A.) Jack murders Jill. That evening, under the glare of portable lights, Jill's mom tells her own story to the Channel 9 cameras, as teddy bears and candles pile up in the background. Like this woman, we'll sell ourselves quickly because we're hungry and helpless in this place, peering at the operations of this world through our life-sick hearts, and there's no thing in it that can satisfy us; these facts have not changed in thousands of years. So it goes. While we're here, we have been told it is wise to play backgammon until the end comes, since so few of us have learned to think. Feeling is not enough. On the journey, the feeling self is ultimately dependent upon the knowing self.
B.) In the world of subject-object consciousness, we're surreptitiously but relentlessly persuaded through nearly all human cultural products and activities that whatever exists must be an object before our consciousness, including our "selves," and that such a location is the brightest spot to be. We're encouraged to feel a sense of loss when attention drifts away from us. The same covert training endorses a state of attention that is permanently adrift; which of us can hold our mind steady for 30 seconds?
To express this in another way, we always act as if everything we know must be known through something else, so we keep looking for the “else”: our looking steps around the looker and gets lost in the world. Even our “self” is a thing in this system, and it is to be viewed; we'd see nothing odd in its being rendered by a set of bullet points. With the acquisition of these habits of perception and understanding, we impose a permanent embargo on most forms of Joy and Illumination.
The happy news: once the voidness of the Self is glimpsed squarely, the fraudulence of our cultural training is at once gracefully exposed, and both the knower and the known are permanently unmoored. In briefest terms, the first packet of knowledge served up at this stage amounts to "Oh, wow—there's more. Much more."
For whatever reason, some of the saints and the philosophers have pierced the veil of our false training and shared their discoveries. But entry into the circles of their understanding always requires a strong heart or mind, and a readiness to look into the face of the unknown. Few of us are strong, and we choose to continue suffering beneath the dark storm of emotional and conceptual compulsions, and seek small relief in the Social Club Religions, the Creed of the Sports Hero, the Snack Club of Dietary Moralism, the Church Militant of Global Warming, the Community of Personal Purchases, and the Church of Our Embittered Lady of Social Justice.
Philosophical Stories 2
C.) THE DOWSON MODEL
Vitae Summa Brevis Spem Nos Vetet Incohare Longam
They are not long, the weeping and the laughter,
Love and desire and hate;
I think they have no portion in us after
We pass the gate.
They are not long, the days of wine and roses:
Out of a misty dream
Our path emerges for a while, then closes
Within a dream.
— [Ernest Dowson, 1896]
Horace, Ode 1: "The shortness of life prevents us from entertaining far-off hopes."
In the realm of subject-object play, things come and go. While they're here, we talk about them. When they're gone, we remember them. We never find out what they are.* In any case, whatever we know will also go away, even the things that turn out to be "true” here. This comprises nearly all we know. From whence do we arrive? Whither may we say we are going? The mystery is impenetrable, and remains ever so. But it's a noisy, boisterous mystery, that throws out an endless stream of suggestions from its veiled face, in much the same way that empty space spews virtual particles. Curiously, the Kosmos freely supports conversation and reflection upon its mysteries, and upon our own essential distractability. Uncertainty operates smoothly here. This is perverse and unnerving to modern schools and universities, truer religions, and bureaucrats burning with the subject-object flame, all ready to fix the world and clear up how things truly are. We too willingly accept their gross substitutions, and even line up to pay for them. But they, too, come and go, taking their stories with them, processed out of form by Dowson's dream.
D.) Another version of our story: With the arrival of the self-bearers, so was born the subject-object play. In this time-honored production:
- Things come and go.
- While they are here, we self-bearers talk about them.
- When they are gone, we remember them.
- Whatever we know also goes away, including our friends, our lovers, our memories, and our familiar selves.
This is what we do, and it has gone on so long we've forgotten the traces, as well as the mood for recovering them. The scientism herd has moved in, along with the multicultural puppeteers, bubbling with righteous investigation, to take control of us during the loss of our self-knowledge, but they live for the conferences, where they can bleat and browse. Much more impatient, the ideologues, too, have offered to revise reality, and they're happy to allow their ideas to catch up with their latest social coup.
Thus we never find out what things are, or what we are, and as diligent modern self-bearers we perform as if we have taken an oath never to remember, which effectively transmutes daily life into a dangerous place. In any case, this is all we choose to know, and so the mystery is impenetrable, and remains ever so. Even when our ignorance is resolute, however, it's a frolicsome, graceful mystery, poking and pushing back at us through dreams and suffering, through religions, epistemologies, and philosophies, and the unexpected corners of our life. And in spite of its many cruel forms and patterns, this is a well-organized, viable world in which to live and turn back our ignorance, and our bodily form with its package of self-reflective software is a great advantage for Realization. So say the few selfless ones who have set up their shops here, waiting for customers, and their moment to be useful.
How shall we distinguish the stories that compose our waking state from our dreams? Dreams are typically shorter.
Remember the times you’ve stood in a bookstore and scanned the others who are hunting books or reading? Sometimes the strangeness of the reading process comes across quite sharply. Humans have been called symbolic animals, or tool-makers. There’s a wide range of useful names for summarizing ourselves, depending on the discipline one favors. But we could just as well call ourselves the storied animal. Within our province everything becomes a story, and everything implies a story, relentlessly, and we will not shut up about it. We are story-hungry beings who grope the world through stories. Our very selves are cleverly wired multivalent tales or accounts of a Person with no beginning and no end of references.
The old woman sitting over her cake in the bookstore café with the damp lips and hacking cough, squinting at a new science text on corn genetics is just as truly lost in her story as the girl upstairs curled around Charlotte's Web. From birth our bodies concoct a story of ourselves, some chapters of which are written in corners of the conscious mind, in stories our parents tell us, in dreams, in the full flood of romance, or in bookstores. The fact that there's a you here now, attending to this, shows how demanding it is to pull away from this storytelling, or storyfinding, or maybe better, story-building.
Over time, each one feels tremendous fondness for his or her particular storied form, even though we may even despise our personal tale, and out of our love of it we cannot easily let it go (I almost said, "But where could it go?"—and what a story that would make!) We can feel this sympathy most piercingly when we survey the combs and brushes of those who have died, or find our own abandoned wallet in a drawer. We design our stories to disarm us for living in this multistoried world.
To restate, then. Here is the rude but simple truth. There’s nobody home. If we step into the body"s Number room, where all the accounts are maintained, we find no one seated there. The body has no head, though we have composed many simulations. None of these stories is any more true than the dramas we see on stage, in movies, or on television. They are tellings, shaped for effect, for charm and plangency, made for retelling, to ourselves especially, and for others. We all lead intensely literary lives, searching for words that mate with our unfolding experiences and diligently storing even the most shambling, imprecise, off-the wall and out-of-sorts examples. This intensive and systematic rejiggering and rendering of story materials occurs throughout our day, below the threshold of our standard forms of attention, growing the supply of future selves, adjusting the supply of older versions and situations. Our dreams continue this work during sleep, testing and shaping even the smallest fragment of a life-tale for recountability and emotional hooks. Some of us do more thinking about the life-tales they tell than others do, but everyone resents hearing that their lives are nothing but good stories.
Nevertheless for every human who has achieved subject-object consciousness, the storyteller program is in full operation from birth, and perhaps before. In every minute of our conscious life, our attention stretches toward the verbal encapsulation of the Next Life Event, and most typically grabs a few handy references from the library of memory, attaches them, edits and re-edits as needed, pats things into shape, and puts the story on line. If it plays well, it's preserved for retelling. Our life stories are how we explain ourselves, to ourselves, continuous acts of self-expression, products of our primary craft during our planetside stay, tweaked and refined to fit the flow of moods and events.
In other words, this self we credit with having so much substance through every line, page, and chapter, is a bunch of artful talk, mixed in with lots of flim-flam bullshit when we're on social autopilot or caught up in early morning dreams. We're deeply attracted to our productions, always wishing for a more perfect account, and hate to see our stories end, but inwardly we know that we alone are the tellers, which gives the fearful lie to all our works, and helps increase our fear of death. After a while, we weary of our little storied selves, and dream of death. More stories.
The main point is not that our stories are false, although in many ways they are (we don't intend to be false, but we always settle for caricature). I only want to show that we cannot get out of our stories, and our storied state. We are imprisoned in our stories for life, unless we undertake the effort to turn and face into the winds of the Void. But it's good to know that this is our condition. And this, too, is a story. John Barth pounded this theme into submission years ago.
Stories About Groups
Our stories are powerful. One of the worst caricatures of reality, as Phoenix points out, is the conceptual posing of the "group" identities, the "we" and the "them." Example heard on TV (the speaker was referring to California): "As a people I am very forgiving, realistic, responsible to the earth, caring and outspoken." Nation-states are contingent on group identities. It is quite difficult to unstick an individual person from his or her "group identity," philosophers included. [This habit of thinking may have its roots in a truth: for careful introspection discloses that the individual self is composed of many selves. And our living bodies always contain felt implications of many other persons, near and far, live and dead. But those are themes for another page.] To make individual people into a group, we must "do violence" (a favorite phrase of the French Existentialists and their descendants, the Hissy-Pissy Marxists, all of whom are borrowing from Bacon's notion of "torturing nature") to the integrity of language, since in our experience we only ever find individual selves (not a conclusion to reach if you desire to appeal to Marxists).
If we wish to postulate a group, we must actively fashion and maintain it in words and imagination, and encourage others to follow suit and pass on the tale. We cannot come across it in our external experience, but only on the internal streets of our imagination while we are talking together. Surely we can encounter a collection of people, but if we want them to retain a group identify after they disperse, we must conceptually assign them a "group mind" by which to treat them, a "handle" by which they can be moved around, a set of verbal forceps hidden within common parlance for picking them out. We must assemble a history about them, using the favorite props we have collected and stored in our mental research wing. Groups are a useful fiction. Writers, historians, sociologists, statisticians all rely on them. None of this does anything to dissolve the individual identities that underlie the fiction. One of the many consequences of this conceptual and imaginary activity is the assigning of responsibility to groups, and the potential loss of responsibility for individual action. On the other hand, people who "believe" in the group concept are ready to imagine their own participation in all sorts of projected communities, which can range from the beneficial, through the harmless, and on to those whose believers are constructively bent on the extermination of others, in the name of god.
There’s lots more to say about stories. We may hold that all versions of the structure of nature are inventions (i.e., they are “versions” and hence accounts for telling, with distinctive features). But we also believe in and live by our accounts, or rather, we live in these accounts of the world. They make our world and the way we can think about it. It's difficult to come up with any counter examples. And a further contribution to this line of thought: “…techniques can be invented—but not the laws of thought… the nature of things is discovered, but not invented by man.” (from Consciousness and Reality, Muses and Wigner article, p. 139). Physics, and the thinking process that supports it, are both based on laws we can discover (and probably on some we cannot).
To be continued...