Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Human Nature, Part 2: We Do Not Know What We Know

Shakespeare is widely acknowledged as the greatest writer of the English language, the person most able to express insights powerfully and memorably. One of the best things he wrote is that deceit, pretense, play-acting, role-playing is at the core of human nature.

Of course, since we're so sure we know who we are, we cannot possibly hear even the great virtuoso of the English language when he tries to tell us as baldly and eloquently as possible that we're wrong about who we are, that we're not who we think we are, that we're people pretending to be who we think we are. As Simon and Garfunkel wrote, A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest, or as William Blake put it so pithily long before As a man is, so he sees.

So there's another part of our answer - we can be wrong about anything. We are even capable of being wrong about the most central issues in our lives (like who we are) and yet be completely convinced that we're right. The idea that we're capable of meaningful objectivity about the things that matter is refuted even before we open our mouths, just by the things we imagine about ourselves - like who we are. The truth is a foreign language to us; we speak something else. As the Christian apostle Paul put it rather poetically in his First Epistle to the Corinthians, we see through a glass, darkly. As Heraclitus put it rather philosophically in his lost work On Nature, Most people do not take heed of the things they encounter, nor do they grasp them even when they have learned about them, although they suppose they do—and, more bluntly, Human nature has no real understanding; only the divine nature has it.

Our essential subjectivity, our incapacity to recognize, observe, or understand the truth shows clearly in our efforts to be objective—we can collect "facts" (Hegel: There is precisely no such thing as a fact.), but nothing ensures we collect the right facts, nor that we interpret them correctly. Oh, does E equal MC squared? Surely that must be true so that I can find a new way to dominate the other monkeys. Obviously, the profound truths of the cosmos exist so we can pursue the pettiest of aims with greater efficiency! The twentieth century all by itself is sufficient to disprove any possibility that human nature is essentially capable of objectivity.

Too often we choose between either lying to ourselves and others about our biases and pretending to be objective or else abandoning that pretense and openly embracing superstition, bigotry, and other forms of extreme irrationalism - which is just another forms of pretense. There are better choices open to us, if we have the courage to take them. At our best we could openly acknowledge and accept our subjectivity and try to approximate objectivity not through pretense but through taking our biases into account, factoring them into our decisions - and then embrace humility and acknowledge that our ideas are tentative, that we do not really know anything but are guessing as best we can.

To get closer to the truth, we first have to admit that we don't already know the truth. If knowledge is power, then for human beings humility is the root of all real power.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

A Journal is Not a Story

Not everything can be expressed as a story.

A story is a specific kind of thing, and as most books, movies, fans, and reviewers show, most people don't know what that kind of thing is. Most people think a plot is a story, for example, or a rollercoaster, something that has a beginning, middle, and end, and uses up time in a satisfactory way. I suppose that would make sex a story, or going to the bathroom.

Story, specifically, is a kind of tale invented to tell difficult or subtle truths about human character by subjecting a character to stresses in a specific way to reveal things the character may not have known and certainly would not have wanted to reveal about themselves. Story is a tool for exploring human character in ways that would be cruel and unusual to inflict on actual living people, a way to clarify some things about life by creating a simulacrum of it.

Hardly anyone writes actual stories any more, though there are plenty of writers creating plenty of things that substitute for stories in modern culture.

I, for example, am not a story-teller. I appreciate stories greatly and study them voraciously, but I don't create them. If I am required to express my life in stories, it will have to go unexpressed because I can't do it.

More importantly, stories can only represent certain kinds of truths, not all truths, nor even most truths. As incredible as it may seem to people living in a culture most of whose pleasures derive from fictions, fiction is a limited form of expression. It can only describe things that fit its form. When we try to squeeze other things into the form of a story, we do violence to the truths of those things. That is, we lie.

I don't want to lie. I am journaling so I can tell the truth, as best I can, so I can tell truths that matter to me and to my family and friends and maybe to others, and especially so I can tell truths that are not often publicly discussed, to break the code of silence and secrecy that surrounds so many important truths.

I can't do that in story form. I'm not convinced anyone can, since many of these truths have the wrong form for a story, but I know I can't. Therefore, I'm not going to try.

At the same time, though, I won't be dissuaded from trying to express these things in my chosen form, as journal entries and short philosophical essays. If that means I write boring things, dry things, repetitive things, confusing things, then that's what it means. If it means I never command a large audience, nor even a medium-sized one, then so be it. I don't want to be famous anyway.

I need to express these things in part because it's therapeutic for me, in part so my nieces and nephews have the opportunity to get to know me better and be exposed to these ideas, and in part because there is a powerful social value to coming out of the closet as who one really is rather than continuing to pretend to be another "normal" person. The only way people give up their hateful and violence-catalyzing prejudices about unusual people is when they get to know them for real and come to realize that they don't fit their stereotypes, that *gasp* maybe they need to change their opinions about their fellow human beings rather than eliminate them.

So, I'm writing a journal and some short essays, not stories. Most of it won't be to most people's taste, and it won't be fun or easy or comfortable enough to help you pass the time. That's okay. There are better things to do with life than just to get it over with as quickly and entertainingly as possible.