402. Expletives!

January 10, 2015

Following-through on my previous post: The question is, can we avoid becoming creatures of our technologies by controlling our urge to revel in the thrill and novelty of the latest electronic gadget we don’t need?

As I said, the world we live in is shaped by our subjective opinions and motivations. The lesson of my study of mind is that each of us is responsible for the workings of her own. When it comes to saving the planet through yet more technology, let believers beware. Particularly believers in technologies that boast of being artificially intelligent. Our numbers are already far too large for our planet to bear at current levels of consumption and life expectancy.

We talk a lot about saving the world, but it is our actions in that same world that count. Speech saves effort, but it can also interrupt and divert us from more meaningful engagements requiring bolder action. So to continue on the topic of action I will briefly speculate on the origin of the movements of breath, tongue, lips, and teeth we call speech.

We justly pride ourselves on our skills in speaking, reading, writing, and comprehending, the very skills that separate us from our animal neighbors and ancestors. Speech has evolved as a kind of substitute for exerting ourselves by flexing our larger muscles. It is far more efficient to gently release air through our throats and lips than it is to lunge forward while making threatening gestures with raised arms brandishing sticks. It is also less risky.

It is humbling to think that the origin of speech might have been in uttering expletives whenever our ancestors’ engagements were thwarted or went awry. That is my belief, largely resting on observation of my own behavior in dealing with my tired old computer, which is programmed to do its own thing, and so pays no heed when I want it to do something else.

My vulgar outbursts wrest attention from all ears within range. I shout curt obscenities at my laptop when it goes off on its own, but having no ears (mine is an older model), it ignores me and sits there doing its thing whereas I paid good money for it to do my thing. Why else would I buy it?

Why, indeed? I mean to use my computer to facilitate my many projects depending on use of words and pictures. All my writing, all my photographs, all my illustrations are on my computer. Books, articles, PowerPoints, slide shows, pechakuchas, notes, lists, random thoughts, address—my entire creative output all stored on my hard drive.

So when I can’t get at them because my computer is busy doing something else—installing updates, scanning every file, printing pages I didn’t ask it to print, posting inexplicable error messages about not being able to do some task it thought up on its own—I get—how shall I put it?—upset. Mad. Angry. Finally furious after not being able to get through to it to get it to stop what it’s doing and do what I want it to do.

By nature, I am a very calm person. I have confidence in making that judgment. People are amazed at my not getting upset in situations that would have driven them batty. But when engagements requiring my deep concentration are interrupted, I have trouble restoring the focus that my balance of mind depends on. I am forced to switch my mind to some irrelevant task. I am on a roll, but can’t continue.

Imagine my distress. Which requires some kind of outlet as a stand-in to release the energy that I was putting into the project I was focused on. So these sounds come out of my mouth. Not words that fit the sentence I was writing when so rudely interrupted, but sounds out of nowhere. Shit. Fuck. Chert, click, runt, frump, fart, muck, flack, blat. Expletives. Sudden explosions of sound that bear the burden of my frustration and annoyance.

That, I believe, is the true origin of language. Or at least a contributing factor in drawing attention to the urgency of some issue or another. In this case, an issue with a negative valence giving evidence that breaking into an ongoing engagement is wrong, bad, undesirable, annoying, perturbing, frustrating, immoral, unsettling, etc., and ought to be against the law.

In the opposite situation (consciousness thrives on opposition, remember), when I am caught unaware by something surpassingly pleasing that gives me pause, I say, like astronauts ogling the Earth from above, Wow! Oh boy. Amazing. Beautiful. Stunning. Beautiful. Gorgeous. Hallelujah. Hooray. Lookadat! Or some cooing expletive suitable to such an occasion. In which case the issue of expression is to release a gasp of sudden joy, happiness, surprise, wonder, satisfaction, insight, gratitude, and other such utterance suggesting a positive valence that gives approval to an engagement that is right, proper, good, desirable, affirming, pleasing, enjoyable, and essentially positive in deserving to be called to everyone’s attention.

It is in those two opposite situations—the rude interruption and the affirming revelation—that I discover a burst or rush of sound issuing from my throat as if I had invented language on the spot for that very occasion. Extrapolating, I identify with my primitive ancestors who had the same uncontrollable urge so long ago.

 

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Copyright 2012 by Steve Perrin.

Wildness is a quality of felt situations that arouses curiosity (What have we here?) and invites further attention and exploration as guides to appropriate action (What are we going to do about it?).

The examples of wildness I have illustrated (Reflections 301–313)—tree bark, lichens, crab remains, Indian pipes, fungi seen from above and below, flowers, shore life at low tide, fallen trees, standing trees, ground webs, old man’s beard—show wildness in the form of noticeable features and curiosities met in a forever-wild sanctuary on an island in Maine.

Wildness in that sense means existing in a natural state, not groomed, tamed, or cultivated. Existing where? In the mind of one particular person, namely me, Steve from Planet Earth. Wildness is a quality of my personal awareness of a situation I am in at the time. This is not wildness in the world so much as a sense of wildness from inside looking out through these eyes. Wildness, that is, as an aspect of mind, of personal conscious experience. I am writing about wildness as being subjective or phenomenological, wildness as a property of consciousness, and of my consciousness in particular.

I am not concerned with civilized wildness here, with warfare, cruelty, greed, or abuse. I am more interested in wildness that admits to mystery and wonder and unending engagement. Wildness we can build a life around without destroying other lives. Wildlife that opens onto a landscape we want to learn about, to wrestle with so we can feel, grasp, and understand it. This kind of wildness promotes engagement enabling us to grow into the landscapes of our own minds.

I am interested in wildness that leads us to appreciate other cultures, make voyages of discovery, visit national parks, and explore our surroundings and native habitats with curiosity, awe, and respect. This wildness expands our mental horizons so our minds have no choice but to expand instead of shrink as self-satisfied minds often do.

The way to build such a wild kind of life is to pay attention to the details of sensory impressions that attract and draw you in, not take them for granted as features of a conceptual and conventional existence. To savor where you are in your own mind, and want to reach beyond your current self to the self you will become in the future. That inner sense of wildness will lead you to a life of mental adventure, exploration, and discovery. You build yourself inside-out. You don’t set out to be a nurse or policeman so much as see how far you can get on what you’ve got right where you are.

That’s where your mind will take you if you give it free rein to live out its own wildness in making yourself happen according to your untamed insides.

That’s what I’ve been trying to say in my last thirteen posts. As ever, —Steve from Planet Earth

(Copyright © 2009)

 

I dream about seeing a hole in the sky. It is raining. A young boy is riding a tricycle as we walk up the street together, I in the lead, he behind. I fear he won’t be able to pedal against the runoff coming off the hill, but he pedals faster and plows like a boat through the water. The street dips and we go downhill for a ways and come to a log cabin surrounded by mud filled with exposed tree roots. I tell the boy that the rain made all that mud. The road, filled with mud, turns sharply to the right. Looking up, I see a round hole (like a smoke hole without the smoke) in the sky, or rather, a hole in a translucent dome above the rain. Through the hole I see clouds lit by the sun. My eyes zoom in on the hole so I can see it clearly. Outside and under the hole, the rain is made of dashed lines which remind me (in the dream) of the snow on black-and-white television screens in the 1950s. Through the hole the clouds are made of similar dashes moving at an angle to the rain. I recognize this as a very unusual situation. I have never seen a hole in the sky before in my entire life. I mention this to some people we meet. . . .

 

Waking up, I am still amazed by seeing a hole in the sky. A round hole at the zenith overhead. Probably several feet in diameter, big enough to put your head and body through if you could get up to it. Child, tricycle, street, hill, rain, cabin, mud, hole in the sky—this fragment of a dream is wholly engaging and seems convincingly real.

 

What to make of it? The situation is this: the boy and I are together, though our relationship is unclear. The street reminds me (now that I’m awake) of School Street in Andover, Massachusetts, where I lived in the late 1960s and early 1970s. I used to walk my toddler son around the block in those days, he exploring the walkway to every house while I waited out by the street. The rain reminds me of the dashed lines beneath clouds on the screen of the L.L. Bean weather station I got for my last birthday. I have seen tree stumps and roots in mud, but no particular incident comes to mind. Explaining the cause of the mud to the boy is very much me in my teacher mode. I can’t account for the log cabin. The hole in the sky is very much like the circle representing the sun on my weather station. When the station predicts that precipitation is about to end, dashed rain, clouds, and sun appear together on the screen, the disc of the sun seeming to emerge from behind the clouds. I never actually saw the sun in the dream; it was inferred from lit edges of clouds.

 

I often think about the edges of things—about how the brain sharpens the contrast between surfaces to heighten such edges, creating a kind of line-drawing cartoon that is more distinct than reality itself. The hole in the sky had a very distinct edge, slightly lighter than the dome it was in, like a hem of pale material folded back on itself. Which reminds me of my first experience with Mercator projections (Reflection 60: Discovery, February 6, 2009), because there would be no way to fold a circular hem in the dome of the sky without slitting or slashing it so the smaller area would fold over the larger. I can’t suggest that I was specifically aware of that problem in the dream; it feels more like something I added in processing the dream now that I am awake.

 

I was emotionally concerned about the boy on the tricycle—whether he could go against the flowing runoff or not. The strongest feeling I had was the sense of wonder at seeing a hole in the sky. All dreams have a novel cast about them, and that seemed precisely the point in this one. I seemed very much my everyday self in judging a hole in the sky to be a novel event, and therefore worth commenting on. Which is how my dreams often run while I, the dreamer, are my same old self. Dreams, that is, often place me-as-I-know-myself in bizarre situations.

 

Many of my dreams are about attending or teaching specific classes in school, which is not surprising since I spent 18 years of my life as a teacher and another 19 years as a student before that. But in dream after dream I am neglecting my duty by not showing up for class, or showing up for the class after being unaccountably absent for six months, or I am not prepared, or I know nothing about the subject I am expected to teach, or I’m not wearing any clothes, and so on. My dreamworld is made up of one bizarre situation after another, to which my conventional self is expected to make a fitting response.

 

So I hazard the guess that I am normally conscious when I dream, but because I am deprived of sensations I am familiar with, as well as the ability to act, the situations within which I dream exist in a parallel universe ruled by feelings of novelty, wonder, awe, fear, anxiety, uncertainty, and self-doubt. All the dream situations are possible in that they are variations on stock situations I am familiar with, while at the same time they are novel in taking place in fantastic locales concocted by my unsituated brain trying to figure out where it is and what’s happening. The best it can do is guess on the basis of the few clues suggested by my autonomic nervous system (heart beat, sexual arousal, carbon dioxide level, hunger, etc.) which carries on 24/7 whether I am awake or asleep.

 

From my days working at Harvard Observatory, I retain the image (from a book in the library) of a robed man standing on a ladder, poking his head and shoulders through the celestial sphere (which rips in his case), to confront stars and planets directly as they wheel overhead. It’s a wonderful image because so full of practical details, while the overall concept is preposterous and very dreamlike. I’ve carried that image with me for 48 years. It may have a bearing on the hole in the sky I discovered this morning in my dreams because it came to mind while trying to describe that hole. Memory evidently plays a prominent role in dreams, mixing and matching details drawn from a host of situations to create a landscape wholly novel and fantastic. And, entertaining, once you get past the anxiety.

 

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