[A “sequel” to Our Selves, and Other Travesties.]
People change – banal as that may sound, it is nevertheless easy to forget when you are the person in question. One’s sense of self can become powerfully ossified: for who is competent to challenge it? Who has known us long enough? Who has witnessed the years’ moulding of our facets? For many of us, the only candidate is our own blind self.
I’m not saying that we never recognise or admit to change when challenged; only that we are seldom seriously challenged. (And even when we are there will always be a tendency to defend our selves from the charge of mutability, to free them from the implicit shadow of death.) So we go on living, thinking we are the same we as we were, perpetually transmuting history into an alien present, with all circumstances altered except for our soul, which sits practically immovable in the cyclone’s eye.
Inevitably, we re-interpret our memories and past circumstances from the perspective of one who was not there.
Such fluent re-framing in the absence of externalised self-examination runs the risk of weaving a toxic braid of fictitious betrayal. So let us not forget that it is our present selves who would have been betrayed, rather than our past selves who actually were. When we question our past behaviours, our past feelings, our past needs, and especially when we heap scorn upon them, we’d do well to bear in mind the possibility that some of our invisible desires have become invisibly slaked, while others have emerged from invisible dormancy.
Let us grant our past selves the simple generosity of understanding that we may be unable to understand them.
Bees are renowned for sharing knowledge with their kin. And while humans only perform the waggle dance in a limited range of settings (grinding in the club), we have managed to develop a multifariety of alternative channels for conveying what’s on our minds. A principal mode of such interaction is the telling of stories.
Perhaps nowhere are stories so formative and invested with subtle consequence as when we tell them to young children. Here they are apt to take on a different tenor: many of us will recognise in ourselves that sudden flare of possibility, the incipient reanimation of imagination, an elated inspiration to plunge gadarene into fantasies and phantoms; to clothe ourselves and our wards in words of worlds where elves lurk in the hearts of rocks; where a toad might well drink the ocean.
Yet any adult in a position of responsibility over a child must simultaneously strive to saturate them with the mundane, so that the child may become familiar with their real environment, and develop the common language necessary to navigate its inhabitants. After all, they have to survive this world we have built, the one we reiterate at each moment.
By and large, children are receptive to both timbres of teaching, both the celestial and terrestrial: for in minds so fresh and molten, so new to existence and so eager to learn its contents, the thrill of dragon-slaying may be no more desirable than the tangible fascination of a picnic enjoyed by all. Both are worthy stories.
So parents, guardians, teachers, governments perpetually caress their infants with a warm litany that A is for Apple, that two comes after three, that the dog plays with the ball. This magnificent grasp of reality is, supposedly, the greatest gift we have to give.
And these gifts underpin every story we tell. Because storytelling is both a vehicle for stories and an instance of telling, which reveals piece by piece a grand repository of sense and concept and communication. Unwittingly, we lace our stories with a system for structuring information, with the formulation of cause and effect, with cues for codifying time, with the mysterious and imperfect art of transferring thoughts between minds. Woven into our words is a deeper language which lays down the laws of perception.
All this is invisible to us adults, for we have already learned to arrange our minds. We have already learned the foundations upon which to build sensations and share them.
Thus, in a hundred different ways, we teach children to perceive as we do. Lovingly, we ask them questions about A is for Apple and their experience of school, about their relationships with siblings and vegetables. In this asking, we train them to conceptualise and verbalise; to share themselves with us. We reward conversation with cooing approval. The comprehension of other humans is not merely “of value”: it is how our lives work.
The act of teaching is utterly gratifying also, because children have such vast appetites for sense and regularity. Oh, how they rejoice in knowing the name of the ball! For the pleasure of rolling it on the floor is matched and surpassed by the pleasure of rolling it in their mouths. “Ball!” they cry, triumphant in their categorisation, already tasting the heady liquor of parental admiration. Clearly it would be a horror not to give them the brew! “Yes, it’s a ball!”. It would be a horror to deprive them of our wisdom.
And so their world takes the shape of our own. We subordinate the child’s capacities for interpretation: gone are her conceptions of space whose topology defies metrisation, gone are her “impossible” arrangements of material reality, gone are her systems of value that harden or deform in the evershearing flows of sensation. So equipped, she would not have survived.
It is in their interests that we topple our children’s aberrations and sow their fertile minds with our own devices. Dotingly, we chip away at the constellation of possible foundations, indoctrinating them with received paradigms of knowledge, of explanation, and most fundamentally, of perception and the ordering of thought. For they must blossom into functional human beings! And besides, we cannot stop ourselves from teaching these things, because we’d first have to realise how they pervade our every thought. We would have to employ the very faculties that blind us to grasp the blindness which has grown into our marrow.
And yet even the adult mind, when left alone with itself, and nourished out of its seething rigidity, can produce improbable fireworks. It too can exalt, can apprehend a different flavour of immanence – in things perceived, unperceived, transperceived.
The world of other people, the world with which we smother our children, is but a glorious fragment of the mind’s capabilities, a single plane of possibility. It is as relevant to the bliss of consciousness and the spectre of fulfilment, as any other plane might be.
And yet we elevate above all else the ability to languish on neutral ground: on an intersection of realities where contact with others is possible. A marginal and imperfect overlap of minds. The skin where water meets air. Might we not also explore the sea and the sky? Could we not find wonder in unconditioned mental structures which communicate nothing to anyone but themselves?
Of course, I do not suggest we deprive children of their capacity for surviving and interacting with people – clearly that would be cruelty and madness (and besides, it wouldn’t work). But in furnishing them with the capacity to inhabit a world comprehensible to all, must we destroy all other worlds?
The youth of Japan are slowly plunging into a crisis of celibacy. Report after report details the social paralysis which afflicts increasing numbers: they have forgotten human friends; they have abandoned the world outside themselves; and they are uninterested in engaging with that mainstay of the youthful psyche: sex.
The authorities express deepening concern. Academics point to the burdens of societal conservatism in the context of globalisation and forces beyond any borders. Young people face a world where the rules of their parents’ generation have all changed, while its pressures have not. To be crushed by the antiquated expectations of yesterday, to find every conversation laced with anxiety – in such circumstances, who would not seek an oblivion of solitude?
But as you might have guessed, what I really want to talk about is sex. Because the rejection of sex, of physicality, intimacy, of procreation, is anathema to life. It is a bizarre social construct indeed: an epidemic of rebellion against biology itself.
So we are led to confront an apocalypse in its infancy. It’s a refreshing contention that humans will destroy themselves not through hubris or technology or war or greed, but through intellectual and almost purposeful acts whose consequence is the overcoming of their own survival.
What a beautiful plague this is! For millennia, humans have strived to throw off the shackles of their biological construction, to liberate themselves from the grime of material distractions and the subterfuge of mental hardwirings, to reach into a metaphysical realm where the pure conscious mind is master of itself. Are we now witnessing the glimmerings of success?
Or is the truth stranger still? Perhaps the roots of our sensual craving, and the power of intimacy, lie not in the immediate pleasure brought by satisfaction or in the grip of our genetic circuits. What if sexual desire is a cultural rather than biological conditioning? What if the Japanese youth are not establishing a new social construct, but dismantling an old one?
If this is the case, we must thank our immense capacity to learn from our personal environment for permitting the human race to persist and flourish. The genes telling us to procreate are missing. They were never there. Instead, those cultures which can boast of generations have come, unknowingly, to rely on the seeding of each new mind with a social imperative to fuck.
There’s something oasic about essays. They are constructed with balance in mind; they are sculpted to be self-contained, while still suggesting relevance beyond the page; sometimes they expose truths; always they resolve into conclusions. Their themes and arguments swirl in through our eyes, zing through our neurones, and jostle the garrison of world-models which doze therein. Each sentence has its weight and its web, progressing the teleology of the whole. In the land of the essay, we respect causality, we are enriched by reason. No matter how inflammatory the content is, an essay soothes us with its pedigree – with the social intellect of humanity.
But this is a poor reflexion of the way our individual minds want to work. It’s a poor reflexion of how life works. The essay, bastion of truth, is ironically a fiction.
Because our thoughts are our own (at least they should be); they meander. They stretch and stumble towards a drunkard’s Sun, boughs branching and looping, casting their shadows on the most improbable tangled undercarriage until they too become fossil foundations of burgeonings to come.
True, not everything we write is an essay, and not everything we create is written. Yet few of us have been schooled to pursue or even to acknowledge that raw tripping substance simmering in our heads: namely, how we really think. And the moment we do become conscious of thoughts, our instinct is to project them into a common language which permits conceptualisation and intellectual grasp – and above all permits communication. But common language necessarily owns a simpler version of meaning.
There’s some analogy to be made here with science. Science emerges from principles of analysis, universality, and measurement; and few would deny that it’s a powerful and important paradigm. But there are other paradigms available, perhaps more feeble but more resonant, less constructed, less imposed. Occasinally we must wander in the delight of our own natural frameworks, rather than the one shared by all.
You. Dewed alabast;
Clothed by silhouette-light.
Your bronze breast… Brittle.
Sigh, turn, my china moon;
Stretch and return.
God created us because He was lonely.
He invented suffering because He needed to be needed.
Among us throng beings of ascetic symmetry; tightly-coiled specks of fervid, impotent avarice… Yes, viruses are beautiful indeed.
How lumbering we are by comparison! All wheezing and stench, we ferry our life’s cargo through endless jungle. Perhaps it’s only fitting that we hideous creatures should give birth to these parsimonious beauties, which rest full upon our breasts, perfectly attuned to our every imperfection.
It is not merely that our viruses cannot exist without us: in part, they are us – they are moulded onto the machinery of our cells, each one a negative relief of our collective anima. They know our intricacies better than we ourselves; for while we function, they exploit – and with such glorious insouciance! No sensation, no struggle, no pulse: with a shrug they succeed or are destroyed.
Thus, to consider a virus in isolation is to be doomed to blindness. Half the story is at the other end of the microscope.
Oh how ironic that we are to blame for the curses they bring upon us! Our sickness is our own creation! We take a speck and magnify it to cripple ourselves. What fantastic things our bodies are unwittingly capable of.
But we must go further, because we have been shaped by the virus just as much as they have been shaped by us. We are the products of perpetual war – a war waged so perversely – waged by those who seek power, upon the very instrument they wish to control. Like any pathogen, like any complex organism, the virus is author of its own undoing.
In more ways than one, therefore, viruses are like ideas.
Ideas cannot thrive independently of us – yet witness the force with which they flare into life when they grip a mind! Unbidden, uncontrolled, they devour our energies, they multiply, they weave in orgies that scorch our consciousness, or indeed shine straight through them, invisible to us in their saturated brilliance.
Those that do not evolve to our ever-vying mental landscape inevitably cease to trouble us – it is a natural selection harsher and more capricious than its biological counterpart.
And yet who, between our minds on one side and their history of thoughts on the other, has been more contorted by this oldest of infestations? Who feeds off whom? Let us not mistake ourselves for geniuses: let us not deceive ourselves that ideas are tools of our own invention. One might as well remark how clever we are to have created the viruses which shaped us into humanity! No no, we are their tools! We are the effete substance which they dominate in plain sight, we are the substratum from which ideas draw their base sustenance, their possibility of existing.
Moreover, being needed does not make us strong: because incandescent thriving is so much greater than mere existing! Would we humans not claim to be more than stale calories and shit?
So nature nourishes humans, and humans nourish ideas. Always, the daughter rules the mother.
Yes, the analogy between viruses and ideas is a fruitful one; and now we glimpse its acme: for is it not true that some ideas become a contagion? That they envelop entire cultures? Christianity; property; language; supermarkets; popular ignorance. This sublime breed is unstoppable; and its members spread, and consume, and spread, leaving a confusion of uniformity in their wake. It is graven into their nature to be victorious, to vanquish those delicate brethren who, in luxuriant isolation, developed themselves into harmonious reciprocity, yet still lacked the ferocity, the simplicity, the virulence to conquer the human mind for more than an instant.
The final question, then, is whether we should pity those that fall, whether we should shield the vulnerable ideas from the voracious expansion of their neighbours. Here, ideas and viruses are seen finally to diverge: for who would not instantly choose to protect the former and condemn the latter? Fools! Benighted fools! You all suffer the collective delusion, perhaps the most powerful idea to ever have infected us: the fiction that we are the masters of our ideas, rather than their opportune hosts.
Common sense suggests it is in our own self-interest to cling to fallible masters. History teaches us that we seldom do.
Suppose for a moment that you crave power. In sensuous dreams you trace its contours. You stroke the soft skin of its back, feel the prickle of a thousad drunken spiders marching over your skin and to see the same spiders in your lover’s shudders, to see them in the glints of sweat on their thighs. Grasping gasping flesh, muscles clenching, alive and sharing the universe. Oh, to roar! Oh, to tame such a thing.
Perhaps you have misunderstood everything. Perhaps you have seized power, not as a machinery, but as an edifice. Anything so miserably physical as control is just shadow, a provisional vulnerable incarnation of the deity. Perhaps you are now the strongest – but you have taken possession of power’s mannequin and not its body.
[Monday the 7th of November 2016]
Suppose for a moment that you crave power. That your every ligament quivers with the desire to conquer.
Dividing your enemy is known to serve this desire well. But the more ruthlessly you employ this tactic, the more problems you arrange for yourself after your ambitions are fulfilled.
When you have corrupted a society to make it weak; what do you do when it is finally yours?
Perhaps your triumph was so glorious that now you rule nothing but bloody ruins. King of a wasteland, but king nevertheless. You may order the dust to blow and the jackals to chew on scraps of dry flesh. All that’s left is you and inevitability.
But perhaps your kingdom lives yet. Perhaps the internecine destruction you unleashed was not so complete. Perhaps you foresaw that a ruler of nothing is nothing of a ruler. And so the war continues under your gaze, bodies flung against bodies, a chorus of sobs grown so vast and clamorous that no human voice can be heard. You imprison people in their rage… But the walls of rage are volatile.
Please, go ahead, enjoy your golden throne! If you cannot bend and tame the forces of rage, who is really the prisoner? You are – because the rest of us can only focus on what is visible.
So if control is really what you desire, you must conquer the instrument of your conquest – division – through muscle or through grace. On the other hand, if your thirst is merely for personal freedom and riches, it is sufficient to tend the division, to sprinkle venom on its roots and shatter dirty bricks of coal over its infernal belly. Distract your subjects with the crises you have created, and they will barely notice you wrenching the gold from their teeth.
Their pain will be real, though, and they will groan and they will scream, and you will twist their screaming mouths to gnash at their neighbours.
Or, more insidious still, you may twist not their mouths but their ears, so that they will hear you struggling, hear you gasp “Look, we are trying!”.
Let us distil two possible routes of societal fracture. Which route you take depends on where you started from.
If you start as an outsider, you make your enemy weak by turning it against itself. This is familiar. The Achaemenid Persian emperor Darius ploughed money into enemy Greece, supporting at one time the Ionians, at another the Thebans, at another the Spartans… He kept them slicing bluntly at each others’ throats, toeing self-destruction. Closer to home, consider the perversity of the nineteenth century American landowners, who inflamed the poverty-stricken Irish against the “menace” of enslaved blacks who undercut their wages.
(Out comes that gleaming tooth, leaving trails of red red blood behind it.)
A harder task is to engineer division from the inside, in the role of a supposed member of one of the fractious factions, indeed as its leader. Here you must rouse your mob in steely brinkmanship: us against them. Tribalism demands alienation. You just hope that your blind furies will outweigh theirs.
We all have been marinated in this stew of hatred: it is impossible to escape the leeching of our sanity into others’ profits, the endless forced gorging of division and denunciation. True, within this are scattered grains of grievances; but you are what you eat, and we should be aware of our diet.