Recently I have had a phrase dizzily scootering around my brain – the ‘aboutness of being’- which has recklessly abandoned itself for examination and there is neither rhyme nor reason why. Except this – the fact that I understand there is no earthly impetus for me to consider the abstraction of consciousness points to the question itself. I am not alone and I know I am not because I read words that reflect a similar preoccupation with not merely how we think, which in itself is fascinating, but why we think about the abstractions that occur to us. Why do we look for meaning and purpose? Is it merely a by product of a brain that is at its evolutionary point, wherever that is on a timeline which has some way yet to go? Or is the impulse to understand consciousness an act of creativity in and of itself? Is it necessary for a satisfying life? Or necessary only to some to fulfil their lives. We are not all the same, although we share common tendencies, so what I may demand from my consciousness is clearly different from what my spouse or my children demand from theirs. Not to mention the 7 other billion I share the planet with. Oh and that is only mentioning the human lives,because how do I know what conciousness looks, feels like to my dog?
So now you know what I think about after a cup of coffee has been introduced into the system, and to help me think about the ‘aboutness of being’ I am going to introduce one of my favourite novelists , ‘William Golding’, who investigates and describes in a far more articulate manner than I can. As a school girl I read ‘Lord of the Flies’ and found the story full of momentum and interest ; but it was much later that I discovered the relief of reading a master novelist at work. I say relief because it is the closest expression I can find; I was a young adult who was continually seeking the companionship of shared insight, shared experience and it was in his works that I could feel understanding, resonance and even validity. As members of a singular species we want to affirm our existence, and one of the ways we do that is recognising that the way we think and feel is not specific to ourselves. While we desire individuality and uniqueness we also desire companionship,
shared values, shared feelings. I had been married to a man for twelve years before I faced the truth that one critical facet of our relationship was missing- recognition. When I met my second husband it was a powerful sense of coming home,inexplicable and astonishing at the time, devastating and demanding levels of courage and understanding not just from the main players in the drama , but affecting everyone in our little world.
Recently I read an article by a scientist that questioned whether we needed to consider our ‘aboutness of being’, or another way to put it would be whether the practice of examining theory of mind was pertinent in modern era.
‘ ” As we learn more about the detailed mechanisms in the brain, the question of ‘What is consciousness?’ will fade away into irrelevancy and abstraction,” he said. ‘(Desimone , Article in The New Yorker.Oct 1 2014 Attention by Alan Lightman.
That isn’t how I see it, or how Golding saw it either ( nor Bryan Appleyard via whose feed I found said article).
I am in the process of re-reading a selection of essays Golding wrote decades ago called ‘A Moving Target’, which is divided into the two sections of “Places” and “Ideas”. It is the second section that I refer to here. In his essay Belief and Creativity he discusses the difficulty in discovering,retaining and using an authentic voice. In being identified as a successful novelist Golding fights the entrapment of the role of novelist.
“To some extent we are all victims of a similar fate, The teacher may create his own image for the purposes of discipline and find himself unable to creep out of it. In the end, he may consent and become the image entire, at last the parody of a schoolmaster, don, lecturer. The actor, the politician – since our global television suburb is not so much bookist as imagist – must think first of an action, ‘How will it affect my image?’ Watch the box and see it happen. Constrained by the necessities of his trade he will adjust either his action or his image so that another figure of fantasy mops and mows in the social space. That space, our divided but communal awareness, is so full of the image, the real unreality or unreal reality, it is a wonder men can breathe. Perhaps we cannot. Perhaps it is our fate as human beings that none of us knows what it is to draw a lungful of psychically unpolluted air, to look and to examine innocently the crowded impressions on every sense with which our individual selves cope, suffer and enjoy as the essence of being. “
How pertinent is that paragraph today, in the world of cyber space – a world that did not exist as Golding wrote these words.
“From Aristotle onwards – even from Hecataeus and Herodotus – the glum intellect of man has succeeded in constructing bolts and bars, fetters, locks and chains. …We have had great benefits from that same intellect but are having to pay for them. I say we have erected cages of iron bars; and ape-like I seize those bars and shake them with a helpless fury. . ..The simplistic popularization of their ideas ( Marx, Darwin, Freud) has thrust our world into a mental straitjacket from which we can only escape by the most anarchic violence. These men were reductionist, and I believe – peering from the middle between the bandages (of mummification) saying not what I ought to think but what I find my centre thinking honestly in spite of itself- I do indeed believe that at the bottom the violence of the last thirty years has been less a revolt against the exploitation of man by man, less a sexual frustration, certainly less a process of natural selection operating in human society, than
a revolt against reductionism, even when the revolutionary, or it may be the terrorist, does not know it. “
Golding explains his own development in attempting to shrug off the prism of explanation via a third party ( i.e. through the accepted ideologies of the day) and think for himself and writes the best put down of Marx I have encountered, succinct and humorous.
“I have no doubt that Marx said this somewhere. He seems to have said most things according to those who have examined his work closely; but the crude system extracted from the corpus of his work omitted this unpredictability. I could, by including it, account for the fact that Marxism always got the future wrong and excelled in predicting the past. The whole of its illustrations of human conduct was what the French have called l’esprit d’escalier, – an expression drawn from a common experience – the brilliant retort that occurs to us after an argument when we are going down the stairs. “
He describes the approach of the novelist as one that is trying to communicate via a world he can create himself restricted by the innate constraints of that form.
” I fumble. I practice a craft I do not understand and cannot describe….. The little, lighted awareness that we call a conscious person is indescribable and incommunicable yet needs neither description nor communication since we all know it and how it is. If we cannot agree on that it is impossible to agree on anything. We are it. It is our burden and pleasure. The awareness is not a point, a position without magnitude, but an area. Awareness, like belief is a matter of position in that area. …another dimension must be added to the area and I do not see how I can present you with a three dimensional surface. Yet the area is moving through the third dimension of time. .. You read as the novelist must write,one word at a time….we ought to be up to our eyes in mystery and astonishment, and we have only just begun. …it is possible to live astonished for a long time’ and it looks increasingly possible that you can die that way too. My epitaph must be ‘He wondered’….Let
us return. What man is, whatever man is under the eye of heaven, that I burn to know and that – I do not say this lightly – I would endure knowing. “
William Golding sheds some light for me on how to consider my own position , reminds me of the necessity to think, and to evaluate where my thoughts stem from to identify their validity. He is a glorious companion to share the perturbations and complexities of being human in a ‘naughty world’. I want to stay in wonder, to die curious.