Friday, March 19, 2010


I. Love

"Love is the difficult realization that something other than oneself is real."
––Iris Murdoch

Other humans are aliens to us.
How can we establish contact?

How can I enter into the mindset of the Puritan minister whose greatest fear for his kidnapped children
is that the Catholic Mohawks will convert them to the "popish" religion?

How could you explain sleep to the ocean? *

II. History

Entering into history requires the kind of love Murdoch writes about.
(One reason historical fiction is so difficult to get right--
most of it just dresses us moderns in funny old costumes.)

Reading about the 18th century Anglo-American colonists and Indians, I hardly know what to make of them, their realities are so extremely different from mine.

I know they are sane human beings--like me (but radically not like me)--and not denizens of an alien planet.

But sometimes the only thing I can find in common between us is something extremely simple:
starting, for instance, with the shared reality that
being burned at the stake is something we humans want to avoid.

This was a meeting point between the colonists and their kidnappers:
a threat to burn prisoners was effective in bargaining for ransom money.

Everyone understands that none of us wants to get burned alive...

III. Puddles

... or get our feet wet, either.

LEFT: George Orwell standing third from left at the Mandalay, Burma, police training school, 1923.
(via As It Ought to Be)

There's the most astonishing (famous?) moment of experiencing the common human denominator in George Orwell's short piece, "A Hanging".
The speaker is a British colonial policeman in Burma (like Orwell, though he said this was "a story").
He's watching a man walk to his own execution:
"It was about forty yards to the gallows. I watched the bare brown back of the prisoner marching in front of me. He walked clumsily with his bound arms, ... And once, in spite of the men who gripped him by each shoulder, he stepped slightly aside to avoid a puddle on the path.

"It is curious, but till that moment I had never realized what it means to destroy a healthy, conscious man. When I saw the prisoner step aside to avoid the puddle, I saw the mystery, the unspeakable wrongness, of cutting a life short when it is in full tide."
This realization is the slim wedge, the toe dip, into love, into history.

IV. Narcissism

Probably most of the time when we look at other people, we look into a mirror.
The stuff that doesn't look like us we discard without even registering it.
How not? [That's not a rhetorical question.]

We are like Captain Kirk:
when he travels in outer space, he just keeps meeting versions of himself.

You know I'm crazy about Star Trek,
but it's very, very rare that it's anything more than us in fancy dress.

* The idea that the ocean has no conception of sleep is a funny little touch in Sol(y)aris.


Lill said...

This doesn't really relate to your post-- anyhoo, thanks for the Bday card mon capitain!

Happy Spring!

bink said...

It is truly insanely hard to try to understand people from even the not too distant historical past. I see comprehension of the recent past slipping away before my eyes all the time.

I'm very aware of how my grandparents lived before my birth, probably in part because hangovers of their time colored my own experience-like how women didn't get the vote until the 1920's and I experienced lots of gender bias in my education.

As times change even quicker, it seems like my younger relatives find recent history as remote I would consider 1800. Perhaps because they lack the shared experience with their elders?

Rudyinparis said...

I love Orwell. Almost like an odd adolescent crush. Somewhere I think I've heard about this little puddle? In conversation with you? Somewhere else? Here's a great Orwell quote: "The English language... becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts." George Orwell, "Politics and the English language"

Margaret said...

Your non-rhetorical question has me chewing my brain. I don't know. How DO you move beyond that? I only have two eyes through which I see everything, and they are both fastened inside my head.
Will continue chewing.

Oh, and since we're on the subjects of history and Orwell.....Coming Up For Air! Have you read it? The main character has a good deal of trouble bridging the gap between generations.

Fresca said...

LILL: You're welcome: happy birthday, and happy spring! Soon you'll be gardening...

BINK: I agree---twenty years ago now feels as distant as two hundred years ago used to seem.

RUDY: We must have coffee: I've never liked Orwell--a sour character with occasional brilliance--and would love to hear why you do.

MARGARET: Right. There's an end limit--a biological boundary-- to our ability to get outside of ourselves...
But there are traditions and practices that help hone our ability at least to imagine the reality of others.

I haven't read "Coming Up for Air"--will do so.

Speaking of generation gaps, Margaret:
while you and I are a whole generation apart--and of course, I only know you through our blogs--I feel a lot of commonality with your pov. (Perhaps it's an illusion, but even illusions are real.)

Annika said...

Once again, I've found a missing link through a blog post of yours. I've never been able to put it into words before, but the reason why I love archaeology and museums is the connection it offers - or at least suggests, or maybe tantalizes us with - to those alien people long gone. True, most of the exhibition in a museum of prehistory might consist of arrow points and stone axes in row upon row, but then, suddenly, there's connection. A stone for use in a sling, inscribed with the words "take that" in ancient Greek. A burial of a small child from the stone age, the tiny skeleton lying on a swan's wing. Everyday objects from the middle ages, somebody's comb, somebody's shoe, somebody's pair of scissors. A message written on a piece of birch bark a thousand years ago, in what is now Russia, saying "I just remembered that we've got lots of cabbage, so why don't you make some pasties?". Worn toys from ancient Egypt. A piece of an antler, twelve thousand years old, on which somebody has carved crossing lines to make a checked pattern. I love those little pieces of proof that people have always been the same. However, when I tell Christoffer (who finds museums desperately boring) that I find it amazing that those people were just like us, he says of course they were, they were people too. True, but so difficult to grasp. And of course, the differences always seem both bigger and more numerous than the similarities.
My favourite aspects of archaeology are religion and language, by the way. Now I see that those areas tie in with the search for connection, to understand somebody's frames of reference, their ways of thinking and of interpreting the world.

The episode with the prisoner and the puddle reminded me of something else: belly buttons. This anatomical detail makes me feel instantly connected to another being, reminds me that we're basically the same kind. I've noticed the feeling when a stranger, or a person I don't like, stretches so that his shirt reveals his navel - I suddenly feel a kind of tenderness. I've noticed it when seeing a dolphin turning onto its back, showing not only the hint of a belly button, but also a human-looking six-pack around it. I've even noticed it when looking at a little tin figurine of a minotaur. Funny.

Margaret said...

^Detecting large quantities of win in above comment, Captain.

If it is an illusion, it is mutually shared. And as you (and Kelvin) have pointed out, illusions are valid.

It's certainly a different experience, getting to know someone through their writing. You and the MASSES of others who read my blog know things about me that those I know in "real" life don't.

Say you were in my Anthropology class, (this is plausible since it's a community college), and we happened to sit next to each other for the entire term. Depending on the teaching style, we might never talk. If we did, we might never land on subjects that would reveal commonality, (although sometimes you get that vibe from other people without saying a word). The difference is that what I know of you started with a commonality, (Look At His Butt). It's a shame that we tend to assume, until proven wrong, we have little to do with the person behind us in the grocery line.

Jennifer said...

Considering the gulfs between us, it's sometimes amazing to me we find any commonalities at all with people from the past. It is always shocking when you're reading something historical and come across something that illustrates how yawningly different our worldviews are--racism one of the most obvious, of course, but even small things that make you stop and blink. Like how the concept of "childhood" as a vulnerable and cherished time is such a recent invention, or "romantic love." Things that we often take for granted are rather new and amazing, really...

Fresca said...

ANNIKA: Yes, yes, yes!
It's those little connections that make me feel as if I have truly met someone from another time.

Like, once I was looking at some object in the British Museum and all of a sudden it floored me that someone had bothered to decorate it in a way I could still recognize as lovely,
and it was as if I sensed their actual presence in me...

And another time I was at the Jeffers Petroglyphs
--a site of ancient rock carvings on the prairie of southern Minnesota--
and I put my hand into the sun-warmed carving of a hand on a flat rock.

Maybe because of the warmth of the rock, it was like touching a living hand,
and in a silent and invisible way, the feeling I got was almost like a special effect out of Star Trek when people transfer in and out of bodies or alternate universes.

But I DON'T mean anything mystical or supernatural, just the startling experience of truly KNOWING,
*in my body*, that, as you say, for all the overwhelming differences,
people in the past were people like me.

Belly buttons. Could there be any more tender reminder of our commonality? And not just with other humans but all mammals...
Peace/environmental movements could use them as an icon.
Hey--our in the future, they could be the logo/icon of a starship!

Fresca said...

MARGARET: I agree, Annika is full of win!
She used to blog on LJ but is too busy now---I love when she has time to comment.

I'm all grinny that you and I share a mutual illusion!

It's weird that we blogfriends share so much that we don't share with others,
but we also are missing something so elemental that people who sit next to each other in class miss:
an animal awareness of each other.

(But if I sat next to you in Anthropology, you might recognize me as one of your tribe because I'd probably have a sticker of the Gorn on my notebook. : )

Right now I'm in a coffee shop and a stranger asked to share my table, because it's in the sun.
She's sitting here right now, reading her book in the sun, and I have an awareness of her I don't have of you or other bloggers.

I'm not sure if I'd recognize any of my blog friends if we passed on the street... even people who sometimes post photos of themselves.
(Though I think I'd think, "She looks like Margaret.")

JEN: I can't remember if we've discussed this:
Have you read Connie Willis' "Doomesday"?

She sends a modern woman back to the plague year in England (1324 ?) and is one of the few authors of historical fiction who managed, for me, to catch some of that weirdenss of recognizing people in the past AS PEOPLE, yet finding their beliefs almost incomprehensible.

Margaret said...

Right: there's no substitute for that warm, blinking "animal awareness," as you so effectively put it. How is it so special to share physical space with someone? But it is. It's a feeling that belongs to the most ancient fellowship of living creatures; the core of commonality.

bink said...

One of the back-in-time tendernesses I've felt for people was seeing how folks, like the Romans, often buried their dogs with fond inscriptions. We may have a pet crazy culture, but there have been crazy dog (and cat) lovers as long as such animals have been domesticated.