think that instances such as I experienced with the ‘Heron’ are quite rare. Our minds create narratives from sensory input; and if all seems plausible, we take it that the world is as it seems. We render sensible our sense data, so believing our narrative always to be rational.

And yet we are not as reasoned as we would like to think, and are thrown into irrational responses very easily. There is a video on YouTube that demonstrates this point well; you can view it in the comments section below. So far, this video has been viewed well over 122,000,000 times. It went viral because what it shows is implausible, yet remains quite scary.

Night & Sleep. Evelyn De Morgan, 1878

Where do dreams begin and end? We tend to think of them as obtaining uniquely to our sleeping state. Some say they convey significant indicative messages; and doubtless this is so at times. Am I in the midst of a dream when I mistake a plastic bag for a Heron; and what might it possibly mean? Perhaps only that at that time I desired to experience beauty in the world.

Our notions of reality are just that, notional. They are suggestions we make to ourselves, perhaps formed upon tested theories; yet they remain only internalised representations of some collective otherness. And we never can quite know if our suggestions are true to that otherness, one which we regard as external to us. We are awake yet never know if we are dreaming.

Rationality is the arbiter; with reason, inference, syllogism, deduction and so forth, we distinguish any reality from our dreams. This all takes time; and whilst we have a hyper-fast form of reason known as intuition, this cannot be summoned by force of will. Most of the time, we depend upon our plodding reason to determine what we may come to regard as reality.

Example: At 3.30 a.m. I cross a deserted walkway, approaching the elevator to ascend a multi-level carpark. The lift apparatus forms muffled sounds which reverberate in its ghostly enclosure. As the doors open, I see a dead body on the floor, astride of which is a giant spider, some 3 ft. in span. It scuttles towards me; I run terrified from the scene, far too fast for reason.

The spider. Nikolaos Gyzis, 1884

The spider. Nikolaos Gyzis, 1884

Logic tells me that this event cannot be what it seems: there are no giant spiders; and if there were, we would not share elevators with them. And yet confronted with the situation I described, how would you react? Would you call on your theory that giant spiders are very scary, and run like hell just as I did, terrified? Or would you stand your ground rationalising the event?

In life, there frequently is no time to think before we act. We respond to the world based upon theories we hold about life generally, our past conditioning, and perhaps some genetic predispositions. To some extent we inhabit a reverie; we dream of our wakened state, seldom realising as much. So, our theories and our conditioning determine much of our life.

To recap: We never know to what degree our experience is purely imaginal. Only a fraction of our lives do we have time to endorse experience with reason. We unwittingly and perhaps frequently enter dream-states whilst awake, however fleetingly. Our life is a narrative formed of both dream-states and influences of the actual; so what we take to be reality is notional.

If you wish to view the video I refer to within this piece, please do so in the comments section below. Place yourself in the various scenes depicted and gauge your reactions as they unfold. Only with experience does knowledge about ourselves absorb fully; yet still we can imagine mock scenarios to good effect. You may find, just as I did, that you too have dog spider dreams.

 

 

 

 

 

The absurdity of adulthood

Photography: Stephan Rebernik, Vienna

Photography: Stephan Rebernik, Vienna

Have you noticed the manner in which many adults relate to each other when discussing children? Much of the time, there’s an affectionate knowingness that presupposes some naïve absurdity of either the child, or of children, generally. This attitude of the adult often carries forward in any spoken exchanges with children themselves, particularly so when engaging with others’ offspring. So there’s a certain pretension or dissembling that goes on, and within which the adult assumes superiority over those less mature. I wonder, what is the validity of this?

In maturity, we garner a greater sophistication of thought of course; this is undeniable. Although the child’s acquisition of language is remarkably efficient, due in part to the neural plasticity of their brain, there’s of yet little or no urbanity or finesse apparent in the structure of their words. This lack, we as adults extrapolate from in arriving at our conclusions as to the child’s naiveté and necessarily present, though cute, daftness. The poor little things will learn of course; over time they’ll come to see the world through eyes such as ours. Is this good?

Perhaps, after all, there is something we lose in our maturing of thought and in the percipience of our on-going analysis of the world. The directness of the child’s apprehending of this same world remains unencumbered by the myriad assumptions we assimilate as we go through life making sense of it in ideas wrought from experience and conditioning. We slip imperceptibly into the habitation of these assimilations and also into the extended ideas they sculpt in our minds. This is our so-called maturation, upon which we abandon all naïveté.

Which, if either, is the more absurd condition, that of the child, or of the mature adult? This article’s title reveals my own conclusion, though it’s worth unwrapping how we arrive at any personal position. Then again, you may feel that the question of absurdity is misplaced, particularly if you detect none within your own character or behaviours. You’re a serious individual perhaps, never prone to the farcical or preposterous; you’ve long since outgrown those tendencies and pursue your life with an unremitting clarity of purpose for the greater part – is that really so?

As an adult, I lose my immediate connection with life as my attention is seduced by thoughts. This seduction may not hold any overt allure, and I might just as easily float adrift upon a meaningless sea of flotsam and jetsam as perhaps upon rarefied clouds of reason. It would utterly horrify me if others could see the abject mess that my adult mind is in for most of the day. The dramaturgy of my social construct would be seen for the façade that it is. I am acting in a farcical play in which I detach not only from others, but from my own vital presence of being.

If others are sensitive, they can sense the dissembling at some level, recognising it as a reflection of their own habitation of mature self-entity, their own clumsy collisions of a patched together narrative. So there we are, the two of us each knowing the other has lost authenticity in the interchange. Despite this subtle knowing, we intuit we have no option but to continue the whole charade. We recognise that in once long ago having stigmatised the possibility of appearing naïve or absurd, we in the process became objects of that same feared absurdity.

Some of our dramaturgy is altogether necessary, as true spontaneity, absurdity and unmitigated directness can be rather frightening or offensive to others. Unconventional displays feel risky to us anyhow; we feel safer in our make believe and have long since lost the wide-eyed receptivity of childhood past. Playing the cautious hand, entrapped like Yossarian in Catch-22, we otherwise would escape the drama so as to relate more authentically, yet doing so risks alienating those we would relate to. So our maturity confines us as we pine for the child’s freedom.

This is not to say that we must remain caught in such a predicament. In knowing ourselves deeply, we no longer need default to the obfuscation of absurdity, yet may still retain certain conventions of social interaction. The truly mature adult embodies the child within amidst a playfully offhand knowingness that remains respectful in all encounters with others. Our physiognomy and dialogue may at times adapt so as to bridge two worlds of knowing, at once refining the art of absurdity to such a point that its formerly elusive obviousness negates openly.

Inexplicable tensions in family life

Photography: Alex E. Proimos, Sydney

Photography: Alex E. Proimos, Sydney

Have you noticed how family life can sometimes appear irrationally conflicted? What I mean by this is a recurrence of largely inexplicable tensions between particular members of the clan that remain an enigma even to close observers. Experiences within my own family once led me to ponder this awkwardness, yet the problem’s ubiquity is indisputable. Within other families I’ve known in the past, there’s frequently been some seemingly unresolvable conflict gnawing away through the years and which seldom appeared reducible to any clearly justifiable cause.

The realisation of a natural harmony within family life appears widely elusive; naïve received notions and childhood conditionings perhaps having led us to err in our assumptions. We invariably pursue this chimera of familial amity in the early years of partnerships, believing that harmony will surely prevail amongst our projected future family. Any other approach would be odd in any case, leading to frictions between procreative urges and any realistic appraisal of our future emotional disturbances. But what’s the rationale for this leap of faith?

We might say that it’s no more than the same biological impulsion that serves as our surrogate reasoning – a natural ordering of priorities in which our psychological well-being is subordinated to the overriding procreative desire. This then, is a satisfactory enough explanation for later tensions between partners – maybe we weren’t as compatible with our beloved as we once convinced ourselves we were. The stress of proximity now creates conflict where once there was none; we’ve laid bare the painful truth, no longer able to deny the loosening ties of love.

Yet what of those situations that seem not at all uncommon, in which non-spousal family pairings appear irrationally conflicted? We needn’t presuppose any particular harmony between say, mother and son, or between siblings – there could instead simply be an indifference. And yet time and again we see an inexplicable tension between such pairings, one which rarely finds a resolution. Whilst both involved express their justifications for the conflict with a passion (and often an inconsistency), they invariably appear illogical to any witness – it just doesn’t stack up.

These irrational displays of conflict often have their genesis in childhood rivalries, when attempts are made to assert individuality, and hence particular needs. There’s an aggressive effort to establish the significance of our personal identity, to impose our unique (and needy), self-construct. Elder siblings typically initiate aggressive postures with new arrivals, a pattern which endures for decades once established. These attention-seeking strategies adopted in childhood continue to be used in maturity yet purely as the egocentric validations of the elder siblings.

These same strategies can also spill out into the wider family dynamics as the first born in particular continues to assert their needs. Not content with establishing their dominance over younger sister(s) and/or brother(s), the eldest offspring may also impose their self-centredness by asserting superiority over the parents too. They may for example claim to occupy ground not held by them – a broader intellectual terrain, a variety of life experience never accessible to the parents, or the moral high ground. This all creates suppressed tensions and conflict of course.

So whilst these problems arise from childhood conditioning, the sense of self is equally causal. The attention-seeking child develops a strong sense of their autonomy in which later they come to disregard their familial inter-dependence. They see the world and those who occupy it, including their own families, as resources whose worth or relevance requires calculation. Because of this, they may then unwittingly accommodate an insensitive judgementalism towards other family members, having deemed them largely superfluous to their needs.

Unsurprisingly, any family member acting in such a self-centred way will subject the rest to unwelcome stresses, and inevitably this leads to conflict. The aggression borne of childhood rivalries turns full circle and rebounds on itself. The self-centred adult, who first imposed their aggressions on family in childhood, now reaps the consequences in maturity. The effect is that everyone feels uncertain about the psychological terrain of the family; there’s an absence of trust that even mundane differences won’t give rise to suppressed or overt tensions.

As these subtle and hidden dynamics play out through the family over time, accommodations are often made so as to limit the frequency of the conflict. If not this, then the entire situation implodes and the chief culprit is largely exiled – tolerated at a distance but no more than that. The accommodations, when made, are largely suffered in silence by those making them – they tolerate the self-centred attention-seeker up to a point. This appeasing approach is useful only in that it maintains a superficial harmony; as an alternative, we can engage in open dialogue.

This is a risky strategy, yet one which occasionally may have to be made. It’s best done forcefully and unambiguously, as the main protagonist will deny any complicity in the problem. Following the denial, they may then progressively take the message on board, yet only sub-consciously. On the surface, the denial is sustained, with an over-weaning and disingenuous reasonableness being displayed in attempts to assure others of innocence. Yet all the while a slow absorption of the message occurs, and to which any truly mature adult must eventually respond.