Handel on – Free Will

Alcina – Meghan Lindsay and the Artists of Atelier Ballet. Photo by Bruce Zinger

Alcina – Meghan Lindsay and the Artists of Atelier Ballet, Toronto. Photo by Bruce Zinger.

Driving serenely Eastwards towards London in the middle lane of the M4 amidst dense, though well-ordered, traffic, I listen to Arleen Augér sing an aria in Alcina – Handel’s oft ignored but exquisite opera, and one with an amusingly bizarre libretto. Juggernauts dourly and stately process their tonnage along the slow lane to my left, whilst eager, besuited deal-makers, along with those for whom time runs too fast today, speed past upon my right at a steady, metronomic tick. A Toyota cocooned I, sandwiched, fore and aft, port and stern, in the middle lane, sail contentedly along. Hundreds of minds doing precisely what were required to remain safely within reach of their goals. A taut calmness holds, whilst all rests upon fine judgements, an invading bee, or the inopportune, nerve-vibrating alert of an anxiously awaited text – carnage, staved off, for now. So, sing your honeyed song, evil sorceress; though your spell enchants, I animate for now; just for this now.

A towing truck begins to drift in front of me – a well-judged, if impertinent, call by its driver; or rather one which may have been deemed so had he not forgotten that he was once again towing, and the length of his charge was double that which he had assumed. Brain takes over: get out of the way Hariod; I need to be driving this thing, not you. Brain calculates that hard braking is too risky, and anyway, the Toyota would still get broadsided by the dumb, forgotten trailer. Three, maybe five, 360 degree rolls to follow? Arleen continues oblivious. No option but to drift into the fast lane, hoping amidst insufficient certainty that the oncoming deal sorcerer and his Audi’s stoppers can help Brain save the day – vorsprung durch technik! Save it, that is, for Brain, and much other grey matter besides. Hariod knew none of this silent, synaptic work – axons, dendrites, quantum vibrations in micro-tubules silently orchestrating. Bravo! Enter Hariod stage left, as the driver.

Whither Free Will in all of this? We believe we have agency, meaning we feel we have autonomous, volitional control over events. It feels almost as if a guiding homunculus – or is she a mythical sorceress? – resides benignly within our craniums, directing matters, dutifully thinking our thoughts for us, experiencing our experience, driving our Toyota, cursing careless truck drivers, and appreciating Handel. Most of us consider ourselves largely free to choose as we wish the course of our decision-making, and by thinking of ‘ourselves’ we relate back to this imagined sorceress, or homunculus. Those who may object to this imagery must describe exactly what this agent of Free Will is, or conclude – most counter intuitively – that there is no such thing at all. We exist as embodied, thinking persons, as individuated social constructs or social selves, but not as the agents of Free Will we imagine ourselves to be in our own private La Fenice, our personal operatic myth.

The Songs of Handel's Alcina - Published 1735

The Songs of Mr. Handel’s Alcina – First edition, published London, 1735

Why and how do we experience the illusion of agency and Free Will? The short answer is that we are subject to what psychologists call a Postdictive Illusion – a post hoc mental fabrication of events which reinforces a sense of agency and selfhood; the latter likely being artefacts of evolved survival means. In any situation, an array of possibilities exists as to how we might respond to our current or envisaged environment. What happens is that subconsciously felt predispositions incline towards one particular option, and so motor action of the body initiates accordingly. Following both such occurrences, some or all of these options appear in consciousness, and a postdictive – meaning an explanation after the fact – illusion of choosing appears to be made ‘now’. In fact, the apparent choosing occurred after its consequences were subconsciously felt and after motor action initiates. A sorcery of the mind has tricked us; so let’s get back to Alcina in the Toyota.

This incident struck me so because there was no prior deliberation of how to deal with the situation, no thought of ‘shall I brake, or veer to the right?’ Everything happened far too quickly for any conscious thinking, and I was left with a clear sense that it had nothing to do with any ‘me’ as one might normally think of oneself. This happens frequently in daily life; just try thinking – as you do it – of how to dance, or strike a tennis ball, or tie a shoelace, and see how the whole process becomes impossibly convoluted and clunky. We get a proprioceptive sense of ‘me doing something’ as we throw our shapes, drive that backhand, or tie the laces, and this feeling feeds recursively into a sense of self and agency, just as does the apparently willed choice to have initiated those actions. In fact though, we are devoid of self-agency, just as Arleen is uninhabited by a sorceress called Alcina. As a great artist, she inhabits the role, yet her script has already been written.

I hope not to have dwelt overly on dry technicalities; it being far more fun to be dressed-up on the stage of life acting out our dramas, is it not? Still, when the curtain falls, the bows being taken, we then return to the dressing room to wipe away the make believe in the mirror of self-reflection. If the mirror is perfectly clean, what we see is no longer the sorceress willing so freely, or the homunculus determining things on our behalf. We instead see ourselves as links in a vast and beginningless ocean of interrelatedness. In Handel’s opera, Alcina the sorceress is a wicked seductress, casting spells upon many lovers who, spellbound, arrive upon her mystical isle. After using them, she turns them into stones, animals, waves or trees. Finally, Alcina comes truly to love, and with it her powers dissolve; she sinks into the isle’s ground – way out in the vast ocean – and it is seen that both Alcina and her isle were only ever the illusions of her now reanimated victims.

Contentedness embodied (Part Two)

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Ethiopian Cleaning Ladies. By Steve Evans, London

Having previously seen that our everyday apprehending of the world and phenomena comes about via mental representations, we can now consider awareness as it runs more pervasively, seeing how any fundamental sense of contentedness may relate to this. Naturally, the mirror of consciousness continues to perceive reflectively, reflexively, and selectively throughout all psychological states, and our sensory systems persist in routine modes of functioning. The vast flood and flux of sensory data cannot all be reflected in the mind’s mirror, for it would instantly be overwhelmed and rendered unable to navigate the world. So it is that beneath the representations of mind we call consciousness, the brain’s algorithms select and time-shift events, order priorities, and focus attention, all of which occur beyond our ken. What we take to be the world is a composite, selective rendering of sense imagery, in isolation being distanced from any innate reposefulness.

It is worth reminding ourselves what this innate repose or contentedness is – a quality embodied via immanence, that is, from within. Put simply, it is our natural state prior to the mind’s overlay and manipulation of desire and aversion. Many may object to the idea that their lives are guided by these seemingly lower, or animal, impulsions, and that is due to them not being seen in their full subtlety. At a gross level are craving and hatred, yet myriad finer gradations subsist beneath, often running subliminally as if assumptions, though still impelling action in the mind and world. These we can term desire and aversion, and when they obtain, a level of discontent must logically persist. This too may run subtly, and in its ubiquity we may well deny its very existence. Many consider themselves to feel reasonably content; yet one cannot be so, any more than one can be partially pregnant. Contentedness is an absolute; it does not arrive in gradations of feeling.

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Mother and Child in Havana. By Jorge Royan, Argentina

We read above both of awareness as well as consciousness, and how the latter may isolate us from contentedness. Consciousness means being ‘with knowledge’, so refers to objects reflected in the mirror of mind; it is all of the phenomena known as thoughts, memories, imaginings, sights, feelings, scents, tastes, and sounds. Awareness, as connoted here, is the illumination of these phenomena – the lucid yet blank slate upon which the objects of consciousness are inscribed, as it were. The two are not mutually exclusive to themselves or to the body, and the three comprise an integrated unicity. In any isolative consciousness, desire and aversion have free rein, and the triumvirate’s innate contentedness is obscured. When a balance is struck in accentuating awareness, contentedness may arise via immanence. The stuff of consciousness is then seen as the psychical objects they are, no longer serving as agents for desire and aversion, and we are freed of all discontent.

That is quite enough of the dry technicalities; so let us now look at how awareness is accentuated. The flavour of this is analogous to a feeling of ventilating the mind, or of dropping the narrow grasping at objects of consciousness and letting the mind breathe more freely. We seldom realise how much we grasp at sense objects, and typically these will be visual or verbal in nature. Even when we close our eyes in a silent, darkened room, still the mind grasps at an internal monologue; or in sleep, the mind grasps at visual imagery in dreams. Abhorring a vacuum, the mind clings to some semblance of familiarity, or seeks patterns, however fantastical in nature. The trick is to turn awareness upon itself, rather than having consciousness run free. Now, awareness is objectless; it is just the mind resting in radiant lucency. This means it cannot grasp or be grasped at, so the first thing to do is to relinquish that stance, as if being asleep whilst remaining wide awake.

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Göttweig Abbey, Austria. By Jorge Royan, Argentina

Try this: Gently ask yourself now where awareness is, not where attention is placed, but where awareness itself is. Is it within your head, or maybe in thought alone; is it now residing in the blurred, opaque visual forms of your nose that you seldom notice, or perhaps on the screen where these shapes appear? Is it in the words you hear inside your head, whether these or your own commentary? Just become intimate with awareness itself now, having realised there is no answer. Remain curious, yet without grasping, without seeking out answers, without driving attention along. Let consciousness fall asleep, savouring instead the deliciousness of a ventilated mind, sensing how awareness has expanded as consciousness nods off. You will not quell the mind entirely, but you will balance your body and consciousness with awareness. It begins to feel pleasant as you turn from subtle desires and aversions to awareness, yet lose interest even in that pleasantness now too.

As we develop this technique alongside any mindfulness practices we may engage in, a disinclination inevitably develops towards the former grasping stance of the self-centric, unrestrained, conscious mind. We see that it was superfluous for the most part, as well as emotionally wearying, and that we function perfectly well with it attenuated and pacified. We steadily become more balanced as we go about our affairs, and desire and aversion continue to fade over time. When conditions are conducive, contentedness will arise, being sensed as a perfectly equanimous psychological freedom arising from within. Our presence-in-being feels both vitalised and delightful; so too consciousness itself becomes at once more vibrant yet tranquil. We cease to divide the world neurotically into a point of centrality, thought to be the subject of ‘me here’, and entitative objects, or ‘things out there’. Awareness appears seamless and non-local, as it is. Contentedness becomes embodied.

Contentedness embodied (Part One)

Old Couple in Kyrgyzstan. By Evgeni Zotov, Flickr.

Contented Couple in Kyrgyzstan. By Evgeni Zotov, Flickr.

As human animals we spend the greater part of our lives apprehending the world reflectively, as if peering through to it by means of psychical mirrors. Our minds evolved to affect this process unwittingly via constantly flowing streams of updating composite imagery, all unquestioningly taken as the world in itself – Naïve Realism made real. Such mirroring is presumed synonymous with our life itself too – all the sights, sounds, feelings, scents, tastes and thoughts that reflect to us, outside of which no phenomena may appear. These mirrored images are, for the most part, accurate reflections of what happens around and within us, and had our species not evolved to apperceive with this level of precision, then we humans may not be here on earth today. To that extent it is a success story, yet could our mirror-gazing existence be enhanced in the evolution of some quality we lack, yet innately intuit? And may we at times glimpse that which we are yet fully to embody?

A digression: a young woman feels she should take up meditation and so arranges to meet the abbess of a Buddhist monastery. The abbess, having ascertained the woman’s suitability for meditative training, asks why she has requested instruction. In response, the woman explains that whilst her life is comfortable, secure, and untroubled, still she senses the absence of an unquantifiable contentedness of sorts. She appreciates that happiness is ephemeral, coming and going in accord with events, though a disquieting lack of a deep satisfaction persists, and she is left pondering if that felt void, and the contentedness yearned for, has parallels in Buddhistic conceptions of human existence. She senses a subtle distancing, as if life were obscured by a gossamer filter, or remained slightly out of focus, enquiring of the abbess if such thoughts were valid. If so, she asks, might evolution fix this ubiquitous glitch? Smiling, the abbess asks ‘how long do you want to wait?’

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Street Seller in Havana. By Jorge Royan, Argentina.

Beyond the essentials of life, we human animals devote much of our time to realising this same contentedness. Rarely do we conceive of such efforts in those precise terms, thinking instead that we desire happiness rather than to dwell in contentedness. This is because happiness is an overt feeling, and the human is a feeling-driven animal by and large. Behind this striving for a felt happiness, however, in fact lies a knowledge that inheres within the body and which understands that contentedness is the supreme goal. To be content is to be utterly beyond all desire, and such a state is not dependent upon feeling in the least; rather is it more akin to a psychological freedom, one which is not subject to the dictates of desire and aversion, nor wrought by virtue of any conditions. The human body knows this; it is far from being any philosophical abstraction. That is why the young woman was accurate in her appraisal before the abbess, and also why in turn the abbess smiled.

Our fallacy is to mistake a mere mirroring of pleasant sensations for true contentedness; it is the inclination of the mind to seek out a vaporous flux of sensory gratifications and think they will satisfy the body’s quest for that which it knows to be within and realisable now – almost as if that same knowledge were a cellular memory. It is a different mode of memory though, one which cannot ever be laid down for later recall as if an object stored in the mind. Rather, it is the body’s knowledge of itself, as itself, not as an image of itself in a certain state, such as a mood or felt disposition, but as itself alone. Contentedness is not any visualised echoing within the mind, something reflected in the mirror of the psyche, and so cannot ever be manipulated into existence by recall, intellect or volition. It is neither a spiritual attainment, nor result of any endeavour, nor may it be invoked by behaviour or genetic birthright, other than that common to all humans.

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Beauty Salon in Havana. By Jorge Royan, Argentina.

After many years of earnest meditative application, the young woman, now in her forties, went for her afternoon stroll in a local park. She felt calmly observant, yet made no attempt at mindfulness and thought of nothing in particular. Suddenly, in an uncaused instant, a radical perspectival shift occurred, as if life had come into focus. The contentedness she had alluded to with the abbess arose, though not in any mirroring. Her mind leapt in so as to make sense of it all, though quickly she came to laugh at the futility of its blunted effort, as what presented needed no qualification, being starkly obvious in its perfected ordinariness. She knew now that the contentedness she had sought in life could never have attached to any subject, nor absorb into any seeker, as that same seeking subject was merely her own mind-creation. It was as if awareness were now unobstructed by past distinctions imposed by the mind, and the waiting the abbess spoke of had now ended.

Contentedness was now embodied, and she knew that whilst her body had realised itself, and with it her mind too, neither were in truth discrete entities standing in contradistinction to one another; they were both existent yet as perspectives of each the other. She saw that subject and object, as apprehended, were only ever psychical creations, so too that the point of centrality which localised her body and self-image was not so for awareness itself. She gazed over at the distant Chestnut trees, her mind enquiring as to what was so different, yet somehow the same, and ordinary. What was it that was imbuing her with this total desirelessness and ease at a perfect ordinariness? The park, the trees and she of course existed as spatially referenced in awareness, yet awareness also saw itself as itself, as non-local. Her self-centricity had dissolved, yet she remained, embodied as pure awareness and the contentedness she always intuited she had been.

Eyeing the I in the Eidola

Venus at a mirror. Titian c.1555

Venus at a mirror. Titian c.1555

Eidola, the pluralised rendering of ‘eidolon’, are represented in ancient Greek mythological literature as what we commonly regard as phantoms, or apparitions – the spiritualised human form in other words.  These terms derive from ‘eîdos’, a Greek noun loosely translating as ‘a form seen’, yet broaden the meaning to embrace a supernatural element. Ever ubiquitous, humankind’s tales of ghosts, spectres and the like, extend to the animistic beliefs of indigenous tribal peoples, pervade the anthropology of religion, reach back to pre-literate cultures of ancestor worship, and are vividly alive in contemporary media too. In Christian theology, the fundamental reality, or hypostasis, of God, posits the same as existent consubstantially in three forms, one of which is the Holy Ghost. It would appear that eidola persist as a cultural universal, gripping the human mind in faith, awe and fascination.

Personally, I am not keen on being spooked, and the idea of one seeking out such dubious a privilege in film, books or theme parks is as much puzzling as it is anathema to me. This is not merely an inevitable by-product of my advanced years, for I have always eschewed the dubious delights of having my vampire juice flooded with neutrophilic leukocytes, or my sympathetic nervous system haunted by cloaked and shadowy adrenergic receptors – whatever those may be. Such beleaguering goings-on occur irrespective of my clammy-handed protestations, and much as I may bid to reassure the conscious self of the actuality of the situation, show me Regan’s swiveling head and the shivers start up unfailingly. Something odd is going on, as if there were a doppelgänger here; the one being self-possessed, reasoned and conscious, the other irrational, perturbable and asleep at the wheel.

Which is the essential me, the conscious rationalist, or the closeted and timorous absurdist? Still, in presupposing some enduring quintessence of selfhood within or about me, I unwittingly invoke an eidolon, a form seen in mind’s eye yet vaporously at best instantiated; a mind-blown ectoplasmic doppelgänger whose existence pervades my substance and reflectively conscious psyche, which itself is but partial, fleetingly present, a mere fluxing bundle of perceptual imagery alone – a Humean human, inhabited and haunted by a spectral homunculus.  In short, I too am a myth of sorts, a narrative of my own insignificant little odyssey. And yet I exist, so whilst excusing, if you will, the peccadillo of the double negative, I am not nothing. Selfless in the strictest sense, am I more than embodied characterisation, a spectre idling along in its dramaturgical existence, an empty ghost actor?

Self Portrait. Johannes Gumpp. 1646

Self Portrait. Johannes Gumpp. 1646

Surely the eidolic invocation of self cannot be the primary evidence of my truest being; nor is my social construct consistently self-like, as it morphs from one encounter to the next. My physical presence fails the criteria too, for it changes and is subject to programmed cell death, or apoptosis, and the body is a cellular formation. As an adult, up to seventy billion cells die within me each day, so I am separated from my own cells at an astonishing rate. One minute they constitute what I am as an alive being, and the next they are dead, decaying within me and awaiting scavenging by white blood cells which smell their death. Am I somehow separate from the dead cells yet identical with any alive ones? No, they both are part of what I am, which is neither entirely alive nor dead, not inside or outside any self, part eidolon and part matter, not nothing, and yet for a while, an indefinite something.

Glib theories abound, yet which of them withstands scrutiny; which do not devolve to fanciful thinking at base? It seems implausibly dismissive to hold that consciousness does not exist so requires little accounting for – the view of Eliminative Materialism. And similarly so to assert that consciousness and transcendental idea alone are what I am; or otherwise to call forth the ineffable and regard myself as some play of Lila or Godhead. No, undeniably there is awareness illuminating all consciously apprehended phenomena, and there is this heaving heap of cells coming and going too, albeit only in loose aggregation. In all, some tight-woven interplay of mind and matter, a body subjected to endless sense impressions, a mind-created eidolon which spooks whilst affirming itself. And at times, a unified multiplicity prevails, a seamless non-localisation in which I as subject recede, give way, dissolve.

Phenomenologists, most notably Edmund Husserl, have in the past century proposed rigorous mind-analyses for disposing of eidola in contemplatively reductionist ways, echoing the ‘via negativa’ of Vipassana Buddhism and later Indian Advaita/ Natha doctrines, Greek Pyrrhonism, Epistemological Fallibilism, Maimonides’ negative Judaism, with correlates to the apophatic mysticism of Islam and Christianity. So too are there dubious quick-fix, pick ‘n mix bags admissible to the jaded, post-modernist mindset, they being largely corruptions of classical doctrines. All are attempts at debunking the mythological self and god by rejecting falsity; though curiously none state what persists thereafter. Elusive yet obvious when seen, eyeing the I in the eidola is unsusceptible to perceptual capture. Known by and as itself alone, it remains present to all awareness, ever thus, subtle, profound, not a myth.

 

Synecdoche (Part Two): Little World

Fool's Cap Map of the World. Unknown origin c.1580-1590

Fool’s Cap Map of the World. Unknown origin c.1580-1590

In the first part of this article, we discussed how each person, in coming to understand how they construct themselves as the self-entity they take themselves to be, must in the process come to understand how all others do too. In other words, self-knowledge is not particular to the individual, because the self – in essence an embedded, accumulating and by graduation morphing narrative and body schema – comes into being by identical means in our species. Each of us remains unique in many ways, such as in our formative experience, our psychological make-up, conditioned traits, genetic inheritance, and in our individuated physicalities. Yet that which we regard as our quintessence, the enduring internalised construct we each unquestioningly hold as the self and the aspect of ourselves which we most intimately cling to, is little more than a formulaic pretence determined and governed solely by means of evolved, unbidden and unconscious processes.

Each character has a given name, societal position, cultural identity and perhaps a hierarchical status; yet all such markers are in part a figure of speech, or synecdoche, denoting an undeniable correlation with countless others. The markers delineate superficial distinctions alone, and the greater the number of them, the more we remove from our understanding the underlying truth of the other’s commonality with us.  In much the same way, in our coming to understand how the worlds we ourselves inhabit are constructed, we see also that same world as a synecdoche for all others. How I relate to my home and environment, my relatives and loved ones, those I engage with out of chance or necessity, and those whom I depend upon or those who depend upon me, human or non-human, all make up my little world. It is a relational world, an interactive adventure forged from myriad connections, surprisingly few of which do I have great control over.

The argument against this is to assert that such correlations are facile, that how can I, a materially secure Westerner living in a largely strife-free state, possibly share any commonality with the oppressed and malnourished other on, say, the Indian sub-continent?  Are these conditions not worlds apart, if only qualitatively? Well, in examining human suffering, we find it has a common genesis, proceeding as it does from the mind. For example, we commonly mistake unpleasant bodily sensations for suffering, failing to distinguish between physical pain and the attendant overlay of mental anguish. Is the suffering of the wealthy financier who contemplates suicide at her portfolio’s decimation greater than that of the homesteader in sub-Saharan Africa facing a crop failure of a few sacksful of grain? Objectively, then yes, these are worlds apart, yet the subjective suffering of each may be qualitatively indistinct, even in their wildly differing experiential settings.

Geography of Twitter. By Eric Fischer, Washington, DC

Geography of Twitter. By Eric Fischer, Washington, DC

And what of care and affection; are we to suppose that our world as comprising love is any the lesser or greater than others? Ought we to suppose the human instinct to loving solicitude is greater than that of our fellow creatures? Who amongst us knows what human love is as distinct from other forms of animal love, and whether it is qualitatively superior? Am I so arrogant as to suggest my altruistic benevolence is any the greater than that of my pet Border Collie, for it seems far from being so? If I am unable to define precisely what constitutes this world aspect, how am I to know that those of other animals are not simulacra of my own, there being no original and authentic love-world other than the one as represented by the many – is this not a truth hard to refute? I may describe a personal world of felt affection, yet in doing so prescribe but a figure of speech alone, a synecdoche for all worlds inhabited perhaps by most beings of sentience.

My little world is forged at the interface between psyche and otherness, between ideas and the world as impressed upon my senses. Those impressions and the precise nature of that otherness differ in every detail from the next person’s, yet the means of forging are identical. This shared action results in distinct narratives of course, and it is these that are held to in our bids to assert the pre-eminence of individuality over commonality. I want to believe I am, if not special, then unique; yet that is only true in the differing stories of what I am and what my little world is. To those without privilege to my narratives of self and world, my assumed mantle of uniqueness is meaningless, and the same is true of theirs to me. We may here be at a cold and sterile juncture, yet it also is a starting point from which we may begin to introduce the binding agents of humankind – our innate qualities of kindness and compassion, of empathic understanding.

So what, why should I care about such ideas when I have altogether more pressing concerns? What is the point in abstracting notions such as these from the warp and weft of daily living, the place where I earn my crust, feed my children, and work on my betterment as a means of personal fulfilment? Perhaps the answer lies somewhat starkly in the evidence, and which seems to me to be in a state of constant deterioration. We live in a polarised world, where theists fight theists and atheists argue against both, where the wealthy seldom flinch in their impoverishment of others, and where power-hungry and psychopathic leaders crush the potential of all they have dominion over.  Is it not time to find our common humanity, or even our common animality? We humans are destroying our sole environment; we are chasing down the darkening corridors of economic systems at the point of failure. Can we not rest awhile so as to perceive our little worlds as one?

Synecdoche (Part One): Little Person

 

New Zealand, air hostesses from 1965. Courtesy NZ governement archives

I am just a little person, one person in a sea of many little people who are not aware of me, yet each potentially a simultaneous understanding of the other; each, in a sense, a simulacrum or synecdoche for all others: if I understand myself sufficiently deeply, then in that moment I understand the other, however remote my presence to them. This is not to say I can appreciate their specific complexities, of course, and the detail, the true intricacy of any given life, remains forever removed from that quota of awareness I am privileged to. Each little person, tagged with their own unique package of characteristics, is still a synecdoche though, potentially at least, for all the little people out in the sea of otherness. The word means literally ‘take with something else’, so conveying the idea that even a partial representation alone is sufficient to apprehend the whole, or vice versa.

This sounds rather fanciful to the contemporary mind, conditioned as it is in a belief as to the total, inarguable individuality of each little person. What an appealing belief this is too, for this same little person here finds a seemingly plausible counter to a reluctantly intuited sense of homogeneity, which word itself derives from the Greek ‘homogene’, meaning ‘of the same kind’: Homo Sapiens. Even though each of the little person’s internal organs are replaceable with those fished from the sea of many little people, even though their blood, hair, bones, limbs, eyes and hands can be substituted with biological or manufactured alternatives, still the little person resists the evidence, demanding their status as a uniquely enduring entity. It is of course the mind itself that insists upon countering the intuited and actual homogeneity, and the mind, so the little person believes, belongs to them.

New Zealand, air hostesses from 1959. Courtesy NZ governement archives

This raises a problem, for if the little person’s physicality is all but totally interchangeable, then at what point during this theoretical process does the supposed possessor of the mind cease to exist? When does the point arrive at which we can no longer claim the mind belongs to any little person? If we hold to Physicalism, or Hard Materialism, we assert the mind belongs, if not to the little person, then to the organ of the brain. Should we be an Eliminative Materialist, we say there is no mind, and so no such question arises. I resist these philosophical perspectives, for to me there is a non-locality of awareness, meaning it arises both within as well as about what we think of as the little person, and whilst we call this aware experience ‘mind’, I do not adhere to any Cranialism; it’s not exclusively headstuff. In accepting this, we logically must ask whether the mind is under ownership.

Ownership implies agency, or self-determination, and it is belief in this that makes the little person feel unique and autonomous, directing their life just as all others would theirs. Yet this owning agent is never verifiable other than as consciousness, for it is only ever a belief that resides within and as that consciousness. Now, all conscious displays are themselves non-local simulacra, representations of otherness that are neither the little person nor any owning agent, and which clearly may never be evidenced outside of consciousness. This means the little person is always a thought-construct, a put-up job forged by mind and subsisting in otherness but never in essence itself. Should this hypothesis obtain, then the little person is a synecdoche for the entirety of others in kind; this is because every little person, being a fabrication of mind, comes into apparent existence in an identical manner.

New Zealand, air hostesses from 1970. Courtesy NZ governement archives

Where are we? We heard that the mind persists in countering a reluctantly intuited homogeneity of all the little persons. Further, we said the mind forges each little person as a thought-construct, and that the little person does not exist as an enduringly instantiated entity – just like a house, a car, or a computer, its parts are interchangeable. Beyond this, we learned the mind produces only conscious effects as verification of its own fabrications, and that these subsist universally for all the apparent little persons, being as they are culled from the same sea of otherness. And lastly, we found that the hypothesis as a whole demonstrates that each apparent little person is a synecdoche for the sea of many little people. So, in understanding myself sufficiently deeply, then in that moment I understand the other, which was the assertion of the opening paragraph and a challenge to the curious mind.

In the ‘Ship of Theseus’ paradox, a parallel question is raised: in replacing a wooden ship plank by plank, are the ongoing resultants still the original ship?  In point of fact, only the conception itself endures across the constant transitioning. The ship, as known, is not a wooden construct; it is a thought-construct, a fixed conception presenting to any observing little person, all of whom create each the other in identical fashion. Each parallel the ship in that their structure constantly mutates whilst a sense of enduring selfhood smears out across the whole, forged in mind in homogeneous ways. Now, if the little person turns the mind in on itself reflectively, they in time realise that they must be more than a thought-construct, a belief. They see that the little person whom they believed they existed as was a synecdoche: a motif in play which in its perfectly clear seeing brings knowledge of all of its kind.

 

Images courtesy of New Zealand government archives: http://archway.archives.govt.nz/ViewFullItem.do?code=14847710

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.

The disease of conceit

Old Woman Smiling. As yet unattributed.

I’ve taken the title for this article from a song of Bob Dylan’s; and the inspiration to cover the topic in the way that I’ve chosen to came from a couple of the song’s lines: ‘Conceit is a disease that the doctors got no cure; they’ve done a lot of research on it but what it is, they’re still not sure’. As Bob himself might say, ‘Sump’ns up; ain’t a lot clear though.’

I confess that I’m rather a stickler for words and their origins; so let’s first unravel what’s intimated by this word ‘conceit’. Within the context of the song, it’s shorthand for ‘self-conceit’; and as The Oxford English Dictionary has it, it’s ‘excessive pride in oneself.’ The original sense is of a ‘quaintly decorative article’, as well as ‘something formed in the mind’.

Still, we can see why the medics are struggling to cure this fanciful product of thinking. How does ‘excessive pride’ come to be ingrained within what is taken to be substantively real – the ‘me’ of ‘my’ being – and not remain as ‘something formed in the mind’? The pride is more than a judgement about ‘me’; it’s effectively regarded as what I am.

The answer is that the conceit which issues as excessive pride is self-referenced; it’s taken to be an integral aspect of a substantively real ‘self’. In this way, the notion formed in the mind becomes integrated within a narrative construct of selfhood. This narrative is synonymous with what I think I am as an enduring agent for, and subject of, all experience.

Put simply, we’re fictionalising our life and being, as a result of which process we become a ‘quaintly decorative article’. As this fiction is internal to the mind, it accesses cognitive capacities and so knows itself – it’s egoically aware. The self-narrative then embeds as belief; it’s taken as the self of ‘me’ and from which perspective it reflectively admires itself.

This is the disease of conceit; and it’s caused by mechanisms which remain opaque precisely because of this circular, self-reflective cognising. It’s largely a closed system which, to the extent that it’s monitored at all, is no more than two mirrors reflecting each the other. It comprehends itself only within its own very partial design parameters.

Whenever uncomfortable feelings arise and which affect the ‘quaintly decorative article’, this same entity attempts to modify its own construct. It builds upon its own foundation various justifications, validations and affirmations. It protects its own existence at all costs, taking any measure necessary to do so. It never considers its own destruction as a remedy.

And yet why should this be so; how could it possibly affect matters if ‘something formed in the mind’ ceased to exist? After all, the mind, together with all of its connections to sentience, to memory, to creativity and so forth, would remain. We could still function, love, care, and continue to experience the world without this fanciful, thought-up thing.

Just as we tend to consider ourselves indispensable in our working role, so too does the self-construct regard itself in this way. We assume our job position can only effectively be fulfilled by ‘me’ doing it ‘my’ way. And because the self-construct was originally a survival imperative, it continues to regard itself as such and so never considers its redundancy.

This construct, this ‘thing formed in the mind’, has created a total dependency upon itself in regarding the entirety of experience and action to be of its own doing. It thinks it’s a constant subject which via its agency alone can the world be known, and any response to that world, be made. No wonder it thinks it’s special and that it must be preserved.

Any preservation requires work though; the imagined subject of ‘me’ is rather needy and wants assurances of its status. If these assurances don’t come from others, it creates its own in applying little affirmations of conceit to itself. Interestingly, these affirmations can take both a negative and positive form dependent on the individual’s innate character traits.

So perversely, the ‘quaintly decorative article’ can appear charming to itself in terms of its own perceived deficiencies. It can build into its narrative what to it is an alluring sense of inadequacy in which it feels secure by virtue of flaw and frailty. Conceit cuts both ways; it isn’t just about ‘me’ being ‘better than’; it can also encompass being ‘worse than’.

The person who continuously stresses to all those around them of their uselessness or stupidity, or of their noteworthy capacity to suffer, is conceited too. They’re placing a perverse and certain pride in the uniqueness of their inadequacy or burden. In this way, they set themselves apart from others just as much as the boastful egotist.

So we decorate ourselves with one or other of these two modes of conceit; we’re prideful in either a negative or positive sense – it doesn’t matter which; it’s still a disease. Any remedy is beyond the power of the physician; the mind carrying the disease must administer the cure. Of course, as with any health issue, we first must observe our symptoms.

 

Behavioral awareness and change

Alan. By Chez Worldwide, Manchester

Photography: Chez Worldwide, Manchester

There’s a man I’ve known for a number of years who, despite his intelligence and sensitivity, has a behavioural problem he’s quite unaware of. This man is by no means unique in that regard; many of us are blinded to aspects of ourselves which in others we may well regard as failings. It’s a known phenomenon; we quite often take exception to the character traits of others that are prominent in ourselves too, though which we deny or remain ignorant of. It’s quite likely that you too may recognise this phenomenon in someone you know quite well.

When sub-consciously we recognise in ourselves a very similar characteristic to that which we disapprove of in others, there’s often a strong emotional response that appears as if out of nowhere. All the while, we deny access in awareness to this very same characteristic that we too abundantly possess. Whilst those around us may often see through the lack of self-awareness, we assiduously maintain our self-deception. So this is what the man I’m referring to does, and I thought it would be useful to write about how it’s affected him throughout life.

As I was saying, this fellow is intelligent; he’s a lecturer in the humanities department of a state-run college. He reads quite widely on the environment and politics, through evolutionary biology and anthropology, to current affairs and social trends. And like I said, he’s sensitive too; he recognises inequality and injustice in their many forms, and responds emotionally to any act of compassion he may witness or hear of. So you would think that most of the pieces are in place for him to be a reflective and self-aware man – someone who knows himself.

What this chap fails to see in his persona is an arrogance borne of impatience. In other words, his compulsively impatient nature leads him into making snap judgements in which he assumes he knows best. In a sense, these conclusions are logical, because if we resist understanding the position of the other, then what remains is only our own position or world view. And of course, we all assume our own views and opinions are best – if we thought they weren’t we wouldn’t hold them. So the impatient mind tends to limit its capacity to be informed by others.

Now of course, in his chosen reading, this man takes on board the views of others – he doesn’t operate in a vacuum. Yet this reading conforms to his world-view in that it’s self-selected; he reads what broadly endorses, or expands upon, his own set of beliefs. When it comes to the views of his social and familial contacts however, the shutters come down. His impatience impels him into snap judgements which invariably fail to grant any validity to the other. To him, it’s just a waste of time to listen to what is borne of the others’ life experience; to him it has no validity.

Naturally, this results in a tangibly felt transmission of high-handedness. There’s a palpable air of exclusion, a heavily qualified acceptance in which the other knows and feels what’s implied – that ultimately they don’t count for much. And all of this rebounds upon our man because he cares for his friends and family of course. And like him, his friends and family have sensitivities too; they know what they feel even though they may not extend those feelings into any analysis. They don’t need to; they know their feelings are true, and know how and when they arise.

So this chap I’m discussing who could know himself and yet doesn’t, unwittingly creates a distance between himself and those around him. He stifles his siblings and parents with his arrogant assumptions, which he regards as reasonable but which are solely self-validations. And he oppresses those who would be close to him in denying the validity of their experience. He’s blinded to all this, even though his culpability is quite apparent to others. Retrenched into self-validating views which he protects at the cost of his relationships; he in effect denies himself too.

If he were able to resist his impulse to judge prematurely, for once to be unconcerned about wasting time and the terrible possibility of suffering a little boredom, he’d learn much about himself through others. He’d see that each individual has a uniqueness of experience no less valid than his own, so having a valuable capacity to inform. Progressively gaining insight into his wilfully ignored and damaging past behavioural traits, his self-validating existence would gradually be supplanted with a new sense of engagement in which all around him would happily participate.

Instead though, this otherwise intelligent man remains intolerant of any whose views are unaligned to his own. Ungraciously rebuffing those who wilfully resist or simply ignore his own perceived correctness, he dismisses them with a passive aggression – sarcasm or hostile humour. Yet the others’ discounting of his stance was akin to his own behaviour reflecting back at him, and which sub-consciously he recognises as such. So he responds curtly, spurning the very thing he perpetuates in his own persona. He rejects this trait, though in others only – it’s hypocrisy.

The remedy entails receptivity and a willingness to listen, to set aside our impatient self-interestedness and participate in shared moments without pre-judging. In not indulging impatience, its opposite arises and we engage with others rather than being dismissive of them. If boredom or conflict arises in our mind, we accept this is self-generated – it’s our problem, not the others’. Rather than enslaving ourselves to impulse and alienating those around us through our behaviour, we put our house in order. We can change at any time in life; all it takes is the will to do so.