(Copyright © 2010)

Memory dwells in the past; perception dotes on the here and now; what do we call that portion of consciousness devoted to the future? Expectancy? Anticipation? Planning? Hope? Dread? Worry? Anxiety? Fear? Confidence? Waiting? Probability? Prediction? Prophecy? Fate? Whatever we call it, this cursory list suggests the human mind’s preoccupation with unknowable yet inevitable times ahead.

When you play a video on YouTube, a little slider on the bottom shows where you are on the timescale of that particular microworld. Think what it would be like to have a similar slider showing your position relative to your lifespan. Birth is well behind you; death is approaching. Whoee! Now’s the time to get moving—or drunk.

Fortunately, with life expectancies now seen as a matter of statistical probability, no such little slider exists for any one individual. Which doesn’t get us off the hook. Rather, it puts us in the murky realm of probabilities, where we could be here today, gone tomorrow—or the day after, or ten years from now. The uncertainty of it all is why consciousness spends so much of the brain’s resources trying to get a grasp on the future in so many different ways.

Matthew Arnold paints life as one’s journey on the river of Time, which rises in a snowy mountainous pass as a clear-flowing stream, and draws to the Ocean, ending with:

As the pale waste widens around him,

As the banks fade dimmer away,

As the stars come out, and the night-wind

Brings up the stream

Murmurs and scents of the infinite sea.

Here’s how Emily Dickinson puts it in less flowing, more telegraphic terms:

The Future – never spoke –

Nor will He – like the Dumb –

Reveal by sign – a syllable –

Of His Profound To Come –

But when the News be ripe –

Presents it – in the Act –

Forestalling Preparation –

Escape – or Substitute –

Indifferent to Him –

The Dower – as the Doom –

His Office – but to execute

Fate’s – Telegram – to Him –

Peter Mark Roget was no poet. He remained stodgily prosaic to the end. His goal was reasoned and literal clarity, not some ineffable tone or mood. Under heading 124 Futurity: prospective time, he included these adjectives and adjectival phrases:

Adj. future, not in the present, to be, to come; about to be, coming, nearing  289n. approaching; nigh, near in time, close at hand  200adj. near; due, destined, fated, threatening, imminent, overhanging 155adj. impending; in the future, ahead, yet to come, waiting, millennial  154adj. eventual; prospective, designate, earmarked  605adj. chosen; promised, looked for  507adj. expected,  471adj. probable; predicted, predictable, foreseeable, sure  473adj. certain; ready to, rising, getting on for; potential, on, maturing, ripening  469adj. possible; later, ulterior, posterior  120adj. subsequent.

My point being that conscious largely looks ahead to how the current situation might develop in order to figure out what to do next, and then next after that—that is, how to make the self happen in the world in a manner appropriate to the situation as it might evolve or lead to a different situation altogether. All informed by what we’ve done in the past, our current state of being, and the goals we’ve set for the future. Think of the long-term projects we commit ourselves to. Going to school. Getting a job. Getting married. Having a baby. Developing a career. Building a house. Taking a trip or vacation. Writing a book. Going on a diet. Giving up smoking, drugs, or alcohol. Going to prison. Cutting credit-card debt. Learning tai chi, Spanish, to play tennis or the guitar. The mission of consciousness is to enable us to do these things—to learn to be ourselves as we imagine ourselves being in the future on the basis of what we know now. And then to revise the plan as we move through uncharted regions ahead.

What part of consciousness is devoted to the future? I’d say the whole thing, including memory, including perception. As everyone knows, the future is in our heads, always has been, always will be. Right up there with gods, demons, fears, desires, Mr. Right, Dream Girl, the Na’vi, and Jaba the Hutt.

I write this post to my blog because for three years now I’ve been waiting for a mature spruce tree on the shore of Thompson Island Picnic Area in Acadia National Park to blow down and die. That’s where the idea of a death watch comes from. I knew in 2006 it was going to happen; I didn’t know when. So I’ve been watching that tree, looking to see if it’s still standing every time I drive across Thompson Island in leaving Mount Desert Island where I live. I’ve taken pictures of it from time to time to see if I can catch it listing to port more than it did the last time I looked. After every big storm I’d make a point of checking that tree, which I’m using as a crude gauge to sea-level rise in Hancock County, Maine. When that tree falls, it’s another milestone passed as the sea encroaches on my personal turf.

Over the years, I’ve devoted a fair portion of my mental concentration to that particular tree. I’ve made a project of watching it head into its death. We had a strong wind on the night of February 25, the wind gusting from the northeast at 45 or 50 miles an hour. On the morning of February 26, I looked through my usual gap in the trees for that spruce on the shore—and it wasn’t there. The gate to the picnic area was locked, so I pulled over, took my camera, and walked in. I came back in another storm during daylight on March 1 at high tide—which is when I figured the great tree had fallen at either dusk on February 25th or dawn on the 26th. Here are a few of the photos my consciousness directed me to take showing the final days of that spruce.

(Note: The most dramatic way to illustrate sea-level rise is to take photos of crashing waves at high tide during a storm at full or new moon. The rusty metal rings along the shore are fire rings for barbecuing hot dogs and hamburgers.)

Death Watch 1-3-2007

Death Watch 5-12-2008

Death Watch 1-12-2009

Death Watch 2-26-2010_A

Death Watch 3-1-2010_B

Death Watch 3-1-2010_C

 

 

 

 

 

Death Watch 3-1-2010_D

Death Watch 3-1-2010_A

Death Watch 3-1-2010_E

 

 

 

 

 

Death Watch 3-1-2010_B

Death Watch 3-12-2010

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(Copyright © 2010)

The upshot of consciousness is a course of action appropriate to various life situations as characterized by one individual or another. Put more briefly, the point of consciousness is effective interaction with the world. Which makes it possible to track the workings of consciousness by following the trace it leaves in the works we strew across the landscape of our lives. Dante’s Divine Comedy presents one such landscape. The plays of Shakespeare portray another. The consciousness of Pablo Picasso is clearly evident in his collected paintings, drawings, sculptures, and studies. In the musical idioms of their times, Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven have annotated their respective streams of consciousness in forms we can still respond to today. Frank Lloyd Wright lives on in his buildings: to visit the Guggenheim Museum in New York is to enter his mind.

I am not speaking in fanciful metaphors here. Just as deer can be tracked by following their prints in the snow, the pellets and stains they deposit, the branches they chew off, the hollows they leave when they sleep—so can the structure and workings of the human mind be pursued by paying close attention to the spoor it leaves in interacting with its world. There for all to see are the doings of consciousness. Whatever form they take, here are traces generated by the human brain as both enabler  and substrate of extended, conscious behavior.

Personal libraries speak volumes of the minds that have collected—and actually read—them. My thirteen bookcases hold a record of my engagement with Hancock County, Maine, since 1986. Photographs, maps, notes, books, magazines—collectively, they tell what I have concerned myself with for the past twenty-four years. If they were put in chronological order (rather than the hodgepodge they are now), there would be a diary of my consciousness. Somewhere in my travels I picked up a copy of Thesaurus of Book Digests: Digests of the World’s Permanent Writings from the Ancient Classics to Current Literature, edited by Hiram Haydn & Edmund Fuller (Crown Publishers, 1949). I have dipped into it only once or twice, but this will be the first time I have put it to use by quoting the following paragraph excerpted from the entry under “WALDEN (1854), by Henry David Thoreau”:

This is the spiritual autobiography of a rebel wearied by the machine age, but too much of a practical Yankee to escape into the fog of mysticism. Thoreau gave up his trade of pencil maker and set up house at Walden Pond, outside Concord, Massachusetts. He hoped to prove to the world that the tyranny of many things is necessary, that man can live with very little and find contentment. At Walden the author lived in elegant simplicity. He was wonderfully able with his hands—an excellent carpenter, mason, surveyor and mechanic. For two years he stayed at his hermitage. His book is a record (in the form of eighteen essays) of his life, his painstaking observations of nature, and his reflections about the world’s troubles.

What strikes me about that capsule description is how little it captures the style of Thoreau’s mind as it makes its rounds through the days he actually lived on the shore of Walden Pond. That is, how little it invites me to engage such a mind by reading this particular text. I don’t generally seek out “painstaking observations of nature” and “reflections about the world’s troubles.” I want personal challenge and adventure told in readable English, and I certainly find them in Walden, but not even hinted at in this categorization of the book. The best parts—the meat of Thoreau—are left out. A direct quote of Thoreau’s own words—say, the paragraph depicting his digging his cellar hole—would make a better advertisement.

I have another book, though, that is a perfect digest of a man’s living consciousness in being a nineteenth-century site map of his mind at work on a particular project. Peter Mark Roget could be characterized many ways, such as living in England from 1779 to 1869, being a scholar and perennial student, physician, lecturer, founding member of many institutions, and so on. But the work I call a site map of his mind is his masterwork,

Thesaurus of English Words & Phrases

classified and arranged so as to

facilitate the expression of Ideas and

assist in Literary Composition

issued in 1852 when he was 73 years old, and, updated, is still in print 158 years later in 2010. In his twenties, Roget had worked out a system of verbal classification to aid his own speaking and writing. Well into his retirement, he expanded that system for broader use by the public.

The system is based on the classification of ideas divided into or embedded within four distinct levels of analysis. The broadest level is that of six classes somewhat similar to Aristotle’s categories (in two cases split into divisions):

I—ABSTRACT RELATIONS

II—SPACE

III—MATTER

IV—INTELLECT, including Division (I) Formation of Ideas, and Division (II) Communication of Ideas

V—VOLITION, including Division (I) Individual Volition, and Division (II) Intersocial Volition, and

VI—AFFECTIONS.

Each class is further divided into sections, and each section into headings which include the individual words and phrases Roget intends us to distinguish between and choose among to suit our individual projects.

To take one example, Class III MATTER is broken into three sections: 1) Matter in General, 2) Inorganic Matter, and 3) Organic Matter. Section 3) Organic Matter is further subdivided into 1—Vitality, and 2—Sensation. Subsection 1—Vitality contains 16 headings:

358 Organization

359 Mineral

360 Life

361 Death

362 Killing

363 Corpse

364 Interment

365 Animality

366 Vegetability

367 Zoology

368 Botany

369 Animal Husbandry

370 Agriculture

371 Mankind

372 Male

373 Female

Here we begin to see Roget’s genius in distinguishing polar, intermediate, and related aspects of meaning (life-death-killing-corpse-interment-animality) as reflected in his systematized associations between concepts and words. Heading 371 Mankind includes, among 155 other terms under six other subheadings:

person, individual, human being, everyman, everywoman; creature, fellow creature, mortal, body; a being, soul, living soul; God’s image; one, somebody, someone, so and so, such a one; party, customer, character, type, element; chap, guy, bloke, fellow, cove, johnny 372n. male; personage, figure, person of note, VIP 638n. bigwig; star  890n. favorite; dramatis personae, all those concerned  686n. personnel; unit, head, hand, nose.

And that is only a small part of one heading out of the 990 in my edition. In keeping with the then current rage for reason, Roget’s original scheme contained an even 1000 headings. Clearly, Peter Mark Roget was a systematic thinker, a quality of mind credited to his mother (his father died when he was a child). At over 770 pages, the index of words and phrases in my 1966 Dell edition takes up over half the entire book (I can’t tell the exact length of the index because the back cover came off years ago, and with it an unknown number of pages).

In his introduction to the original 1852 edition, Roget wrote:

The present Work is intended to supply, with respect to the English language, . . . a collection of the words it contains and of the idiomatic combinations peculiar to it, arranged, not in alphabetical order as they are in a Dictionary, but according to the ideas which they express. The purpose of an ordinary dictionary is simply to explain the meaning of the words; and the problem of which it professes to furnish the solution may be stated thus:—The word being given, to find its signification, or the idea it is intended to convey. The object aimed at in the present undertaking is exactly the converse of this: namely,—The idea being given, to find the word, or words, by which that idea may be most fitly and aptly expressed. For this purpose, the words and phrases of the language are here classed, not according to their sound or their orthography [spelling], but strictly according to their signification.

Imagine having the mind and discipline to create such a work. Roget’s Thesaurus is aimed at improving expressive language, not language as received by eye or ear. It facilitates converting concepts and feelings into meaningful sounds—one of the basic requirements of speaking or writing in English. When the right word for a particular audience does not spring readily to mind, the word search becomes conscious, and one word or phrase from a number of options must be chosen as the most appropriate. The Thesaurus, then, is a tool for converting conscious intentions into overt speech acts suitable to the writer-speaker’s specific situation at the time.

The challenge of such situations is to achieve order among the many elements that bear on a speaker in a given situation so that her vocabulary, categorizations, meanings, and intended emphases are fulfilled by an utterance whose word choice, syntax, and intonation are all of a piece in keeping with the situation she is engaged with insofar as she can anticipate the role she is about to play in the lives of her audience. Which is a tall order because the only way to learn to do that is through trial and error, alternating with self-correction, study, and further rehearsal.

After taking a writing workshop in 2001, I was consumed by the question, Where do words come from? They seem to be just there on the tip of our tongues when we need them, but how do they get there? It is now clear to me that meanings and categorizations are primary, and the words used to express them arise from a sense of the situation and the urge to make a fitting verbal response. I see that now as being essentially an aesthetic (rather than a strictly rational) problem. In getting our speech acts together, we have to be clear which valence we mean to express—positive, negative, or neutral—and where on the gradients of emphasis, clarity, and detail we wish to position ourselves. Will easy, broad, general terms suffice, or do we have to exert ourselves to become more discriminating than that? How specific must we be? How experientially detailed or conceptually inclusive? These complex decisions are rooted in the sense we have of our own experience in relation to the situation we are engaged with—that is, with what we are asking of ourselves on that occasion under those particular circumstances as we construe them.

This is essentially the problem Peter Roget faced when he compiled his original system for putting meanings into words. And that compels us today to take his Thesaurus off the shelf when we’re not sure what to say because the words aren’t there on our tongues where we need them to be. I would hazard that Roget’s drive to systematic thinking originated from just such uncertainty during his formative years as a speaker of English (his father was born in Geneva and was not a native speaker). Fortunately for us, young Roget faced into the problem and produced a masterly system for turning incipient categorizations into speech acts through word choices appropriate to various situations as he understood them. He was exceptionally well-schooled by his mother and early teachers.

Having a site map of Roget’s mind at our elbows, we are direct beneficiaries of his nineteenth-century consciousness. Bloggers and twitterers probably don’t devote that much time to diagnosing their situations or choices of words—which is why they are bloggers and twitterers. They prefer to speak from the hip, as it were. But spontaneity isn’t everything, particularly in touchy situations or when dealing with complex issues. Which is when having wide ranges of both meanings and terms to select from is a definite advantage in achieving an appropriate subtlety of expression. If the world is seen in black and white, then perhaps bold or brazen speech might be deemed appropriate—as in war or clashes between street gangs. But there’s usually more to a situation than is readily apparent, and a simplistic approach is apt to stir up more trouble than it can deal with. I truly believe that suiting our behavior to the various situations we find or place ourselves in calls for aesthetic judgments unimagined in the OK Corral. Aesthetics is a matter of putting every aspect of consciousness into play, attending to the subtleties as well as the overall landscape, acknowledging the role of every part in creating the whole, the integrity and dignity of the whole in relation to every part—and acting only when the full dynamic richness and complexity of the experience have been savored. Then the appropriate words appear on the tongue as called up by the fullness of the experience, and the speaker effectively matches outward words to the inner occasion.

Roget's Thesaurus