Vol 1 - Chap 5

 

 

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- The Marble Game -
By Geoffrey Wallace Brown, Ph.D.

  • Chapter 5

1.

Good morning.  The frost has come.  Hunting season has begun in Montana.

Jean-Paul Sartre had an intriguing idea about things like hunting and love, to make a distinction.  He thought of killing as an effort by consciousness to possess something essentially unlike itself.

If you think of consciousness as sort of alone in the world that it did not create, then it tries to do things--possess things by doing them--to give itself meaning.  You possess a mountain you ski down.  You possess a woman's virginity if you are the first one.  But if you really want to possess the being or the freedom of something else--you kill it.  You watch its eyes glaze over with death.  Then you cut it open and take out the part you don't want and leave it behind.  Then you drag it through the woods and carry it home on your car.  Then you cut it up into pieces and store it in a freezer.  Then you break it out on a special occasion and you eat it: you chew it, wash it down with wine, and quietly belch your pleasure over it as you feel it stuff and nourish your own body.

By far the most meaningful part of my high school career was going out hunting.  I was taught how to hunt elk by a family, part Indian, who lived off the meat they got by filling their elk tags every year.  This was not sport to them: they had to fill those tags and took real chances to do it.

They were good; they knew the woods better than anyone I had ever known.  I was willing to sacrifice much of my treasured high school night life to be with them at 3:30 in the morning when we left.  My buddy, the member of the family who invited me to tag along, was always a lesson to me in being strong and true: I marveled at his nonverbal integrity.  He learned it by example.  He was the fisherman of the crowd.  They said he could go out when everybody else was getting skunked and catch good fish with a can of poop and bent nails.  That was the lore anyway.

We did most of our hunting in a place called French Basin, a winter range for a lot of elk.

I heard shots one day and whistled over to see who had got up what.  My buddy's dad was standing there peeling an apple; they had rousted out a bull and two cows.  The bull elk had gone up and the cows had gone across.  And he was standing there peeling an apple.

I don't know what you have experienced that is comparable to buck fever; it's a little bit like a first date just before the door is about to open.  Any trace of calm in ones demeanor is strictly forced.

I remember the first chance I had at some shooting with these people.  They had left me perched on a ridge to survey the surrounding countryside for critters that might get spooked up to me, while they went on up the mountain.  Suddenly there was an elk trotting along right toward me on a trail right there in front of God and everybody.  I had an old leftover army Springfield 30-'06 with open sights and that baby was no less than five hundred yards away out in the open.

I forgot how to work my gun.  Finally I figured out that the safety had to come off before it would shoot.

Ka-boooom.  The god damn thing echoed all over the mountain while I tried to get some leverage on that elk.  Ka-boooom.  Ka-boooom.  I was shooting 220 grain bullets, the biggest shell they make for an '06, and it was like lobbing artillery.

The elk didn't exactly know what was coming off, so he obligingly kept on trotting along while I got a bead on the right elevation.  Then I ran out of shells.  And had to reload.

By this time the group had come back down to find the herd I had run into and they were all yelling at me.

Then I nailed him.  I couldn't believe it.  He actually fell over.  I wanted to make so certain that that elk wasn't going to get away that I remained just sitting there, not that I could get up anyway, with my gun trained on the fallen animal.  He wasn't going to wiggle.  I couldn't believe it; it was actually happening; there he was.  My Elk.

My buddies came hauling down the mountain still yelling at me and I started down the ridge over to my elk on the ridge across.  A long trip.

When I got up to my critter, ringing with sweat and thoroughly red-faced and exhausted, they were standing there looking at me.

"You shot a deer," they said quietly and sternly.  And so I had.  I had shot a mule deer, which in the heat of it all I would have sworn was an elk.

We spent the rest of the day hauling it out, and it turned out to have been infected with something or other, sufficiently bad that the game department gave me another deer tag.

I was a sorry hunter.  These guys didn't even go after deer.  Well, I had just come up to my buddy's dad there at French Basin; he was peeling an apple and radiating calm.  I still had not gotten an elk.

I asked which way they had gone.  He motioned up the hill.  I started walking.

Quietly.  Oh God ever so quietly.  In this business sin was identical with making noise.  You couldn't even wear jeans because they made too much noise.  Only loose wool pants.

The elk was going up the hill by way of the bottom of a ravine.  I chose to go up the ridge line paralleling it.  Somehow I knew what I was doing this time, and I knew it.

Quietly and with authority I edged up the hill on the top of the ridge line, where the sun had melted off the crunchy snow, and there was infinitely quiet duff, made of old and rotting pine needles and twigs.

I arrived at a road that crossed both the top and the bottom of the ridge as they converged going to the top.  I figured I was ahead of him and could wait.

I was right.

I could hear him coming up out of the bottom.  It was incredible.  He must have been a giant by the noise he made.  He kept making noise and making noise as he approached me.  I didn't know what to do.

He came walking right out of the bottom onto the road and just stood there, one hundred feet away from me, and just looked at me.

I couldn't believe it.  I knelt down.

He looked at me with an air of finality in his face.  I knew I should try for his head but I was shaking so much I could only aim at his body, which was sideways to me.

I blasted the son-of-a-bitch.

I shot him right through the chest cavity, and he responded by sitting down.  That's right: he sat down, right on his rump, and looked at me with the most astonished expression on his face, as though he were surprised but barely hurt.

I stood up and started blasting.

I hit him in the neck, and that set him back.  He fell over backwards and rolled down the hill a ways.  Then he propped himself up on just his forelegs and continued to stare at me.

I walked up to the edge of the road, to where I was about fifty feet from him.  I pointed my '06 right between his eyes and pulled the trigger.

His horns collapsed and broke inward toward his face.




2.

I think it might be good if we took some time now and began to explore the phenomenon of consciousness.  How is it possible that we can recall in such detail the stories of yesteryear?  What is it that has remained the same through time such that such recollection is possible?  What is identity through time?

In particular I would like us to look at the relationship between what we call "matter" and what we call "human consciousness," and this I would like to view from within the point of view of the third dimension.

Actually we do not live in one world at all; we live in at least five worlds.  We have the world of sight, the visual world, the world of sound, the worlds of taste, touch, and smell.  Each of these worlds is a world unto itself; yet we call them the "same" world.  Why?

Think of how radically diverse they actually are.  The world of sound is really nothing like the world of sight.  They are fantastically different kinds of entities.  Yet we correlate them and call them "parts" of the same world.  Why?

The world of touch is completely different from the worlds of either sound or sight.  And the worlds of smell and taste are wildly different from that of touch, and so on.  Yet we persist in calling them different ways of looking at the same world.  Why?

Suppose that each of these worlds is a function of consciousness.  Suppose the world of taste is created by my consciousness of it.  Do you think food really does taste good without me or you there to make it taste good?  Do you think that the atoms and the electrons smell a certain way without me or you there to make them smell that way?  In a perfectly analogous way suppose the same is true for sight, sound, and touch.  Suppose, in other words, that when a tree falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear it, it really doesn't make a "sound."

Suppose, more generally, that everything in my world quite literally is a function or a product of my consciousness, not that it is "out there," and I come along and perceive it in a certain way, but that it really is the way it is because of certain things that are true of my state of consciousness.

What holds the world together into one thing?  Not you and I, but thought does.  What holds you together?  If you will pardon my apparent offensiveness I would like to suggest that it is certainly not you.

When you wake up in the morning and roll over, what is the last thing that would occur to you to say?  How about, "Oh oh, it's not me." Can you imagine yourself denying that it's you again when you wake up in the morning?  No matter how bad the night before, no matter how much you wish it weren't true, the last thing in the world you are going to let go of is the belief that it is you again, irrespective of anything kindly old Dr.  Brown is going to tell you in your philosophy class.

Why?  What is it that we are so certain of when we make that assertion to ourselves, "It's me again?" What do those little words 'me' or 'I' refer to that we are so certain is there?  Don't misunderstand me: something is there that they do refer to.  It's just that we can't see it when we are locked into the third dimension.  If you take a physical object, say, a book, a desk, or a body, how does it remain the same through time?  It changes.  It is bound to change.  Eventually everything about the object changes, everything.  What remains the same about it such that we know or can tell or have reason to believe it is the same object?

Take your own body.  What about it has remained the same over time?  From the time you were a little baby, until now, until you get planted what is there about your body that remains the same such that you are sure that it is your body all along?

If we have a problem for physical objects in this realm of questioning think of the problem we have with minds.  At least with bodies we have two physical objects to compare at two different times that sort of resemble each other.  With minds we don't even have things that we can see to compare.

What is there about your inward mental state that has remained the same?  Your thoughts, feelings, desires, motives, and beliefs all go through radical changes as you emerge into life at birth and pass out of it at death.  What the hell remains the same?  Name one thing, one scraggly little mental thing that remains the same during that whole period of time.

Then what does the pronoun 'you' refer to?

Time is a fascinating thing to witness.  What is time, really, to us.  It certainly is not minutes; minutes are long or short depending on what we are doing or thinking.  Minutes are just our way of chopping up felt time, to help us get along in it, like inches, feet, and meters are measurements of perceived space, to help us get along in it.

Real time for us is the past, present, and future, and it is the continuous specious chunk of present time that we always seem to be stuck in.  Time for you is what you have been, what you are today, and what you are hurtling toward in the future.  Time is also for you this moment, which lasts, maybe, around three seconds, and which you cannot get out of, which becomes most acutely apparent to you in the dentist's chair.  Except for when you know you are going to get forced out of it, or torn away from it, like when you know you are going to be forced to leave somebody you love and there is no way out of it.

The present moment is the real time we all live in and what we all seek to get out of with the devices of drugs, distraction, and sleep when its reality becomes uncomfortably painfully.

Notice that felt time or real time for us, (unless you think that the rest of the universe is locked into what we call time), is very much the direct product of what we call choice.  So far from behaviorism or determinism holding at this level of thought, freedom is the painfully demonstrable essence of human life.  The way time strikes you or you experience time and the flow of events, is the direct result of your project, as the existentialists call it.  The project you chose to have been doing today, this moment, is directly responsible for the way you perceive time at this moment.

Let me explain.  Your decision to be sitting there following these ideas as presented is a decision, not only as a person doing this here and now, but perhaps more importantly to you, as a person, not doing all the hundred thousand other things you might be doing this moment.  You chose to be sitting there: no thing and no one can make you do what you are doing.

Your circumstance may make it uncomfortable for you to do anything but what you are doing, and you may feel "forced" to do the things you do.  But if you examine them honestly you will find that they are one and all the result of choices.

Even your choice to stay alive is a project of sorts.

Now your circumstance always comes at you in terms of the project or projects you have chosen.  Getting through this course is an obstacle for you only so long as you choose to remain a member of this class.  Everything changes as soon as you change that decision.  Similarly, all the little and great decisions you have made in your life are directly or indirectly responsible for your circumstance today, and, consequently, for the way you experience time today.  If you enjoy it or hate it, suffer in it rejoice in it, find it going by too fast or too slowly--all of this is of your own choosing.

You are directly responsible for the life you are living; nothing else can be because nothing else has the ontological capability of making choices for you.

One of our favorite games in life is to try to deny all this until it is too late.  That is a marvelous marble game.  Life is compelling me to do this or that; I am the victim of circumstance not the master of it.

In three-dimensional terms time is a very elusive entity.  In fact it is a complete self-contradiction when understood in its own terms.  What is basic to the grasping of time is this central little fact: the past does not exist.  It doesn't.  It can't by the very way we understand it.  The past is what is gone, no longer exists.  The present is all that does exist; that which is past did exist but no longer does.

The past, therefore, cannot affect the present or the future, unless you want to claim that something that does not and cannot conceivably have any existence is having an effect on what does have existence.

Consequently, we cannot "blame" the past for what we are today.  Our present views of events that no longer take place is what shapes us today; and we are 100% in control of that.  We make ourselves what we are today.  We cannot say that the past has shaped us into the person we are today; that is a hypnotic dream that we welcome in our doors to excuse ourselves.  Rather, instead of a "shaping" metaphor, think of an "unfolding" metaphor, where the events of this day and this life unfolded the way they did because I responded to my circumstance the way I did.  And as I responded I defined myself as a person with the history I had in my life.

We want so deeply to say that we are the victims of life, but how you respond makes all the difference to what really happens.  Think of all the varied reactions one can have, and all the dramatic plays that have been built upon the death sentence from the doctor.

If the past does not exist neither does the future.  The future, by definition, is that which does not yet exist.  It surely will come into being, as a rule, but when it does it no longer is the future but the present.  For where human thought exists the future simply does not exist as a present ontological reality.  Anybody who says it does is lying, probably to himself.

Yet, in a way perfectly analogous to the past, we continue to define ourselves in terms of it.  We like to dwell in where we are going and what we are going to do and have just like we like to dwell on the past, formerly the future, and dwell there in what it has done to us.  If we live in the future we are defining ourselves in terms of what does not exist, and our lives are accordingly empty and our sense of time based upon imagination.

All that exists is the present.  That is where the "I" that is me exists and will be found.  We all know that we should live in the present, that when things are together in our thought that is where we do live.  Why do we stray?  Because there are countless folks playing countless marble games in both the past and the future who want us to play.  This, taken with the fact that it is very god damned hard to learn how to play in the present.  There is a lot of pressure that seems to make it hard to handle, and makes drugs, distraction, and the various forms of sleep very attractive.

The existentialists are right if we view things three-dimensionally.  There exists no past.  There exists no future.  There is an "I" that I am sure is something, but every time I look everything has changed and it appears as nothing.  The world seems to be "mine," yet is something I experience as alien and "against" me and my purposes.  I impose a lot of categories on the world which sort of create things that aren't really there, like minutes, and feet, and meters.  This is how I make sanity out of an otherwise terrifying, indifferent, massive machine called the universe, out of which I am the seemingly hapless product.  Except that I can always roll over tomorrow morning and say it's me again....for as long as that lasts.

Fortunately, the third-dimensional view of life is an apparition us to work our way out of.  You will be happy to know that none of these things is what is really going on, and that these views are there merely as the result of misdirected views of things, results which naturally urge us to look for what is really going on.




3.

I would like to pursue our discussion of consciousness.  I would like to focus our attention on our relationships with other people, or what Sartre calls being-for-others, and discuss consciousness as it occurs in this context.  Please remember that this entire analysis is occurring within the framework of the third dimension.  It is a normal intellectual appraisal of consciousness greeting the world it has constructed for itself, now in the form of how we greet the people we know and love.  All of what I am about to say is true, precisely because of the tacit reluctance, or fear, on the part of human thought to move from the third dimension to the fourth.

Striptease, nude dancing, and pornography all capitalize on what Sartre brilliantly characterizes as the "gaze."

Consciousness finds itself alone in a world, not of its own choosing, yet somehow something it is responsible for, something it appropriates for its own thought and uses, for some project of its own devising.  People naturally lend themselves to consciousness as things to be used; and, similarly, we lend ourselves to the consciousness of other people as things to be used.  The world is a marketplace and we are all on the counter to be bought and sold.  That is in fact the nature of the institutional system we call "work."

Except that people are not objects.  They really aren't.

People are their consciousness.  A person is his consciousness, quite apart from how others view him or he allows others to view him.  The essence of a person is his subjectivity, his own private unpenetrable inner subjectivity, quite apart from any mask he is wearing on the surface.  This inner privacy is also freedom, the place where the ideas flow and the decisions are made.  This place of interiority of consciousness is where people live, when they are not paying attention to their mask, or the role they are playing in public.

Now a person knows he is not an object even when he is pretending to be one.  The checker at the checkstand in the grocery store, the stripper in front of her audience, the President in front of the TV cameras, the teacher in front of his students, the students in front of their teacher, each has a role to play that he knows is essentially not him.  Each is a person; the role is just something he wears for a while.  But each, in his own way, is tempted to be the role he is playing.  And to make others pretend to be the role they are playing.

Why?  Because we can't know any person's private subjectivity, not at this level of thought; we can only know him through the role he is playing.  And we seek to identify him with the role he is playing.  But the role a person plays is an object; it is a kind of thing, something that we construct for him to play, with rules and values and motions that enable us to identify him as, say, a checker, a stripper, a President, etc.  But he is not that role: he is the private subjectivity behind the role.  And that we cannot possess no matter what we try to do.

And we try everything we can think of.

To possess another person is to possess his freedom.  This is the essence of love and marriage.  I voluntarily give you my freedom; and you voluntarily give me yours.  Here.  Sign on the dotted line as a proof of our commitment.  Right?  Wrong.  As soon as you sign on the dotted line you have made the first genuine statement that you do not have confidence that your love relationship is strong enough to survive on its own.  Hence the need to make a contract out of it.

But, once you begin to nail somebody's feet to the floor with legalities they simultaneously begin to look around for ways out.  Why?  Because you are making an effort to legally control the one thing they can never give you: their freedom.

As soon as you begin to try to possess the freedom of another human being the game is on and all the rules are off.  You begin to destroy the incredibly precious thing you seek to possess.  The love relationship immediately begins to transform itself into an expectation and obligation relationship.

The entire world presents itself to us as a sort of otherness, as a single thing composed of people, events, and objects that our consciousness constantly faces, combats, and tries to relate to.  There is a "gap," as Sartre puts it, between our thought and the world it thinks about.  The movie that best portrays this idea, for me was The PawnbrokerAt very acute points there seems to be a world of difference between what is happening "in here" and what is going on "out there."

The gap between me and the events around me is something I am always trying to bridge.  Consciousness can be a very lonely place to live, so we try to fill it up with things, things to do, people to see, jobs to perform.  In fact, there are a great many people who think that that is the whole banana, that this is indeed what life is all about: filling up that gap.

The problem is that the gap between me and what I am conscious of, between thought and what it seeks to possess, is unbridgeable at this level of thought.  The nature of consciousness and what consciousness is conscious of are so opposite in terms of what they are made of that no bridging is possible.  Thought is so unlike a thing, a physical object, that it cannot possibly possess it.  How can something like consciousness possess something like a physical object?  It can't.  No matter how hard it tries and no matter what it does the world of things and the world of thought are unbridgeably gulfed.

My thought is utterly interior to me; the world is something utterly exterior to it.  I can try to own things; I can try to possess people by mesmerizing them into loving me; I can try to claim a little chunk of the world by ruling it; I can try to possess a social order by violating it, injuring it, or refusing to obey its rules; or I can try to own something by the simple honest offering of my freedom for it: none of these strategies in human life can possibly work for the simple reason that human consciousness is not the sort of phenomenon that can possess anything.

Even by killing it.

The guys in the tavern may think they possess the gal on the stage who is taking her clothes off for them.  But who is possessing who in that relationship?  Who has who hooked into their hypnotic dream?

I liked the place in Los Angeles best, where the girls went around to the fellows by the stage with the bushel baskets full of flashlights.  The girl on the stage was doing a number of tricks with no clothes on at all.  Not a bad scene if you're young enough.

This is an extreme example of something we all do all the time to each other.  We turn each other into objects by our "gaze." You turn me into a teacher with your look, and the expectations that go with it.  I turn you into students with my return gaze and its expectations.  We consequently turn our relationship into something false, because you are not essentially a student nor am I essentially a teacher.  Yet we turn each other into what we are not and pretend to be comfortable with the mutual deceit.


4.

Let us turn our attention, now, in our discussion of three dimensional consciousness, to some of the really seamier stuff going on in human life.  Sadism, death, and disease are some of the happiest homes for our fantasy to dwell.

When I was a kid we went to pirate movies.  No pirate movie was complete unless it had a flogging scene, preferably several.  A flogging scene is when they take some poor bastard, spread-eagle him, and proceed to cut his back to pieces with a cat-o'-nine tails until he faints.  This while the whole ship's crew watches and they play the drums.  They call it "witnessing punishment." We all like to do that, "witness punishment," don't we?

What is going on here?  Why the hypnotic intrigue with watching one of our fellows, sometimes ourselves, go through the punishment of being mercilessly tortured in front of our eyes?  And above all, why the pleasure in it?  Or has this question never crossed your mind?

I thought The Wild Bunch was a landmark movie.  Not because of the shotguns cutting down naked women, or the slow motion, but because of the scene at the beginning with the kids while they were showing the credits.

These little kids were playing a game.  They had a scorpion and some ants trapped inside a bunch of twigs, watching them fight to the death.  The mixture of interest and glee was what came across.  They finally got bored with the game, and in a way perfectly typical of kids and such games of chance, they concluded it by lighting the twigs on fire and watching as it cooked the trapped victims inside.

What goes on in the minds, even of little kids, to make this sort of thing entertaining and enjoyable?

I want you to understand that this is strictly an academic question and your instructor has never experienced this directly himself.  He has only heard about it in sociology textbooks and movie reviews.

Actually, I have had a long and abysmal acquaintance with such matters, as my little brother will be the first to acknowledge.  I'm sure he can still remember when I used to hang him by his feet from the mulberry tree in our front yard.  Or, being two years older than he, when we would play "war" with me on top.  Or when our tomcat learned how to fly.

I got my first '22 when I was twelve, and within a very short time I learned what a hollow point would do to a ground squirrel.  The 30-'06 I mentioned to you before?  That turned into a seven millimeter magnum, with a nine power variable scope.  A gun that would knock over a horse at 500 yards.  I finally had to get rid of it because the recoil made me flinch so badly that I couldn't hit anything.

Sartre has the most telling account of what is happening here in consciousness.  These ideas come across most purely philosophically in his books, Existential Psychoanalysis, and Being and NothingnessUnfortunately, these books are for the most part incoherent for the language he uses.

Sadism is directly related to our desire to possess things.  We tend to view in our mind's eye the things we experience as things to possess.  At its worst this kind of mentality is something that looks upon the things in its life as its banquet--there for him to devour.

But it is ever so much more subtle than that kind of beast.

The best way to own something is to devour it, but there are countless ways of doing this.  One of the best is to watch everybody squirm on your behalf.

There are countless ways of making and watching this happen.

People who seek to run the rules of the game you are caught up in very often are motivated by the desire to possess or manipulate the freedom of people who will be affected.  Folks like this have the double protection of saying that it isn't them, they didn't make the rules; it is the system.  And then sitting back and watching the helpless victims of these rules writhe.  The more they writhe the more they are possessed by the guy in charge of the rules.  Until he is satisfied; then the rules don't have to be enforced that way anymore.  He is satisfied when the people in front of him have demonstrated themselves to be objects which answer to the mercy of his whim.

The victims of torture have an interesting way of turning the agent of torture into an object as well.  All they have to do is look at him and go through the mechanical motions and suffering exactly as he directs, and they will have exposed the hypnotic lust for power that the agent has been sucked into for what it is.  The agent doesn't want to see this and will stop the game before it gets too far.

Kids try to do this all the time with their parents.

Again, what we seek to possess most of all is the freedom and being of other people.  Voluntarily if possible.  Involuntarily if not.

The trouble with most efforts to possess is that they end up turning the possessee into an object, which is not the way we want to possess him.  We want his freedom, a subjective thing, and this he cannot give us if he wanted to.

The intriguing thing about death and torture is how they seem to limit a person into such a thing that we can grasp it.  They limit in a very visible and dramatic way the possibilities available to the person being spread-eagled.  We kind of "own" the guy we are watching it happen to.  It's a kind of rape simply by viewing.

Seeing is a kind of possessing.  Ask a peeping tom.  Would he rather catch somebody taking off their clothes on a stage or in their own bedroom thinking they were alone?

Nakedness and shame are at having been caught.  Once they take that mental photo they have you.  But as an object.  They think they have you, but you know they don't, and it annoys you that they think that they do.

The refusal to buckle in torture is the refusal to give in and be, (or pretend to be), the plaything of your torturer.

People very often dream these games up when they themselves are caught up in some other game where they are on the wrong end of the stick.  Being on the wrong end reminds you of how fragile your little strand of consciousness and life really are, and you seek to re-inflate your sense of being by watching it demonstrably proven superior over someone else.

Torture is basically being trapped, and having somebody manipulate you while you are hanging there--whatever the specific circumstances.  The basic feeling is actually one of embarrassment, which quickly leads to anger, and then back to embarrassment, because there is no place for the anger to go.

The notion of death, or the way we experience the notion of death, is a derivation of the way we experience torture.

Death is the final resting place of all our possibilities.

Whatever it was that we were going to turn out to have been, however we were going to have chosen to use the heartbeats we got, the process of flowing through the current possibilities ends there: and we dangle on it.


5.

There are a million ways to talk about death.  I prefer to approach it from the standpoint of when we all first meet it--in childhood, before we have a chance to start doing things with it.

The quality of death that most strikes me when we first encounter it, and thereafter too, is its mercilessness.  It normally hits us at about puberty, if we have been spared something traumatic before that.

I have repressed my own first encounter with the fear of death too successfully to trust my recollection of it.  But I vividly recall when it hit my little brother.

I think he was in about the sixth or seventh grade.  It wasn't what he said; it was how he faced my mother, just like a little kid who had been unmercifully and unjustly sentenced to die.  Pleading with her, crying, "Mom, please, please, I don't want to die.  I'm afraid to die."

What could she say?  How do you tell a kid who has just seen that his life is going to end in blackness that everything is going to be okay?  How do you reach out to the terror you see on your child's face?  How do you reach out to the helplessness you see in your brother's face?

We would hear him at night wake up screaming in fear.

I was known to sneak downstairs and crawl in bed next to my mother, for fear of the same kind of thing.  That was a long sneak down some very creaky stairs.  I was a pretty big baby by the time I hit puberty, and it was hard to crawl in bed next to her without being noticed.  She was kind not to make me feel too embarrassed.

I had a philosophy professor in graduate school who liked to tell the story about when his son asked him about death.  They were in a cabin in the woods.  His father simply leaned over and blew out the candle.  Then he asked, "Where did the light go?" And the little kid took off for the bedroom screaming.  He couldn't figure out what made the kid run off.  There wasn't anything to be afraid of.

While I was growing up I had the pleasure of watching my uncle get multiple sclerosis.  It took him ten years to die.  My aunt, a thoroughly devoted wife and deeply religious woman, cared for his every need until the end.  She picked up rheumatoid arthritis in the process, and eventually died several years later of this crippling disease as a reward for her labors.  Toward the end, she kept getting gangrene in the extremity of her leg from the cortisone.  Every few months they would amputate a bit more.  Until they ran out of leg.

Through it all she was a beacon of good will, strength, and laughter to share.  She hadn't much money to share, but she had enough to help me buy a motorcycle when I was a sophomore in college.

That was when I really began to marvel at the cruelty of disease.

Sartre has a nice image he associates with death: he calls it "the wall." How would you like to know the exact day you are going to die?  What happens in thought when we find out we are going to die?  When we get the sentence that we are going to be lined up against the wall and shot?

It transforms our possibilities, our sense of freedom.  We are no longer the free and vital thing composed of all those projects and possibilities that our life is engaged in filling up.  We are dead from the moment of the sentence on....frozen in midpursuit.  Suddenly it's over and the blackness is here.  It makes it very hard to relate to the living.

On the other hand, there is another way of approaching this problem that has, I think, equal plausibility to human consciousness.  How would you like to be stuck in this life forever?  You can't get out.  You are trapped in this thing called "human life;" you can't die no matter what you try to do.  Looked at from this point of view, death is not only merciful, it is downright relief and freedom.

Most people resolve the problem by not thinking about it, until they are forced to.  It's too damn hard; there isn't any point; and the best minds in human history haven't been able to resolve it.  So, what the hell.....We only go around once in life, we might as well do it with gusto......  etc.

But my brother and my aunt are still screaming in the night.  And so have I.  But fortunately I had a mother to comfort me.  But what about all those poor bastards who don't?  Let 'em scream.  Pound in the nails.

I still think the number one best way to kill somebody is to crucify them, literally.  It's so perfectly impersonal.  You can't pull your hands out of the nails: it hurts too much.  It isn't like somebody is doing it to you--the nails are doing it.  Nothing is really causing you to die, except the unrelenting pain, no matter what you try to do.

People who get crucified actually suffocate to death, in case you didn't know that.  The problem is that if you just hang there you slump down, stretch your arm muscles in a way so that you can't breathe.  The only way you can get to breathe again is if you push and pull (simultaneously) so that your chest is lifted up and your diaphragm can work.  The trouble here is that as you push against the nails going through your feet it is too painful and you have to let yourself down to relieve that pressure.

What happens in puberty when all this business starts to dawn on us and, instead of being fascinated by death, killing, and torture, we become afraid, afraid of our own death?  The existentialists and the Freudians on this question are correct: we begin to see our father's (and our mother's) face as it really is.  Up to a certain point in childhood we are justified or condemned by the look on our parent's face.  They are God to us.  They have the power; they hold the values; they have the keys to comfort, happiness, and security.  They, in fact, fashion the very environmental reality within which we operate and think about the world.  It is absolute; and we are justified or condemned in our actions and our being with respect to their gaze.

What happens in thought when this breaks down?  What happens when, at some point in childhood, we begin to see our parents for the mortal critters they really are?  When that door is cracked, and that darkness let in, where does it stop?  What independent source of verification do we then have to check and see whether they are right on anything, once we have seen their fallibility on some things?  It begins to occur to us, whether consciously or not, that here is a pretty shaky place to find justification or absolute direction for one's existence, and then we begin to seek our own fortune, and usually end up appreciating how much they really knew that they couldn't express at the time.

Where do we turn when, one way or another, our parents' mortality is demonstrated to us in terms that jolt us as being particularly meaningful?

God?  What independent verification do we have that he is around to help us?  Particularly since he tolerates such unspeakable injustice and mindless suffering to occur in his universe.  Besides, even if we took the God route, who has the straight dope on what that game is, since everybody who claims to have it contradicts everybody else?

No.  Our gut reaction to all this crap is to secretly begin to outline a way in life that will protect us from the terrors that are here, that will enable us to look back on it with some pride, and will afford us the most pleasure for the dollar spent.  The most effective way of dealing with the seaminess of death and disease is to avoid thinking about it, and when it comes, take it as gracefully as we can.

This approach, universally shared on the part of human consciousness, is precisely the way we crucify ourselves in the third dimension.


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