(Copyright © 2009)

 

First drafts reveal a writer’s mind at work in real time. Subsequent edits lessen the integrity of that first record even if they might improve its orderliness. It is risky taking polished writing as evidence of a writer’s creative process. In Thoreau’s case, he frequently reworked his journal entries, and perhaps made changes suggested by others. So in trying to reconstruct his mental state from evidence provided by a paragraph in Walden, I am in danger of skidding on black ice. Upfront I am forced to admit that the Thoreauvian mind I point to may be a pure fiction, or at best a hybrid of my consciousness mixed with his.

 

For starters, I offer this single sentence from the section on shelter in the first chapter of Walden where Thoreau recounts gathering materials and preparing the site for his famous cabin in the woods: “The house is still but a sort of porch at the entrance of a burrow.” The reference to all houses—the very idea of a house—is the heart of the sentence. “A sort of porch at the entrance of a burrow” is the arrow Thoreau aims at that heart to show how he intends it to be experienced. But without any supporting context, it seems farfetched and anything but clear. Some might claim this to be metaphor, but if it is, it is failed or ersatz metaphor because it lacks the setting necessary to allow interpretation.

 

Language, like consciousness itself, is situational. Its use and meaning depend on the setting in which it occurs. Without a grasp of that setting, words seem to tumble from the sky into minds ill prepared to receive them in the spirit the writer intends. This one sentence is not a metaphor at all—it is gibberish—because it is stripped from any situation which might make it meaningful. To remedy that deficiency, I here provide the relevant paragraph within which it is set. After telling how he got the planks and nails for his cabin, he goes on to describe in concrete detail his digging of the cellar hole:

 

I dug my cellar in the side of a hill sloping to the south, where a woodchuck had formerly dug his burrow, down through sumach and blackberry roots, and the lowest stain of vegetation, six feet square by seven deep, to a fine sand where potatoes would not freeze in any winter. The sides were left shelving, and not stoned; but the sun having never shone on them, the sand still keeps its place. It was but two hours’ work. I took particular pleasure in this breaking of ground, for in almost all latitudes men dig into the earth for an equable temperature. Under the most splendid house in the city is still to be found the cellar where they store their roots as of old, and long after the superstructure has disappeared posterity remark its dent in the earth. The house is still but a sort of porch at the entrance of a burrow.

 

Here in a single paragraph are five of the chief ingredients of consciousness: motivation, perceptual details, feeling, conceptual meaning, and sense of order and progression (verging on the aesthetic). Motivation: need to store winter food in a year-round dwelling. Sensory details: side of hill, sloping south, woodchuck hole, sumach [we now do without the h] and blackberry roots, organic soil, size of hole, down to a layer of fine sand, shelving sides, dampness, two hours time. Feeling: pleasure in doing the job right, that is, in the traditional manner for the practical reason. Meaning: in hot climes or cold, in rural areas and cities, food preservation depends on root cellars with an equable temperature. Aesthetics: the recounting of the experience from details through feelings and understanding to grand consummation.

 

Only on that carefully laid foundation does Thoreau lay down the metaphor tying his experience together in one image: The house is still but a sort of porch at the entrance of a burrow. Without proper build-up, that sentence is merely a puzzle driving us to wonder what it means. Coming at the conclusion of the paragraph, we don’t have to wonder because we have been with Thoreau all the way as he shaped the image in his mind. It immediately explodes into our minds as a revelation or culmination on three fronts at once: his conscious experience of digging a root cellar, his writing about that experience, and our effort to share that experience through his writing.

 

The essence of creativity is to unite key dimensions of human consciousness into a coherent experience in which others can participate. When sensory patterns, feelings, and meanings combine, they can reach a critical mass that releases a burst of energy—not just in our brains—but throughout our bodies. Nerve signals and hormones confirm something of life importance has just occurred and is continuing to resonate here and now. Writing can convey that sense, as can music, art, dance, film, and other media of conscious excitation.

 

The paragraph quoted from Walden illustrates how aspects of consciousness can be brought to bear on one another in relationship to incite experiences larger and more meaningful than the sum of their parts. This is more than a matter of delight and entertainment. This is how we make sense of the world from our unique points of view. When the pieces fit, we feel we understand what is happening as participants in the event. Group energy and order are conveyed to us, and we reciprocate as best we can.

 

There is more to metaphor than meets ear or eye. It is an invitation to make meaning in new ways. This keeps the process of making meaning in sharp focus, where it cannot be taken for granted. As participants, we must do our part to keep the making of meaning in new ways alive in our experience. This alertness prevents meanings from becoming permanent fixtures of language—much as the dead are permanently dead, never to rise again. Dead languages fixed for all time kill the drive of their speakers to make meaning on their own.

 

If all has been said and written before, what’s the point of saying anything new or original? Of going beyond where we are now? Those who cling to past ways and expressions do not live in this world—the world of today. To claim that all wisdom is contained in the works of Plato or Aristotle, say, or the Qur’an, Torah, or Christian Testament is a denial of personal participation in the ongoing challenge of conscious life. When speech loses its novel, figurative quality, it ossifies into a literal form in which words are taken to mean exactly what they say and nothing more, as if the ancients had thought everything through for all time.

 

If that should happen to be true, how can anyone alive today hope to contribute to solving the problems yesterday has bequeathed to us? How can we direct our creative energies to undoing the mess people have made to now of living on planet Earth? No, if global warming, energy, poverty, healthcare, economics, and militarism are to be dealt with, it is up to those of us alive today to focus consciously and deliberately on the problems of today. In his time, Plato had his turn, followed by Aristotle, Jesus, Mohammed, Thoreau, and all the rest. Now it is Barack Obama’s turn to unify the diverse constituents of modern-day consciousness, and so confront them. Not for us, but with us all the way.

 

¦

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

(Copyright © 2008)

Is language at the heart of consciousness, or is more on the periphery, like my left big toe? There are those who claim language plays an essential role, but I have so many experiences that don’t involve language, I strongly disagree with them. Take these examples that followed in quick succession in my stream of consciousness on October 27, 2008:

 

Checking for damage after a major windstorm the day before, I walk by the ledgestone cabin my father built in the early 1940s. No trees or branches on the roof, that’s good. At least that is the content of my thought, even though it is not conveyed in so many words. It is latent language, proto-language, easily converted into language, but existing more as preverbal kernels or nuggets of awareness. Looking down, I see a row of green columbine leaves running along under the edge of the roof where they had naturally sown themselves over the years. “Columbine Cottage,” I think, as if I am trying to come up with a name for the place, which I’m not. Passing the cabin, I am abruptly overtaken by the scent of balsam fir. Just the smell, no thoughts of Christmas, or of the tree itself. I automatically look to my right and see fir branches covered with small beads of moisture. Images without words. Just then I hear the cry of an eagle from treetops ahead. No words, just the sound. Not even thoughts of treetops or eagles. But there is something else. A lilting undercurrent of feeling. I am glad there are no branches on the roof, it’s in bad enough shape as it is. I am pleased to see the columbine leaves, as if meeting an old friend. I am almost overcome by the scent of balsam fir, as I am every time those particular molecules waft up my nose. And I am lifted by the cry of the eagle, both excited and proud to hear from one of my nearest and dearest neighbors. “Columbine Cottage” is the only verbal phrase that forms in my mind (I don’t think I said it aloud). The rest is sight, smell, sound. Sensory consciousness, not verbal—with feeling. That’s a good part of my inner life. When I am in nature, nature is in me. No words need apply.

 

Lev Vygotsky, a Russian developmental psychologist, set out to demonstrate that language plays a crucial role in concept formation, but what his experiments actually show is that words can help in teaching specific concepts to naive subjects, not that they are essential to concept formation itself. (Thought and Language, originally published in Russian, 1934; reissued by MIT Press, 1962.) Words may supply the labels by which we retrieve concepts as categories of experience, but so may shapes, colors, patterns, textures, and so on. I don’t need language to recall columbine to mind, I need the shape of the leaves, the red and yellow blossoms, or a locale with scant soil but plenty of moisture.

 

I remember smells that have no name, such as the smell of Ryan’s Feed Store, where as a kid I climbed on dusty sacks of grain piled to the cobwebby rafters of the old warehouse in Hamilton, New York in the 1930s. I remember the scent of mixed grains, sacks seen by the dim light of a bare bulb, the danger and excitement of the climb, the feel of the sacks underfoot. None of it verbal or ever written down.

 

It was the smell of a dry piece of bread in Bethel, Maine, that brought Ryan’s to mind while I was helping clean up after an NTL workshop session in 1980. I was about to chuck the crust into the trash when I mindlessly raised it to my nose and sniffed—Shazam!, I was back under the rafters in Ryan’s Feed Store on Maple Avenue. I wasn’t remembering being there, I was actually there, transported by a scent I hadn’t smelled in forty years. There were no magic words; a few molecules settling on my olfactory membrane did the trick.

 

I am thinking here of episodic memories that retain particular details from my neural autobiography. Such one-time episodes are more sensory than conceptual, laid down by the force of strong feelings at the time, not distilled as concepts are from repetition of key features across different episodes. Episodic memories comprise a constellation of specific elements in relationship. They are situational in nature, bound by a feeling tone that marks their importance. Too, they are localized in both time and place. Think losing your virginity, moving to Seattle, the day Kennedy was shot, 9/11.

 

Concepts on the other hand are feeling-neutral memories which are generally unrestricted by time and place. They are derived from sensory experience, but have specific occasions stripped away, leaving only the essentials shared in common. Think dogs, flowers, fish, books, numbers. Concepts are categories of experience but not experience itself. What is concrete and sensory about conceptual memories is the name we give to each category. We can hear it, speak it, write it, read it again and again. We can even sculpt it ( LOVE ) or print it across a T-shirt ( ÿPEACE ).

 

The genius of language is its economy. You can use the same words in different combinations to apply to different occasions over and over again. Great Danes, Chihuahuas, and German shepherds are all “dogs.” So are mongrels, mutts, and mixed-breeds. This general utility is a great boon to categorical thinking. But when it comes to putting our specific life experience into words, enter the thingamajig, whachamacallit, thingamy, and widget, along with what’s-her-name, what’s-his-face, and you-know-who-I-mean, whoever. That is, the content of consciousness is often so specific that it taxes—and often defies—our ability to describe it in words.

 

The upshot is, we often substitute conceptual thinking for getting a specific point across through concise use of language. Think of the broad brush with which Sarah Palin smears Barack Obama, making it seem she knows what she is talking about when, in fact, she is wide of the mark. Joe the Plumber has become a nonperson who represents an attitude, not a living human being. He is a character in a make-believe drama, no more real than Mickey Mouse or The Wizard of Oz.

 

And think of the huge tasks facing President Obama/McCain in implementing the policies they have outlined in general terms as if giving specific details. Their stump speeches outline attitudes more than policies that can be effected through detailed programs. Yet we hear them and shout, “Right on!” because they have mouthed the words we so long to hear. In truth, we don’t know the answers to world and national problems any more than the candidates do. No one can read the future, yet we all pretend that we can. And language contains enough slop to fool us into thinking we know what we mean to say.

 

My advice is take the pronouncements of candidates and pundits with enough salt to dry the excess spit from their words. Talking heads are reading scripts scrolling on Teleprompters, not speaking from the depths of their experience. Or if not scripted, they are trying hard to appear wise, and hoping we overlook their personal agendas.

 

I threw my television set out twenty-two years ago because everything on it was staged to manipulate my personal consciousness to someone else’s advantage. The mass media are about mind control, not informing the public. Skepticism is the best defense, and open curiosity the surest path to the truth. Don’t believe everything you hear, not even if you say it yourself. Which is a hard rule for bloggers to follow, including me.

¦

 

(Copyright © 2008)

Like Job, Samuel Pepys, and Eleanor Roosevelt, Henry David Thoreau would have been a blogger in his day if he’d had access to the Web. As it is, he took pencil and paper with him on his excursions through fields and woods, so logging the progress of his experiences from 1837 to 1862. As in Walden, Thoreau is ever witness to two worlds at once, both to his sensory world and his charged mindfulness of that world. On November 21, 1850, a month from the winter solstice with the sun shining at a slant to the landscape, he wrote:

 

Some distant angle in the sun where a lofty and dense white pine wood, with mingled gray and green, meets a hill covered with shrub oaks, affects me singularly, reinspiring me with all the dreams of my youth. It is a place far away, yet actual and where we have been.

 

In the next sentence he replays the image, trying to get it right:

 

I saw the sun falling on a distant white pine wood whose gray moss-covered stems were visible amid the green, in an angle where this forest abutted on a hill covered with shrub oaks. It was like looking into dreamland. It is one of the avenues to my future.

 

Which opens onto the following comment:

 

Certain coincidences like this are accompanied by a certain flash as of hazy lightning, flooding all the world suddenly with a tremulous serene light which it is difficult to see long at a time.

 

Perhaps he has been nibbling on certain mushrooms, but whatever the reason, on this day Thoreau’s consciousness is flooded as by hazy lightning, requiring great effort to couple the concrete being of the scene with the meaning he has to offer it as derived from his prior experience. Yet he is deeply moved. In fact, in the very next paragraph being and meaning become wholly decoupled and Thoreau finds himself at a loss for ready understanding of his world. He is wholly unprepared to stand under it on the basis of who he is. Which is not a bad thing because it leads to a profound insight into his relationship with the world.

 

I saw Fair Haven Pond with its island, and meadow between the island and the shore, and a strip of perfectly still and smooth water in the lee of the island, and two hawks, fish hawks perhaps, sailing over it. I did not see how it could be when I cease to understand it and see that I did not realize or appreciate it before, but I get no further than this. How adapted these forms and colors to my eye! A meadow and an island! What are these things? Yet the hawks and the ducks keep so aloof! and Nature is so reserved! I am made to love the pond and the meadow, as the wind is made to ripple the water.

 

I am converting Thoreau’s journal entry into a blog because it so clearly reveals the structure of conscious experience in balancing (or synchronizing) concrete sensory input with abstract or conceptual meaning supplied by the observer because that is how we are made. That is the essence of consciousness as selected for over the millions of years it has taken to evolve into the form we employ today. Indeed, each of us is made (has evolved) to understand the world she lives in precisely in terms of the life experiences she has accrued to this day. That balance, then, is the basis for extending our individual streams of consciousness into unknown tomorrows.

 

Above all, we are made to do all this with a strong feeling of love (or perhaps fear, yearning, hurt, anger, curiosity, etc.) that sets the tone for this particular excursion. In consciousness, it all comes together—sensory phenomena, personal meanings, feelings, and a sense that the coherent unity of these different elements represents a fitness to who we are as representatives of our people (tribe, society, culture, species) in this way at this time in this place.

 

¦