Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Muddy boots

soaking off the dried mud
I always enjoy Arash’s essays.* They help bring the chaos of my own branching thoughts into a momentary focus; or in some cases provide a topic to brood on for days. His latest is on Happiness, a word I don’t spontaneously use, only in reference to other people’s usage. I feel that it needs to be illustrated in a context, and embodied in one’s own experience: “where do I stand in relationship to happiness or unhappiness?” Only then can I know what I mean. As to what other people mean, that’s a vast discordant noise, unknowable at first hand and too diverse to mention. I can only speak of that which I embody. Let me be honourable when I speak of honour, dignified when I speak of dignity: that’s what I mean by embodying. Only then will my meaning have a focus, and be clear.

As a mathematician may love the pure beauty of numbers, each one for its individual attributes, so let me give to each word that I use its deserved clarity, dignity and honour. They may come to me soiled and blunt, like weapons used too often in skirmishes lacking dignity and honour. Words like love, God, happiness. (Not to mention spirituality!) “Love for sale”; “God is on our side!”; “the greatest happiness of the greatest number”. Context, as ever, helps suggest the speaker’s meaning.

More than two thousand years ago, Plato fostered the notion that an abstract word embodies an idea, one which enjoys a real existence on a higher plane than this earthly imperfect one. So a philosopher may retrieve the soiled earthly term “love”, for example, rescue it from the debased usage of the market-place, and thereby do the world a service; showing that love can never be for sale, despite the harlot’s trade. Whenever word-meanings are discussed, I see the miasma of Plato’s ghost still confusing the issue. I always want to cut through the fog with Wittgenstein’s explanation that “the meaning of a word is its use in the language”; which is obvious when you look at a good dictionary. And whenever I use a word of my own volition, rather than refer to someone else’s usage, I want to be clear what I mean by it, and make sure my interlocutor is clear too. I’ll gladly speak about God, love, spirituality and happiness in their terms—never my own.

Now ever more than before, words take their turn in the market-place, in this great explosion of literacy opened up by the Web, especially this great expansion of public written self-expression, via text messages, Twitter, blogs, all the social media. Word meanings and spellings are determined by common language usage, the most perfect form of democracy we have. People use words for their purpose in hand. When you’ve a nail that wants hitting, anything that does the job becomes your hammer, and be damned to Plato. I was thinking about this whilst soaking my boats to get the weekend mud off. Avoiding our usual public footpath behind Bledlow Parish Church because it was too muddy, we improvised a different route which turned out, at one point, to be even muddier. And I thought, it’s not the function of walking boots to look brand-new. They’re there to protect your feet when you end up ankle-deep in mud. Just like words, they exist to serve us and not vice versa.

I remember a school exercise when I was probably 11. We had to write an essay on “Pleasure and Happiness”. As well as the usual aim of practising our written English, it was to make us think: specifically to think morally. I didn’t need telling that pleasure was to be considered an inferior thing, whereas happiness … well, what was it? As an eleven-year-old, I would have asked myself what I was expected to say, not what I actually thought. But anyhow, sixty years later, I have no difficulty in defining happiness. There are two sides to the coin. Firstly, happiness is everyone’s aspiration, without exception. It’s an algebraic x, standing for what everyone wants. Whatever you aspire to, that’s called happiness. X is a variable: it might stand for riches, power, recognition, requited love—or a hero’s death in the midst of battle. Then again, it might be an end to the pain, a release from jail, a reprieve from the death sentence. But secondly, there’s the actual thing: what I shall call embodied happiness is something different. It is the state of not wanting anything to be changed, in this moment now. Here is my purely personal conception, my own value for the variable x, my sole aspiration: to be seduced by the moment. As to how this can take place for others, I don’t take a moral, a judgemental view, of the kind “That (action or condition) is merely pleasure: happiness is something higher, more spiritual.” Ugh! That would be an unclean saying, as if one chose oneself as a mouthpiece for God. Let each man or woman judge in their own case what is happiness. I’ve seen drunks in the street looking very happy. That’s their business. The law’s job is to limit any nuisance and destructiveness of drunkenness. The moralist’s job is to moralise, and I won’t take on that job unless I plainly have to.

The most reliable way I know to be seduced by the moment is to step outside for no other aim than aimless wayfaring. It starts when I sniff the air. If this blog has a unifying theme, if it has an actual purpose, it’s to celebrate the moment and remind myself; and then—by some sympathetic magic—the reader too, if possible. But clearly, the recipe which works for me is not offered as a prescription for anyone else.

It’s seldom possible to capture the moment in words actually fashioned within the moment. It doesn’t work that way, though I take a voice recorder just in case. The moment commands you, demands your attention to the exclusion of thought; but then it might whisper to you, too, in words. The real writing has to take place whilst the memory of the moment is still vivid; even if it occurred, as sometimes in my reminiscences, in the mid-twentieth-century. Failing that, the act of writing must ignite itself, in the moment, and burst aflame into light and warmth.

So what shall we say to Plato, to whom all good things are reflections of something in Heaven? I confess I’m fond of telling him, “You’re wrong!” It gives me pleasure, and I cannot see it being bad for the health. These good words like God, Love and Happiness must be embodied to have a meaning. Embodied means that they live in me. Christian doctrine is well aware of this. Doubting Thomas had to feel the wounds of the resurrected Jesus. God came to earth in embodied form, but what use is that to us two thousand years later, unless it’s personal? We may long for the Second Coming. We may attend Mass, to ingest his body and blood through the transubstantiated wafer and wine. We want living saints, we want hard evidence in the form of our own experience. We want the Kingdom of Heaven in some tangible form, not a make-believe.

Unless it is embodied in me, I don’t understand anything. Not understanding is a better place to be than make-believe. Is there such a thing as God? Happiness? Enlightenment? Satori? I only know what I know.

Meanwhile, it’s a muddy world, the lotus has its roots in the mud, the mud gets on the boots and never mind Plato, that’s Heaven enough for me.
* Arash’s blog, referred to above: See his post on happiness from a Buddhist perspective.


Bryan M. White said...

"I didn’t need telling that happiness was to be considered an inferior thing, whereas happiness … well, what was it?"

I have a feeling that you meant to say "I didn’t need telling that pleasure...", and merely made a typo.

Sorry to be one of the nitpickers who are always interrupting the seduction of the moment ;D

Bryan M. White said...

I really do like your post here, especially the formulation of happiness as "X" Seems to me that happiness and love are first and foremost feelings, ones that vary with the temperament, personality, and needs of the person, and yet there are always those who are constantly trying to wrangle them into Plato's realm of fixed and universal concepts: "This thing called love", "True love", "True happiness", ect.

Vincent said...

ooh will correct typo and send your proof-reader's fee.

Bryan M. White said...


And I was going to add, that's why I like your formulation. Because it gives "happiness" a definition, which it deserves as a word, but it makes it a variable, which it deserves as a feeling.

ellie said...

I looked for this post for a good while using the left side of my brain. Finally I got my right brain to take over and I hit on it. The part I find apropos is going beyond whatever your most recent revelation is. The point about infinity is that there is no end.


There is No Natural Religion, (E 3)
"He who sees the Infinite in all things sees
God. He who sees the Ratio only sees himself only."

We only know what we know, but someday we will know as we are known.

ashok said...

Dear Vincent, for sure you are an accomplished artist of words working with on a keyboard as an artist might with paints on a canvas.

Vincent said...

I’m blessed to have such forgiving and percipient readers. Thank you Bryan, for being quick to find something that makes sense. Thank you Ashok, for comparing the piece to an artist’s canvas. I can imagine you seeing all kinds of shapes in it, which make sense individually but jar one another in the ensemble, like much modern art.

Vincent said...

And Ellie, thanks for all your trouble to come up with this. I confess to have written so obscurely that only a dedicated Blake scholar could have spent so much time on it, and used that time profitably to detect the immanent flaw, nail it in words, and prescribe the appropriate remedy. The post you’ve linked to is most illuminating!

I knew something was wrong with what I’ve written above. It didn’t quite hold together. [continued in next comment]

Vincent said...

[continued from previous comment]

Let me quote verbatim from my notebook:
“PS Re ‘Muddy Boots’, as published: I suspect that the position I have sketched out above would be effortlessly refuted by anyone familiar with the opening gambit of Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, as glossed by Rudolf Otto in his treatise, The Idea of the Holy” [continued in next comment]

Kant: “That all our Knowledge begins with experience there can be no doubt. For how is it possible that the faculty of cognition should be awakened into exercise other than by means of objects which affect our senses? … But although all our knowledge begins with experience, it by no means follows that all arises out of experience.”

Otto then comments as follows: “And, referring to empirical knowledge, he distinguishes that part which we receive through impressions and that which our own faculty of cognition supplies from itself, sense-impressions giving merely the occasion. The numinous is of the latter kind. It issues from the deepest foundation of cognitive apprehension that the soul possesses, and though it of course comes into being in and amid the the sensory data and empirical material of the natural world and cannot anticipate or dispense with those, yet it does not arise out of them, but only by their means….to begin—at first with a naïve immediacy of reaction—to be interfused and interwoven with the present world of sensuous experience.”
[continued in next comment]

Vincent said...

Which is what I would have liked to be able to say. But I would have liked to say it in poetic terms as you have, Ellie, in your post Lark/Angel:

“Blake always asks us to go at least one step farther. If we reach the point where we can see the Lark as the messenger of Los, he wants us to see the Angelic presence in the Lark. And to see that the Lark is a delusion as is everything in our mind created world. He would that we may see as ‘the flash of lightning.’”

Vincent said...

I’ll also confess that I’ve had to delete a sentence which would confuse anyone, including its own author: “That in itself is not happiness, not by any definition.” This followed “… when I sniff the air” and preceded “If this blog has a unifying theme …”

Finally, I’ve had to correct the sentence “Unless it is can be embodied in me, I can’t understand anything.” So much for trying to do epistemology on the fly! I might have kept it simpler and said “I have to feel it, to talk about it.”

But I was trying to be true to the moment, letting the left-brain attempt to write whatever antics the right-brain seemed to be up to.

Vincent said...

As for left and right sides of brain, Ellie, I don’t know which sides I use for what, being left-handed. About which Wikipedia has this:

“Although 95% of right-handed people have left-hemisphere dominance for language, 18.8% of left-handed people have right-hemisphere dominance for language function. Additionally, 19.8% of the left-handed have bilateral language functions.[5] Even within various language functions (e.g., semantics, syntax, prosody), degree (and even hemisphere) of dominance may differ.”

Vincent said...

And by the way, Bryan. When I said I would "send your proof-reader's fee", that too was a typo.

I hope you haven't been checking the mail and wondering. I meant to say "spend".

Bryan M. White said...

That's alright. I wasn't holding my breath.

Bryan M. White said...

Hey, and I'm glad you addressed the whole "right brain" thing. As a fellow left-hander, I've also heard a number of conflicting things about our brain configurations.

Some say the functions are switched for left-handers (language on the right hemisphere; spacial on the left). Some say the functions are the same, but that left-handers favor the right hemisphere. Some say that that language and spatial are blended across both hemisphere's in a generalized way for left-handers, as though nature had just made a disorganized mess of our mental faculties, tossing it all into the same drawer. And, as you may recall from a post I wrote, some say that left-handers are actually right-handers compensating for damage to the left hemisphere.

I'm not sure what to make of all that, but if I draw on my own personal experience, I'd have to say that I feel like I'm working out of a very messy drawer, but that that keeps it interesting and I wouldn't have it any other way.

Bryan M. White said...

And Ellie's comment also touched on another issue regarding this right brain business.

It seems to me that in popular culture the right brain is often more highly regarded than the left, for its mysteries and enigmas, for its creativities and passions. It's often considered the seat of a deeper wisdom than the left. This may be true in some ways, but I think that sometimes there's a tendency to overstate the case. I'm not saying that Ellie is guilty of such a tendency - I don't know here - I'm just saying that the tendency is out there. In fact, it often goes hand and hand with the derogatory attitude that people tend to take with reason (and I believe we've discussed once or twice.)

To sort out this business of right and left brain, to give credit where credit is due and figure out who's job is what, I think of it like this: It's like you've had two relationships with everyone you've ever met. On the one hand, you've heard their every word, parsing it for meaning and logic. If they say they like chicken, you categorize them as person who likes chicken. If they say something sensible and intelligent, you regard them as sensible and intelligent. If they say dumb, you subtract it from their ledger.

But then, on the other hand, there there's this other relationship where you've picked up on every tone of voice, where the words are just meaningless sounds like the growls or contented mews of an animal and you've picked only on the moods they convey, where you've watched every facial expression in silence like the still frames of a movie, every little nuances of the eyes.

And sometimes there's a deception. Sometimes these two relationships don't gel. There's a lie in there somewhere, and it could be on either side. So when it comes down to figuring it out, getting down to the bottom of things, it isn't necessarily about one side of the brain being superior to the other; it's about the two of them working together, comparing notes.

Of course, I can see why there are people who champion the right brain. Too often we listen to the side that goes, "Bob likes chicken. He said so.", and we ignore the silent movie frames of Bob's disgusted face when we mentioned chicken. But I think we should be careful not to overcompensate and think that right brain holds all the cards and has all the answers. Right brain or left, I think we're still pretty bewildered by just about everything.

Bryan M. White said...

I meant to say "I don't know her" Sorry, Ellie!

Vincent said...

Personally I don't like the terms left-brain & right-brain. I consider them as pseudo-scientific metaphors, like saying you have acting in your DNA, instead of the more venerable "in your blood".

I find it simpler to say rational and non-rational, assuming this is what we really mean to say; or verbal and non-verbal as in your example of the conflicting signals. His words say one thing but his facial expression says another.

Setting aside popular culture, if that is possible, and looking deeper to perennial values, if we accept they exist, we may or may not perceive a more precious role of the non-rational: to glimpse the divine, or as Rudolf Otto puts it, the numinous. The title of his book, as I referred to it above, is "The Idea of the Holy: an inquiry into the non-rational factor in the idea of the divine and its relation to the rational."

Vincent said...

... And when he says the idea of the divine or the holy, he doesn't just mean the idle thought of it, so to speak, but the idea provoked by a feeling provoked by experience.

Or the sense of the angelic presence in the lark.

ellie said...

When the right/left side of the brain theory appeared on the scene it immediately gained a foothold because people in general realize that they are capable of thinking in these contrasting ways. In my preferred parlance the idea hooked into an archetype with which we were familiar. We attached whatever meaning was useful in the concept to our own mental processing. In the statement I made yesterday, I attached sense-based reason to the left side and intuition or imagination to the right. I had exhausted my strategies for searching logically and systematically, and called on the less conscious, more holistic processing to take over.

Do you remember all the issues which were explored with 'Data' in the old Stat Trek series? He pretty much epitomized the functioning on a brain with only a single reasoned method of processing. Fortunately, unlike Data, we can open a gate that allows us access to a new world of delight in whatever form suits us.

Bryan M. White said...

Scientific accuracy aside, I like the left-brain/right-brain dichotomy as a rhetorical shorthand, as simple concepts that condense a lot of complex ideas in a forms that, as Ellie points out, are easily recognized by most people. It has a certain cache' that the other distinctions you suggested lack.

Besides, I don't know that I would say that the left-brain/right-brain idea is completely unfounded. They have done studies involving epileptics who have had their corpus callosum removed, and they seem to indicate that there's at least something to it. So I don't get the justification in dismissing it entirely as a "pseudo-science."

It only bothers me, like I said, when people start to get New Agey about, when they start to carry on like the right brain is some kind of all-purpose reservoir of deeper enlightment. It's merely the other half of how we apprehend the world. It too can be fooled just like the left brain in my "Bob likes chicken" example. How often have we been beguiled by a warm and inviting expression and lulled into forgetting the awful ideas a person might be expression? Whole relationships have been built on such things.

Vincent said...

Never mind, I just have an obstinate & snobbish antipathy to this neologism.

The OED, oddly, records right brain, right-brained etc, in this specialized meaning, as first used in 1975. Left brain is not acknowledged at all.

To me, it's just a vague slang of popular culture. The brain surely works in a much more complicated way than this, and has more than two contrasting ways to operate.

Bryan M. White said...

The brain surely works in a much more complicated way than this...

Well I definitely agree with you there.

Vincent said...

Ellie, I confess I have never watched Star Trek.

Arashmania said...

Thank you for your wonderful post and the reconfiguration of happiness, Vincent! I feel proud to have elicited or been, at least partly, part / responsible of / for this.

Words are our trade and although they can be sold rather cheaply on the (cyber) market I hope to think that I somewhat embody what I mean even when I do not mean what I mean to say.

I like your reference to Plato who will most likely be my next victim, not so much related to language and ideas but to the abstract world of mathematics.

As to happiness, let us agree that happiness simply is.

CIngram said...

The left-brained/right-brained idea is far too simplistic to properly describe the compartmentalization of the brain, but the human brain is separated into specialized part to a degree not remotely approached even in the higher primates. Our brains really are quite different from those even of our closest relatives. It is possible to observe which bits of the brain become active when responding to different kinds of stimuli, and the results are fascinating (if you like that kind of thing).

But for all the marvellous probing done by men in white coats, I doubt that happiness will be found in the brain. It is more like to be a pair of muddy boots.

Vincent said...

Yes, I've noted before on this blog (see this post)that our boots also have their call on our attention, their sphere of influence. Perhaps part of our brain is contained within them, or there's a region of our skull dedicated to their interests.

Paula in her latest post (see her "House of Toast" link below, or click here seems to acknowledge the realm of boot-consciousness, or at any rate it interacts with meadow-consciousness).

Vincent said...

Thanks, Arash, I look forward to your piece on Plato, especially if he is to be your victim. Don't pull the punches! And let us agree, period (whenever we don't disagree).

Vincent said...

It occurs to me that though it's probably true that my objection to left-brain/right-brain dichotomy is snobbish and pig-headed (has anyone studied lateralization of brain function in pigs?) there is a rational basis to my prejudice.

It's an error for us laymen to apply the findings of neurology to our subjective psychological observations. There are indeed psycho-neurologists, whose work spans both sciences. I would recommend Antonio Damasio, two of whose books have been written about on this site here: Descartes’ Error and The Feeling of What Happens. The connections between brain function and human experience are pretty complicated.

Scientists have their own agenda. We can each be philosophers of our own experience, without needing much reference to their latest ideas.

ellie said...

Do you want us to disassociate science and psychology?

Vincent said...

Not at all. Psychology is of course one of the sciences, but a different one from neurology. Phrenology was once considered a science. Head-bumps were assumed to be indicators of personality, and mapped accordingly. That has long been discredited, but I was pointing out that the link between neurology and psychology does require further sciences, one of which is psychoneurology. But even there, I must not pretend to know more than I do.

Yet another category, not a science in this case, is journalism specialising in the popularisation of science. As I layman, I'm at the extreme end of the information chain, and know little.

Davoh said...

Self wonders whether "happiness" = "contentment".

Vincent said...

Davoh, I had the exact same thought whilst writing the piece. For some of us, the equation is true, for others it is the opposite. And so I included “a hero’s death in the midst of battle” in my list of possible values of x where x is a harbinger of happiness. Ulysses could have stayed at home in contentment with Penelope, but he had to go a-seafaring.

Vincent said...

Returning to the topic of science, let’s remember that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.

We're at the cusp of a revolution, in which religious priesthoods everywhere are being exposed and overthrown. Where they still exist they are identifiable as the cause of various ills in the world.

Some scientists are in the vanguard of those ready to take their place as a new secular priesthood, presenting their specialist truths as Truth, Beauty and “all ye need to know”.

A function of priesthood is to educate the lay flock in orthodoxy whilst refuting heresy.

Personally, I have too great a respect for science to be satisfied with garbled versions trickling down from on high, sometimes having tenuous connection with the original source.

At one end you have metaphors running wild, till quantum physics slides into quantum mysticism; the one giving false respectability to something entirely different.

At the other we have clichés such as “It’s not rocket science”, where it clearly doesn’t matter whether there is such a thing as rocket science, nor does the speaker require knowledge of it to make this judgment in a particular case.

Why do I make so much fuss about casual uses of language, when others consider them no big deal? Only because I’m a mother-hen defensive for my chicks and unhatched eggs.

This is still a "perpetual-lab" (as embedded within the web address of these Wayfarer’s Notes). The laboratory is consciousness. It’s a science of observation and it challenges entrenched ideas with the weapon of direct experience.

Davoh said...

Um, yer, perhaps. Methinks the writer of "Ulysses" was an elder - reminiscing.

Would i fight again? Depends. My focus these days has shrunk to my own survival.

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