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  • Writer's pictureCrone

Seek and ye shall seek some more

I have this problem.


Well, it's one of my problems.


I am a seeker. I have this quest addiction. Although that's maybe not the precise problem. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I don't know what my quest is actually for.


The Knights of the Round Table were after the Holy Grail. Only the purest of them could find it. Sir Galahad, the one who lived without sin. All the others just wandered around having various adventures and meeting ladies. Not a bad life. They didn't succeed, but they knew what they were after. Incidentally, Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur is a fascinating journey into something else - a quest for a sense of self. In many of the books, the characters appear to have no inner life. There's not even much evidence of cause and effect as we expect in narratives. In a way, it's almost like a post-modern or existential text. Things just happen and the characters react without any real concept of inner life. A series of perceptions in a time line rather than a continuous self moving through any telos. They don't develop. They don't grow. They don't think or seem to have true subjectivity. Is this a sign of the times or a sign of the style or a lack of skill in the writer?


For sure, earlier writers in Old English romances, demonstrated the richness of a consciousness. The Wanderer and The Seafarer depict individual minds straining to express their, well, existential doubts about meaning. In Pearl the narrator, mourning his dead daughter, sees a vision of heaven created through his inner realisation of love and beauty.


In Le Morte d'Arthur, in contrast, there is absence in the soul of the seekers in large part. They are types rather than individuals. One notable exception is Lancelot. The battle between duty and desire brings him to life. He cannot find the Grail but he finds something perhaps more precious: himself. Flawed and fated and bringing destruction. Another is Tristram, whose love for La Belle Isolde, performs the same function. Through these two characters we see how the passions of the individual break apart collectives; how ethics and love can conflict; how the birth of the self betrays the bonds of the band.


There's something in this. Which may all be a misremembering or a misreading or both.


Is it the case that becoming an individual pulls you, inevitably, from society into solitude? From we to me? Maybe. There's a logical extreme in Sartre's existentialism. That one is entirely self-created. De Beauvoir is interesting here. Woman is a social construct that the individual woman struggles to extricate herself from. Rousseau said we are all born free, but live in chains - bound by culture and expectations of who we should be or are allowed to be.


The Knights of the Quest, like many of us, don't even see the chains.


Another story, where does it come from?, recounts the search for a buried treasure. The seeker travels far and wide, suffering pain and grief, only to find the treasure in his own backyard. The secret is within. The prize is inside; you just have to look and uncover it.


This maps onto much New Age thinking - and indeed I think that Paulo Coelho was the author. Yes, just checked. The Alchemist. A Fable about following one's dreams. I'm pretty sceptical about this. I don't think you find much inside - or at least not unless you've put a lot in there. The self we find might just be a multi-media mélange created out of positive thoughts posted on Twitter, cultural memes, political one-liners and religious laws. And the longer we hold onto it, the more rigid and static it becomes. There may be little space for any other ideas. It seems complete and we hold it sacrosanct. 'That's just me,' we say, 'I'm the kind of person who believes that equality is more important than freedom/freedom is more important than equality*.'


My structure gets bigger and bigger. It spreads out in diverse directions. I find a place for each new idea as a kind of codicil to or explanation of what I have already adopted. The facets get more complex, there is a richness and a variety. It feels like it could take on almost anything. And yet it holds onto its general frame. I'm not sure how adaptable it is. It's so complex and clunky that I've lost track of some of the particulars. No wonder it's so hard for me to have any sense of certainty, to make decisions about the simplest things.


There is no self to find in this mess, and certainly no single glorious treasure that will turn my life into a dream.


Well, let's question my visceral distaste for the New Age flavour.


OK, so Schopenhauer claimed that the best way to close your mind was to pick up a book. He was not opposed to learning new things, don't think that for a minute. By the time you took this advice, you should probably have read the Greek and Latin classic texts - history, drama, prose, philosophy, rhetoric, et al. The point he was making is that you have to think about all this for yourself. You have to work out your own ideas not continually distract yourself by imbibing the ideas of others. He'd have hated social media. His idea of self-creation rested on a firm foundation of education. And Sartre himself was hardly a philistine. Fair enough to create yourself when you have some solid building materials. For both, the idea of thinking is about learning to break the chains of culture, learning to question, learning to evaluate. Thing is, it takes quite a lot of insight to realise whether you are in fact judging according to values that you have unconsciously absorbed. You need to learn to see.


Perhaps Coelho's story should suggest that the journey has opened the young man's eyes, provided him with an education, that allows him to re-evaluate what he had taken for granted, what he had failed to see at home. Read that way, the story works better for me. But, like so many myths, it is subject to subjective interpretation. An alt-right ideologue as much as a trans-activist progressive can use this basic outline to justify the value of her authenticity. 'I knew multiculturalism was wrong/right*, and this has shown me that I wasn't mistaken.'


Even so, the hero's quest, as popularised by Joseph Campbell and manifested in Star Wars, Harry Potter and probably every acclaimed adventure story, demonstrates the potency of the self-discovery concept. I've written about Will Storr's view of it. I've read about the thesis in various other books on novel writing. Jordan Peterson loves it. Who am I to pour cold water on it? The hero is called to action, resists, but takes up the challenge; he sets out, the plot fights back, it's all very dark and dangerous, he gets a big win and we think, great, he made it! but the plot rises from the dead and he is nearly defeated; but ultimately he rallies his hidden resource of strength and he conquers the dragon and returns home - wiser, stronger, and with a damn fine sense of self too.


Does your life feel like that? Read many popular autobiographies and biographies of sportspeople, politicians and celebrities and I'll bet my bottom dollar this sketch of a narrative is there. Even if the whole life fails to follow the hero's arc (or its reverse - in which the hero's failure to learn causes his destruction), many sub-narratives will. All those stories about how this accident or that redundancy, this failure or that beating 'taught me so much about life and - more importantly - about myself.'


I have a few things to say about this.


Sure, we learn from failure. We learn how not to do something. Sure, we can learn from trials and tribulations: that we are stronger than we thought, that patience pays off, that people are kinder than we'd imagined, that life isn't fair, that we have to make our own luck. Frankly, we can learn pretty much anything. You see, when something truly shit happens, it shocks our predicting brain - which likes it when the world pans out as expected. The brain is lazy - because it's so energy hungry. Consequently, it maps out reality in advance and we proceed onwards through that hallucination like a robot until something unexpected happens. Then, the brain has to react, discover, resolve problems, make sense. That's when that jelly-like mass of neurons earns its keep. It has to learn. Or, at least, it has to be active. Which is a start.


The problem is that it might just stick up a template of accepted received wisdom rather than creating something from scratch. Our parents told us to get back on as soon as we fall off. That's what we do. Afterwards, we say, 'It taught me that when you fall, you have to get right back up again and that's served me well throughout my business/sporting/academic/ political* career.' Shut up! We didn't learn anything! We just played a score from a song sheet already in our oxhide music case. Had our parents told us to turn the other cheek, we'd be saying, 'It taught me to accept that challenges will come and to carry on regardless.'


What, actually, has changed? Probably not very much. However, we now have a story that allows us to see the tragedies of our past as quests that we have overcome. We are heroes! Of our own story, at least. That may serve to make us happier and more self-confident. Maybe all that we have actually learned is a renewed confirmation that our story is pretty bloody good - oh, and that we're a winner. I'm not sure that makes us better. It might make us complacent, self-satisfied and disinclined to learn anything new of real value.


So how do we actually come to learn anything? I don't know. I really don't know. I'm still seeking the answer.


Some suggestions I've come across: reading things you disagree with; investing in new experiences; travel; learning about people who are truly different; reading novels; trying things out. And, always, thinking about them. How it fits together, how it falls apart.


But be warned: the mind wants to fit everything into a pre-existing mental pattern. Ideally one that can predict the future. It wants to consolidate new learnings into the current framework; it does not want to tear down any of the struts and scaffolding it's already put in place. Just as it is easier to put weight on than to lose it; so it is easier to take on a new belief than it is to dismiss an old one. The information we take on as a belief becomes part of our identity and the mind will rally all its resources to defend that part of the self, in the same way as it will rally resources to save your hand from a closing door, your foot from a stamping horse.


This leads me to divert for a moment to Jordan Peterson and John Vervaeke, whose discourses on meaning have been the subject of one of my online philosophy groups in recent weeks. I loved Peterson when I first came across him, in the winter of late 2015. I listened to all his talks and was happily prepared to endorse his wisdom. The man has much of sense to say. However, over time I began to feel that he had a hammer and everything he found that was a bit like a nail, he'd happily work on, while anything distinctly non-nail like was either invisible or irrelevant to him. He had found his pattern and lo and behold he kept seeing it everywhere.


You know, when I bought a while BMW 1 Series, suddenly it seemed there were hundreds of them on the road. Before this, I'd hardly acknowledged their existence, and certainly didn't notice them. Because of the way we work, we tend to believe what we see. If we start to see the world conforming to the pattern we've elected upon, we start to believe it really is thus. Peterson, consequently, unconsciously and with, I am persuaded, good intentions, effectively cherry-picks and/or manipulates facts of science and reality to fit his pattern, his personal map of meaning, which is then reified, commodified and sold (or given) to the public. He is an ideologue. He has lost epistemic humility, is lacking epistemic virtue. He no longer recognises that his view is perspectival, for the views of others that do not conform to his pattern, seem to him valueless and untrue. He fails to admit the complexity of the reality, the fact that values can be incommensurable, the fact that from another perspective the world conforms to a very different map of meaning.


I admit that his views have been beneficial to a cadre of the population, who already, one imagines, had a tendency to see the world in a somewhat similar pattern. Yet, let's recall, the Volk myths that led to Nazism also served to benefit a cadre of the population: making them feel meaningful and valuable again after the humiliations of World War I. Just because something is popular does not make it true, nor does it necessarily make it good. Timothy Snyder's The Road to Unfreedom tracks the role that this kind of thinking, which seeks to bring all of 'reality' - myth, selected facts, pseudoscience and esoteric philosophy - into a totalitarian framework of meaning, has played in Vladimir Putin's policies.


Vervaeke is involved in a similar project and it is not insignificant that both speak like charismatic preachers: they are espousing an ideology not educating.


Both have a great deal that is interesting and insightful to say, as does the Old Testament, Gilgamesh and Paulo Coelho - but all are ideologies that claim to contain the whole of existence within their inevitably limited worldview. What hubris to feel that the mind of man, of any man or group of men (and it is relevant, I think, that few women have set themselves up to be such dictators of knowledge and meaning), can contain the profundity of existence. The universe, I would suggest, was not created for us, so why should we believe that we have the cognitive potency to embrace its multiplicity, magnificence and magnitude? Such projects seem to me to be the absolute height of arrogance. Even to claim that one speaks for humanity is a claim that goes far, far too far. Just speaking for all white, middle-class, Canadian men would be inappropriate.


And yet, how wonderful if one's identity (which is constructed of one's personal map of meaning) can be constantly reaffirmed by all the trials and tribulations of life! What pride one must feel at the book sales, viewing figures, packed conference venues and positive comments on Twitter! What self-validation from the aggressive defense these people's fans express for their hero's views when they are questioned by non-believers! How terrifying if any part of their identity-map should be threatened. Slave owners couldn't give up the belief that owning slaves was acceptable very easily. I can't give up the belief that learning matters. Peterson, when countered in debates, is inclined to express all the panic of a cornered animal, and all its ferocity. How do we get outside ourselves enough to let go of that investment in a part of our identity?


The hero's myth suggests that extreme danger in a foreign place defamiliarises us to such an extent that the framework of our being is tested. That, perhaps, works well as a metaphor. But it is a metaphor. If I get mugged in Moscow, or beaten up in Beijing, or terrorised in Talinn, that, frankly, is just horrible luck. assuming I wasn't standing around flashing my cash in a dodgy area - in which case I can learn some facts about what it is unwise to do in that city. No guarantee of learning about myself - though I may claim some insight or wisdom after the fact to make the incident conform to the hero's arc journey that would make my life have cosmetic meaning.


Consider a different example: the traveler who sets out to find himself by walking across Tibet. Maybe, just maybe, he is transformed by the journey. But isn't it just as likely that he simply proves to himself that he's the sort of person who values the experience of walking across Tibet? He has memories, but has he changed?


Yet the idea that travel is inevitably going to lead to self-discovery remains persuasive. Susan Neiman repeats it in Why Grow Up, as she assumes that through submerging oneself in a foreign culture one can develop a new perspective. I don't disagree. So long as one has an open mind.


That's the difficulty. Is there such a thing as a view from nowhere that can take on all these alternative views from somewhere and assess them objectively? Any view I have of a landscape sets me somewhere. I can only see from where I am. I might acknowledge that they over there see something else, but 'from my perspective' this is the truth.


Say I try really hard to develop stereo-vision. Say I put myself in a whole new community of ideas and open myself to them. There is a physiological defensive reaction as I hear the views opposed to or just different from those I currently espouse. Everything about me - the here and now of physical me in space, the past and present of psychological me in time and mind - rebels. I feel vulnerable and threatened, just as Peterson appears to do. I want to leave. I want to reinforce the bulwarks around my existing structures of self. I am risking destruction and the desire is to fight back and defend my multi-media mélange against any opposition is over-powering. Because that multi-media mélange is just so precious to me.


But what if, instead of fighting back, I wait and see what waiting with the new idea really feels like? Underneath my initial sense of threat, that is. Maybe it's not so bad. How about if I do allow part of me to die? Maybe that's what growth entails, in the was that forest fires or floods regenerate the land. Perhaps we have to die to be reborn.


Certainly we do have to make a sacrifice of part of our self. The treasure is perhaps less what we find - for who knows how valuable that is? - but learning that we can let go.


Jonas Kaplan, a cognitive neuroscientist who researches belief, recommends meditation or mindfulness as a way to extract our cognition from our self narratives sufficiently to enable us to open our minds to new ideas. A search is only useful if we can take up what we find, and that seems to demand that we let go of some of the chains that bind us to our structural biases. If we are in our present, not embedded in our hero's quest story, that multi-media mélange loses some of its gravitational force. If we can allow see these structures for what they are - artificial constructs of cheap heirlooms, flotsam, jetsam and cultural debris - then, just maybe, we can allow our minds to fly free.


Maybe we never find the Holy Grail, but maybe we can continue the quest without being bogged down and eternally brought back 'home' by unnecessary baggage.



*delete as appropriate.

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