Friday February 20, 2009
Last night I was down at Keele University, giving a talk on consciousness in Don DeLillo’s book The Body Artist. It is one of those strange books that is hard to pin down. You might call it a ghost story, but there’s not exactly a ghost. And, having said that, it’s not exactly a story either. But it does do something rather interesting, something that not many books do, and that is that it pays careful attention to the minutiae of the everyday equivocations and slippages of the mind. Here’s a wonderful example, which gives a sense of the strangeness of the book:
You stand at the table shuffling papers and then you drop something. Only you don’t know it. It takes a second or two before you know it and even then you know it only as a formless distortion of the teeming space around your body. But once you know you’ve dropped something, you hear it hit the floor, belatedly. The sound makes its way through an immense web of distances (pg. 89).
I love this close attention, and it seems to say something about what experience is actually like: the way that somehow the knowledge that you’ve dropped something, after the event, causes you to then hear the sound of the dropped thing, but only belatedly. This is the kind of thing that becomes apparent when sitting in meditation: the thought comes to you that there is a crow calling outside, and then you notice that you have been hearing it for as long as you have been sitting down, only you hadn’t known that you were hearing it. Or take this second passage, in which a bird flies past the window:
She thought she saw a bird. Out of the corner of her eye she saw something rise past the window, eerie and bird-like but maybe not a bird. She looked and it was a bird, its flight line perfectly vertical, its streaked brown body horizontal, wings calmly stroking, a sparrow, not wind-hovering but generating lift and then instantly gone.
She saw it mostly in retrospect because she didn’t know what she was seeing at first and had to re-create the ghostly moment, write it like a line in a piece of fiction, and maybe it wasn’t a sparrow at all but a smaller bird, gray and not brown and spotted and not streaked but now as small as a hummingbird, and how would she ever know for sure unless it happened again, and even then, she thought, and even then again. (pg. 91)
One of the fascinations of meditation is that it allows precisely these kind of perplexities to rise to the surface. The stories that we tell about experience are often suspiciously straightforward; but when you give the stories a rest and start to simply let experience arise, and if you subject this to a kind of quizzical attention, suddenly things don’t seem quite so straightforward and the stories that we weave seem to be rather less well-founded than we had thought.
One of the reasons that the stories we tell about our conscious experience do not support careful scrutiny may be that consciousness, as Tor Nørretranders writes, has a rather narrow bandwidth, whilst the bandwidth of the brain as a whole is rather wide. Or, to put it another way, consciousness is like the elderly relative who insists on remaining on dial-up, and who takes an hour to download the holiday snaps that you send them, whilst everyone else is on broadband. As a result, consciousness seems to be perpetually be playing a game of catch-up. Unfortunately, this out-of-touch relative is also the one penning the family chronicle, so to speak, busily writing down what is happening, recreating those ghostly (as far as consciousness is concerned) moments like lines of fiction, blithely unaware that he or she is weaving together spurious tales with only the flimsiest of information to go on.
But here, I think, I have to depart from DeLillo’s book, because – as with a lot of the Western philosophical tradition – for DeLillo this idea of the subsiding of the self and the stories of the self, this loss of the great narrative of the self, seems to be approached with a kind of fearful foreboding. But is it such a terrible thing? After all, when we slip the bonds of the grand narrative, we may find that everything else still goes on before, that the body and mind persist, continuing to do their job, and that all we have lost is our attachment to a myth. Might it not be liberating? Here I cannot help thinking of Dōgen: ‘Unless the cold pierces through our bones once, how can we have the apricot blossoms perfuming the whole world?’
To be trapped by one’s own myth, when all is said and done, may be a pretty grim fate.
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