Mon 2 Apr 2007
(E.M. Forster, Howard’s End, Ch. 22)
Rene Descartes recognized that the new method of the Scientific revolution implied that we perceive the world only through the conduit of our senses. Once we saw more clearly how our senses worked it became impossible to think any longer that the qualities brought to us via the senses were essentially connected in any way to the real properties of the objects that produced them. The senses were no longer a window that opened out onto the world, but a veil of ideas that secluded us within our own mind. When we add to this the perceived necessity, for reconciling science and religion, of separating the mind and its properties radically from those of the body, we are left with a picture of the human soul as an island of subjectivity in an otherwise objective world. The problems that this view presents to the Modern imagination are well stated by Sophomore philosophy major Brad Landry:
I want to believe we are all connected. I want to believe in some sort of an Emersonian/Gandhian over-soul and I think the idea of such a thing makes sense. However, it appears to me (recently more than ever) that this interconnectedness might only be a connection on a very grand scale and that our everyday relationships are much more existential.
I truly wonder if I can have a connection with any other human being. I observe myself as living my life in the driver seat of a car. I wake up, start driving through my day, maybe bump into a few other cars but never really leave the driver’s seat of my car and never see anyone leave the driver’s seat of theirs. I am in my own little world, most if not all of the time. I am moving through life, experiencing it all, solely from my first person viewpoint. I wonder if anyone could know me and what it’s like to be in my driver’s seat? Could I do the same for other people? Recently it seems like that is impossible. I am not making any connections, and it’s not because I’m not trying.
There are a few objections to the idea of not connecting with anyone: I feel as if my only connection (knowing and being known) with another person is my mother. But does that disprove the entire thing? Maybe the connection we have is solely biological and the majority of people I meet will not be biologically related to me the way my mother is. And does she know all of me? I don’t think so.
I remember the objections about contagious emotion and the microphone feedback, but aren’t those just trivial connections? Maybe I can connect with some emotions, but what about truly knowing or understanding another person? Who really understands me? That seems much more important. Music, art, and literature have surely played an integral part in my development and I have related to what many artists have created and said. But is that knowing them and are they knowing me through that? I think not. I might be existentially creating my relation to those works of art and applying my own situation. (We might all be doing that with art, never understanding its true meaning.)
So, I am confronted with the existential dilemma. I feel the “facticity” of my situation. I experience the anxiety and despair at realizing no other human and I can connect. I am unsure if killing my personal subjective view (the driver’s seat) would help the problem. This quote from Sartre’s “Sincerity” kind of leads me to believe so: “Total, constant sincerity as a constant effort to adhere to oneself is by nature a constant effort to dissociate oneself from oneself . . .”
I think it is true that, even if the Romanticist are right that we are connected in some fundamental way to Nature and to other persons, most of our awareness of the world and of persons is mediated by the senses. Even awash in the Ocean of Being, we can feel like islands of subjectivity most of the time. Nevertheless, the connectedness that we have with the world and ourselves apart from our senses is at the heart of who we are and the meaning we feel in things. The problem is that conscious beings of the sort that we are exist only through and by limiting their awareness of the connections that bind them to things.
Consider your ride in the car. Certainly in the sealed, climate controlled cocoon of your car with the stereo blaring you can feel isolated and alone, cut off from the world. Forget for a second that they are merely a veil of ideas and consider what your senses are telling you; The rumble of the road and the subtle shifts in forces extend your senses to feel the curve of the road and the friction of the tires as they grip it. The sun shines in, fracturing off the road, the trees, the windows in multi-faceted shards of blinding brilliance, the warmth from a slowly exploding star radiating against your face, convection currents swirling around your skin. The sound of the wind rushing by overwhelms even the radio and reminds you that you are hurtling through space and that where you once were, you no longer are. The hamburger in your stomach, half digested remnant of a former resident of fields just like the ones flying by, shifts and gurgles as you round a turn. Every sensation, every inkling, every tickle screams to you “You are not alone!”
If you were to follow any one of these sensations and allow yourself to become immersed in it, you would be overwhelmed. Your mind on the road, the music in your head, the slow philosophical ruminations flowing through your mind save you. Whatever the qualities of our experience may be, secondary sensations or not, they are not us. They have a life of their own. They speak to us of other worlds, and the delight we take in them is the feeling of losing ourselves in the connections they promise. The mind incapable of cutting itself off from the flow of feelings that assaults us from things would cease to be a mind, would be insane. (Think of Septimus in Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway.) The world is so delicious, so enticing, that to give ourselves over to our connections to it would be our doom. This, of course, is true of our physical being. (We will be connected to Nature soon enough in that most intimate of embraces in which a thing becomes part of another, just as the cow in our hamburger is slowly becoming us.) It is no less true of our psychic being. Conscious creatures, such as us, become conscious of our own flow of feelings, apart from the flow that assaults us from things, only by carefully controlling and filtering the content of our consciousness.
We are merely creatures. Every bit of our physical and mental being speaks of our connectedness to other things. (Look at your stomach. There in your navel is your connection to your mother calling to you.) We are born as separate things, as creatures, only by cutting ourselves off from this connectedness. Yet the very heart of what we are and what we care about lies in the remnants of these connections, and like the creatures in Plato’s Symposium, we yearn to be whole once more.
Can anyone step into our driver’s seat and know us as we are? Can another creature become a salve for the wounds that brought us into being as creatures? Would feeling another’s yearning for wholeness satisfy ours? Just as we can exist as separate little drops of consciousness only by cutting ourselves off from the Ocean of Being, so we come to define ourselves socially by what we reveal and hide of ourselves to others. This is not to minimize the barriers placed upon our relationships by the forms and limitations of our consciousness, by death and selfishness, but the barriers to human connection are not primarily metaphysical. Just as when we looked around the car we found a consciousness of connections, each of which would sweep us away if we let them; so in every face we pass by, behind every set of eyes we ignore, there lies the possibility of an intimacy that would upset the carefully constructed social self in which we seal ourselves. Most of our social interactions with other humans are more carefully controlled and sealed than the climate controlled environments of our automobiles. To really look into the eyes of another human being, uninterrupted, with no agenda, for 30 seconds is more intimacy than most of us can handle. (Listen to Father Tacelli’s account of how we hide and Why God Hides.)
Creatures who can come into existence only by limiting their awareness of the connectedness by which they exist, by a form of consciousness that necessarily lies about what it is, can reveal themselves to other such creatures only by hiding from each other the degree of their confabulation. Our intimacy is limited more by our courage than by the separateness of our streams of consciousness. How far we can share another’s feelings and point of view is another topic, but the degree of intimacy offered by mere glances, words, and touch is more than most of us can handle.
Should we be unhappy about our situation? Is the rational response to alienation anxiety? Should we aim at dissolving our status as creatures and losing this duplicitous construction we call a self? If this would be heaven, then, with Ivan Karamazov, I most respectfully return my ticket. The momentary tenuous equilibrium that brings us into existence as an alienated, yearning pocket of consciousness in the eternal connectedness of Being is as wonderful as it is brief and unstable. Each instant in which we dangle on that razor’s edge between sealing ourselves safely within our own consciousness and losing ourselves within the whole is worth an eternity of total connectedness. It is the only condition under which the connectedness of all things, in the deliciousness of yearning itself, can come to know itself. Only connect! Detachment flees connection. Anxiety feels both the loss of connection and the loss of one’s self within connection as fear. We should feel fortunate that we are creatures of the sort we are: We get as much connection as we can handle.