I’m tired tonight, so I’m not sure how coherent this post will be, but I’ve been waiting for a chance to post some things, so here goes:
I’m reading selections from Homer’s Iliad (in a recent translation, though the translator’s name escapes me just now) and as we’re reading, I’m finding lots of weird and wonderful things that I point out to my students, and things I’d also love to talk to other adults about. For instance, there are moments in this serious work about war and grief that seem to me to be just plain funny, as when Hector says he will fight Achilles and kill him, or he will die an honorable death — and then when they meet, Hector turns and runs around the city of Troy, three whole laps.
It occurs to me that discussing artworks is one of the few things in life where many people can share the same experience and then discuss it. We can all read or watch the same book or movie, and then compare our experiences of reading or viewing. In much the rest of our lives, we have experiences separately (for example, even if two friends are each parents, they are parenting distinct children, in different houses, etc.), and while we can discuss our separate experiences, we cannot directly compare our experiences, the way we can when we experience artworks.
I experience subjectively — that is, even if you are standing next to me, you do not know what I experience. At best, I can communicate through words what I experience, but of course, that’s not direct experience. You can get my symbolic interpretation/representation of my experience, but you do not see through my eyes, or sense my mind.
So, when we experience, we are sensing (seeing, touching, etc.) and we are processing/interpreting what we sense. Much of what we experience, we forget. We may remember certain sights and smells, etc., but what links those senses to meaning is the stories we form from our experiences. For me, at least, much of what I know about my past is in the form of stories — that is, abstracted experiences, ideas of connected interpretations that often describe not the experience that was had but the world itself. These stories tend to compress time and ignore the moment-by-moment nature of our lived experience.
These stories may help us to structure and remember our experiences, but these stories may also be complete bullshit. Our memories are often faulty, but even if they are not, our stories edit out moments from continuous time. It’s so easy to look back at our own lives and think that all we were thinking about was the experience at hand — but I don’t seem to experience my waking moments that way; I’m often doing one thing now but also aware of what I should do, or would like to do, next.
I realize it’s sorta futile to discuss, in words and ideas, the limitations of words and ideas, and how words and ideas are always at best a kind of (what physical metaphor to use here?) layer, a kind of overlay, on top of physical reality.
Another of my classes is discussing the definition of “real,” and so far we have “something that exists or is proven to exist” and so far we’ve spend many minutes discussing what a “thing” is and what we’ve come up with is that a thing is a boundary we imagine around a piece of matter so that we can talk about the physical realm one piece at a time. We notice that a certain piece of matter, a fork, can be separated from another, a table. To simply be able to see pieces of matter as separate is an abstraction — and of course even words like “matter” and “physical realm” are abstractions.
No words exist outside human consciousness (or so it seems — it’s quite a generalization to make there). Or, perhaps some animals — like apes who use sign-language — can think symbolically. But the point remains — a fork can never declare itself to be a fork.
But to see how arbitrary the label of fork is, is also to see how hard it is to keep talking about the physical realm without the help of differentiating labels. We revert to “object” and “thing” and “this thing” and “that thing.”
So maybe we can’t escape words, but we can, through the ongoing process of thinking, become aware how loosely our ideas about the world are connected to the world itself (even such a loose term as “the world” starts to feel like bullshit and the word wilts, somehow — “wilting” is a pretty good metaphor).
And I asked my students how we can talk about things we don’t have labels for, and they suggested we talk about relative terms, and that we make comparisons — a platypus has a beak like a duck’s, but a body like a beaver’s, for example. So our ideas connect one to another, from these we can build whole systems of ideas, and yet, …
And yet, it seems to me lately that whole systems of ideas — Hegel’s metaphysics, histories of World War II, mathematics — start to seem deflated, as if they were held up by hot air that, once it escapes, leaves the idea-systems flat on the ground, unimpressive, step-on-able.
Taking a bit of a leap here, but it makes sense in my head to do this (and what are all writings, all texts, if not signs that there was a consciousness that produced them?), to say that fiction works and nonfiction works have in common that they are both ideas. Sure, nonfiction purports to be about the real world, but if the “real world” is itself an idea, a construct … and further, there are no facts in nature — there is no tree or rock on which facts are discovered. Facts are made by people, in the form of words, ideas, symbols, and these are what we are comparing nonfiction or fiction to.
But we have a notion of what the real world looks like. As my class has read The Iliad, I’ve become aware of how careful the story is to make most of the human-god interactions believably subjective, so that the story could be read in two different ways: as a fantasy-tale featuring personified gods who intervene directly in human activities, or as a realistic tale of human-only activities (and where the gods speak to only one person at a time, or in the guise of a human, so that the gods could be said to be the product of a particular person’s subjective experience).
That The Iliad can be approached in two ways, or as two distinct stories, seems very subtle, very wise, and it suggests that we can approach any text and decide whether it’s fiction or not based on what the text contains. I mean, if there is no truth “out there” — and where, exactly, would that be if there were? — but all ideas are products of human minds, then what exactly are we asking for in a distinction between fiction and nonfiction (or in any distinction, really — guilty/not guilty, here/there, up/down, etc.)
I’m not quite sure what I’m getting at, which to me is the beauty of the writing process — if I knew what I was saying, I wouldn’t need to say it. Sometimes I have ideas, and they seem cool, and I start to think I should write them up — but then I think that maybe they are just so much inert deflated ideas (as described above). But then I think, eh, what I write is just the byproduct of my mind’s ongoing function, and perhaps somebody else will have some of their own ideas provoked by something here.
One of the earlier discussions my class of sophomores had before we started The Iliad was about where the world began, where everything came from. I gave the case from science, that there was a Big Bang from which all matter and energy and life descend, and we also discussed the Bible’s Creation story in the first chapter of Genesis, in which God creates the world. But science can’t know what came before the Big Bang (because how could there ever be evidence before there could have been evidence?), and Judaism and Christianity can’t explain how God came to exist, and so both the religion and science accounts are just stories, are sets of ideas. Yes, the science account has more physical evidence to explain the physical realm, and religion can go beyond what has evidence, but both science, in its generalizations called facts and theories, and religion, in its formal structure of creeds and theology, have little to say to inform my personal, particular, subjective experiences.
After all, my mind contains ideas from many external sources, but whatever it is that gives rise to my mind, to my thoughts, my words, my experiences — whatever it is that is me feels like its beyond explanation, beyond theory, beyond labeling. I am complete in every moment, in every thought, continuously the same through the years I’ve been alive but I experience my consciousness discontinuously, leaping from crystallized thought to the next crystallized thought, each thought whole-born. I exist only and wholly now. And now. And now again. (And even talking about “now” or “the present moment” feels inadequately abstract.)
But in my thinking, I’m attracted to discovering the limits of ideas, the boundaries of what can be known. I’m not sure why this feels more important and interesting to me than other sorts of thinking. This, too, is part of the mystery of where ideas come from. (See here for related post.)
And now, I really am getting tired, and I’m feeling that in my attempt to distance myself from abstraction, I’ve gotten quite abstract. Ah, well. Such is a mind and its chatter. The ideas come and go but the thinking goes on. Living is more than merely figuring stuff out abstractly, of course. Living is also falling asleep in my comfy bed.
So this post may not satisfy — but writing it felt good.