Wednesday, August 20, 2008

The Path Most Travelled

If I am not master of my life, not sultan of my own being, then no man's logic and no man's ecstatic fits may force me to find less silly my impossibly silly position: that of God's slave; no, not his slave even, but just a match which is aimlessly struck and then blown out by some inquisitive child, the terror of his toys. There are, however, no grounds for anxiety: God does not exist, as neither does our hereafter, that second bogey being as easily disposed of as the first. Indeed, imagine yourself just dead- and suddenly wide awake in Paradise where, wreathed in smiles, your dear dead welcome you.

Now tell me, please, what guarantee do you possess that those beloved ghosts are genuine; that it is really your dear dead mother and not some petty demon mystifying you, masked as your mother and impersonating her with consummate art and naturalness? There is the rub, there is the horror; the more so as the acting will go on and on, endlessly; never, never, never, never, never will your soul in that other world be quite sure that the sweet gentle spirits crowding about it are not fiends in disguise, and forever, and forever, and forever shall your soul remain in doubt, expecting every moment some awful change, some diabolical sneer to disfigure the dear face bending over you.

-Nabokov, Despair

The terror of his toys! That was a very long, and difficult, excerpt to type, but fucking hell, if that doesn't genuinely capture my feelings on the subject then nothing does. Still, it is a heady, multi-faceted, problem, so let's give it its do.

Our Brains

We are born from nothing into something. This is what we know. We find ourselves here, and time gives our lives a narrative continuity, and we embellish a bit, and this is our lives. But we have a tool, our brains, and I believe in this tool. When I see movement in the brush I damn well take into consideration the idea that it might be something intent upon eating me. But the brain is imperfect. So I consider the fact that it, that thing in the bush (if, indeed, there was some thing in the bush,) might not. One of the problems with this approach rests in the fact that we do not have unlimited time. In one scenario we end up being the waste that some thing drops along its path as it ambles towards the watering hole (or whatever the modern equivalent is) and in another we look weak and foolish and betray that character to the rest of our tribe. So many factors come into play. How can we manage them all?

Our Conscious Minds

We have these remarkable semantic engines and they have one obvious purpose; they generate meaning. In fact, they cannot help but imbue almost every existential gesture with meaning. My mother's Social Security numbers become the square root of the winning lottery numbers that my horoscope, when interpreted using the numerological techniques of the Jewish cabalists, using the time honored practices of gematria, have cleverly enticed from the fabric of being. Such numbers! Maybe I will buy a refrigerator. We see patterns everywhere, even where they are not. But what I may not be getting across is that this is the best, in some respects the very best, that we have. We obviously have an itch. What will we use if not our conscious thought processes? A deck of cards. The position, or perceived position, of the stars. The intestines of an immaculately disemboweled fowl. Because meaning is everywhere. Isn't it?

Our Unconscious Minds

The unconscious mind does not know death. It does not apprehend existence on those terms; it can't. But there it is and it damn well determines a huge amount of us. And why not? We really wouldn't want to be in control of our every heartbeat, much less the manner in which our cells divide, or the tactics used by our mitochondria as they fuel our basic structure. But that is merely the physical component of unconsciousness. What we actually do, what we actually are.... Well, there is not much to suggest that we have a lot to say about that either. I mean, really, right now, as you read this, you must feel some sense of control. You went to Starbucks because you like the feel and taste of coffee; you rented that DVD because the reviews were promising; you bought Advil, instead of Tylenol, because... because the label is blue, not red; and the thread count on those sheets was 250; and that lasagna was organic, or at least thought to be organic; and... and your mom used to use Tide. And you yelled at her because you were right, because she would not, could not, listen. And all of those thoughts about all of those people. And sex... well, fuck that.

Our Brains, Again

Everything we do, everything we feel, everything we are, is funneled through the physical structure of our brains. There are no detours. Lose an arm and you are still Ted. Lose a brain and you are nothing. Soul? We'll get to that. Regardless, can you actually see the brain as a perfectly functioning unit? The frontal lobes are a little too small and the adrenal glands are a little too big (to quote Hitchens, yet again) and sometimes I think that we are lucky to ever make it from our homes to the grocery store without bloodshed, flames, and tears. And how could it be different? Three pounds of grey porridge housed in an obsolescent casing; is this what we are banking on? Well, what are the alternatives? At the risk of sounding facetious, let me tell you. It is something else, something grander. Something other than human.

The Oceanic Feeling

Even Freud admitted to experiencing something like an oceanic feeling in the presence of the wonders of existence. Not much of one, but still. I get it. I have been on beaches that have drawn that out of me. I am listening to Phillip Glass as I type this and his music makes me feel something like that once in a while. Your newborn baby's gurgle. The way the puppy looks at you, just on the verge of understanding. Sublime drunkenness. The way she straightens the sheets after you came in her mouth near the end of that marathon fuck session. The way you feel after having that dream about the impossible waves and the empty houses. I know this feeling. It is my soul. It is our souls. It has to mean something. If it doesn't, then what does? Right, what does?


Truth is subjectivity. Kierkegaard, who was a Christian, wrote this. God forbid. Still, he was right. There is nothing that is not free from to the smudging fingerprints of interpretation. Even the idea is impossible. We can narrow our constraints but... is Einstein really the best, or most relevant, or least pernicious, physicist? Jerry Rice the best football player, ever? What does that even mean? How is he better than Anthony Munoz? At catching? Sure. But at blocking? Where does Ulysses stand in relation to the Divine Comedy? Is penicillin better than The Rite of Spring, or is Vermeer's green more important than gunpowder? I know that some things are easier to manage than that, but the process remains the same. We have limited tools with which to apprehend an expansive and unwieldy set of variables and it should be no great surprise that some well-intentioned idiots start grasping for magical sources.


Probabilities are a funny thing. Intuition, which I value highly, has been shown to be not only inconsistent, but to be so far from accurate that it begs the question why we would rely upon it at all. And yet it is there. I use it. You use it. It feels right. But we are wrong. I'm not talking about the type of thing where that guy at the bar is giving you a creepy vibe. I mean something else. Let me give you an example. Fighter pilots, top gun types, have instructors who work them through the difficulties of their wildly complex jobs. When a recruit makes a terrible mistake his instructor yells at him, hoping that this will help the recruit to perform better. It makes sense. But it doesn't, mathematically. When a recruit does exceptionally poorly he is merely behaving at the lower end of his ability spectrum. It happens to us all. Some days you just don't function well. That is why batters who hit the ball correctly one third of the time go to the Hall of Fame. Or, is it actually more random than that? Probably, but, none the less, the math suggests that after such a poor performance, regardless of the external stimuli, you WILL perform better. Obviously, taking into consideration your overall performance, the yelling appears to make sense. It doesn't. You would have improved regardless. But the instructors, when confronted with this line of thinking, could not accept it. How could the yelling not make a difference? What, then, finally does make a difference?


God. The guy who knows everything. The guy who can do anything. You want a sunrise that brings tears to your eyes? He's the guy. You want your daughter to make the cheer-leading squad? He's the guy. You want evidence of meaning in your life? He's the guy. It can't be you, because that would be cruel. It can't be nothing, because that would be a joke. We didn't come from monkeys. We are not sacks of protoplasm. We aren't that vulnerable. Thank God for helping me to understand my addiction. Thank God for curing my lupus. Thank God for helping my sister with her thing. Thank God for helping those poor Haitians. And, thank God for the food on this table...

...and the food that is not on another table. And thank God for the mutant cells that are killing my daughter. And thank God for my team losing the Davis Cup. And thank God for Pastor Redburn fondling my penis when I was an altar boy. And thank God for algebra, and giraffes, and incest, and emeralds, and marshmallows, and Rachel Weisz, and the flat tax, and.... Well, really, just thank you God. You've been a great help and I couldn't be happier that we created you.

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