Friday, March 13, 2009


Dear Reader,

Ironically, for a man from a race of sleepwalkers, I can't sleep tonight.

My Grandma, Ann Saling, died a week ago, and we held her service two days ago. The service was a trainwreck, horror after horror with a few grace notes mixed in whose contrast sharpened the pain. It was so bad I was actually struck dumb when it was my turn to speak, and even now I cannot write about the details. I've been a fan of horror films all my life and watch the most astonishing fictional horrors, yet now I feel like a Lovecraftian protagonist who collapses in the face of true horror. Nihilism is so much worse a violation than death or mere grotesquerie.

Although I spent yesterday shying away from the trauma of the previous day, distracting myself, I find myself tonight unable to stop replaying the worst of it when I should be sleeping. After two sleepless hours I gave up trying and thought to fall back on my old comfort of writing to achieve emotional alchemy.

Rereading my last entry, from October, about pathei mathos, I found that it still rang true to me. Moreover, in the depths of pain now, stripped of abstract intellectual imagining by the direct grip of experience, I feel its truth more profoundly now than when I wrote it.

Why pathei mathos? Why do we only question ourselves under duress?

I think the problem lies in our mimesis, which I believe to be the essence of human nature, the very heart of our species. Intense mimcry seems to be the strange attractor that organizes all the anomalies and general weirdness of this species into a coherent pattern. It is an evil joke to call ourselves Homo sapiens, wise man, when wisdom is the surest thing we are not. Homo mimesis names the core of us better. For man all the world is indeed a stage, and the best actors are in the audience, playing the roles of their lives.

To fully immerse ourselves in our roles we must believe in our performances, which requires the complete shutdown of our critical faculties where perspective on ourselves is concerned. Great performances require commitment; one cannot be convincing and self-conscious simultaneously. Thus our mimesis and our profound resistance to self-scrutiny depend on each other, evolved to reinforce one another and create one of those powerful harmonic feedback loops evolution loves.

The more clearly we look at this nexus of drives within our nature, the more singers we find contributing decisively to this harmony.

Consider the psychological effect of acclimation, in which any stimulus, no matter how anomalous or unpleasant, can be adapted to by the human mind until we no longer notice it, like how sanitation workers get used to the odors associated with their job. Acclimation helps counteract the disruptive effect of sudden jumps in pain, ensuring that we sink back into our roles as we become used to the new conditions rather than breaking out of our mimesis completely, likewise ensuring that any wakefulness from our sleepwalking through life, our self-unconsciousness, is kept as brief as possible. That is, evolution's priorities for us placed mimetic immersion above disruptive wisdom as a survival trait.

We usually think of acclimation as the balm that soothes our pain, that allows us to adapt to it, but for that very reason it is also the chloroform we place over our own mouths whenever we become momentarily conscious, protecting us from insights and ensuring our operation can continue.

Or as another example of a powerful drive within us that makes the most sense when considered as a contributor to our essential mimesis, consider our species's notorious dearth of instincts compared to other mammals. Instincts place limits on a species's available range of behaviors by hardwiring them for specific behaviors. The more instincts you have, the less range you have as an actor, because the more of your behavior you cannot alter to fit your role. The greatest actors would have to have the fewest instincts (using the term here strictly biologically, not in the colloquial jargon of acting itself, in which instincts are—typical of English—something entirely different than instincts in biology (hardwired behavior); acting instincts are closer to intuition or the capacity to be true to the character you are playing, and these are the not the kind of thing our species lacks).

A third drive that contributes to this harmonic is the remarkable capacity for doing things unprecedented in the history of evolution, or doing things to an unprecedented extent. Sure other animals use tools, but none as wildly and intensely as we do. Sure others change their environment, but none as wildly and extensively as we do. Sure, other animals use language, but none so wildly and diversely as we do. The list goes on forever, because our capacity to do the unexpected does. This seemingly infinite, Protean malleability permits us to completely lose ourselves not only in precedented roles but unprecedented ones as well. That is, we can not only organize ourselves around any natural roles for which there are precedents, we can also organize ourselves around unnatural and artificial roles without precedent. The dynamic range in human cultures far exceeds the behavioral range of any other species, which is necessary for a species organized above all around imitating anything.

Each of these harmonic factors reinforces each of the others. Our wild dynamic range would not be possible without our capacity to acclimate to anything, however alien it might be at first. Thus, a stable civilization can be created around the idea of (among other things) tearing the hearts out of other people on top of enormous artificial mounds oriented to the stars. Likewise, our wild dynamic range would not be possible if our behavior were constrained by an evolved system of instinctive behavior. You don't find wolves deciding to organize themselves around the building of monuments to their own dead, because wolf instincts create an intricate and consistent worldwide wolf culture that constrains their behavior within functional and sustainable limits, whereas humanity's poverty of instincts permits us to organize around almost anything.

Finally (for this essay) a fourth example of an essential human characteristic that powerfully harmonizes with all these others organized around mimesis is neotony, an evolutionary principle first brought to my attention by Desmond Morris's The Naked Ape. Neotony is a process by which a new species evolves from an old one by interrupting its normal course of maturation to prevent adult characteristics from developing, that is, by retaining childlike characteristics into adulthood. Morris noted that many of our species's differences from the other apes are almost entirely explained in terms of neotony. Young apes have less hair than adult apes, and we have less hair than other primates. Young primates have larger heads relative to the size of their bodies, and so do we. Young animals have more generic, less specialized bodies and so do we. Young mammals are more social, and so are we. Young mammals are more curious and so are we. Young animals learn new behavior more easily, and so do we.

Overall, our species is an ideal case study in how neotony can turn one species into another, and I have long recognized that it is pivotal to understanding what we are, but now look at neotony in terms of the components of our essential behavioral harmony and its importance increases. Many of the instincts animals develop are not present at birth but instead activate later in the development process, so by interrupting that process neotony would cause these instincts never to develop in the new species; if humanity is one of the most intensely neotonous species, then we would expect to find a correspondingly extreme reduction in the number of instincts present in an adult human being, which we do. Our extreme capacity for unprecedented behavior is most closely associated in other animals with play, curiosity, and learning, all features more typical of young animals than of adults, except in human beings, who retain this childlike capacity for highly variable behavior into adulthood. Our capacity for mimicry is just the neotonous retention of learning-by-example that all young mammals do taken to an extreme because it is never switched off in adulthood as it is in other animals.

Neotony, extreme behavioral range, instinctual poverty, acclimation, self-unconsciousness, and mimesis together (along with other harmonizing human drives) create in human beings an extremely effective talent for mimicry, a paradoxical combination of extreme flexibility in the choice of behavioral models combined with an intense commitment to whatever roles we find ourselves in.

Our essential mimesis makes us very good at what we have evolved to do, but extraordinarily bad at wisdom. We are anti-evolved against genuine introspection, though we have the capacity to imitate the surface of it trivially. We have the capacity to be convinced by ourselves and our own roles, but almost no capacity to genuinely question ourselves or even to perceive ourselves in context, since that would interfere with perceiving ourselves according to the roles we have adopted.

In short, by means of our most essential survival traits we must and will subvert any chance of breaking out of our perpetual dream states. By our commitment to our roles, by being convinced of our own authenticity and our own understanding of who and what we are, we are guaranteed to be unable to question those roles, that authenticity, or that understanding, and without such questioning wisdom is quite impossible (though the imitation of the surface of it, the intense desire to be thought wise, the aping of wisdom, are not only possible but inevitable for a mimic).

That is why our only opportunities for advancing in wisdom can occur during those all-too-brief windows (1) after a sharp, unprecedented pain has shaken up our worlds so strongly that we groggily awake from ourselves, and (2) before our powerful capacity for acclimation adapts us to our new condition and puts us back to sleep.

That is, to that list of powerful harmonizing drives and effects that make us Homo mimesis, we can finally understand pathei mathos not as a curse of arbitrary gods to make wisdom unreachable except through pain—no jealous Olympian gods withhold from us the fires of enlightenment—nor as the idle speculation of ancient philosophers and storytellers—no fiction invented for our entertainment or catharsis—but rather as the necessary and inevitable consequences of our evolutionary recipe for survival. Wisdom is incompossible with mimesis, and mimesis is our specific, special priority and mission.

That is why it is impossible for us to know ourselves or to reflect upon ourselves as we actually are—the prime requisites for wisdom—except during the briefest of windows here and there in our lives when we suffer from fresh pain so intense that for a short time we cannot sleep.

Yours truly,

Postscript: If only it were the nightly sleep we needed to interrupt, perhaps we could all become wise, but alas, it is the sleep of a lifetime from which we must awake, and that we cannot do for long. The only permanent end to the sleep of mimetic personality comes with the sleep of the dead, the eternal sleep from which we none of us ever awake, and in which, alas, wisdom does not await us, only the dissolution of the self back into the selfless cosmic realms of soil and sea.


Dear Reader,

I just corrected the spelling in my comment about myself, which previously read "curioser and curioser." My wife is an editor, and I'm no slouch at spelling, but I've had this wrong for years. Heraclitus is right—we really are sleepwalkers.

Yours truly,